Friday, February 20, 2009

the loneliness of the long-distance runner, by tony richardson

Last week, Film Club looked at They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, which presents a world so exploitative that the only meaningful gesture of resistance is to refuse existence itself by engaging in violent self-destruction. Choosing death by a bullet certainly holds no shortage of dramatic force, but we here at Film Club wondered whether the movies didn't have some other, better strategy to offer in response to a hostile world.

With that question in mind, we turn to The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962), which tells the story of Colin, played memorably by Tom Courtenay:


Colin is a working-class adolescent, and has some sense that the world is not really prepared to offer him what we'll call a rewarding life. This understanding, as we see it in Colin, is inchoate—it manifests itself more as ennui than as critique. He's bright enough to have an intuitive sense that the future looks like a dead end, but not bright enough to avoid making bad decisions. As such, he resembles the kids from La Haine (Film Club 4), or (especially) Antoine Doinel from The 400 Blows (1959). Like Antoine, he's likable without really being good.



And also like Antoine, he eventually runs afoul of the law, and ends up in a reformatory. Not the happiest-looking place:



Colin does have one thing that Antoine doesn't have, however: athletic skill. Before long, this has attracted the attention of the school's ambitious headmaster, who sees in Colin an opportunity to gain recognition for the school (a competition against an upper-class prep school looms in the distance). As a result, Colin gets some degree of preferential treatment: while the other students / prisoners are doing routine exercises, Colin is permitted to leave school grounds to practice his long distance running. This image nicely captures the dynamic:


There might well be a component of loneliness to this, but the film doesn't dwell on it. Instead, the film presents these afternoons, when Colin is out in the woods practicing, almost frolicking, as opportunities for exhiliration and joy:



...although, as my Film Club compatriot Tiffanny E. pointed out, this kind of officially-sanctioned liberty constitutes a kind of "freedom without freedom." Does that matter, when the happiness it generates seems genuine?


That question is one that persists up until the end of the film, coming fully into its own during the final intramural race, in which Colin faces a single important choice. I won't discuss the outcome, but I will say that it raises a number of additional questions, most of them interesting. Some of them: what constitutes "winning?" If one participant in a competition proves themselves the superior athlete, does it matter whether that athlete is also designated the winner? To whom? When an athlete is a member of a team, who benefits the most from that athlete's victory? When sports represents a form of escape, is it wise for someone to take advantage of that as an opportunity, even when it benefits to those who have entrapped you?

These questions could be loosely categorized as questions that pertain to the philosophy of sport, and to a degree I was interested in pursuing sports films as a possible avenue of future inquiry (we've flirted with this idea once before, when we watched Dazed and Confused (Film Club 21), which also represents organized sports as a morally-complicated form of salvation). But in choosing a pick for next week, I kept coming back to the tension that this film presents between the poles of repression and escape, which led me instead to choose Robert Bresson's prisoner-of-war film A Man Escaped (1956).

And a final note: no aspect of this film has given me much insight into why the former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, would have compared himself to Colin in the middle of his political meltdown (link contains a spoiler, btw). Colin may be likeable, but he's also stubborn, impulsive, and (arguably) nihilistic—he is also unambiguously guilty of the crime he is jailed for committing.

1 comment:

Tiffanny said...

You're right about the lonliness being blissful rather than something harsh he has to endure (almost makes me want to run through the woods.) I hadn't heard about Blagojevich's comparison.