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Synchro swimmers suit up for `Pursuit'

PBS airs three fun documentaries that follow lives of athletes, ferrets and stylists.

July 11, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Ferrets, synchronized swimmers and competition hairstylists are the unlikely shipmates in "The Pursuit of Excellence," a trio of films by Mark Lewis that get underway at 8 tonight on PBS. ("Synchronized Swimming" airs tonight, followed by "Ferrets" on July 18 and "Hairworld" on July 25.) All are delightful in a similar way (though all are not equally delightful).

In each we meet the adepts of an unconventional pursuit, hear why they do what they do and follow them through a climactic competition. You may think of Christopher Guest's "Best in Show," and forgivably so, as Lewis has cited that picture as an influence upon him, as well as the stylized documentaries of Errol Morris and the comedies of Jacques Tati, both of which echo his own meticulous, slightly surreal approach.

Lewis, an Australian whose earlier films include "Rat," "The Natural History of the Chicken," last year's "Standard of Perfection: Show Cats" and "Standard of Perfection: Show Cattle," is an amused but sympathetic outsider. Suffused with an affectionate irony that begins at the titles(as in "Ferrets: The Pursuit of Excellence"), his films share a kind of premeditated look, or not exactly "staged." (They are "cinematic," rather, which is to say, better looking than most TV.) Speakers address the camera directly; sometimes they are beamed into a scene as if from the Starship Enterprise. The measured formalism elevates the subject; the artificial framing makes more visible the real thing at the center.

For obvious reasons, the rigor of this style best suits "Synchronized Swimming," which is beautiful to regard from start to finish and deeply moving while remaining more or less dispassionate -- the more moving because of it, perhaps. (The cinematography is by Simon Smith.) Although an official Olympic event since 1984, the sport/art has never quite broken free of its Busby Berkeley/Esther Williams stylistic underpinnings, but Lewis makes it look good, and good and hard. ("Your body's trying to tell you that you need oxygen," says one girl, "but you have to finish your routine.")

It's a film full of texture and light and movement, of roiling water seen from above and from below and the bright, steady numinous California sunshine that makes all things equal and alive. It also has the best, most legible story, as the highly ranked Aquamaids of Santa Clara, who train six hours a day, are contrasted with the less obsessive St. Paul Stars, who get together for fondue parties.

These are not educational documentaries, except in the sense that it is always an education to see the world through other eyes and to spend time in a place whose rules and rituals are not necessarily your own. This is not so much the place to learn about ferrets, say -- though you'll certainly learn that they are cute as heck -- as it is the people who love them. Or rather, the people who love them a whole, whole lot: There must be people with ferrets who are not "ferret people," who do not dress their pets as a hula dancer or Dracula, and take them to ferret shows, and believe that when ferrets die they go to heaven across a Rainbow Bridge. But these are not them.

Indeed, love is what animates all of these films. "You see the love in every stroke she takes," a coach says of a young swimmer. Winning is meaningless without desire -- and not just the desire to win, but the desire to honor the particular thing you want to win at. There is a devotional element to all this that fits Lewis' iconic eye. "When I was back in Arizona and I saw Santa Clara," says a swimmer who left home at 15 to join the Aquamaids team, "I was like, 'Omigosh, it's God.' "


`Synchronized Swimming: The Pursuit of Excellence'

Where: KCET

When: 8 to 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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