DVD review: car racing documentary Weekend of a Champion

Car FilmThe lost Roman Polanski classic finds a whole new audience.

It’s tempting to give Roman Polanski all the credit for the utterly engrossing release of Weekend of a Champion, a new re-cut version of his 1972 film chronicling Formula One legend Jackie Stewart’s victory at the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix. But there’s more at work here than just a great director’s hand.

The dark, grainy picture quality — par for the course at the time — imbues every scene with the gravity of nostalgia, even when Stewart is simply explaining the art of high-speed cornering over breakfast in his hotel room, clad only in a pair of briefs. That’s an advantage Polanski’s film didn’t have when it debuted at the 1972 Berlin Film Festival. Incidentally, it’s also why we are all kicking ourselves for not having thought of Instagram.

Still, there are undoubtedly strokes of artistic genius in this Weekend of a Champion, out this week on DVD with its touching new epilogue in which the now-seventysomething director and subject, friends for most of their lives, offer their reflections.

One is the way in which Polanski, a motorsports enthusiast who lacks expert knowledge, inserts himself into the narrative. As Stewart talks about car control while clad only in his underwear, it’s Polanski himself who’s across the breakfast table, standing in for the audience as a sponge for Stewart’s vast insight. Earlier, the two men park themselves at a curbside location on the iconic Monaco circuit, watching other racers take practice laps while Stewart informs a rapt Polanski what they should be doing, and where they’re coming up short.

Polanski is the perfect foil for his chatty and endearingly at-ease friend, at once naive about the finer points of racing and immensely wise about what it takes to tell a good story. Had he shot the film as a traditional documentary, remaining behind the camera at all times, it would have been a considerably less engaging affair.

Another Polanski signature is his artist’s eye for detail. For instance, as Stewart sits in his car in pit lane, preparing to go out for a practice lap, the camera lingers on the driver’s feet while he works the three pedals like a surgeon with his tools — clutch in, clutch out, now right toe on the brake, heel on the gas, left foot clutching simultaneously. This is a technique known as “heel-and-toe downshifting,” and it’s a lost art today now that automatic transmissions rule the Formula One roost. But in the moment, Polanski knew enough to know that this little dress-rehearsal highlighted a crucial element of championship racing. Without it, one loses precious time in each corner; it was one of many highly refined skills that a racecar driver in 1971 had to master in order to stand a chance.Car Film 2

Most filmmakers would have focused on Stewart himself, or perhaps his pit crew as they prepared the car, but Polanski knew there was more taking place in front of him that mattered. And he found it. Beyond its instant credibility as the work of a legendary director, Weekend of a Champion makes for surprisingly modern entertainment. With its hand-held camerawork and ad hoc exchanges, the film comes across as a precursor of sorts to reality TV. But unlike that fundamentally contrived medium, Champion provides a fascinating window into a long-lost era of relative authenticity, one in which world-class athletes weren’t yet separated from us by layers of management and years of coddling.

Jackie Stewart was doubtless a global superstar, but in Polanski’s portrayal, at least, he is also eminently likeable and down-to-earth, a humble Scottish chap with the wry perspective of someone who knows how blessed he is to be here. We, too, are blessed for being exposed to this work more than 40 years after the fact.

The early ’70s may have been “very trendy,” as the two men agree in the epilogue, but here they also serve as an interesting counterpoint to the cynicism that dominates our age. There’s something to be said for approaching the world with a sense of wonderment and possibility; with Polanski and Stewart as messengers, one can’t help but watch and listen closely.

Weekend of a Champion is available on DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of MPI Media.

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