Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Semireview of Senna

“They are good that are away.” – Scottish proverb

It is always frustrating to try and get a handle on athletes who performed their feats before you could have payed attention. Most of the information available has already been filtered, and there is no way to see footage, even full footage rather than highlights, without coloring it with your prior knowledge. Even if you somehow don’t know what happens in the event you’re watching, you know of the trajectory of the career, the broad contours of the settled narrative. There is no way to experience the wonder that makes sports worth watching, the feeling that you can't quite believe that what you're watching is happening. Settled fact, no matter how wondrous, is wholly believable.

Thanks to some savvy internet work by Oil Can Samson, the No Fours team scored tickets to a screening of the new documentary Senna in Portland tonight. The film is wonderful formally; director Asif Kapadia tells the story of Ayrton’s life, or at least his professional life, solely through use of footage from his life, with narration from interviews with him and those who knew him. It’s edited to flow smoothly, with no clunky narration grafted on top needed to move things along. As a treatment of a man, it veers well into the territory of hagiography. On its terms, Ayrton Senna is a shining beacon of religious devotion, clean and righteous competitive drive, and overwhelming skill. His teammate and main rival, Alain Prost, is presented as a calculating man of high but lesser talent, reduced to fighting Senna through sordid political channels. That may be largely true, but there must be more nuance to the story than the film gives. No racers other than Senna and Prost say anything in the film, with two (I'm pretty sure) brief exceptions. His personal life is at best hinted at; his two main girlfriends are briefly introduced, but Wikipedia informs me he also was married once in his youth. The film streamlines his life story and details in the name of narrative convenience and purity.

The reason it doesn’t torpedo the project, however, is that the film lets you lose yourself in the breathtaking skill Senna had. Kapadia had access to all sorts of archival footage, and made stupendous use of it. There are multiple long sections of onboard race footage that give you a front-and-center view of just what brand of great he was. Any given F1 driver will hit every apex of every turn, but Senna seems to have taken nearly every single turn of his career at the very edge of his car’s capabilities.1 There was a thing he kept doing, at the end of a turn, with his wheels on the warning strip at the edge of the track, where he would shimmy the car just a bit to get it lined up, and then nail it out of the turn. It’s enough that he had that kind of driving ability and control; what beggars belief is that he was willing and determined to use it all of the time. The US poster for the film stacks up names to place Senna for F1-ignorant Americans via shorthand.
1: Those capabilities, of course, took him north of 180 mph and around hairpin turns faster than you or I go on the interstate. What F1 lacks in intricate beauty it makes up in physics.
2: As I tweeted, the cycling fan in me is a little outraged that Eddie Merckx didn't make the cut. He doesn't resonate with Americans, but any list of dominant 20th Century athletes, no matter how short, really should include him.

The comparison I couldn’t shake, however, was Allen Iverson, if he had somehow played in a league where his size wasn’t a liability.3 Senna used only one tactic, which was to drive as hard as he could, all of the time, and pass anyone in front of him. His willingness to explore the raggedy edges of the possible/sane stakes out the halfway point between Chuck Yeager and AI. He drove certain that he was more committed to winning, both the race and the next turn, than anyone else on the track, and he was almost always right. He was amazing on dry tarmac, and if it started raining, he was of a different class than the rest of the F1 drivers, the best racecar drivers in the world. On soaked pavement, his feel for what he could and couldn't get away with in his car was staggering. He navigated racecourses the same way AI did the halfcourt, using space that no one else knew existed until it was filled.
3: Is there any way we can get Iverson to the Philippines to play out the rest of his days? Am I wrong in thinking that would be amazing?

I don’t know enough about the sport to weigh in as to where he ranks all-time as an F1 driver.4 I don’t really care.
4: To be fair, the film doesn't play that parlor game either, despite its beatific treatment.

You can get a taste of what the movie shows if you search for “Senna onboard” on YouTube, but grainy footage of decades-old television footage can’t compare to taking it in in the theater. Senna tells a compelling (if biased) story, but its glory lies in what it is able to show you. Hearing Senna talk about his life is fascinating, but to be engulfed by the cockpit view of him racing while his V6/8/10/12 screams is electrifying. It is the kind of window into otherworldly talent you can’t get elsewhere. Until we can recreate what Ali, Pelé, Merckx, or Iverson saw, this is the best you can get.

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