Gilbey on Film: 10 unorthodox sports movies

An antidote to Olympic fever.

This week brings two films which remind us that sports movies are never really about sport. Salute focuses on the Black Power salute given on the winners’ podium at the 1968 Olympics by the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but it also unpicks the complicity of their fellow medal-winner, the white Australian Peter Norman, in the act. Race, class, prejudice and privilege in a different context are also touched on in Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who competed at the 1924 Olympics; the picture returns to cinemas now, 31 years after its original release. Here are some thoughts on it from Lindsay Anderson, who has a few succulent moments on screen opposite John Gielgud. In a letter to Malcolm McDowell in April 1981, Anderson wrote of the film’s premiere:

I’ve no idea what I’m like in the picture. When my first sequence arrived, I closed my eyes. Later I peeked through half-closed lids. All I can say is, I didn’t seem to be much worse than Gielgud. (I don’t know what he thought. He dashed for the exit at the end of the picture, having told us…that he had booked a bacon-and-egg supper for himself at the Garrick.) The picture itself is lush, over-photographed for my taste - [the cinematographer] David Watkin in his usual pictorial form – and directed with that concentration on image that is the mark of directors who’ve been formed in directing commercials. Hugh [Hudson, the director] is a really nice chap: but not much sense of narrative or performance.

I wonder what Anderson would have made of the ten films I offer up for your consideration in the category of The Unorthodox Sports Movie. Consider the list a slight antidote to Olympic fever, reining in the hyperbole without swearing off sporting activity entirely. Sports movie convention, you see, demands traditionally that nothing less than the future of civilisation must appear to hinge on the outcome of the competition in the final reel. Whether it’s a horse race in Seabiscuit, a boxing match in Rocky or a martial arts contest in The Karate Kid, the entire world should be seen to be punching the air and weeping tears of unadulterated joy. The films below offer a slight corrective to that bombast.

Hoop Dreams

Hardly obscure, this painstaking (and often painful) documentary following two young African-American basketball hopefuls remains one of the greatest documentaries of all time. In this clip, the Tigger-like Arthur Agee visits St Joseph school after being spotted by a talent scout, and ponders an education alongside “different kids, different races.”

Ping Pong

A brilliantly lively Japanese comic-book adaptation with a blissfully batty visual style.

All the Marbles  (also known as The California Dolls)

Peter Falk as a female wrestling manager (he’s not female: the wrestlers are).

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire

Alan Clarke’s snooker-vampire-musical. Only in 1980s Britain, eh? Here  is Alun Armstrong, as a Ray Reardon-a-like, performing his big number “I Bite Back” (“I may appear bizarre/ With my predatory features …”) And here is some snooker action with Phil Daniels.

Rudo y Cursi

A witty, overlooked (though not by your trusty NS) soccer comedy starring cinema’s conjoined Mexicans, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

Rollerball

AKA Whip It! for men.

Animalympics

Sassy and soppy in equal measures, this 1980 animated comedy imagines an Olympic Games populated by animals. Here is a scene set to one of Graham (10CC) Gouldman’s songs from the film. You think it’s corny? By the time you’ve endured UK television’s Olympic montages accompanied by Coldplay or Take That, Gouldman’s songs will resemble the Dead Kennedys.

Diggstown (released in the UK as Midnight Sting)

Yes, it’s boxing. But it makes Rocky look like a game of pat-a-cake. 

Breaking Away

A funny, acutely-observed coming-of-age film … on bikes. And here is one of its stars, Daniel Stern, talking now about the movie’s appeal.

The King of Kong

I hear there is a fictional version of this battle-of-the-arcade-champions documentary in the works. Please, let it not be so: this incarnation of the story is note-perfect. And don’t listen to those who tell you that Donkey Kong isn’t a sport: they’ll be saying next that Temple Run doesn’t count as exercise.

"Chariots of Fire" and "Salute" are released 13 July

A still from the 2002 remake of Rollerball (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution