Its title referring, per a self-important opening crawl, to the octet of “film artists” who contributed segments to this documentary omnibus lensed at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games, Visions of Eight serves neither as a celluloid scoreboard of the Munich competition nor a unified statement, a la Leni Riefenstahl, on the godlike glories of world-class athletes. Certainly, the spectacle of speed, strength, and (most piercingly) failure frequently assumes an epic dimension appropriate to the large role of the games (even before 18-hours-a-day TV coverage) in global entertainment, but something crucial is absent, and perhaps unattainable, in the film’s attempt at an impressionistic portrait of the tournament. Was it handicapped by the lack of experience of its directors in the field of nonfiction cinema, or more crucially by the hostage-taking and murder of Israeli athletes by terrorists midway through these Olympics?
Often relying on telephoto lenses, zooms, and other staples of live-event filming of 40 years ago (which inevitably give these disparate visions a textural similarity), the directors focus either on a single sport or a general theme. Arthur Penn captures the men’s pole vaulting as a semi-abstract montage of flying bodies, sinewy space travelers rising and falling in slow motion. (The eschewing of identification of the competitors, and in most cases the backstories of their events, brings some confusion. When the silver medallist, Bob Seagren of the U.S., bitterly hands his pole to an official after his last vault, the inexpert viewer remains ignorant that it’s the result of a weeks-long controversy over equipment that preceded the event.) Among the other segments, Claude Lelouch’s “The Losers” memorably features a petulant defeated boxer throwing a prolonged hissy fit around the ring, and other hobbled and screaming would-be champions crashing to earth and being carried off by medics. Mai Zetterling’s “The Strongest” looks with awe at weightlifters, like the mammoth Soviet champion Vasiliy Alekseyev, not just as they bellow and strain under their burdens, but the grace with which they practice form with empty barbells, and the serene camaraderie expressed by one Nordic giant combing the hair of another.
Elsewhere, tied together by Henry Mancini’s score mixing pomp, playfulness, and borrowings of Debussy and Beethoven, Visions of Eight is a much more pedestrian affair, with a segment on female Olympians overemphasizing near-tears distress, and Milos Forman bringing a characteristic antic rhythm to his decathlon chapter by cutting to Bavarian bell ringers and attendants in eyesore-hued coats; the effect seems more a product of inattention than organic farce. Kon Ichikawa, who had filmed the Olympics before, reruns the 10 seconds of the 100-meter men’s final for six minutes, but his most arresting coup (the flapping facial skin of a sprinter in slow-mo) soon recurs in succeeding reels. While John Schlesinger’s concluding study of the marathon incorporates the most extended treatment of the massacre that nearly truncated the games, it also brings the coldest insight into the tunnelvision of an alpha sportsman’s mind when a British runner remarks that all the killings mean to him is a delay of his race by one day. Despite this indication that getting “up close and personal” with athletes usually requires a measure of sentimental airbrushing, this Golden Globe-winning doc mostly supplies a nice auteurist roll call for its credits and a few isolated moments of physical beauty, in what it discreetly calls “the shadow of tragedy.”
There is graininess and noticeable flaws in the credit sequence and outdoor daylight scenes, as well as a strobe effect in those slow-motion segments that weren't shot at faster speeds, but the color and pageantry of the Olympic spectacle is faithfully represented by this transfer, save for the hideous avocado and powder-blue jackets worn by the games' officials. The stereo audio mix showcases not just the versatile if unsurprising Henry Mancini score, but the brush of running feet on cinders and the rattling slam of barbells on matted concrete.
With no supplements to sort out the dynamics of a tragedy-marred event, this sports doc is a handsome but uneven artifact of an era when politics and games seemed inextricable.