' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Melbourne Rendez-vous (1957)

Friday, August 07, 2020

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Melbourne Rendez-vous (1957)

“The Melbourne Rendez-vous” opens with images of smoggy smokestacks and steel mill blast furnaces, putting into perspective mid-20th century Man’s reliance on machines, shunning his physical grace and movement. And though the giant airplanes glimpsed in the sky not long after might seem at odds with this lament, they are merely carrying waves and waves of athletes to Melbourne, Australia for the 1956 Summer Olympics where for a fortnight individuals from everywhere will refute our mechanical dependence. If that opening sounds solemn, director René Lucot’s official documentary of the games is anything but, much more easygoing and very, very quirky. The narration by François Périer is not incidental but indispensable, a jaunty emblem of the film’s observational tone, like comparing the time it takes for a spectator to smoke his cigar to the length of a 10,000 meter race. Périer comes across less like some television broadcaster pontificating from on high than a true blue spectator just watching the events from a café, taking stock of what most intrigues him. He is also casually sexist to a remarkable degree, describing nearly every other woman competitor as lovely, claiming they cry more than male athletes and pointing out their propensity for shopping on days off even though later we see a male athlete shopping too. Yes, yes, it was A Different Time, as they say, to which I say: It sure was! This is the proof!

Track and Field events pique Lucot’s curiosity more than any other event as he spends most of the movie’s time at the Olympic Stadium in the company of the runners and jumpers and throwers. He sometimes cuts back and forth between different events rather than giving us a linear progression of each one, sort of mirroring the all-consuming madness of an Olympic schedule, though he also pointedly drains much of the typical drama. Périer is already citing American sprinter Bobby Morrow’s victory in the 100 meters before he’s left the blocks. No, “The Melbourne Rende-vous” sees the events through a more idiosyncratic lens, like the high jump, Périer comparing it to a playground, though I saw it just as much as a park, perhaps like one in the sprawling Melbourne suburbs, with athletes camped out in the grass, even sleeping. The competition itself goes so long it ends at dusk, the medals conveyed in the near dark, a reminder of a more quaint time when the brightest lights were the athletes themselves.

“The Melbourne Rende-vous”, though, is not merely focused on competition, indulging in the place where the competition is set, the de facto Aussie capital, lingering over the charming downtown, gliding through the suburbs, showing wildlife. In recent times, Olympic hosting duties have become a way for the hosting cities to clear out and displace who and what they do not want, not to mention for the ostensibly altruistic International Olympic Committee to brazenly profit. If nothing else, Lucot reminds us that rotating host cities was once intended as a way to show off a new place before global travel was so easy, a postcard beamed to the rest of the world. And Lucot does not merely show off Melbourne but finds unique ways of tying it to the competition, segueing from the city’s nightlife to the cycling velodrome under the lights, evoking these more fringe sports as being something like underground. At the rowing competition, he lingers just as much on the swans, as if sculling is just a day on the lake.

Then again, elevating the swans above the athletes almost diminishes their feats of strength and underlines how Lucot does not necessarily treat all sports the same. Yachting he dismisses as essentially unworthy, given that its competitors are in boats, evoking the machines of the doc’s opening passage, while the boxing he brushes aside as nothing but a gaggle of “amateurs.” (Did anyone forward Lucot tape of one Cassius Clay at the Rome Olympics four years later?) In concluding with the marathon, on the other hand, “The Melbourne Rende-vous” is unconventional without being dismissive. Rather than scored to dramatic music sweeping the runners along, Lucot opts for the counterpoint of a jazz number that underlines the throngs lining the marathon route, cars parked right there, people standing up close, no barriers, so much so that at one point after the lead runners pass by, the camera catches a dog running from one side of the street to the other. If it’s not exactly a walk in the park, it nevertheless renders the Summer Olympics as something like a summery jaunt.

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