Jan 3, 2012

Second Wind (1976)

Director / Editor:
Donald Shebib
Writer: Hal Ackerman
Producer: James Margellos
Cinematographer: Reginald H. Morris
Music: Hagood Hardy
Olympic Films; 93 min; color

James Naughton (Roger), Lindsay Wagner (Linda), Ken Pogue (Pete), Tedde Moore (Paula), Tom Harvey (Frank), Louis Del Grande (Howie), Gerard Parkes (Packard), Jonathan Welsh (Simon)

Roger Matheson has a well-paying job as an aggressive Toronto stockbroker, a beautiful wife, and a nice house in the burbs. However, early on, we detect that something is missing, as he is stuck in a traffic jam, and looks at some joggers in the background. Although always a casual spectator of the sport, Roger decides to take up running himself- the remainder of the film details how this new vocation becomes an obsession that replaces his responsibilities on the job and in domestic life.

While it may seem that running is a symbol of freedom, which could represent Roger’s yearning to escape from his daily rut, Hal Ackerman’s script for Second Wind is much more complex than that. In an early scene, when Roger is watching television documentary footage where one comments on sports being an act of one person attempting to gain superiority over another, it is perhaps this notion more than any other that inspires him to put on a pair of sneakers. As we’ve already seen with introductory moments at the workplace (in which director Shebib uses his documentarian instincts for some vivid “fly-on-the-wall” glances at the daily grind in the stock exchange), Roger is ruthlessly competitive. His transferal from casual spectator of running, to practicing the sport in a professional race, simply provides him another avenue in which he can claim his superiority.

As the film progresses, running instead becomes a metaphor for lies and infidelity. During one morning jog, Roger is hit on by a socialite Paula, whose sexual motivations are blatantly obvious. True to form, Roger simply gives her his business card, and she even becomes a client for no other reason than to begin a physical relationship. However Roger’s current obsession with mastering the sport precludes any interest in sex- even Linda’s ploy for intimacy (via a weekend getaway) is thwarted by his obsessive training.

Almost all of the other male characters cheat on their spouses: in fact, Roger is encouraged by his co-worker to hop in the sack with Paula, and his next door neighbour Howie even confides that he’s being unfaithful. Roger’s relationship with Paula intriguingly remains platonic- perhaps she becomes the surrogate partner who offers the support that Linda does not. (Although at first Linda attempts to understand her husband’s current obsession, but these moments result in embarrassment and estrangement.) Instead, Roger’s infidelity occurs when he lies to his wife about being away on a business trip in the south when he’s really a two-hour drive up north, training for the race. When he is caught in his lies, the emotion is much the same as though she walked in on him having an adulterous tryst.

Despite the expected "trainee and grizzled old coach" relationship, and the overtly sentimental score by Hagood Hardy, Second Wind is no Rocky: this isn’t about an underdog whom we can identity with for overcoming all the odds. It is about a high-rolling selfish prick who needs another conquest. It may not be incorrect to assume that running provides an escape from his stifling existence, but the greater truth may be that once Roger has achieved something, he foolishly takes it for granted that these things will always be here, and therefore does nothing to maintain them.  While he's on the track, he assumes that the big account at work, and the problems at home will resolve themselves.

I don't think the viewer is meant to sympathize with Roger- the film remains largely non-judgmental of his behaviour, yet cannily shows our protagonist at his best and (mostly) worst. Hal Ackerman's script allows us to see many sides of his characters. While for the most part, Linda is a sympathetic, compassionate human being, she too can act as child-like as Roger. Despite how much Howie seems to brag that he's getting a little something on the side, he also is seen as a caring, providing father and husband. The most intriguing revelation is seeing Paula adapt from a sexual predator to a sensible person whose advice to Roger is perhaps the most profound in the film (or at least, the only one that he seems to listen to).

We however may end up identifying with Roger precisely because we share that desire to aspire to greater things, and also we can recognize these screwed-up people onscreen as familiar characters in our own lives. While Second Wind may follow the mechanics and structure of a "sports training" film, replete with slow-motion race sequences, and can be enjoyed as such, but it clearly has other things on mind, and remains all the more interesting for that additional subtext. The movie may have lofty ambitions as a treatise on the hang-ups and foibles of (then) modern urban life (where an ugly, muddy brown canvas of urban life clashes with the lush greens of the track-and-field), yet it works due to Shebib's trademark low-key approach and economic storytelling.

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