Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bud Greenspan, R.I.P.

To cut to the chase: Bud Greenspan was the best film documentarian there was.  Period.  Better than the Burns brothers, Ken and Ric, who did so much to popularize the long form documentary.  Better than the father-and-son team of Ed and Steve Sabol, whose NFL Films played a major role in forming the modern conception of the National Football League.  Better than David L. Wolper, who made the television documentary so accessible in the 60s and 70s.  Better than Errol Morris, whose Thin Blue Line transcended the genre to be seen as a mainstream movie.  Better even than Michael Moore.

Perhaps the only documentarian in the same league with Greenspan was Leni Riefenstahl, and it's ironic that both of them came to their greatest fame through the Olympics, for it was Greenspan's epic 1976 television series The Olympiad that first brought him widespread fame.  There was just something about the Greenspan style; his companion and business partner, Nancy Beffa, described it well:

Bud was a storyteller first and foremost. He never lost his sense of wonder and he never wavered in the stories he wanted to tell, nor how he told them.  No schmalzy music, no fog machines, none of that. He wanted to show why athletes endured what they did and how they accomplished what so few people ever do.
And that's exactly it.  No mawkishness, no tinkling piano music - things that have undone many a fine documentary.  David Perry's sparse, precise, emotionless narration was the perfect compliment to Greenspan's stories.  With all due respect to voiceover giants such as John Facenda*, Perry (who, incidentally, was Greenspan's brother) never distracted from the importance of the words he spoke.  Ken Burns may have perfected the art of celebrity narrators speaking in the voices of his subjects, but Perry's anonymous omnipresence underscored, rather than overlayed, the powerful images on screen.

*Also known as The Voice of God.

Another thing about Greenspan's technique:: sound effects.  Many of them were dubbed in, of course (doubtful that there were sound movies of the 1904 Olympics), but the very artificality of them only heightened the drama.  The lonely sounds - a shoe digging into the gravel of the track, the heavy breathing of the long-distance runner, the echoless shot of the starter's pistol, the silence broken by the roar of the crowd - isolated Greenspan's film images in a way that made them stand out even more than as if they had been shot in 3-D.  For that single moment sports was not of this world, not of the mundane, but existed in a vacuum where the only things that mattered were the athlete and the finish line.  Much, one might imagine, as the athletes themselves might have experienced it.

If you listened to Greenspan's prose being spoken, or caught a glimpse of him on television, you might have thought him a serious, perhaps even humorless man.  Not so.  In his frequent appearances with Johnny Carson (Greenspan wearing his trademark turtleneck, glasses perched on top of his bald head*), he often brought along very funny sports blooper reels, on which he commented with a dry sense of humor.

*True story.  I saw Greenspan on Tonight once, his glasses in their customary place, and Carson cracked everyone up with a comment about how Greenspan must have been looking out of the top of his head, or something like that.  It was much funnier when Johnny said it, and would have been funnier now if I could remember it exactly.  But the memory of it is still funny to me.

He and his late wife Cappy were true partners until her death in 1982 (he named the production company after her, Cappy Productions).  He once said of her that "Everything I wrote, I used her as my model. I talked about courage and spirit and endurance and talent, and for all my scripts I used Cappy as an example. I told her that once. She said, 'Aw, go on.' I said, 'Listening to Beethoven and thinking about you is very inspiring.' "

The Olympics weren't Greenspan's only gig on the sporting scene.  For several years in the early 80s, back before the Heisman Trophy went all Hollywood (or all ESPN, at any rate), Greenspan produced the syndicated Heisman broadcast, with its centerpiece being three or four ten-minute vinettes on past Heisman winners.  Done with all the Greenspan trademarks, including Perry's narration, those profiles brought to life the dramatic stories of Ernie Davis, Johnny Rodgers, Nile Kinnick, John Huarte, and other winners - some household names, others mere footnotes in the fog of sports history.  In Greenspan's hands, they became titans: not overhyped superheroes, but quiet men pursuring a dream.  Unlike the show today, it was - dignified.

And that's a good word to use to describe Bud Greenspan's work.  He didn't romanticize sports, didn't gloss over its faults or pretend everything was a fairytale.  He returned to Berlin with Jesse Owens, told the story of Larry Doby (the first black American League player), covered the horror of the Munich Olympics.  He won seven Emmys, a Peabody, Lifetime Achievement awards from the Directors Guild and the Emmys, and was inducted into a bunch of halls of fame.  Not bad for a lifetime, but if you ask me, the real award was the work that Bud Greenspan did, and the true winners were those of us who had the chance to view them.

Bud Greenspan died on Christmas Day of Parkinson's, at the age of 84.  Through it all, he gave you the whole picture, straight up, no chaser.  And nobody did it better.  
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