Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Olympic Goad

'Without Limits' goes the distance

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  Why Steve Prefontaine? Some will remember him as a loser in an Olympic competition epitomizing the meaninglessness of sport -- he failed to place in the 10,000 meters during the 1972 Munich Olympics, an event rendered moot by the massacre of the Israeli team by Palestinian terrorists. Others will commemorate him as the perennial athlete dying young -- while training for a return in the 1976 Montreal games, he died in a car crash, at the age of 26. Nonetheless, two major movies have been released in the past year celebrating his brief story. The latest and best (1997's Prefontaine was a pedestrian effort) is Robert Towne's rigorous, wearying, triumphant Without Limits.

Why Towne was drawn to Prefontaine is not so mysterious. From his screenplays of Chinatown, The Last Detail, and Shampoo to his directorial efforts Greystoke and Personal Best, he has been fascinated with the plight of innocence and purity caught up in a corrupt system. In Steve Prefontaine (played by an unrecognizable Billy Crudup, who looks like a young, blond Dennis Eckersley) -- an arrogant force of nature whose credo of all-out effort proved problematic in a sport hemmed in by tactics, politics, and commercialism -- he finds an icon worthy of his preoccupation. Vivid and opaque, Towne's Limits offers little insight into the psychology of the man, instead transforming him into an emblem of the universal impulse for excellence and immortality and their tragic unattainability.

The runner is first seen on a TV set at the beginning of his unsuccessful Munich effort, and Towne counters that slick, superficial image with one more archetypical: the young Prefontaine, Forrest Gump-like, pursued by bullies and easily outdistancing them. That experience, it is suggested, motivated the runner's lifelong compulsion for "front-runnerism," a tendency rued by his coach at the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman (an avuncular Donald Sutherland). Not so idealistic, Bowerman keeps his team's feet on the ground. Literally: he personally measures them and fits them with his homemade running shoes, their soles cooked up out of latex on the family waffle iron. He's a master of calculation, of shaving off seconds through craft and manipulation, subterfuges that Prefontaine disdains as tainting the integrity of individual performance.

The conflict in Without Limits, then, is more philosophical than dramatic -- Prefontaine's Dionysian will versus Bowerman's Apollonian wile. This limits the film's emotional impact, and yet it adds thematic depth and resonance. For much of the movie, Prefontaine seems to have the right idea as he destroys the competition in a series of college competitions filmed by Towne with all the sweat, pain, and animal grace of his Personal Best -- though with little of that film's voyeurism toward female Olympians.

Gradually, however, a certain pathology emerges in Prefontaine's ethos. In one telling sequence, he engages in some gymnastic sex before a big meet (bemusedly observed by the fundamentalist team member assigned to chaperone him) and brutally cuts his foot (Freudian castration-anxiety alert). The next day he insists on running anyway, and the bloodily excruciating victory evokes not so much the triumph of the human spirit as a masochistic celebration of the weakness of the flesh.

Similarly, Prefontaine's love life indicates that his need to break the bonds of physical limitation conceals an inability to open to the possibilities of intimacy. A big man on the Oregon campus, he woos pretty co-ed Mary Marckx (Monica Potter) with one of the pairs of running shoes he gets free from promotion-seeking manufacturers. His ploy fizzles when she notices that half the co-eds on the quad are wearing the same, but Prefontaine perseveres, undismayed by the strictures that Mary's Catholicism places on sex. Or maybe that's part of the appeal: though it's the height of the sexual revolution and he has the charisma of a rock star, somehow self-abnegation, even self-annihilation, seems closer to his heart.

Towne doesn't offer much in the way of background to explain his character's character -- just the flashback to the pursuing bullies, and a glimpse of Prefontaine's flinty, disapproving, German-immigrant mother. But Crudup's performance, both vulnerable and haughty and marked by a jaunty fatalism, gives credence to his pronouncements that he will win because he can stand more pain than anyone else, that for him running is an art.

There he and Bowerman seem to agree; as the coach announces to his team, running is an absurdity, and thus a good preparation for the absurdity of life. Few embraced both absurdities with such Olympian fervor as Steve Prefontaine. That he died young and Bowerman lived on to develop Nike running shoes only confirms the art and the absurdity. Prefontaine belongs to a realm where myths are more than just logos on footwear, and Towne's film gives him proper homage.

Back on track

There was a time when auteurs were taken seriously in Hollywood, and Robert Towne, for better and worse, embodies that time. As a screenwriter in the '70s he was responsible for some of the greatest pictures of that golden age -- Chinatown, The Last Detail, Shampoo. And when the heady idealism and ambition of that period of brilliant excess crashed into self-indulgence and corporate high concept, his career tumbled too. His first directorial effort, Personal Best (1982), a portrait of female Olympians, received some critical acclaim (Pauline Kael calls it "one of the greatest date movies") but was a commercial bust. After that, his star set, and for a long time his work was largely confined to script doctoring.

A chance encounter while making Best, however, provided the seed of his return to the screen, Without Limits, the story of long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine. Among those he consulted while making the earlier movie was Kenny Moore, a runner and close friend of Prefontaine who inspired him with the latter's story and would eventually write the film with Towne. Another key to the film's realization was Tom Cruise, star of Mission Impossible, which Towne worked on as a screenwriter. The pieces came together, and for Towne, at least for one film, it was like the '70s all over again.

"Certainly Tom Cruise's involvement helped because the only person I had to answer to was Tom," he says. "He was originally going to play [Prefontaine]. I'd hate to use the term too old, but he felt he had just gone through Mission and he was exhausted. Nonetheless, what somebody like Tom does for me is stand as a buffer between me and the studio. In that way it's like the '70s. Had there not been movie stars involved in Shampoo or Chinatown, they wouldn't have gotten made, as was the case certainly with Jack [Nicholson] in The Last Detail and Chinatown."

Another throwback to a better time is the studio's plan to release Without Limits gradually, allowing its audience to build. "The marketing process today drives the greenlighting of certain things. Ever since the release of Jaws, the success of massive releases changed the thinking from letting a picture grow over six or seven weeks through platforming and careful handling and sinking into the national consciousness to staking all on $50 million weekends. In this case, though, they're giving the film that chance."

What is it about Without Limits that the national consciousness might respond to? "I believe you have to hold at least two contradictory ideas at the same time: that there are no limits and that you have to know your limits. It's a paradox. For an athlete, training was an act of rebellion and defiance; it's almost an attempt to defy nature. But at the same time you really are accepting the limits of the race, you're accepting the rules."

Towne, too, has long since learned to accept limits while still aspiring to break them. His personal worsts of self-destructive behavior, which Peter Biskind exploits with dubious tabloid glee in his widely discredited trashing of '70s filmmakers, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, are behind him. (Towne's only comment -- on the record -- about Biskind's potboiler is a quote from Nietzsche: "Sometimes our loathing for dirt is so great it prevents us from washing our hands.")

Does he have hope of another golden age's returning?

"I'm less pessimistic for myself after the reaction to this movie. Whatever anyone thinks of it, it's basically the way we wanted it. There was no interference. We take the credit or the blame or both. I think it's trickier now to make movies, but I'm determined to try."

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