It isn't exactly a crowded field, but among films made about the sport of horse racing – as opposed to those many movies in which the sport features as a prominent background element, usually in relation to betting scams (The Killing, The Sting) – Racetrack is certainly in the front rank. Most of the running-time is devoted to goings-on during a couple of race-meetings at Long Island's Belmont Park in 1981, climaxing in the prestigious Belmont Stakes. But director/editor Frederick Wiseman doesn't seem especially interested in the race per se - only the most attentive and eagle-eyed of viewers will realise what a big deal this particular contest is, or that Pleasant Colony, favourite for the event, is aiming to complete the very rare feat of winning the 'Triple Crown' of American classics. And the Belmont Stakes itself is, in the end, shown only via a TV feed, not "live."
Wiseman – whose film features no narration, score, explanatory captions or interviews – is much more concerned with using Belmont Park in particular, and thoroughbred racing in general, as an opportunity to examine the social structures of early-80s USA. The race-track attracts some of the richest and poorest among the country's citizens – though they don't exactly "mingle." There are notable class divides – and also racial demarcations, too: the owners are almost always white; the overwhelming majority of the jockeys, Hispanic; most of the stable-staff are black – differentiations which are evident even in a monochrome movie such as this. Wiseman underlines the presence of this particular running theme – he makes a point of showing us Ralph Ellison's classic novel of the African-American experience, Invisible Man, protruding from the back pocket of a (black) racecourse employee as he shoots pool during a break.
The choice of black-and-white is welcome during an extended veterinarian interlude when Wiseman's cameras provide wince-inducing close-ups of complicated surgical procedures. But overall it's a questionable decision – rendering a famously colourful sport that much more mundane and drab, as well as significantly diminishing the picture's future usefulness as a time-capsule of the era's gaudy fashions.
Some of Wiseman's editing decisions are even more debatable – his film works best when it's showing us the day-to-day workings of the busy racecourse, but he also includes lengthy sequences set elsewhere which result in a diffusion of overall impact. These include, right at the beginning, a visit to a stud-farm – in which we see, first of all, the birth of a foal, and then are shown a typical mating between stallion and mare (at each stage, we see just how much human intervention during these 'natural' proceedings). More superfluous are a couple of longer scenes near the film's end – a protracted sermon from the racecourse padre ("Life is rushing by, and sometimes we wonder whether we grasp its meaning"), and then a fancy dinner to honour a nonagenarian former racing-authority bigwig at the Roseland ballroom in Manhattan.
Audiences may wonder whether Wiseman fell asleep at his editing desk during the latter section, which includes several long speeches – including one from the guest of honour himself, a sprightly senior-citizen who commits an unfortunate minor gaffe in his speech (he talks about how charities benefitting from the evening lift people "from misery to poverty") which Wiseman elects, rather cruelly, to leave in his finished film.
After all this verbiage, it's a great relief to finally make it back to Belmont Park for the big race, even if Wiseman (who seems as engaged with racing as Martin Scorsese does with boxing in Raging Bull) doesn't exactly amp up the drama. Racetrack, as its title indicates, finds its most fruitful terrain on the course itself, which is, as we see, more than enough of an all-human-life-is-there kind of spot to suggest Wiseman might have been better off if he'd chosen to restrict his wanderings to its various precincts.
director & editor : Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, High School, State Legislature, etc)
seen 23.Nov.08 Newcastle (Star and Shadow cinema : £4)