Sunday, January 22, 2012


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)

Tyson (Mike, that is) is a new documentary about the former heavyweight boxing champion. The larger part of the film, directed by James Toback, is simply Tyson talking through his life (no interviewer is seen or heard); supplemented by the usual array of archive footage. There’s no direct input from anyone else. Even the average non-boxing fan, like me, likely has a fairly good sense of Tyson’s general trajectory: astonishing teen phenomenon, winning all his early fights in early-round knockouts and evoking doubt he could ever be beaten, to a brief and reputation-staining celebrity marriage, the shock loss of his title to a presumed journeyman contender and a much more mixed record thereafter, an increasingly turbulent personal life peaking in a three-year sentence for rape, and more ups and downs thereafter. Still only in his forties, he’s aging well; his immaculate clothes, odd Maori-inspired facial tattoo and heavier features mesh now into a monumental but quite serene exoticism. Then he talks, still in that somewhat unformed voice, and it’s a free-for-all: sometimes eloquent and moving, at other times crude and defiant. What kind of inner life it all adds up to, I can’t imagine.

Morally Reprehensible?

Writing in Film Comment, Amy Taubin called the film “morally reprehensible,” focusing in particular on Tyson’s (astonishingly unguarded, to say the least) remarks about Desiree Washington, the young woman he was convicted of raping. Taubin says: “In relation to libel law, not to mention documentary ethics, it doesn’t matter if Tyson believes that he is not guilty of rape, his remarks are still libelous, and Toback bears responsibility for putting them on the screen without either contesting them or offering evidence to support them.”

I don’t know about libel law, but the reference to “documentary ethics” is intriguing. I Googled the term and one of the first things that came up was this: “A good documentary film maker would never interfere with the happenings in front of the camera, a good documentary film maker would need to be like a machine. There are no documentary making robots yet so you have to do your best to impersonate one.” That might sound good, but it’s essentially meaningless; any apparent restraint evidenced by “non-interference” in events would be swept away by the much more complex (and to some extent invisible) choices involved in deciding what to put on screen, in editing, in mixing, etc. In fact, the sense of documentary makers (or journalists) as in some sense “robots” surely rejects the medium’s primary catalytic possibility: simply (robotically) observing and cataloguing the real is merely a variation on the passivity that afflicts us already; it’s the nature of the engagement with it that might spark something useful. To take an extreme but high-profile example, Michael Moore interferes compulsively with events before the camera, to the extent that you end up discounting much of his films’ supposed “facts,” but he does at least set a dialectic in motion (on the other hand, so does listening to the idiots on Fox News).

James Toback

But anyway, by this measure, we might assume Toback functioned at least somewhat like this non-interfering robot, allowing Tyson to mouth off as he saw fit. As for the ethical obligation to contest him – well, isn’t that already implicit in the fact that he was convicted and served three years? Regardless, in the next edition of Film Comment, Taubin got taken down a notch by her own editor, who called the libel-related comments “unsupported,” and apologized to Toback. I’m sure this was the end result of hours of wrangling, and yet you suspect Toback must have been at least a little pleased by the whole thing; better such eloquent antipathy, you suspect, than the usual dispassionate judgments, whether pro or con .

Toback has been making movies for over thirty years now, although often separated by long intervals, but it’s hard to sum him up. His first film Fingers might still be his best; with Harvey Keitel as a gangster’s son and part-time debt collector who dreams of becoming a concert pianist, it’s a highly subjective portrayal of extreme internalized dysfunction, within a world of confusing cultural and social symbols and signs. A few years after, he broadened this sensibility onto a global political stage with Exposed, a unique (and if memory suffices quite brilliant) teaming of Nastassja Kinski and Rudolf Nureyev (I swear I’m not making this up), blending the fashion industry and terrorism. Exposed is seldom seen now, and Toback’s second film Love and Money seems to have disappeared altogether. Since then he’s made odds and ends, usually with some “provocative” element or other; best among them may be the delirious Black and White (which featured Tyson in a supporting role); he also won an Oscar nomination for writing Bugsy, and by all accounts has a good old time gambling and womanizing and being “colourful.”

Mike Tyson makes pretty good sense as a Toback focal object, but it’s hard to rank Tyson as a major addition to his oeuvre, if only because it’s so obviously capitalizing on a found object. In this regard it’s interesting how Toback (who often appears in his own films) stays way out of the way, and doesn’t jazz up the movie too much either (except for some occasionally rather jarring editing experiments).

Loss Of Belief

I was most intrigued by Tyson’s very open emotion about his first trainer, Cus d’Amato, who he credits essentially for all the good things that happened to him (and blames for none of the bad). The tale of this old (white) guy turning round the challenging young Tyson (well established by the age of 12 in drug dealing and assorted crime) sounds like hokey stuff off the Rocky shelf, except it happens to be true. Tyson seems to perceive and lament the loss of this simpler narrative that might have been. “I lost that belief in myself,” he says, “once Cus died”- which is all the more striking when you realize d’Amato died before any of Tyson’s major successes got under way.

But then, at other times, Tyson clearly relishes being able to say (and be heard to say) things like: “I like a woman with massive confidence and then I want to dominate her sexually.” So he’s a contradiction; well, in our smaller way, aren’t we all. One could make various kinds of symbols out of him, or fit him into various theories, and certainly the sport of boxing hasn’t had the same hold on the popular imagination since he packed it in. But ultimately, is he interesting as more than a particularly outlandish manifestation of the tired old case history, of the prodigious talent that burns too strongly and naively and burns itself out? Tyson is probably too opaque a movie to do other than sending us home with the same preconceived impression we had when we came in.

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