If gymnastics is coming from your soul, then you will be an unforgettable gymnast…
~ Natalia Yurchenko
During this past summer’s Rio Olympics there was discussion on Facebook about the women’s gymnastics competition. The stature and physical strength of the gold medalist American women was noted in contrast to the skinny, underaged appearance of their opponents. And their powerful tumbling skills wowed everyone.
While I laud the American victory, I wasn’t wowed. I found the competition aesthetically displeasing. While men’s gymnastics continues to evolve with riskier acrobatic skill, the women’s side of the sport, placing the same emphasis on acrobatics, has lost something. Twitchy, bouncy, bounding, it’s hardly women’s gymnastics anymore. Given the general drift of Western dominated culture this is probably unsurprising. But I don’t like it, and I didn’t withhold my two cents from my teens while watching the events on television. As a kid who watched ABC’s Wide World of Sports religiously, I’ve followed the sport since the mid ‘70s. In my opinion women’s gymnastics reached its efflorescence at the 1989 World Championships when the Soviet Union — two years from disappearing from the map — fielded the greatest team in the sport’s history. From artistic standpoint it’s been mostly downhill from there.
I’ve been listening to the new Radiohead album, A Moon Shaped Pool, and it struck me that ambient bits and pieces of Jonny Greenwood’s incidental arrangements have the tone and texture of old Soviet documentary soundtracks. Some YouTubers have loaded training footage of the classic Soviet gymnasts onto their channels, so I was prompted to take a look.
The Soviet team trained at a secret facility outside Moscow called Ozero Krugloye, “Round Lake” (a moon-shaped lake, if you will). In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s cameras went inside this gym which, like everything in the old Soviet Union, looked well-worn with faded panels and browned, oily ballet bars. The footage is unsparing, hardly the stuff of propaganda. With a training regimen as strict as Marine PT, some of the girls have a look of panic as they repeat attempts at mastering moves. There are fun moments: a toga party, practical jokes, and laughter. But mostly clouds of chalk, wrist tape, t-shirts in English over leotards, disheveled hair held back with ribbons of red and white yarn, and facial expressions serious beyond their years.
Those faces are familiar from Saturdays in front of the TV: Maria Filatova, Natalia Shaposhnikova, Stella Zakharova, Elena Mukhina, Natalia Yurchenko…names as obscure to most Americans as a list of cosmonauts.
If the name Yurchenko rings a bell it’s because this gal, born above the Arctic circle, reinvented vaulting in the early ‘80s with a round-off back handspring onto the springboard. Three decades later both male and female gymnasts are doing variations of the Yurchenko. The International Gymnastics Hall of Fame described Yurchenko’s performances as, “hypnotic for their unhurried beauty” and “paradoxical.” In the documentaries “Natasha” is captured mentoring younger gymnasts, playing a somber piece on the gym’s old upright piano, and exchanging icey stares across the tumbling floor with her gruff and burly coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, her eyes cold and blue as the Arctic sea.
Like all coaches under the Soviet regime Rastorotsky was under the gun to produce champions. The girls felt the “form and pressure” of the time: between 1952 and 1992 Soviet women won all but one of the Olympic team titles in gymnastics. Medals aside, there was an overarching commitment to doing the sport the right way, and they produced routines through strain and sorrow that solved the problem most worth solving: how to express beauty. Theirs was a synthesis of daring acrobatics and sublime artistry. The toe point, the subtle hand gesture, the extension of the limbs into space, the balletic expression — all exuded what Cathy Rigby called amplitude.
In one of the documentaries, choreographer Emilia Sakalova exhorts Stella Zakharova, “Your hands are your language. You speak about life with them…You protest against death and it won’t overcome you. It won’t!”
Years ago my two oldest girls and I attended minor league hockey games with a pair of Russian-Ukrainian friends, a father and son. One evening after a game Sergei (the son) needed to stop by the hospital where he worked to check his schedule. The kids and I waited outside with his dad, Viktor. At length Viktor stood on the concrete parking stop block and began balancing, leaping, pirouetting — as if he were on the balance beam, laughing and smiling and challenging my girls to give it a try. Maybe balancing the human form on the precipice is a deep-seated Russian thing, as natural to them as picking up a ball and glove to us.
Regardless of how hard the Soviet coaches were, the girls wanted to be at Round Lake. They had expressive aspirations as most people do. The system aside, they were hardly hardened communists (not a few of them have since come to the United States). When I watched them on Wide World of Sports years ago I began to apprehend a humanity “over there” capable of things noble, lovely, admirable and praiseworthy. These girls lead me to think about “other” people in terms beyond the geopolitical narrative.
In Moscow, an orphaned girl was taken to the CSKA sports club, “Central Red Army,” known for its soccer and ice hockey teams. The girl wanted to be a figure skater, but jumped at the chance to do gymnastics. Years later, in 1978, Elena Mukhina destroyed a filled-out and less focused Nadia Comaneci at the world championships in Strasbourg, France. If there was one Soviet gymnast who exemplified the ideal, it was Mukhina: tumbling runs on the floor and death-defying moves on the bars and balance beam previously unseen, without compromising a single detail of the graceful line of the studied dancer.
A broken leg kept Mukhina out of the ‘79 championships. In the run-up to the Moscow Games her coaches pushed too hard. At practice, running on a leg not properly healed, she under-rotated a dangerous Thomas salto and snapped her spine.
Lena Mukhina spent the first half her life extending the range of human motion and floating through space; the latter half she spent paralyzed. Bitterness gave way to acceptance and faith. “Everything good in my life comes from God,” she told a magazine. She added that she would do even greater things, and “the world will see.” I can’t be sure, but my guess is that she was referring to resurrection and the age to come. Her body stilled, her large eyes were as alive and contemplative as those of the saints whose icons lined the bookshelves and walls of her apartment.
So as the Rio games fade from view; as the tenth anniversary of Lena’s passing from this present world approaches; as this world seems destined to rekindle a Cold War…here’s to beauty.
Great movies leave you thinking for days if not weeks and months after you’ve seen them. I haven’t been able to get Inside Llewyn Davis (general release Jan 2014) off my mind. I’m particularly fixated on the method of the film’s creators, the Coen brothers, of subverting plot, narrative, characters — in short, subverting the movie-goer’s expectations.
Applying the usual conventions of film-making the brothers lure us into Llewyn’s life, succeeding in evoking a great measure of empathy for him. He is living with a deep wound: the suicide of his buddy and singing partner. He’s apparently homeless, a couch surfer sliding by with a dogged commitment to playing folk songs without new partners, without compromise. He ends up with a runaway cat as his companion.
Llewyn can’t catch a break: he needs cash up front for a session gig and signs away future royalties to a goofy novelty song that turns into a hit. When he’s ready to give up on his music career he can’t return to his old one in the merchant marine — his sister had inadvertently tossed Llewyn’s license in the trash (in a box of old belongings he had told her to throw away).
It’s not just bad luck, not just a case of the world against him. Worse, it is entirely indifferent to him. In relationships Llewyn is his own worst enemy. His story has little plot; it’s a meandering journey through sundry mishaps. And some argue there’s little to no character development here; Llewyn is as wretched and none the wiser at the end as at the (nearly identical) beginning.
Yet, we keep pulling for him, all the way to an ambiguous and quizzical end — a medium-defying idiosyncrasy of Coen brothers movies. Their films typically (and this one specifically) seem, on the surface, to leave the viewer with no satisfaction, no “pay off” (I refuse to read it thus, seeing Llewyn’s return to his old gig as a reset, with the appearance of Bob Dylan serving to validate his long suffering).
But the fact that we’re drawn into his life is evidence of a different cinematic goal for the iconoclastic Coens, illustrated best by a sublimely pivotal scene in the film. When Lllewyn auditions for a spot at the Gate of Horn Club in Chicago, the club’s owner, Bud Grossman, sits directly across from Llewyn in a half-lit, empty concert hall where all the chairs but his and Llewyn’s are stacked on the tables. Grossman’s stern, still figure is backlit while an exhausted but ever irascible Llewyn slumps over his guitar in the slanted light.
I think this scene is a parable on what the Coens are driving at: that each of us sitting in the dark cinema, with the light of the projector beaming down from behind, sits in judgment of the characters portrayed on the screen. The question is, will we adhere to the usual expectations of plot and character? Does the film have to “do something” for us?
We live in a moment when super-hero films enjoy immense popularity (I suspect this bears some correlation to wartime). Such movies have their place in evoking timeless myth and virtue. But reality for 99% of us isn’t super-hero stuff. And probably 99% of us know certain ones near and dear who just can’t, or won’t, get their act together — trapped as they may be in stubbornness. If we pay attention we’ll observe that the “American dream” has eluded some while coming to a great many others with a dangling price tag of debt and financial uncertainty.
There is something deeper in our psyches that the Coens are tapping into. If we’re honest, we still love our unheroic, loser friends and relatives. We stick by them through thick and thin, hoping for the best while expecting the worst. And if they can just make it back home — like a bedraggled and beaten Llewyn (and, yes, Ulysses the cat) — we can rejoice like a father waiting for his prodigal.
I think that’s a key to Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen brothers refuse to give us what we expect: a familiar narrative with characters we can easily judge. Rather, they want us to identify with and love a loser. They want us to do something for the character. They want us to give some grace.