"WONDERFULLY WINNING LOSERS" - NED BOULTING
Cycling is such a hard sport to televise, let alone to film. The very fact that it is not contained within a stadium, that its arena is open to elements and crowd interference, and is played out over hundreds of kilometres simultaneously constitute its appeal, and its restrictions; these things make cycling fabulous and elusive.
Many have tried, on film, to get within the heart of the peloton. For good reasons, perhaps, Jørgen Leth’s seminal A Sunday In Hell (1976) has stood for a long time as a benchmark, though I have always wondered whether some of this much feted film is simply nostalgia for the look and the feel of an era now gone.
Then there have been more recent attempts, such as the odd Overcoming (2004) which didn’t really know what it was about, Chasing Legends (2010) which was exciting and enhanced by a marauding Mark Cavendish in his pomp. Latterly of course my mate David Millar and his director Finlay Pretsall have produced Time Trial (2018), which was either a lyrical triumph (if you like David) or not a lyrical triumph (if you don’t). But it brought you very close to action, particularly, it thought, through the use of sound. Millar wears a radio mic, during an edition of Tirreno Adriatico, which means that the viewer can hear his every utterance. For those of us who yearn for such insight, this was ground breaking.
Now comes Wonderful Losers (2018), a lyrical examination of the life of a domestique, with a heavy focus on crashing and hurting and not winning. The use of music in this film, shot a few years back during the Giro d’Italia for the most part, is sparing. The convention is, perhaps for reasons founded in the Danish Dogma movement of film-making (on which Leth was an influence), that the sound should be authentically generated and not post-produced. Hence we are treated to the sound of motorbikes and Skodas, helicopters, bottom brackets and mad punters. Also, the rare treat of voluminous pissing, as the car in which the camera is travelling passes the micturating peloton by the side of the road after the establishment of the break. It’s like picking off a who’s who of pro cycling from a couple of years ago, but simply by identifying their stationary backsides.
I like this film a good deal. But then again, I like cycling. It’s a meditative, non-narrated, dispassionate-but-passionate Man-With-The-Movie-Camera kind of homage to a sport which easily conforms to cliché, but yet defies proper description. Lithuanian documentary maker Arunas Martelis has done the subject proud, I think. I guess.
I could watch Paolo Tiralongo talk about his 30 year riding career to his masseur forever. I’m just built that way. I will happily listen to Daniele Colli recount a hideous crash. I can admire Svein Tuft’s ability to climb rocks barefoot during his off-season training, and endure his boss Matt White’s wholesome banter till the cows come home. But as I said, I like cycling.
What I am not so sure of is the film’s proper purpose. We, (the initiated), all know that cycling is a very tough sport. This film reinforces that. I loved being reminded of that fact, but… Errr, that’s it.
I was continually reminded of watching Zidane, the art house football film with the Mogwai soundtrack that came out a few years ago. Zidane’s premise was to follow one player (the eponymous Frenchman) through one game, over a dozen cameras simply tracking his move.
It turns out that not much happened, save for languid walking and occasional flicks. In a not dissimilar way, some of the sound effects felt post produced. The producers must have been delighted when the star was actually sent off after 80 minutes, saving the viewer from watching ten minutes more. Actually, I quite liked Zidane, though it reminded me at times of spooling through unedited rushes. There are times when this cycling film reminded me of this singular attention to one subject; such as the lingering shot (minutes long) of a Giant Shimano (that dates it) soigneur waiting at a feed station. You have to like cycling to enjoy such a prolonged moment.
So. Watch and enjoy Wonderful Losers. I think it’s a good film, though I can’t be sure. At times it feels wonderfully, upliftingly lyrical and insightful, almost philosophically. But at other times, it feels like we’re watching Being There’s famously vacant hero Chauncey Gardiner commentating on road racing: ‘You know, the road is long and there is only one winner’. No one actually says this in the film, but they might as well have.
Ah, listen. This film is a joy, if for no other reason than the opportunity to spot riders and shout out names as they pass by the lens; a young Marcel Kittel, an agonised Fabian Wegmann, an unfamiliar looking Elia Viviani.
Just watch it. You’ll probably love it.