Monday, June 11, 2012

Fighting the Facts, Wrestling with the Truth

Occasionally, when American film isn't trying to sell us the same old ticket to Anywhere But Here, it summons up all its civic spirit and its art to concentrate on an Average Joe, a schlemihl just trying to make it in the real world - a world made all the more real by a shoestring budget.

Two fairly recent American films, The Fighter (2010) and The Wrestler (2008), tell remarkably similar stories about men engaged in gladiatorial combat - boxing in the first and, even if it is only make-believe, pro wrestling in the second. Together the films prove that fiction is no stranger than the truth, and that a "true story" can be more fanciful than factual.

The Fighter is something only a confident, talented filmmaker could've made. But two of its primary elements prevent it from being a complete success. David O. Russell, the film's director, was one of the best hopes for American independent film in the 1990s. His films Spanking the Monkey (1994) and Flirting with Disaster (1996) bore the unmistakable stamp of a filmmaker who had something to say but also an integrated talent for saying it. They were personal films, very much against the Hollywood grain. Everyone who cared about serious filmmaking knew these films and anticipated what Russell would do next.

What he did next was both gratifying and frustrating. Three Kings (1999) is a full-blown commercial film with a bonafide movie star (George Clooney). It is one of the few films on the Iraq War (s) that is worth contemplating. But it got messily out of Russell's control shortly after his four (not three) heroes realize what the war was really about. In a sense, Three Kings predicted the 2003 invasion of Iraq - Bush Junior's finishing the job his dad started.

In The Fighter, Russell was stuck with a "true story" about two brothers, Mickey Ward and Dicky Eklund (they had different fathers), that has a shopworn, Rocky-like ring to it. The pride of Lowell, Massachusetts, a working class suburb of Boston, Dicky got a shot at a title in the 80s and knocked down - but failed to defeat - Sugar Ray Leonard. He helped train his brother Mickey, while smoking crack and sinking far enough into a life of crime to wind up doing serious time in prison. Dicky nearly ends Mickey's boxing career when a cop trying to arrest him breaks Mickey's hand. By the time Dicky is released, clean and healthy, Mickey is preparing for a title fight of his own and has promised his girlfriend that Dicky will no longer train him.

Mark Wahlberg certainly looks the part as Mickey. (There must be a clause in his contract about taking off his shirt. His appearance in Date Night made fun of this idea.) The former boy band member has had a surprisingly long career without showing the slightest growth of anything other than muscles. Martin Scorsese made the best of him as a tough, foul-mouthed South Boston cop in The Departed. But acting opposite Leo DiCaprio has gotten easier the harder he tries to play a grown man.

Christian Bale, as Dicky, is magnificent. He demonstrates that acting is essentially about concentration, about being wholly engaged with a character's world. Bale's level of concentration makes Mark Wahlberg almost disappear from the screen.

As usual, the real heroes of this macho "true" story are the women who have to endure all the machismo, two in particular: Alice, Dicky and Mickey's mother, played by Melissa Leo, and Charlene, Mickey's girlfriend, played by Amy Adams. Calling these two women tough is like calling titanium hard. Melissa Leo has enjoyed a renaissance in her career. I remember first encountering her playing damsels in distress in a few otherwise forgettable 80s movies. Like so many actresses, Hollywood didn't know what to do with her once she could no longer play ingenues. Now 51, she has managed to find good roles in some remarkable films. Her best scene in The Fighter comes when she has to fetch Dicky from a crack-house. After banging on the front door, she runs around to the back of the house just as Dicky is jumping into a pile of garbage from a 2nd-story window. Returning to her car, she bursts into tears when Dicky climbs into the passenger seat. To console her, he starts to sing The Bee Gees' song, "I Started a Joke", and Alice joins in as she starts the car and outs it in gear.

Despite taking some evident pains with their authenticity, the fight scenes are the least effective element in The Fighter. Sporting events are impossible to bring off dramatically without making them seem contrived. Since they have to be choreographed like dance, and because sport has nothing to express but itself, the element that gives it life in the ring or on the playing field - spontaneity - is missing.

Russell introduces us to the real Mickey and Dicky in a closing shot. Their story is one of those somewhat typical "uplifting" ones with which America, the land of the Second Chance, seems to abound. Dicky recovers from his addiction to crack only after going cold turkey in a prison cell. (Russell also arouses dismay for the utterly self-serving HBO documentary about Dicky's life as a crack addict.) And Mickey wins the championship fight for his weight class and makes alot of money.

Darren Aronofsky was executive producer for The Fighter. Two years earlier he directed The Wrestler, which proved, among other things, that winning isn't everything. A long time in his book Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson explained that more people were prepared to read the autobiography of Robert E. Lee than that of Ulysses S. Grant because failure, even in an ignoble cause, is believed to be ennobling.

I never much liked the over-the-top theatrics of profession wrestling, primarily because of its gonzo fans, who get so caught up in the scripted mayhem in the ring (or the cage) that they injure themselves and one another acting it out inside the arenas and at home. The Wrestler, however, concentrates so carefully on the wrestlers' themselves, their preparations, their surprising comraderie, and their aches and pains, that I grew to love them simply because the filmmakers had taken some pains to make these larger-than-life people into human beings.

In The Wrestler, a golden-fleeced Mickey Rourke plays Robin Ramzinski, better known to fans as Randy "the Ram" Robinson, a professional wrestler who is getting too old for getting slammed to the canvas. Rourke looks suitably beefy and beaten up to pass for a wrestler past his prime, with so many unhealed injuries he can't even walk straight. His experience as a professional boxer, which required extensive facial reconstruction, certainly didn't hurt his performance here.

In scene after scene, the camera is right behind Rourke wherever he goes. The last time I saw such an intimacy of camera and subject was in the Dardennes Brothers' Rosetta. In that film, the camera had to hurry to keep up with the heroine, who was too busy surviving to examine her life.

I think American film has always been adept at portraying these lovable brutes because there is no use trying to discover an inner life in them that simply isn't there. Unexamined lives may not be worth living, but they are certainly worth watching. We find ourselves pitying characters like Harlan "Mountain" McClintock in Requiem for a Heavyweight and Rocky Balboa, not to mention Fellini's Zampano and the Dardennes' Rosetta just long enough to make us give thanks that we're not like them - or just enough of like ourselves to feel the loss of always losing. But only such losers have anything to teach us.

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