This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2010's Senna by Asif Kapadia.
Warning: there are major spoilers below
Elkin: Senna is a documentary about the life of Ayrton Senna, one of the most popular Formula One drivers of the decade spanning 1984 – 1994. During that time Senna won three World Championships, fought against the politics of Formula One racing and became a national hero to his native Brazil. Senna was a deeply religious man, an iconoclast and, for all intents and purposes, a real decent human being.As I tend to dominate these discussions in this column, before I talk about how much I liked this film as a film and some of the more esoteric ideas that I think it raises, I want to hear your thoughts on Senna, Sacks.
Sacks: I could not possibly care less about the sport of Formula One racing and I'd never heard of Ayrton Senna before I watched this documentary. But after watching this remarkable piece of work, I'm a big fan of one of the most charismatic and fascinating men I've had a chance to watch.
Ayrton Senna is the virtual opposite of Jim Wynorski, the schlock filmmaker who we discussed last time. Senna was the absolute best at what he did. He was a fearless man, a daredevil of the sort that we celebrate in song but also a very real man. He was a family man, a religious man, a man who treated his family well and was beloved by beautiful women, by almost all of his fellow racers and really by his whole home country of Brazil.
It was fascinating to watch the life story of a man who was so successful in his own terms, a man seemingly born to drive a Formula One race car at breathtakingly dangerous speeds, who seemed almost to be as much a part of the car as a man on his own, and a man whose very greatness was the cause of his tragic death.
This tremendously moving documentary doesn't focus closely on Senna's life – we never know much about his personal life, and I'm still wondering if the kids with whom he goes boating are family members or what. But we get to know this man in his professional life, in his public life and in his life, most importantly, on the racetrack.
This movie shows the real highlights and lowlights of Senna's career, from the bizarre suspension he faced basically because of Formula One politics to the feeling of pure exhilaration he feels when winning the Brazilian Grand Prix – a moment of such absolute joy that it almost made me cackle.
It was on the track that Senna obviously felt most comfortable, most able to be himself and explore his great personal drive. Like all great creators, Senna was at his happiest and most comfortable when he was able to celebrate his own genius and disappear into his most comfortable place. Senna is like Wynorski in that he knew what he enjoyed most in the world. Daniel, you thought that Wynorski was a tragic figure because he had to compromise so much in his art. Here with Senna we have a man who did not have to compromise one bit – who in fact may have gone to his grave because of his unwillingness to compromise. And he's tragic in an entirely different way.
But where you felt that Wynorski was tragic because of his compromises, I feel like Senna was a hero because he never had to compromise. Much like the Black Panther comics we recently read, I feel like Senna was a hero because he overcame real obstacles and battles and was able to become the man that he had always dreamed of being.
Elkin: I totally agree with you here, Sacks. Ayrton Senna is a heroic figure insomuch as he conquered his fears, overcame adversity and was a damn fine role model for the kids. His untimely death was indeed tragic, and, in the classic sense of the word, he is a tragic hero.
Senna understood the dangers of his endeavors. Right before his death, the harbingers are howling in his face and yet he still climbs into his car. Still he puts his foot on the gas pedal. Still he races around the track.
Though Birnam wood be come to Dunsinane, / And thou opposed, being of no woman born, / Yet I will try the last. Before my body I throw my warlike shield. / Lay on, Macduff, And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'”
This is the heroic moment. The outcome is certain, yet the hero engages nonetheless.
And this is part of what makes this documentary so riveting. It follows the three-act structure perfectly. We engage with Senna on both emotional and intellectual levels. We know what is going to happen, and yet part of us wish there would be some other outcome.
Like you Sacks, I never had any interest in Formula One racing. It always struck me as NASCAR for the uptown crowd and I hate NASCAR. This movie changed my entire view of this sport.
One of the producers of this film James Gay-Rees is quoted as saying, “ ... great sportsmen do operate in a zone that is slightly above that of mere mortals, and it is almost like they are channeling something when they are at the peak of their power.” In the film, Senna himself alludes to this when, after winning a race, he claims to have seen God as he is driving. I wonder what you make of that concept, that great athletes, like great artists, have more of a direct channel to some sort of divine assistance than the rest of us?
Sacks: I don't know if divine assistance is the term I would use, but I definitely know what it is like to be "in the zone," to have whatever you're doing have a flow and easiness that makes it seem like a natural extension of your body or mind. I've felt that feeling even when I was in the middle of a review that felt like it flowed right out of me, unfiltered, straight from whatever divine spark of inspiration I cultivated directly into my fingers and onto the page.
It's a similar experience to the one that Jonah Lehrer discusses in a recent Guardian article about Bob Dylan:
"It's a hard thing to describe," Dylan would later remember. "It's just this sense that you got something to say." What he felt was the itch of an imminent insight, the tickle of lyrics that needed to be written down. "I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit," Dylan said. "I'd never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do." Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing, with characteristic vividness, the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight. "I don't know where my songs come from," Dylan said. "It's like a ghost is writing a song." This was the thrilling discovery that saved Dylan's career: he could write vivid lines filled with possibility without knowing exactly what those possibilities were. He didn't need to know. He just needed to trust the ghost.
I don't necessarily correlate that feeling to true greatness – otherwise I wouldn't come anywhere close to comparing my paltry reviews to the great work of Robert Zimmerman and Ayrton Senna. I believe we all have that spark of greatness in us. But what many of us don't have is the drive and compulsion and the deep, deep insight to be able to create transcendent work while in the zone.
Because it's that drive that makes one truly great, that allows one to live in the zone for extended periods of time. I can visit the zone every now and then, but people like Senna and Dylan and Michael Jordan and Pablo Picasso could live in the zone. Their life was centered around the work that they created, around the never-achievable quest to not just be the greatest in their field – but to simply make themselves satisfied with what they achieved. Jordan was obsessed with basketball, and our tragic hero Senna was obsessed with driving. Both were obviously happiest when pursuing their respective sports.
Which is, as you said, what makes Senna a tragic hero and what makes this film so outstanding. Ayrton Senna sowed the seeds of his own destruction with his pride, his hubris, his obsession for greatness and his unwillingness to face the horrible reality of the world in which he lived. He could sense his ultimate fate, as shown in the most intense moments of the film, but was unable to stop even when he knew that he could die because he was pursuing his dream.
To quote Dylan:
It’s like the earth just opened and swallowed him up / He reached too high, was thrown back to the ground / You know what they say about bein’ nice to the right people on the way up / Sooner or later you gonna meet them comin’ down / Well, there ain’t no goin’ back / When your foot of pride come down / Ain’t no goin’ back
What a shock this review was, huh? Quoting Shakespeare and Dylan for a movie about a racecar driver.
Elkin: But I think this film lends itself to those sorts of comparisons. This singular approach to life that you are talking about is on full display in how director Asif Kapadia constructed this film. Apparently he had access to around 15,000 hours of footage of Senna, just from the Formula One archives alone, and therein lies the genius of the filmaking.
This is a fantastic documentary, one of the best I've seen in quite some time. As we both said at the onset of this review, neither of us have ever given a thought about Formula One racing previously, but here we are, because of this film, fully engaged in the accomplishments and the life of Ayrton Senna, one of the sport's greatest drivers, and comparing him to Shakespeare and Dylan.
And that's what great documentary films can do. Here is a world which neither of us had any interest in, and, through masterful filmaking, we become totally immersed in the subject. We become inspired by the film to examine our own beliefs, expand our perspectives and, hopefully, through the experience, become better human beings.
I think it is fairly obvious from our discussion here that the film Senna accomplished this task.
Trailer for the film: