Sunday, May 17, 2009

Toback and Tyson

James Toback's filmography is dotted with sensitive male intellectuals and artists revealing hyper-masculine and violent components of their psyche. In Fingers (1978), a film that captured the energy (and a measure of the misogyny) of a certain strand of brat-pack New Hollywood Cinema towards its tail end, Harvey Keitel plays a pianist in a pulp plot that focuses on the split between his love of art and his desire to murder his deceased father's lingering enemies (seedy material that, in good post-French New Wave fashion, is treated with the utmost art-cinema seriousness by Toback). In Two Girls and a Guy (1997) an artist played by Robert Downey, Jr. is compelled into two destructive (and dangerously intertwined) love affairs, the two girls of the title serving less as a challenge to his idea of himself and more as a simple reflection of the contradictory aspects of his own psychology. Of what I've seen of his work, those are probably Toback's two most successful films, largely because they abandon any serious interest in a female perspective - not one of Toback's strengths - almost immediately, instead choosing to trod the hyper-masculine territory that Toback can investigate with some authority. When Toback deigns to tell the woman's side of the story, it results in a film like When Will I Be Loved (2004), wherein the woman (Neve Campbell) is ultimately just a projection of masculinist fantasies of what "female sexuality" (these films paint with very generalizing brushes) must be like.

These clues from Toback's earlier work suggest why Tyson, the director's non-fictional account of boxer Mike Tyson's career and personal life - succeeds, but also why it doesn't. After years of being treated as a pawn in the business of boxing (a world that Toback doesn't really show us at all, beyond old fighting footage and the fighter's screen-searing disgust for Don King), this film is the fighter's opportunity to set the record straight. Much of it is moving. Tyson's affection for Cus D'Amato, his first boxing trainer, leads to one of the more interesting sequences in the film, in which we see Tyson recount his journey from a potential life of street criminality in Brooklyn to the more structured world of in-ring violence. And the fighter espouses a - what felt to me as sincere - desire to mold himself into the kind of person the boxing world and an early life of poverty didn't allow him to become. But although he is, at first blush, a world apart from the sensitive artists of Toback's earlier films, just like Toback's other male figures, Tyson's self is divided, tortured, and contradictory, and his story can't be understood simply through the frame of a rise-and-fall-and-attempt-to-rise-again narrative. Toback lets us know this straight away through the film's primary stylistic conceit and structuring motif: a series of multiple split-frames that fracture and juxtapose various moments in interviews (all conducted, we presume, by Toback himself) with Tyson so as to reveal the conflicted nature of his psychology. We learn at once his desire to become a self- (and other-) respecting adult (in one striking moment, he mentions his shock at having attained the age of forty), yet in the same second - via Toback's parallel strategy of layering multiple parts of the interview's soundtrack over one another - his lingering homophobic, anti-social, and misogynistic tendencies.

Setting up Tyson as a split personality is a fascinating move (although perhaps also an obvious one, given the filmmaker's earlier work and Tyson himself), but there are number of problems that come with the approach. For a film about a major sports- and pop-cultural figure of the last three decades, Toback's film is strangely insular. It is fascinated with the current state of Tyson's mind at the expense of a larger look into what helped construct that mind's present condition. We see Tyson interviewed in three different locations: sitting on a sofa in a swanky condo (I assume it's the fighter's), standing on the shore of a beach alone against a sunset, and against a black backdrop that gives us nothing else to look at but Tyson's visage. In every case, though, the mise-en-scene of the interviews reinforces the fact that Toback is completely uninterested in situating Tyson in anything approaching a social context. He treats the fighter's career in more or less linear fashion, using anecdotes from the present day to structure an account of the boxer's late adolescence, eventual rise as heavyweight champion, his stay in prison after convinction for rape, and his later return to boxing. Sometimes we get a glimpse of a larger picture: Tyson speaks about his upbringing in the Brooklyn slums, for example (yet even here the film does not probe his early life too deeply beyond what Tyson himself tells us). And when Toback shows us interview footage of Robin Givens around the time of Tyson's divorce from the actress in the early 1990s, this isn't a cue to understanding Tyson from another (female) perspective, but rather a means to quickly dismiss it as less valid or interesting than Tyson's own point of view, to which Toback (very quickly) returns.

Ultimately, this choice to turn every potentially expansive moment psychologically inward results in 1987 and 1997 and 2008 all feeling similar in this movie. That's the price paid for a film that gives Tyson the floor for ninety minutes (or purports to give, anyway - Toback doesn't reveal his own presence as interviewer in the film, and thus we have no way of knowing which answers are candid and which others may have been responses to leading quesitons). For a man who sees himself not as a part of society but squarely at odds with it, it's no surprise, then, that every gesture towards a larger social or cultural context is KO'd by Tyson (and Toback's) repeated decision to see every moment through an individualistic prism.

I'm not quite saying that in making Tyson Toback was obligated to craft the filmic equivalent of a social study in the cultural implications of Tyson's divided persona (although that approach no doubt would have been valuable in some measure, particularly given Toback's refusal to even touch the theme of race at all, which would seem absolutely essential in understanding the fighter's relationship with his Italian-American trainer in the mid 80s as well as the commodification of his persona in the late 80s and 1990s). The director could have gone some way towards answering the larger questions generated by a tight focus on Tyson's own account of his life by simply showing a greater interest in how Tyson fits in with the lineage of his sport. How has the boxing world shifted since the 1980s, and to what degree is the oft-noted corruption of that world complicit with the kind of person Tyson became (the same psyche we see him trying to shed in his own self-avowed struggle to become an adult throughout this movie)? In fact, after watching Tyson, I don't really get the feeling that Toback knows much about the various worlds (Brooklyn, boxing, prison, fame) that created the Tyson persona - all elements, one would assume, that are necessary to study to some degree in order to make a film about this person. Instead, I'm struck that perhaps Toback was most interested in Tyson because he was a kind of inverse of the Keitel and Downey figures in the earlier films: a violent and physically imposing presence desperately trying to become more thoughtful.

What we're left with is the sadly schizophrenic figure of Tyson himself, struggling to make significance of his life and perhaps coming up short because Toback never gives Tyson the ground from which he might find significance outside of himself. At first I found Toback's split-screen and layered-sound approach intriguing, because it would seem to trouble whatever preconception we have about the fighter's persona from the outset, but ultimately the director's continued insistence upon using it throughout the film suggests a lack of interest in dialoguing with Tyson. What we're given here is a monologue that is never challenged, thus tending to fix Tyson in one (self-serving) position, despite all of the contradictions that are opened up. Toback's own filmic perspective, in other words, could have provided a sounding board for Tyson's reflection on his life, and perhaps a way out of the isolation and anger that would appear to continue to embroil him. Ultimately, Toback's vision - despite all the implied empathy - is complicit with isolating Tyson further: the director's decision to let the fighter speak for himself is admirable, especially considering the ways in which he has been used and abused by others, but I never got the sense that Tyson was talking to anyone but himself in this documentary. Because the film's style echoes the fighter's own view of himself so closely, the movie becomes an echo chamber, and this is likely not want Tyson himself needs in order to become - as he himself puts it at a few points during Tyson - an adult and a better human being.

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