Notes on watching Asif Kapadia's SENNA (2010).

I watched Asif Kapadia’s SENNA when it came out in my city in part because I saw the trailer on the blog of a Japanese male model I like, who has a very delicate and beautiful but sometimes irritatingly self-satisfied face, as well as an ambiguous sexuality. All necessary for a particular kind of male beauty; the beauty of the ephebe. Of the ancient Greek beloved, not the lover.

The model said Ayrton Senna was his childhood hero, and it is true that the Brazilian Formula One driver has always had a massive reputation in Japan. Brazil and Japan having, of course, a long mutual history of immigration. In the film, three times in a row, three decisive championship races are set in Japan.

Now I’m thinking of the actor Joe Odagiri, in Nelson Yu Lik-wai in Plastic City. Playing a Japanese gangster-boy named Kirin, trafficking pirated goods in Brazil. With a gorgeous face, gorgeous tattoos. I’ve loved Joe Odagiri for a long time, in so many things. Apparently, he lived in Fresno for a while, went to university there. He came to Fresno State University to learn directing, and accidentally stumbled into an acting course instead.

I want to ask Joe Odagiri about his Californian life. About who he was in California. I’m always interested in who people are in California, because for a long time I couldn’t be who I needed to be in California. But now I’m slowly starting to change my mind. My heart.

Plastic City, with the great Anthony Wong playing Yuda, Joe Odagiri’s adoptive gangster father. (I love a gangster father, having had one myself.) The hapa Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong, who also plays the honourable and wryly sad superintendent in Infernal Affairs.

Superintendent Wong, who remains the last link that Chan Wing-yan (played by Tony Leung) has to his real, non-criminal self, after Chan has gone undercover as a mole in the triads for so long. Superintendent Wong, who is murdered and thrown off a building before Chan’s very eyes. Before Tony Leung’s very eyes.

The movie Infernal Affairs is so much better than The Departed, most importantly because it is not a Great Hollywood Movie with Great Hollywood Actors and a Great Director. Any movie that used to have Tony Leung in it, and doesn’t have Tony Leung in it anymore, is not a movie I can support in any way, shape or form. And Scorcese’s Great Artist arrogance in all his interviews talking about about adapting this (“lesser”, it’s always implied; lesser, not “significant” or “serious”) Hong Kong action movie into some great sweeping neorealist drama makes me want to stab things.

Although I will say, with respect to my already-established promiscuity of voice, that when I walked out of The Departed, I was stuck with a bad Boston accent I couldn’t shake for half an hour.

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I watched SENNA because I will never not fall in love with a great and singular face, will never not respond when what I read in a face moves me much the way what I read in a great and singular book moves me. The way what I read in the world moves me. Reading being a way of life in every moment of life; an ethical stance, an emotional stance. A way of facing the world. Facing and being faced.

This has nothing to do with beauty—no, that’s not true, it has everything to do with beauty, but a beauty at once difficult and spontaneous and moral. Beauty of thinking and feeling. Beauty of moving and knowing. Beauty of holding on and giving away, of keeping inside and of letting out. And how those beauties can configure a flesh.

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In LACONIA: 1200 Tweets on Film, Masha Tupitsyn writes:

20. In Half Nelson, the face is landscape. It fills the screen like it did in the 70s, when the face was used to comment on the social.
7:30 PM May 26th





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During so much of the film, Ayrton Senna’s face, and only his face, fills the entire screen. Indeed, the movie is incredibly romantic and scopophilic, invested in the tragic-heroic tradition. In this, it is kindred to Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon’s ZIDANE: A 21st Century Portrait, which I wrote about here.

Even the ending credits, showing Senna in a tiny bathing bottom and romping wildly on the beach, are a celebration of male beauty, reminiscent of what Tupitsyn in LACONIA calls, “the aestheticism and iconicisms of the 1950s (the eroticization of the male star).”

The film is constructed from extensive footage from Senna’s life: races, interviews, family home videos, extraordinary pilot’s-eye sequences taken from within the racing car. The film’s earliest footage comes from the 70s, with his opening season in Europe in 1984, and ends with footage from 1994, the year of Senna’s death in a racing accident during the San Marino Grand Prix.

Something like over a decade in the life of a face. A face marked for early death. The last decade.

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What I said about Achilles and Zidane in that post on ZIDANE could apply here, too. That decade of death and foreshadowing of death, contained by the Iliad. Not quite the last decade of Achilles’ face, but near it.

But to be truly precise, Senna (and perhaps even Zidane) doesn’t really seem like an Achilles. Rather: a Hector. The beloved son of Troy. The one who has honor and pride in equal measure. The thoughtful one. But the one who, ultimately, ignores the omen that foretells his death.

In any case, there’s no question that watching this film we’re in the realm of epic tragedy: the doomed hero, the lost genius. Of that Greek promise: “Whom the gods love, die young.”

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At some point, early in the film, I turned to my partner and whispered, “Il est tellement beau que ça me fait mal.” He’s so beautiful, it hurts me.

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The great rivalry in the film is between Senna and French driver Alain Prost. Alain Prost, who accepts and understands the politics of the sport, and therefore plays the game with apomb. Unlike one Ayrton Senna. “Ayrton, with his love of truth,” someone in the film says.

That Prost is close friends with the president of the Fédération Intérnational de l’Automobile (FIA) and the Fédération Intérnational du Sport Automobile (FISA), Jean-Marie Balestre, never seems to hurt Prost’s case, either.

Jean-Marie Balestre, who was a member of the pro-Nazi Jeune Front during World War II, and “later joined the French SS but later claimed to have been an undercover agent for the French Resistance, although the details of his activities during World War II are, in fact, unknown.” (Wikipedia)

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What you do know about Balestre is the disdain and condescension with which he treats Senna, not to mention the other drivers. But Senna in particular. For being stubborn, for being talented, and perhaps most of all—though this is always left unspoken—for not being European. So much of the film is about being always a foreigner, a foreigner in Europe, a Brazilian in Europe. That despite the Senna family’s personal wealth and privilege, the man was ultimately still an outsider who had to fight his way into the Formula One world.

It’s also for this reason that I think Asif Kapadia’s SENNA should be seen, and read, along with Parreno and Gordon’s ZIDANE: A 21st Century Portrait, and Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD, with Jean-Claude Van Damme. All three films are intimate and loving portraits of a particular kind of male hero; a hero with a tragic flaw or destiny, heroes, but heroes apart.

But most of all, all three films were also made by immigrants or children of immigrants, in Europe. The empire writes back—the empire films back. What are the ways that an immigrant child of Europe might talk back to celebrity iconography, might claim back a space in the province of global hero-making? And what is the kind of hero that might appeal to such a child? What new ways of thinking about heroism, about singularity, about something that sets you apart, might be offered? If something like genius even exists, the films say, it starts with difference. It’s the difference that’s genius.

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It’s also the difference that Balestre visibly hates so much, in Senna. Balestre of Jeune Front. Balestre who is largely responsible for a suite of mysterious incidents and judgments that favour Prost over Senna, that ultimately take a world championship from Senna, only to hand it to Prost.

Balestre is always wearing sunglasses, and because the film is so unabashedly symbolic, wearing sunglasses really means something. Senna’s face is quickly established as the text through which we read every event in the film, and he himself is only shown wears sunglasses at key moments. Moments of tension, of stress, of conflict. Those moments when you don’t want to be read. And when your face is such a screen for your entire emotional and intellectual life, the way Senna’s is, sunglasses act as curtain. A lid to snap yourself shut.

Balestre, on the other hand, wears sunglasses all the time, like the most hackneyed of cinematic villains. Like a bad cop. Even during the awards ceremony for Senna’s world championship, his “normal” glasses are tinted. Someone who doesn’t want to see clearly, and doesn’t want to be seen clearly. For who and what he is.

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During one of Senna’s first important races:

“That day, I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving conscious, and I was in a different dimension for me. The circuit for me was a tunnel. Which I was just going, going, going. And I realized… I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”

At this very moment, when he is already multiple seconds ahead in the race, Senna receives a radio message. The message tells him that his lead is so significant, he can slow down.

At that point, he crashes into the wall.

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What it is to be in a trance; and then to be shocked out of that trance. Shocked by a world that is the world. Sometimes when Senna talks about his passionate Catholicism, he starts to sound like Simone Weil. Like a mystic. Like someone who’s here and not here. Someone permeable to other worlds.

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“Senna was a genius in the rain,” various commentators say. The minute the conditions became difficult, dangerous, slippery—is the minute he became able to invent, react. Pull things out of the air. Out of this world. Always most comfortable just at the knife-edge of death.

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On a controversial crash with Prost that led to Senna’s winning a second championship:

“[Prost] opened a gap. And knowing me—like he does know—he must realize that if there was a gap, I was gonna try to overtake him. You should know that by being a racing driver, you are at the risk all the time… By being a racing driver, means you are racing with other people. And if you no longer go for a gap, that exists—you’re no longer a racing driver.”

On defining yourself as someone who goes into the gap. Gap of risk, gap between yourself and other people. Gap that you can sometimes close. Close, by going inside. Gap of knowing how to live in your own killable body. Gap of falling in. Gap of almost dying, and then dying. Gap of dying.

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The sequence in which Senna finally wins the Brazilian Grand Prix after having unsuccessfully tried so many times is the most intense sequence, before the film’s tragic last act. The Brazilian Grand Prix sequence is the heart of the film, its greatest glory—and as in every tragedy, it signals the beginning of the end. All the joy and triumph in the scene is marked with disaster.

It’s for this reason that I won’t put images of that scene here. The faces Senna makes in this sequence. Faces of joy, faces of excruciating physical agony after the tremendous exertion of this particular race. The way he struggles to lift his trophy. The way pouring champagne over himself has all the weight of a religious ritual, an anointing of the sick.

Ultimately, SENNA is a film that grieves. That grieves as much as it adores. And that grief makes every moment of happiness unbearable.

“He won, and he fainted. It was his most heroic moment.”

Like a possessed girl. Like a medium or a hysteric. The way he screams in the car. And later has to bark to his father, “Come, come, come!” And later, after that: “Don’t touch me. Don’t touch me.” Too sensitive.

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“I thank all of Brazil. I thank all of the fans. The human warmth was so strong… that we could not have not won.”

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The music is so Sehnsucht. So saudade. The sound of melodrama. The sound of imminent catastrophe. The sound of cosmic longing. The sound of the young lovers who don’t have enough time together before the fates conspire to remove them from each other and then from the earth. The sound of everything written over with death. With your death.

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A decade in the life of a face. But as Senna’s face ages, we see that the technology of the footage that contains his face is becoming younger. The simultaneous but inverse trajectory of the grain of film and the grain of flesh. The video image, from the 80s to the 90s, gradually becomes sharper, clearer, harsher, just at the moment when Senna himself is become increasingly disillusioned and frustrated with the sport’s soul-tiring politics (still fighting Balestre), its increasingly apparent dangers and flaws, and with the burgeoning influence of electronic control over the driving itself.



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Senna’s fierce commitment to the real. To what he calls “real driving.” Towards the end of the movie, the company Williams puts out a car that changes the game. The car balances itself, each corner is controlled by a computer, so that “all a driver had to do was put his right foot down and go as fast as possible, so in a car without that, you were at a serious disadvantage.”

Alain Prost becomes the driver for the Williams team. And Senna, at MacLaren, is soundly beaten by the more advanced car.

In an interview, he remarks: “When you go into this sort of… electronic war… em… you can find yourself completely stuck. Electronics do a given situation… and no matter who you put in the car, the electronics will do the work, and not the driver… and I don’t think that’s really what you want, to have a truly world championship.”

Senna pauses. Then adds: “Of drivers.”

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Yet in the next scene, it’s revealed that, despite his misgivings, Senna is attempting to broker a deal with Williams. When he talks about it, he appears deeply conflicted. Conflicted about the fact that his ambition has ultimately outweighed his principles. However, Prost has determined in his Williams contract that he never be required to race alongside Senna, and so Senna’s attempts at a deal with Williams fail.

Finally, Prost wins a championship and retires. Senna announces his attention to leave MacLaren, obviously with intentions to become the new Williams driver.

In the next scene, he wears sunglasses.

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Frank Williams: “The team is geared to being successful. All our partners, investors, sponsors… expect that of us. And [Ayrton Senna] is therefore, the best piece of equipment you could put into the machine… to deliver to our requirements.”

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Yet, after Senna finally joins the Williams team, the computer devices and developments previously installed in the car—traction control, special brakes, active suspension—which had made it so advanced, are thereafter banned. The ban is meant to halt the unfair domination of wealthy teams like Williams.

Is this the divine punishment for swallowing his pride and scrapping his principles about real driving, about human driving, in favour of his desire to win? Because the car Senna drives at Williams turns out to be wildly unstable. It’s the car he dies in.

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San Marino Grand Prix, 1994. Doomed music. It’s a famously brutal weekend in Formula One; a weekend that saw multiple accidents, spin-outs, malfunctions. The first death of the weekend belongs to Roland Ratzenberger, an Austrian driver. The first Formula One racing death of this generation. A weekend full of premonition, of calamity. The movie captions each day like a countdown. Death has installed itself in San Marino.

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The film and its unabashed symbolism. Its willingness to make things mean, to make things heavy. To make things carry weight. When a hat falls off a motorcycle. When Senna wears sunglasses. When his empty racing uniform is hanging limply on a doorframe. When a sheet covers his racing car, the night before his death. When the garage door closes on three shrouded racing cars, like a coffin lid on a shrouded body.

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During the fatal race, we no longer see Senna’s face. The video is taken from the on-board camera in his car. We don’t see his face; except for a tiny portion of his helmet in the side mirror. No music. We see and hear only the gray of the track, the skittish and hesitant behaviour of the car. We don’t see Senna’s face—we see what Senna is facing.

That is, until the very last seconds. The film doesn’t show us footage just before he crashes, going into the wall. We cut away to an aerial shot, further away, to watch it from a distance. The film leaves those last seconds for him.

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A foreigner in Europe. What it is to die on foreign soil. Recently I’ve been thinking about that constantly. People who die in transit. (Migrants.) None of the dead people I love were ever able to die at home.

The Brazilian flag is draped over Senna’s coffin, completing the sequence begun by the shrouding of his car in the preceding scenes.

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“But above all, it was inevitable. Because the car crashed at the exact angle that the suspension arm went into his helmet. No broken bones in his body. No bruising…”

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Senna dies at thirty-four, the last Formula One fatality since. Thirty-four being a very Catholic year to die.

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His last words in the movie are from an old interview, a response to a question about his greatest racing memory. Senna tells an immigrant’s story. A young boy’s story. The story of the first scene in the movie, the first image in this post. A story about “real racing” and “real driving”, before politics and money came in and started informing everything. (Which is to say, a utopian story: politics and money having always been informing everything.) A story about real life.

The film knows this is a place where tragedy often begins, too. The point at which your life stops being real. Intersecting the point at which you still need it to be.

2 thoughts on “Notes on watching Asif Kapadia's SENNA (2010).

  1. Thought provoking piece of writing. Senna was very probably among the Greatest of Formula One Drivers, if not the Greatest. He had the rare qualities that mark a great persons life and claim to fame: Wonderous male beauty, unmatched ambition and drive, pure unadulterated talent, a passion and love of country even including its poorest of citizens, a selfless believer in charity and sharing of wealth, and an unabashed love for his Family and Creator. Yes, Senna has won a place in my heart,and not a day goes by that I think of him and simply ask “Why? Why die at 34 when there was so much yet to do?? So many more lives to touch?” R.I.P.

  2. Now I need to watch Senna again!! I am posthumously in love with him,he was beautiful but in a real way, fit, healthy,intelligent and lacked that egotistical suave I can have any woman I want attitude that so many F1 drivers possess and I adore him all the more for that. His emotions can clearly be read on his face,at his happiest most relaxed moments he looks quite boyish and towards the end I thought he had aged considerably,I love the way you processed and interpretted Senna,what a talent,a heart and soul he had and how I cry everytime I see the death scene and hear Sid Watkins describe it,the last scenes are the perfect conterbalance to the sombre scenes in Sao Paolo ,healthy h in Sao Paolo, saudade Ayrton Senna Da Silva

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