Friday, July 20, 2007

The Cinematography of the Tour de France

I was sitting one afternoon in French class in high school digesting my lunch by pondering the perfectly flat grassy yard outside the windows. The teacher was a new one and had set upon a year of administration rather than letting fly with the impressionistic brushstrokes of the language of the French people, the sound devices of approval and disapproval that are the walls of its fortress against vagueness. She made a point to catch me inking the carvings someone had left on a desk one day.
It was one of those sleepy afternoons and she surprised us with the happy news that we would be watching a film. The blinds were pulled with a metallic crinkling noise. A refreshing coolness spread through the room. Miss W. pulled the screen down from the green tube above the blackboard. She opened the round case bearing the film reel. She loaded the projector, turned off the lights at the switches by the door and then the numbers came on and then suddenly we were rolling through a town unlike anyone I’d ever seen. The street was narrow, bathed in sunlight. A lively accordion was playing. Somehow it was obvious that this was a boy film, not a girl film. I had a breathless feeling of profound discovery.
The spectacle of the Tour De France, circa the Sixties, unfolded in proper order into out little classroom, much as it would have passed through a small town. First came the gimmickry of the advertising cavalcade, a bowing neck of a giraffe, a giant fly on the top of a car, a giant hand lifting a giant bottle of Pelforth Ale, a convey of propane tanks weaving in unison across the road, pretty girls tossing candy bars to the transfixed crowd gathered beside the road, signaling their approval. And then, the townspeople themselves, as we would see them if we were neighbors, an old woman sitting in her chair, a gathering of a Catholic school, the priest watching intently, nuns, children, families having set up roadside picnics, drinking wine.
And then the peloton comes flying along in a blur, strung out in a long line. We heard the cheer of the crowd and then the riders were gone. And then the men on bikes were stopping, quickly propping their bikes up beside a roadside café, running into the cool darkness to raid for bottles of beer and wine and soda, and sometimes even water. And these were incredibly handsome and well-muscled men, and not only that, but with jaunty cap, colored jersey and black shorts, they looked to be wearing what everyone should be wearing if one really had a choice in the matter. There were crashes, and men getting up after them in terrible pain. Then we see one rider still on his bike, blood running down the whole side of his head, the rolling doctor reaching out of a car putting the man’s bloody cap back on. Suddenly there was something shocking and unedited before us, but something we all could take and it felt right in the silence of our darkness before the screen. I lost all concept of time.
There was the countryside, ever shifting, changing in nuance, green farm fields with ridges the long lines of riders sailed over, the dry landscape of low scrub, the flats of pine and sand, the men riding with their noses to the handle bars. I was a spectator, transfixed, struck by the beauty of the whole thing. I was somewhere descending a mountain, with newspapers in my jersey, after the pounding of the drums of the climb, evading through the mist when I heard the first ring of the fire alarm going off. At once I knew it was a fire drill.
“You’re kidding me,” the spoiled young man I was said, shepherded by the tall attractive dark-haired woman as we left the room, the film still playing. “No!”
“They all get to Paris,” she said, as if revealing the mundane end, inconclusive despite its build-up, of a juicy soap opera.
And so I stood squinting in the sun with my classmates, thinking desperately of ways to disappear from the long line-up and Miss W. taking attendance, to sneak back in and see where they were, these men who had endured everything, in the name of something finer. When we got back, the screen was blank. And I was crestfallen, wearing a curse. The one day, the one day we finally get something cool, the fire alarm has to go off. I looked around at my unconcerned classmates. I said nothing the rest of the day.
Here was a film of a sporting event, done by the hand of a master, its concise but epic statement something for a film student to study. It felt supremely odd that such a sublime thing should fall to Earth one day into the mundane of an afternoon classroom. So it lived in my mind, for years, the brief shining moment, the beautiful golden movie about The Tour de France. And not just about one, it must be, but capturing the true Tour, the Tour of Platonic Tours de France.
For a good third of life I wondered about this film, as if it had been a dream I had, but for the rude awakening. Then one day, perusing a cycling catalog, I saw a film being offered. A Louis Malle, a film of the Tour done in the mid-Sixties. I sent for it. The tape arrived. I put it carefully into the machine.
Twenty years after first seeing it, and having not viewed it since, it seemed smaller, less than I expected, shorter. But slowly, as I watched it again and again, I saw the things I had remembered, one by one. To my surprise the film is not a long one, twenty minutes. It had not seemed like that at all to the boy in the darkened classroom. Then the movie’s images had carried across the room, exploded largely before me, expanded across my conscious horizon; each captured scene vibrated in fullness to the boy I’d been. Now, as a grown man, more or less, the heroic film has the condensed beauty of an opera’s main aria. You don’t mind playing it over again, and maybe even again.

Watching the Tour, I enjoy the timeless idyll of it more than the details. The French TV coverage is artistically done--of course they have good material--with towns tucked on top of hills like, for example, Briançon is, the open fields, the tree-lined streets. Now with helicopters the camera’s eye can sweep in magnificently as if you were God looking down watching His mortals go along their way, with the wind, against the wind, in their long strung-out line in single file. And no, not for the details should one bother, as the riders swoop by, slowing only to be handed a feed bag, stopping only for flat tires and the need to pee, and also, for the terrible crashes, but for the energetic spectacle, which is as real as anything, like the hand of karma visiting the road somewhat incomprehensibly, a cruel blow (as far as winning the race is concerned) granting as much grace, if not more, then a stunning victory, for showing bravery, courage, the emotion of the heart.
The Tour de France is a thing of beauty. The French have been, even in the Byzantine manner of allowing the traditional caravan of advertising vehicles, gendarmes, organizing officials, motorcycle escorts and cameramen, the gentle and wise custodians, gracious to whatever magic might arise, as that at least little boys will enjoy it, and quite probably grown men and women, too. What they add to the pilgrimage seems to lend the whole thing balance, a richness that will age in the memory of years alongside all the details and the race particulars.
This year’s Tour, the camera eye sat on a crag, hovering, looking down at the riders march up the Galibier mountain pass. Suddenly the eye of view lifted, dropped, came away from it's mountain lair, and one felt like an eagle, lifting off. One felt like looking down at something historical, the retreat of a legion, or rather a proud and mythical Gallic march of conquest, as if Roman domination never really existed and was a matter of wrong-headed opinion. Hannibal, the announcer reminds us, came down the very pass with thirty-seven elephants. (One should comment on the excellence of the announcers for Versus Channel’s American broadcasts, reverent, appropriate, steeped in lore, sensitive to the humanity of spectator, rider and viewer alike. Bravo.)
The Tour is a spectacle, a tribute to the inherent restlessness of humanity, as if once a year at least, we would drop everything, mount a bicycle (not a bad form of locomotion, all in all), and venture out across the countryside, out and over the varying landscape of France, in search of ourselves and the unknown and perhaps our own forms of Platonic knowledge. The Tour de France confirms to the boy, wishing to be studious, in the darkened room, the projector whirring behind him, the teacher sitting next to it, the images flickering before him, that restlessness as the vehicle of all history, all change, all human endeavors.
It strikes one as wise to allow for an expression of that restlessness. It gives a nation of people the chance to watch the spectacle, reflecting over a beer, a glass of wine, in the company of family and friends. It is not, and never has been, a prudish sport, and so it is welcomed through all the small towns along the route, as something real and honest, on one level a sport, but far more, an epic of humanity that touches down to earth once a year faithfully and religiously. Old men and women welcome it, the clergy welcome it, the local officials, regular people, man and wife and child, and perhaps particularly young boys groping for the mysteries of manhood held in their own bodies.
The Tour de France is one embodiment of a style of living that modernity has difficulty accommodating. The time spent to get in form on a bicycle must be cut out of the office, out of other requirements. Few have that allowance of time in the material world. Where in human evolution did it become so that doing well by the physical body became be disregarded, secondary, at best shunned to an hour in the corners of a gym rather than the body being out in nature, amidst the forest, the mountains, the rolling hills? Where did the species veer off the healthy path?
So do the advertisers flock to this strange pilgrimage to ancient vigor, festooning every inch of rider uniform, bicycle, crowd barrier, official Tour vehicle, with its name brands, with the guilty pleasure of a feeding frenzy. A pope does not die every day, something to bring us to our television sets, and so the intensity by which advertisers strive to propagate in the special oxygen rich environment of the Tour. (American commercial television seizes the day with its customary loud shouts, encouraging violence and other forms of reprehensible behavior, selling the illusion of the self, the self with its mysterious made-up needs for that which brings the body little in the way of health and development. The advertisements tell us what we might win in sweepstakes; tell us what will make us better.)
Against the backdrop of the televised coverage, the riders of the Tour de France rise, bringing us a picture of human development. The Tour brings us back, contrary to the driven nature of our times, back from the compartmentalized understandings and narrow judgments of the advertised world, to be, for a moment, back in touch with our instincts, our goodness, our generosity, at least our sense of being out in nature.
Of course one might argue, what is the point of a silly bike race? To waste such time is given only, and rightly so, to the freaks of physical conditioning, one might say, so that the spectacle is just that, an almost super-human contest. Who but a child would see the good in riding a bike, and who but the child has such time and leisure? The well-known words of Antoine Blondin say it well:
From Bordeaux to Bayonne, I am surprised to find myself in this caravan that ruffles the girls’ hair, lifts the priests’ cassocks, petrifies the police, and transforms palaces into press rooms, rather than among these small boys overwhelmed with admiration and running on caffeine. I can say that my only regret is not seeing myself pass by.

Louis Malle’s short film, Vive Le Tour, is a prism held to that. Within its passing images we see what modern television coverage bring us. Thankfully, the landscapes of the film will be immediately familiar to the modern viewer, and yes, the spectacle of it, thankfully, remains the same down to virtually every old custom. The countryside of France and the towns that have situated themselves into it as if they were living being themselves, are as much the stars of the show as anything else.
The whole thing brings forth a candor we aren’t so often in touch with. The route itself does not need hype, as to hype such a thing pushes us back to our office cubicles, to our shells, away from the open air, leaves the open road to commerce rather than poetry, leaves it a team impossible to make rather than, as it should be, to ourselves.
The Tour is not idolatry, but reverence for the human need for physical action. The Tour leads us to wonder about our own selves, about our capacities, our gifts, hidden, underdeveloped and otherwise. The Tour leaves us with a very valuable inkling of how our higher intellectual and spiritual lives are made possible largely through the intense physicality of engaging our bodies in something that tests them. The Tour reminds us that our bodies and our minds and our spirits are incredible instruments, up to the feats of the Pyrenees and the Alps, of all the long roads of the yearly route of the Tour de France, and who knows what else.
The nation of France graciously and generously gives to the world something beautiful. That is something I learned in French class one afternoon, despite the fire drill. Vive le Tour de France.