Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) - directed by Tony Richardson, based on a story by Alan Sillitoe

( I was thinking recently about people's different motivations for working so hard at what they do. I suddenly wanted to watch a sports movie. I asked my boyfriend’s mother, Susan Glouberman - a psychoanalyst
who shares some of my movie tastes, if "Chariots of Fire" was worth seeing. She said no, but that "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" might be worth seeing. Most things “worth seeing” fall out of my mind pretty quickly but the words "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" proved to pulse in the brain like a Jenny Holzer truism repeating across Times Square - right up until I landed at the video store. I asked the video store employees if they had it. I explained that I didn’t know what kind of movie it was, who made it, or in what country, so I wasn’t sure where to look. They said it was a “Kitchen Sink drama. And I said, oh, ok. I immediately pictured someone eating their dinner over the kitchen sink because life is urgent and not easy and maybe because there is no kitchen table - but that there is value in "drama". These thoughts took me to the U.K. before I knew that we were there. )

Angry boy's working class father dies. His mother’s boyfriend moves in shortly after. The family receives a $500 pension from father’s no-good employer. The mother is briefly lifted from her own anger and hardship and buys new things for everyone. The angry boy secretly burns his share of the money out of loyalty?anger?disgust?. He engages in petty theft as a leisure activity and, later, he steals money from a bakery. He is caught and sent to a progressive boys' reform prison run by an upper class benevolent father figure. The angry boy shows some talent in long distance running. The benevolent father figure encourages the angry boy, tells the angry boy that maybe with the help of his talent and a little hard work, he could lift himself out of his current position in life. We are led to believe that the angry boy excels at running because of where he comes from - his genius has its origins in a family that has always had to run away from the people who run things.

The movie leads to the climax which is the beginning of a long distance race between the boys from the reform school and a group of private school boys. Right before the race, there is a pleasurable scene with the upper class jock kids on one side of a change room and the working class delinquents on the other. The upper class kids are polite and soft spoken, the working class kids rambunctious and charming. It is like seeing boys and girls meet for the first time on the dance floor after being separated by their different schools - charged and excited, filled with prejudice and curiosity.

As the race began, I wondered if the angry boy would win or lose. I thought about what needed to happen for the movie and it wasn't obvious to me. Because it is a long distance race, there is plenty of time before we know what makes this movie "worth seeing". What happens with this time is stylistically similar to the potential-suicide scene in "It’s a Wonderful Life" when Jimmy Stewart is standing on the bridge in the snow, trying to decide if he should kill himself or not. They both involve collaged bits of dialogue, from the first parts of the movies, over a man's pained face.

Some of this collaged movie-memory-dialogue in "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" slows the angry boy down - some of it make him race ahead, leading the pack. You start to understand that it is not as though these movie-memory-dialogues are encouraging or discouraging - it is that, like Jimmy Stewart, he is making a decision. He is deciding if he should win or not. When we see this, we also remember how hard the decision is.

Sometimes, it is not good to win because "winning" implies you are partaking in someone else's game. Sometimes it is hard to leave the people you know behind and it is also hard to admit value to things that have been denied to you in the "loser" phase. Sometimes you are not fooled by the side of winning and its promised rewards, even while you are not fooled by the downsides of the world you are coming from. Sometimes it is really hard to win, even if you can.

Too bad for him, he has too much time to think.

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