Any hero can win our sympathy by saving cats, but what if the writer wants us to like a jerk? This week, we’ll try to figure out why we care about certain heroes, even through they’re jerks...
Dave Chappellet in Downhill Racer:
- Opening montage: ski lift cable, shots of snowy mountain, scared skiers above, anxious fans below. A cameraman who looks like a sniper. Tense action movie music kicks in.
- Coach Claire (Gene Hackman) waits halfway down the course with a stopwatch, looking intense…
- An American skier makes an amazing run down the mountain as the credits roll, but near the bottom, the skier wipes out spectacularly.
- Claire looks sick at the news. Helicopter comes in and takes the skier away.
- Claire sees his skier in the hospital, looks worried.
- Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford) arrives at a European airport, but there’s no one there to meet him. He clearly doesn’t understand Europe.
- Chappellet and another new recruit, D. K. take the train. Chappellet is awkward getting through the train with his skis. He roughly takes a sandwich and a drink from porter.
- They arrive outside his hostel. D. K. heads in immediately, but Chappellet pauses to look up at each mountain, takes a deep breath and smiles…
- Chappellet arrives at the front desk, where Claire is on the phone, arguing about a reservation. Claire sees Chappellet and D. K., says he’s glad they got together, but they haven’t, really. Guy goes over to shake the hand of the other skiers, ignores Chappellet. Claire finally shakes Chappellet’s hand but has no time for him.
- Chappellet checks into his room with D. K. He’s baffled by the bidet. D. K., trying to friendly, chuckles and asks, “You know what that is?” Chappellet sullenly lies, “Yeah,” and leaves.
- Chappellet gets in bed, asks where he knows the other skiers from. D. K. says “Dartmouth. I was one of the Olympic hopefuls. I was hopeful, not them.” Chappellet mutters “Dartmouth” to himself, in disgust.
- The next day, they all put their skis on the the van. The big guy introduces himself, “Chappelet, I’m Johnny Creach.” Chappellet responds, “Yeah, I know.”
- Claire and his assistant time the skiers. One goes through and the assistant says “Not bad”. Claire grunts, “Too much style” The assistant says “Who’s next, Chappellet?” Chappellet skis.
- Claire, shocked, asks what time his assistant has. The assistant says 28:08. Claire smiles, “That’s what I have.”
- The next day Claire hands out the bibs that tell the skiers what order they’re going to race. He gives Chappellet a starting number of 88, and apologizes that he’s so far back. Chappellet says that he’ll be in ruts up to his knees. “What’s the point of even racing?” “Same as always, try to win,” Claire says.
- Cut to back at the room, Chappellet refused to race. D. K. asks why, Chappellet explains that he was seeded too far back. D. K. says he should have raced. Chappellet expresses annoyance that he has to call him “D. K.” which sounds too preppy-ish for his tastes.
- They take a train to the next meet. Chappellet watches the press gather around the star and looks jealous.
- Everybody gets their bibs. Claire gives Chappellet a similar number and teases him about it.
- Chappellet races and does great. Claire is pleased, despite himself.
Chappellet is a surly jerk, a bad sport, and a guy who expects acclaim before he proves himself. We should hate him, but we don’t, entirely. Why? Americans are never supposed to mention class resentments, but we all feel them, so we certainly identify with that, as well as the universal feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. And it helps that he’s really quite handsome, of course. And that he keeps winning.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a daring movie that pushes our sympathy to its limits, and forces us to admit that what we actually admire doesn’t always match was we should admire. Still, it’s worth noting that the movie does use subtle tricks to ensure that we’ll feel some genuine sympathy.
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