Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Creating Suspense in Your Storytelling: The Downhill Racer School of Evocative Detail

I am now officially obsessed with the 1969 film, "Downhill Racer." I had always heard of it, but never was curious enough to get hold of it until I read the recent New Yorker profile of author James Salter, who, I learned, wrote the delicate and understated screenplay. The profile of Salter was so intriguing that I not only placed an order at our local library for "Light Years," one of his most famous novels, but for "Downhill Racer," which I thought would be particularly cooling during a 95 degree heat wave.

Fast forward to 2 days after the home viewing of "Downhill," and I'm still thinking about why this film is perfect for a writer to watch and learn from. Part of this no doubt has to do with what the film isn't. Roger Ebert, in his review, called Downhill Racer "the best movie ever made about sports -- without really being about sports at all."

"Some of the best moments in Downhill Racer, he writes, "are moments during which nothing special seems to be happening." Therein lies the secret to the suspense building, and the genius of the film -- it catches the viewer's attention subtly, through the smallest of details.

David Chappellet, (Robert Redford), plays an obscure Colorado skier who gets a chance to join the U.S. Olympic ski team when one of its key players is injured. The film is basically a roller coaster ride of emotional ups and downs, in which Redford's character flies down mountains so steep, it's a leap of faith just to see him on the ski lifts. At the same time, in his personal life he experiences one empty relationship after another, including a depressing visit home to his remote father, and women who are merely placeholders.

Here are some of the details that make the film so suspenseful and rich:
*Close Up On The Boots: I must have counted over a dozen sequences in which the fastening and adjusting of the ski boots just before a race becomes a signature plot device to build tension. There is the pop of the straps as they close, and the suspension of the skier's legs just before the race launch.

*The Clock: The camera frequently zooms in on the circa 1969 timer used to mark the start of the race. Each time Redford has a run, there's a close up of the clock, showing and clicking off each second.

*The Scenery/Camera Work: The scenery has plenty of powdery slopes, steep angles, and ice capped mountains that serve as a persona in the film in their own right, practically giving the viewer vertigo and nail-biting drama. And of course, it plays with the viewer's faith in Chappellet. Will he fall? Will he realize his Olympic dream? In a Vogue article, "The Slippery Slope: Robert Redford and Downhill Racer," author John Powers comments:

"When I first saw Downhill Racer, I was wowed by the handheld-camera work that gives you a skier’s-eye view of whooshing down a mountainside. The footage is still exciting, not least because you can tell it wasn’t manufactured by some schlub sitting at a computer. Still, what struck me when I watched is the film’s brisk tautness (Salter was clearly channeling Hemingway) and its documentary feel."

*Ritz Crackers: Yes, crackers. In the scene where Redford visits his father and they have a tense scene where they are visibly not connecting, Redford snacks on the crackers, and his character appears more nervous then navigating the Olympic course Alpine slopes. It's a perfect juxtaposition of the mundane world, vs. the fame and fortune of making the Olympic team, and perhaps even winning. "I’ll be a champion," Redford says. To which his father crushingly replies, “The world’s full of ’em."

*The Women: Redford's character Chappellett has 2 flings in the film, one with his hometown sweetheart, with whom he is completely disinterested aside from a brief tryst; and another with the worldly and wealthy Swedish actress Camilla Sparv, whose passion disintegrates to passive interest rather quickly, on both their parts. In the case of the hometown fling, Redford asks: "do you have any gum?" when she asks for career advice. In the case of Sparv, he throws up his hands at the leather gloves she gives him as a gift, and turns on the car horn when she offers excuses or not visiting him over the holidays. In the end, the women are just a foil to show that David does what he wants, whenever he wants.

These are just some of the details used to great effect in this winner of a film that, ironically, did not fare well. Although it got good reviews, Paramount dumped it. Ironically, in a film that explored all the trappings, myths, and enticements of celebrity, it wasn't until "Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid" that Redford rose to superstardom, only to see his own career rise and fall in the slippery slope of fame.

What say you? Do you have a favorite film whose screenplay resonates with you in terms of the writing? Are you now inspired to see "Downhill Racer" and
watch for that ticking clock at the starting gate?

-Carrie Jaffe-Pickett
writer, editor, downhill skier in spirit

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