Willingly seduced by the mammoth ad budgets and slobbering self-interest of big corporations, television has degraded and Disneyfied big-time professional sports to a disgusting degree. Athletic competition is secondary; the name of the game is entertainment and marketing. Ratings and sales determine the winners, not rings or trophies. (To paraphrase a bumper sticker: If you dont hate Fox Sports, youre not paying attention.) From todays vantage point, William Kleins nearly unknown 1982 documentary, The French, provides a startling and instructive glimpse of the semirecent, semipure past. The renowned photographer-cum-filmmaker made brilliant use of his backstage pass to the 1981 French Open to capture the unmediated psychological intensity of mano-a-mano tennis at a moment when the sport boasted its most colorful and talented array of characters and egos. Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, Björn Borg, and Chris Evert lead the clay-court deities Kleins camera zeros in on, affording us a privileged, locker-room view of world-class athletes in pressurized circumstances. A moving marriage of art and exertion, The French screens today as part of the energizing series Beyond ESPN: An Offbeat Look at the Sports Film, which continues through Aug. 30 with such stunning sports classics as Verónica Chens doc about swimming, Agua; a multidirected film about the '72 Olympic Games, Visions of Eight; and Hellmuth Costards study of soccer player George Best, Football as Never Before.
Aug. 6-30, 2 p.m., 2009