Thursday, June 2, 2016

Le Mans

Year 8, Day 154 - 6/2/16 - Movie #2,353

BEFORE: Day three with the new cat in the house, and she's gotten very good at hiding in the basement - I'll go down there and spend some time dubbing a movie to DVD, and I don't see or hear her, but then after I go back upstairs she'll climb the stairs and meow under the door, but by the time I open the door, she's gone again.  She's eating the food we leave out for her, but other than that, it's almost like she's not there at all.  

Steve McQueen carries over from "The Cincinnati Kid", and I think auto racing is a bit manlier than poker - well, sure, there's "stud" poker, but still, it's just playing cards.  

THE PLOT:  Almost in breadth and depth of a documentary, this movie depicts an auto race during the 70s on the world's hardest endurance course: Le Mans in France.

AFTER: I'm at a disadvantage tonight because I don't really "get" auto racing, even less than I get professional poker.  Going around and around in a circle (or an oval) just seems incredibly monotonous - who cares about who can do it fastest?  I'd rather not do it at all, so anyone who can get out of doing it seems like a winner in my book.  And then I never understand, once you factor in all the pit-stops and such, how they tell which car is "ahead", or does that word even mean anything?  I guess they've got chips and computers these days which can tell them how many laps each car has made, but what did they do back in the 1960's and 1970's?  Did they guess?  

The Le Mans course is a different sort of challenge - the course is about 9 miles around, over country roads that have been blocked off, and the 2-man teams drive each car for 24 hours straight, alternating in shifts not longer than four hours.  So the cars can't be only fast, they also have to be reliable enough to be driven for that long, with only short breaks.  That's not just a racing challenge, it's an engineering challenge.  And the irregular track means the cars have to also be designed to be stable at high speeds.  And the less time that the cars spend in the pit stops, the better, although by today's NASCAR standards, the pit stops shown in this film seem to take an eternity by comparison.

(This year's race starts on June 15, I just found out.  Darn, I mistimed this by about 2 weeks...)

But I STILL don't quite understand the rules that determine the winning car.  According to Wikipedia, originally at Le Mans the winner was the car that covered the greatest distance in a 24 hour period.  But since there's such a large distance between the first and last car at the start of the race, this practice was discontinued, and at some point the race rules were changed so that the car that completes the greatest number of laps would be declared the winner.  

This leads me to a NITPICK POINT with the film, which depicts a sort of photo finish, with three cars bunched up together, vying for position at the last minute.  I won't say who wins - but how would any of those drivers know which car had completed the most laps, there could be three different lap totals among the three cars!  And again, this was in 1971, before GPS or computer chips to track the cars.  In fact, given the nature of the 9-mile course, it's unlikely that three cars would even be bunched up together like this, but let's assume for a minute that they are - the third car to cross the finish line could possibly have completed more laps than the 2 cars ahead of it, so that would make it the winner, right? 

The way the film depicts it, it seems like the race automatically ends at 4 pm, 24 hours after it started, and then the next car to cross the finish line gets declared the winner, but it ain't necessarily so.  I mean, someone's counting each car's laps, right?  

From a cinematic standpoint, there's a lot of dramatic footage of cars crashing, or almost crashing, and the soundtrack is almost exclusively engine noises - I don't really speak "car" so maybe a car expert or a mechanic would get a lot more out of this film than I did.  There's practically no dialogue, except for the track announcer, who keeps us apprised of collisions on the course, or details about the race - which is the only reason I now know so much about the strategy of winning at Le Mans.  

I had to go to Wikipedia's plot summary to understand that the blonde woman seen at the track was the wife of McQueen's character's dead ex-racing partner, but now she's there as the girlfriend of a different racer on another team.  Guess she just couldn't stay out of the life.  But there seems to be a whole society built up around the race's down-time.  While each man is not driving there's time for eating, or taking a nap, or seducing another racer's wife - it is France, after all.  One year a German racer accidentally seduced his own wife, which I think was an automatic disqualification, and he was very embarrassed about it.  

There's a documentary running now on cable about the making of this film, but I don't feel the need to watch it.  I get that there were a lot of difficulties making this film, McQueen was obviously a racing fan and he was fulfilling a dream by making this film, but it apparently went so poorly that he never raced again after this.  Maybe there's a lesson in there somewhere about the downside of achieving one's goals. 

Also starring Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, Fred Haltiner, Luc Merenda, Christopher Waite.

RATING: 4 out of 10 caution flags

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