13 September 2011

Lost in memories of punishing velocity

The Isle of Man TT motorbike races have killed 237 people since they began in 1907. Each year they wound and sometimes kill more and more riders. Yet the ones who survive are ever eager to pick themselves back up, get their wounds stitched, bones re-set and spines bolted into place, and get out racing again on the most dangerous roads in motorbike racing.

It's a form of collective insanity demonstrated time and again in the interviews that form a large part of the documentary TT3D: Closer To The Edge, which followed the 2010 races. These are people, mainly men but a few women too, absolutely in the thrall of this ultimate motorcycling challenge. In a sensible world, the TT would be banned. But luckily, the people who participate and the fans who love the sport are not sensible people. You can see it in their eyes and the repeated tales of being cruelly injured one year and being back racing the next; in the voice of the former racer who drives the film crew around the circuit in a car - his excitement is palpable, and he even makes motorbike engine noises like a little boy, lost in his memories of punishing velocity. 

The clear star of the film is the rebellious larrikin Guy Martin, with his Wolverine muttonchops and rakish charm: he talks non-stop and most of what he utters is complete tosh, but the camera loves him and so do the crowds, who will him on to the winning title he has thus far never claimed. He tinkers with his bike incessantly, sleeps rough in his van re-watching old race videos searching for a lost fraction of a second, and foolishly flouts track regulations out of sheer petulance. Every second he's on screen is a small joy. The other riders are equally fixated to the point of obsession too: a veteran champion in his golden Winnebago trying for one last trophy, a quietly-spoken local Manx tryer hoping to delight his hometown fans, and the compulsive Steve Davis-like figure of a would-be King of the Mountain, pumping iron in his gym in case it gives him the slightest edge.

The 3D camerawork is exciting, without being intrusive or overplayed - it perfectly illustrates the brutal yet somehow graceful kineticism of low-to-the-road racing. The slow-motion flight of a 1000cc superbike over one of the TT's many bumpy village roads is both exhilarating and strangely terrifying to watch, because in every feat of superhuman control there lurks the smallest possibility of terrible disaster.  One wheel wobble and it's all over. (In a cruel but apt piece of irony, the race grandstand looks out onto a packed local cemetery, close at hand for those who require its services). One brief segment of only a few seconds sums up the visual power of TT3D - a swooping helicopter shot follows a pack of racers throwing themselves into the tightest of hairpin bends on a steep hillside spur, then follows them for a moment until they're lost around the next hair-raising bend.  

And this is no glossed-over story, despite the rather incongruous narrative by the American actor Jared Leto. Riders are injured, and yes, some even lose their lives. The carnage is astonishing, but it's handled sensitively, and those who survive are allowed to tell their story before the truly terrifying crashes are shown to the viewers. One can only wonder at their fortitude, or perhaps at their inability to see death staring them in the face.

I've never ridden on a motorbike, and perhaps I never will. It looks pretty dangerous to me. But being in the cinematic company of people insane enough to race these machines and run the very real risk of falling off them at 170mph on an uneven road, going around a tight corner hemmed in by drystone walls? That's a rare pleasure. TT3D is a must-see documentary for anyone who appreciates an exciting story peppered with tremendous imagery and fascinating, yet somewhat mental, characters.

TT 2010 summary (spoilers, naturally - don't read until you've watched the film!)

TT3D trailer:

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