Wednesday, June 03, 2009

TYSON

If it's not fair to call Mike Tyson insane after watching him carry on for 90 minutes in James Toback's new portrait documentary of him, then "mentally unwell" should suffice. When the infamous ordeal with Desiree Washington comes to topic, the topic that landed Tyson in jail for three years, he swears that he never raped "that wench". However, without hesitation or any awareness of gross contradiction and fault, Tyson lets out this sentence: "I may have taken advantage of women in the past, but not that woman." It's a disturbing moment, but also a key one in that it shows how Toback does not intend to simply deliver a biased docu puff-piece on a publicly disclosed close friend of his.

But because this is a documentary, bias, or rather, manipulation of real life is inevitable. That doesn't mean that Tyson isn't fascinating to watch, especially in its fever dream sequences where the former heavyweight champ struggles to enunciate through free associations on women, love, childhood, and loss. Toback does his best to match the scatterbrain monologues of Tyson by split screening the hell out of the boxer's iconic face (his eyelids heavy as if they are about to close permanently from the weight of his life). It's as if Toback is trying to find a visual rhythm that can walk in step with the machinations inside Tyson's brain yet he keeps having to hit the reset button.

If Tyson had solely consisted of Mike Tyson's unedited and extended ramblings laid atop looping montages of his life and career, then Toback's film might have approached greatness, defying documentary convention and applying a fresh way to present non-fictional material. But, sadly, Toback bends to regular bio-doc storytelling, giving us the arch of Mike Tyson's life and the replayed highlights of his pay-per-view career so that we may attempt to "understand" this man. But that's an impossible request to make of an audience when all you have in tow is 90 minutes of tricked-up celluloid to state your case. Sure, go ahead and toss Tyson in as another useful tool for research into the troubled man's life, but a work of cinematic portraiture art this is not.

Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler does a finer job than Tyson of culling emotion and humanity from the behind-the-scenes life of muscle bound glamour and big man sports, a subculture that Mike Tyson was a part of for the majority of his life. In The Wrestler, seeing the fictional Randy "The Ram" Robinson play with the Nintendo version of himself was a profound moment of a broken man facing down his legacy of becoming nothing more than an 8-bit afterthought after living a life of hedonistic hero worship. (Indeed, that particular scene made me think of Mike Tyson's Punch Out and wonder if the real Tyson ever stared at that video game with fondness and regret the way Ram does.)

In Toback's narrative films, there is typically a surrogate male character that espouses the deeply flawed, imperfect philosophies and ideals that the director sees in himself. Because these men are fictional stand-ins (Jimmy in Fingers, Jack in The Pick-Up Artist, Blake in Two Girls and a Guy) there is greater freedom for Toback the artist to self-examine, yet still entertain, without coming off as a narcissist doing confessionals for the camera. Tyson shows that Toback is still obsessed with the hyper-sexualized flawed man inside (Mike Tyson could be his stand-in), but with that fourth-wall now being torn down, the director's artistic argument isn't as compelling.

6 comments:

Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: Nicely written review -- though, predictably, I liked this more than you did.

I'm confused, however, on this part:

"If Tyson had solely consisted of Mike Tyson's unedited and extended ramblings laid atop looping montages of his life and career, then Toback's film might have approached greatness, defying documentary convention and applying a fresh way to present non-fictional material. But, sadly, Toback bends to regular bio-doc storytelling, giving us the arch of Mike Tyson's life and the replayed highlights of his pay-per-view career so that we may attempt to "understand" this man. But that's an impossible request to make of an audience when all you have in tow is 90 minutes of tricked-up celluloid to state your case. Sure, go ahead and toss Tyson in as another useful tool for research into the troubled man's life, but a work of cinematic portraiture art this is not."

I see Tyson as, essentially, "unedited and extended ramblings laid atop looping montages of his life and career." Yes, it's a chronological reflection of his life. Yes, I'm sure Toback moved a few pieces around to make sense. But to me this is about as unmanipulated as a documentary can get. The split-screen technique is a flourish, but it doesn't alter the material itself. Which is to say that this is still Tyson on Tyson.

Yes, he's an impossible figure to understand, in large part because he has no filter and says things most of the rest of us wouldn't (which doesn't necessarily mean that his feelings are all that different from the average person's). But in that respect, isn't the best way to understand Tyson -- if that's possible -- is just to pull his string and let him go? And isn't that what this film does?

Maybe I'm misreading this, but it seems to me that you're arguing that Toback forces Tyson into some inaccurate stereotypical mold. And yet you compare this to The Wrestler, which from a general construction standpoint is as cookie-cutter as character dramas get. (Its trancendence -- I love the movie -- comes from Rourke and some key scenes, like the video game scene, that are subtle yet brilliant.)

Anyway, the above isn't disagreement with your take so much as an attempt to understand it. You make good points about why Toback would be drawn to Tyson's story. But I do see this as Tyson's story, not self-examination by Toback.

Fox said...

Hey Jason-

As far as the "unedited and extended ramblings laid atop looping montages of his life and career", I should expand on that comment, and say that I meant it to mean a more extreme version of what is presented in the movie. Something that is less about being molded into 90 minute entertainment. More experimental, if you will. Maybe something along the lines Derek Jarman's Blue, even, something without montages at all.

I could enjoy getting lost in the ramblings of Tyson without a coherent hand leading me down the path. (I mean, he's an incoherent individual already, why not roll with it more?) When you say "pull his strings and let him go", I agree, but I don't think Toback does that. I think he snips segments of that string pulling and then pastes them into a presentable, digestable 90 minute movie.

I don't believe most of the stories Tyson tells us in the movie, and I think Toback wisely sets it up so that we shouldn't trust Tyson's word anyway. Fascinating things come out of his mouth, but I question a lot of it.

I don't think Toback "forces" Tyson into a stereotypical mold, I just think that mold is the unfortunate thing about documentaries. Filmmakers are forced to clip reality and shape it into an entertaining package. With fictional narrative, like The Wrestler, this is never an issue, so, in my opinion, the director has more freedom.

Jason Bellamy said...

Gotcha! I see that.

On the accuracy of the whole thing, I don't believe all of it either, and yet I think it might feel 100 percent honest to Tyson, something I alluded to in my review.

Leaving the film aside for a second ...

Gary Smith once wrote a typically brilliant piece on Tyson for SI that said Tyson (in the early part of his fame, I think) used to go back to his old neighborhood and beg for change, hiding under a hooded sweatshirt. I wondered if Tyson would bring that up in the film. He doesn't.

I still can't decide if I think that's true or not. Tyson, for all his faults, doesn't seem like the guy to spin stories out of nothing. I think he lies about the details of things -- convincing himself of the lies -- but I don't think he's the type to dream stories out of the ether. I could be wrong. Just a gut feeling.

I don't really have a point here except to say that Tyson is one of the few figures strange enough to where the truth could be just as fascinating as the legend.

Fox said...

Jason-

I agree with that. I think Tyson mostly believes what he is saying, but I wonder how much of his selective memory (fueled by extremem anger), and possible delusions, drive those stories.

The hooded sweatshirt story you briefly mentioned reminds me of the stories he tells of his pigeon being decapitated and being arrested on the street b/c he had $2500 in his pocket. I bet something happened along those lines, but I doubt they happened in the way Tyson relays them to Toback and to us.

That's not unique to Tyson, of course, we all embellish our life stories, even we don't necessarily realize that we are doing it.

And I will be checking out your review this afternoon. I had put if off because I didn't want to read it before writing mine.

bill r. said...

Haven't seen this, but I remember when Two Girls and a Guy came out, Toback said that he hated everybody who didn't love the film. That's when I decided I didn't want to see Two Girls and a Guy, and that I didn't like Toback.

Fox said...

Bill-

HAHA... I hadn't heard that he said that, but it definitely sounds like something he would say.

And again, I know I've said this before about Toback, but he's one of those directors that I can't really defend or push on people b/c if they say "he's a prick!", I'm pretty sure they are right. He does seem like one. But his spirit reminds me of Ferrara and Pasolini, guys who didn't always make great movies, but did what was in their souls 100% of the time. And I just am so attracted to those type of directors.

And, yeah, they're probably are (were) total assholes.

P.S. I heard Salo was your # 3 favorite movie of all time!!