Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sparring with the past

The extraordinary life of Mike Tyson as vividly described by Mike Tyson in James Toback’s
Tyson constitutes a startling essay on American fame, race and sex. Never a well-behaved filmmaker, Toback seems too fascinated, perhaps even in love with his subject to soberly editorialize in the margins of this documentary portrait. Instead, he steers and shapes the film by way of carefully calibrated and provocative juxtapositions. Throughout Tyson the lisping, soft-spoken and now flamboyantly face-tattooed former boxer’s testimony is offered in overlapping images and soundtracks, sometimes featuring Tyson giving multiple divergent responses to the same questions. At first the technique seems like empty flash, but soon it reveals itself as an inspired method of portraiture, resulting in a Rashomon-like poem on human contradictions on a spectacular scale, moving from inspiration and thrills to horror and confusion to an evocation of the purgatorial existence of a man whose meteoric ascent and titanic career sank into the abyss around the age most of us are just getting properly started with our lives.

Great portraits typically dispel myths, yet the closer Toback gets to Tyson the more Tyson’s story feels like myth. Not myth as broad gloss but as dense tapestry of heightened experience that spans the breath of several ordinary lives. Tyson’s movement from an impoverished fatherless Brooklyn youth of raising pigeons, getting brutalized and living in fear; to the discovery of a rage so great as to knock men down and a proclivity for thuggery; to juvenile detention, self-actualization and the great fortune of finding a generous and encouraging father figure; to becoming an unbeatable human juggernaut, heavyweight champion of the world at 21, impossibly naïve about so much, yet with the world’s riches and women splayed at his feet; to rape conviction, prison, countless scenes of public humiliation, ear-biting and isolation: all of these phases are explored in a wholly first-person account illustrated through a wealth of archival footage, culminating in a story of a figure not so much larger than life as stranger than fiction.

Have you all seen Fingers? Because Toback’s 1978 startling directorial debut, which stars Harvey Keitel as a mafia collector with a deeply frustrated gift for music, holds the key to so much of what makes Toback’s work distinctive, vital and repulsive, the self-flagellating fantasy of an unabashed wigger. It also makes a dynamite double feature alongside Tyson. (Mind you, Raging Bull wouldn’t make too shabby a pairing either. Nor would The Wrestler.) What Toback offers us in these films and others—including 2000’s Black and White, which features Tyson in a scary, homophobic cameo as himself—is an excavation of male psyches stunted through punishment and empowerment, their empathy drained through brute force, plagued with an inability to reflect that leads to impotency, a sense of being involuntarily thrust into violence, a hunger to at once dominate and be dominated by women, and the inhabiting of some regressive ideal of blackness, regardless of the race of the subject in question. Films like Fingers and Tyson possess a rare transparency. Grotesque and shamelessly entertaining, they infuriate and intrigue. And of we had a few more movies like them we may just learn something of fundamental importance about how men become monsters. Or perhaps how some of us have to work against our instincts just to not become monsters.

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