When film history misplaced “Weekend of a Champion,” it was the right move for once. The documentary’s “rediscovery” after 40-plus years of obscurity has less to do with any ongoing veneration of racer Jackie Stewart in Formula 1 enthusiast circles and much more to do with the ongoing name-brand value of ostensible producer Roman Polanski. “Ostensible” because — as he disclosed at a rare, improbable Skype press conference a few weeks ago — Polanski shot much of the film himself, and for this reissue recut the documentary to make it more pleasing to speedy modern tastes; he can lay a co-auteur claim to a film nominally directed by Frank Simon. The films ends with a new epilogue, zooming out from a TV set to lifelong friends Polanski and Stewart reminiscing on what they’ve just seen in the same hotel room they stayed at in 1971; this self-eulogizing conclusion was also Polanski’s idea.
The 1971 Monaco Grand Prix provides the initially promising setting, the opening succinctly establishing Stewart’s fame at the time. He walks down Monaco’s streets, screams of “Jock-ee!” ringing in his ears, beret-clad wife Helen at his side, photographers swarming, a newsreel cameraman unashamedly throwing himself onto the sidewalk to capture a dramatic low-angle shot of the racer striding by: how much more adulation could a man ask for? Subsequently Stewart drives Polanski through the race track at relative cruising speed, performing each gear shift while articulating the reason for it. Later, Polanski straps himself into the car for two POV shots of the route at full speed: the first attempt’s marred by rain, with droplets on the lens, making for an fuzzy image with no focal point or sense of terrain traveled. The second time it’s bright and sunny, and there’s a perceptible adrenaline surge, the closest the film will come to externalizing the subjective feeling of racing.
There’s mild awkward comedy in Stewart doing his promotional duty at a social gathering of some of the duller wealthy race fans around, nice upper-class British people making drab chit-chat while waiting for the driver to hand them a free t-shirt. Though Stewart/Polanski camaraderie’s implicit in the director’s behind-the-camera presence, on screen they’re limited to a few hangout sessions, most attenuatedly a room service breakfast during which a skivvie-clad Stewart maps out the racetrack on a table cloth with a fork and tells his friend that “as a racing driver you’re a very good director.” Stewart subsequently cuts himself shaving and calls Polanski over to observe (“he likes blood in his movies”).
Much of the day-of-the-race footage is a muddle — a problem, since that’s about half the film, beginning unpromisingly with Stewart walking towards the track with a clunky heartbeat sound effect dubbed over to emphasize his nervous frame of mind. Without any efficient overhead vantage positions from which to cover the race or the practical possibility of weighing down the car with a cameraman, the competition is a muddle of indifferent crowd shots, broken up by roaring fleets of cars emerging from nowhere and speeding out of sight immediately. The rest is any kind of filler that could be cut in to suggest time’s passing (including a straight up leering shot of a woman’s ass in short shorts standing by the track). The closing conversation is pleasant enough, with Polanski talking about Stewart’s successful agitation to make F1 facing less fatality-ridden (in the documentary he’s still reeling from the death of three close racing friends in the past year). Still, watching Polanski and Stewart chuckle about how they’re old fogeys is disconcertingly close to watching the ever disciplined, oft-unnerving filmmaker make a bid for improbable cranky/adorable grandpa mode: there’s nothing to really be learned from this.
The film’s back in circulation because Technicolor’s London lab was cleaning house recently, found the film, and asked Polanski whether he wanted it or whether it should be junked. Polanski’s buddy Brett Ratner is putting it back out (under the “RatPac” label, har har), which is probably the least he can do for having Polanski cameo so hilariously in “Rush Hour 3” as an airport security guy strapping on a rubber glove to give Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker a cavity check. Hence this very strange press conference, with now Sir Jackie Stewart on stage, facing off against indieWIRE editor/moderator Eric Kohn, with Polanski Skyped in from (presumably) Switzerland.
Polanski spent much of the conference adjusting an unseen lamp so that instead of being seen in flat light, his right side would be cast in a more dramatic spotlight. He was frank without being detailed about wanting to recut the film for “a pace which today is acceptable,” while Stewart was genially unfazeable and Ratner had a sleazily competent mini-mogul’s aplomb, as if he aspires to assimilate the manners of Harvey Weinstein being pointedly charming. He mostly stayed out of the way while Stewart received a slight majority of the questions.
Polanski’s longest answer, presented in full, concerned the movie’s origins, and proves the whole idea of the recent “documentary revolution” is so pervasive even an octogenarian living in Switzerland is hip to it. That answer: “I never considered myself talented in this direction, I didn’t consider myself a director of documentaries. Particularly in that period, documentaries were not as frequently successful as they are now. There are many more of them done because of the television, in the first place. You see many more documentaries in the theaters. In those times it was very, very seldom that you could hope to have any kind of success with a documentary in general theatrical release.
“So in those times, when I decided to make this film, I asked my friend Frank Simon to direct it. Frank was a young American director from New York whom I met in Cannes during the film festival. He was showing a documentary called ‘The Queen,’ it was about the first drag queen contest in New York, and it was a very good documentary, funny and unusual and quite daring. Unfortunately, it was famously May 1968 where there was a kind of revolution in France, students’ revolution, and the festival was aborted, so Frank never got the prize. But I got a friend from this festival, and we brought him to London, he was living with us and when I decided to make this film I said I’ll produce it, you direct. And the first ‘Weekend Of A Champion’ was done by Frank Simon. I worked a lot on it, I filmed, I often had camera in hand, I helped with the editing etc., but he did the first version of this movie.”
Everything was smooth as it could be up to this answer, but then the floor had to be opened to questions. That’s the obvious purpose of press conferences but it’s a sad fact that much of the film press corps (especially members of this unusual claque who specialize in junket coverage) ask terrible questions that are either incredibly rote and hacky or just out-of-nowhere oddities, in either case expressed at unpardonable length. Sometimes it’s not even clear if they’re not so much journalists as semi-skilled amateurs who have the afternoon off. So it was, with an extra element of anything-but-professional adulation: the first person who got up had T-shirts for everyone relating to a radio show she allegedly hosted (the phonetically transcribed name of a program about which I couldn’t find more information: “Rue and Hue”)
“Roman Polanski, you’re just an idol to everyone,” she gushed. “If you found a genie in a bottle, what would your three wishes be?” “Three wishes? That’s a lot,” mused the unflappable director. “I would see Jackie winning another race again, I would like myself to do a good movie, and I wished for my son to get out of that stupid teenage period.” Then his interlocutor turned to Stewart: “Did you ever, like, have an experience with a car, like telepathic, like the car spoke to you? ‘Cause I actually had that happen to me and I never thought it could, but I wonder did you ever have a personal relationship with a vehicle?” (Stewart didn’t miss a beat and started talking about how the car is like an animal you have to be responsive to etc. etc.)
The next questioner proved equally maladroit. “Mr. Polanski it is an honor to meet you,” she said. “Personally I am quite a fan of your work. As a young director who’s up and coming, such as myself, what advice would you give someone of today?” (Short answer: be persistent and patient, and if your crew gets distracted by their personal problems or “they’re horny or whatever,” keep being patient.) That was at least a question with a possible answer, while the next query — someone from the Fashion Institute of Technology asking for advice on curating an international film series (!) — was too much for Polanski, who batted it to Ratner, who told the young lady they’d talk afterwards.
Stewart held court, when prodded, on dyslexia and driver safety, topics familiarly near and dear to his heart. Kohn asked a question about whether Polanski related to Stewart’s fame, having achieved notoriety by 1971 for “Rosemary’s Baby.” The director’s answer (beginning with “there was no competition between us if that’s what you mean”) proved he simply doesn’t understand the concept of celebrity in its abstract present essence as the self-sustaining engine for a whole industry’s worth of media coverage. Both Stewart and Polanski had nice things to say about Ron Howard’s “Rush” and its resurrection of a time and place familiar to both. “I can tell you at the beginning I thought oh my God I think I’m going to walk out on it,” the director said, “but I had somehow sat through and it gets better and better and finally, after I would say a few minutes of patience, it gets you really involved and very satisfying.”
This rare opportunity to pick the brains of one of our greatest living directors was largely manhandled by many in attendance, who didn’t notice their incompetence and should be ashamed of themselves. So let’s end this account of a little event with an answer Polanski rambled into about “the intrusions of electronics in our daily life,” a standard jeremiad about the increasing stupidity and coarsening of the culture much funnier for the press junket context of its delivery: “You can see it in papers, in newspapers that some of you may like, how they evolve, how they become less and less interesting, there’s less and less interesting copy in each number and more photographs and sometimes completely banal and without any interest taking place of the text.” Having sufficiently fed the beast he decried, Polanski signed off from his webcam a few minutes later.
"Weekend of a Champion" will open in NYC on Friday, November 22nd.