Friday 25 November 2011

On DVD: "TT: Closer to the Edge"

Note: the following is what we might call a retrofitted review, written in response to a 3D screening of a film now emerging on DVD in 2D.

If there's been one theme running through the year's highest profile documentaries, it's been that of directors finding new ways to better describe movement and space. Wim Wenders' Pina used 3D to plot the precision moves of its choreographer subject; Asif Kapadia's Senna knitted together decades' worth of archive footage to give a sense of a speedfreak dashing towards his early grave - in 2D, this time. TT: Closer to the Edge felt, upon its cinema release, like a combination of these two methods: it used the new digital 3D format to show, in a thrilling, near-mythic fashion, movement through space at unthinkable speeds.

The remit was to make a record of the Isle of Man TT races, as experienced through the eyes and scraped knees of the motorcyclists involved. These personalities are many and varied. There is the veteran John McGuinness, with fifteen TT races under his belt; the softly spoken Ian Hutchinson, the sport's new star; the local contender Conor Cummins; and the tenacious Dunlop boys, striving to emerge from the long shadow cast by their father Robert and legendary uncle Joey. The people's favourite - a maverick crowdpleaser in the way Jimmy White or "Hurricane" Higgins were to snooker - is Lincolnshire's Guy Martin, a garrulous, mutton-chopped tinkerer and unapologetic wanking enthusiast, who walks like something out of Camberwick Green and talks like someone Shane Meadows might write.

It is impossible not to warm to Martin - a true English eccentric who just happens to be a superbly talented rider, with a mechanic's innate understanding of his bike - even as you spend much of the documentary fearing for his life. Over the years, speeds around the course have increased from a sedate 30mph to upwards of 150; there have, we learn, been 200-plus deaths during the TT races - "one for every five miles of track," as Jared Leto's narration puts it, a bizarrely tactless calculation that nevertheless suggests something of the fanboy's inability to get outside of this loop - while the presence of variously limbless fans, drivers and mechanics tells its own story.

There is a deathwish of sorts at play here: the riders speak, without evident fear, of the likelihood their bikes may suffer life-threatening mechanical failure; they seem entirely unfazed by the prospect their wheels could come out from beneath them at any point. (If you were, the reasoning goes, you wouldn't get on the bike in the first place.) One of the reasons Martin appears so keen on masturbation is that he declares himself unwilling to commit to any long-term relationship, for fear he should perish suddenly en route. How far these riders are prepared to go for sporting glory is made abundantly clear by the deaths of first one rider, then another, and by the serious injuries suffered by two of the leading contenders.

The film recruits other perspectives on this morbid need for speed: the wives and girlfriends, widows in waiting, who huddle nervously together in the stands, or the American motorcycling nuts who speak in relentlessly cheery life metaphors ("You only get one lap, why not make it the best one you can?"). The director, Richard de Aragues, has twigged the excitement one might generate from strapping the camera to the front of a bike proceeding at full pelt, but he also knows the advantages to be gained from a helicopter shot watching over the riders on their solitary pursuit. You come away with a renewed knowledge of the Isle of Man itself, its terrain, its streets, its people, its flora and fauna. (Who'd have thunk the IoM would become the real world equivalent of Avatar's Pandora?)

Throughout, indeed, the use of 3D is clinical and precise, describing the curve of the track, the bends in each road, in much the same way Werner Herzog allowed us to better grasp the contours of the cave paintings in his Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The third dimension here adds distance to speed, and gives us velocity: it changes our perception of those elements so crucial to the event, allows us to spot for ourselves just how easy it would be to come off at a particular corner. The Grim Reaper takes a prominent unbilled cameo, his scythe popping out from time to time to tap the viewer on the shoulder, or to send another rider flying head over heels into the abyss.

Yet there's also a real compositional beauty in such tableaux as that which finds Martin relaxing by a lake between practice sessions, or parked up in his van on the banks of a rocky shore; an entirely static shot permits us a heightened appreciation of the peace and quiet around a church, interrupted by a trio of chargers roaring past; another, of paint on a cat's eye, left behind in the wake of an earlier prang, retains an uncanny fascination. Closer to the Edge deserves the success and acclaim it's had because it's one of those films that throws the failings of its more expensive stereoscopic rivals into even sharper relief: how can a film assembled by enthusiasts on the Isle of Man manage to do something more elegant and dynamic with its framing than the likes of Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland or Green Lantern?

TT: Closer to the Edge is released on DVD from Monday.

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