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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Downhill Racer

Four decades and umpteen Warren Miller films later, the skiing sequences in Michael Ritchie’s 1969Downhill Racer are still hold-your-breath-and-don’t-blink thrilling. In fact, the whole movie is thrilling. Deftly staged and then masterfully edited, every sequence in the 101-minute feature is exquisitely succinct and yet abundantly rich in conveying the psychologies and emotions of the characters. Robert Redford stars as a hotshot American skier prepping for the Olympics, and Gene Hackman is his coach, with Camilia Sparv as his short-term romantic interest. Redford’s performance is as fearless as whoever was doing his skiing. His character is utterly self-absorbed and yet magnetically charismatic, so that the film, along with everything else, seems to be a primer on how unlikable people can still be heroes-because they channel their souls into what makes them heroic at the expense of everything else. The movie also captures what is now the several generations ago competitive skiing scene in Europe, from the beauty of the landscape to the clutter of the paparazzi. With the proliferation of cable channels, skiing has in essence disappeared from American television except during the Olympics, because there are too many other sporting programs competing with it, and the allure of downhill racing itself has receded in favor of extreme snowboarding events.

For reasons perhaps relating to this generational shift, Paramount never got around to releasing Downhill Racer on DVD and has instead signed the rights over to The Criterion Collection, which is fine by us. Except for the let’s-attract-as-little-attention-as-possible jacket cover, the presentation is outstanding. The film is in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer is terrific. The film does have some grainy sequences as would be expected for its age and the lighting conditions dictated by the outdoor sequences, but the image is solid whenever possible and colors are as fresh as can be, with finely detailed fleshtones. Most importantly, the most challenging aspect of all in the transfer, the white snow, is always clearly delineated and textured. The monophonic sound is crisp and undistorted, except for a brief reverb near the beginning that is likely a flaw in the original recording. There are optional English subtitles, a trailer, a 12-minute promotional featurette from 1969 narrated by Redford with lots of skiing footage, an excellent 34-minute retrospective interview piece with Redford and screenwriterJames Selter (Roman Polanski was involved in the movie’s pre-production and contributed distinctively to its European orientation), another good 30-minute retrospective interview compilation with several members of the crew, and a rewarding audio-only interview with Ritchie from 1977 (he was promoting Semi-Tough) that runs about an hour and covers not only Downhill Racer but much of his career up to that point.

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon