The underdog and the Jew—those were my points of empathy as a child when watching Chariots of Fire (1981) for the first time, and I was neither Jewish nor ethnically European. Even now, I can only marvel at the artistry that managed to take a story of a Jewish Olympic runner in training at World War I and smuggle it so successfully in to the kinetic dream life of an immigrant boy in a bad part of London.
The film worked that well.
And the line it cut went straight to something at the center of me. It went straight to my understanding of cinema even if I lacked the words to articulate it then. I remember Ben Cross, all steel, wired, focused, singular, with a face cut from alabaster, sprinting as if the fate of his people rested on it. Of course, it did not, but it felt that way. He ran for me, I thought. And I would run like that.
Ask me any film with running scenes, and I can rattle them off. Here are my favorites aside from everything in Chariots of Fire: Denis Lavant in Mauvais Sang (The Night is Young) (1986), running to David Bowie’s "Modern Love"; the field scene in Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher (1999); Joseph Gordon Levitt briefly towards the end of Manic (2001); the young boy playing Bobby Sands in Hunger (2008), when he turns back in a cross country race to see he’s left every body behind; Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962); any scene in The Runner (1990) by Amir Naderi. I could go on, and I am writing this from memory.
You see, the truth outs in a race. I am not thinking of acting. I care nothing for character arcs, or broad themes right now. I am interested only slightly these days in narrative. I want the bang and blood of experience on the screen. I don’t even want the screen. And when I am watching someone running, I can forget the character. I forget the actor. What acting is there, if you consider it? They can either run or they can’t.
There is a story about Bernardo Bertolucci, when he was working for the filmmaker Paolo Pasolini. He says he asked Pasolini as to why he had an obsession with long tracking shots. Pasolini responded that the eye could not make tracking shots on its own: our eyes skip point to point even when we try to scan smoothly. Tracking shots were then another way of seeing people. It was an otherworldly glance. Perhaps how God saw people? True or not, I like the sentiment. And if a camera running delivers that, then a person running is for me almost certainly holy.
Or maybe it isn’t?
And this is some muddled memory and resonance with something in my youth that has muddied the line of art and life. John Cassevetes once wrote: “Sometimes even the camera gets in the way of the movie.”
We went once to the beach on a class trip, all these kids from that bad part of London: marveling in our cheap jackets at things like horses, greenery, at some blonde children in wellington boots. At the end of the day, we stopped at the water, which was cold and grey, but never having seen any thing like it someone with a ball started throwing it around. I ran for the ball, threw it back to the group and kept running with another friend, oblivious to the poor teacher trying to harness all these children run wild. There was no ball at that point. Who knows why we ran? There was no camera.
It was a perfect film.