Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Tyson, by James Toback

Left to Right: Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson. Photo taken by Larry McConkey, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Going in to Tyson, I had no particular interest in the man. I remember seeing him gnaw that guy's ear, a remarkable bit of raw aggression in a place where violence is supposed to be at least somewhat formalized and controlled. It made me entirely willing to believe he was guilty of the rape he'd served time for. I had a vague impression that he has a strangely soft-spoken, lisping manner, out of place with his imposing masculinity, but while this was a curious fact, it wasn't enough to make me think him someone who I could care about. "Some thug:" end inquiry. My interest in the film, Tyson, when I heard about it, stemmed almost entirely from my admiration for its writer/ director, James Toback, and my suspicion that, with this rare foray into documentary filmmaking, he could make a very good film indeed.

There are at least two films Toback has been involved in that fascinate me: 1974's The Gambler, directed by Karel Reisz, was Toback's first screenplay to make the screen and was largely autobiographical; it stars James Caan as a hubristic humanities professor who explains his self-destructive addiction to gambling by quoting Dostoevsky -- convincing his students and himself that he's pursuing some quasi-religious transcendent experience while digging himself a pit that will eventually suck in and compromise those around him. It's an unequalled look into a certain kind of disturbed male psyche and has a chilling denouement, where Caan, having escaped the consequences of his actions, sets out to find due punishment; the last moments of the film are sickly fascinating and unforgettable. There's an ugly narcissism to the film, too, mind you - Toback seems morbidly fascinated by his own moral decay, like some Cronenbergian protagonist playing with the parasitic lumps that infest him - but there's also an unwelcome self-recognition that sets in as you watch the film; even if you've never gambled at all, you may find yourself recognizing yourself in Caan's character. I did, anyhow, uncomfortable as it made me.

Almost equal to The Gambler is Fingers, Toback's directorial debut, from four years later. Despite a rather embarrassing final shot and a slightly unconvincing premise (it stars Harvey Keitel as the sometimes debt-collecting son of a gangster who aspires to be a concert pianist - an odd characterization that Toback and Keitel make you believe 99% of the time), it's an intense and fascinating portrait of another ultimately self-destructive character, and should be referenced in any book about gritty American cinema of the 1970's. There was an unnecessary French remake a few years back, called The Beat That My Heart Skipped; it had none of the fire and fury of the original, which bears a strong resemblance to Scorsese's best early films. Also, Fingers boasts a rather stunning scene where Keitel aggresively seduces and fucks a total stranger in a bathroom that lodges itself in your brain as a key signifier of his cinematic presence, right alongside the full-frontal drunken crucifixion parody in Bad Lieutenant, his invitation to bust a young skinhead's nose in Tavernier's Death Watch, his whimpering at the end of Reservoir Dogs, or his self-description as a "mean motherfucking servant of God" - with the "fuck" muted - in From Dusk Til Dawn... If you're a Keitel fan, and haven't seen Fingers - seek it out.
Director James Toback. Photo taken by Brett Ratner, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Given their darkness and brooding violence, Toback's association with these two films made me think that just maybe he was exactly the right man to handle Tyson. (Tyson had, in fact, appeared as himself alongside Robert Downey Jr. in Toback's race-relations drama Black and White, but it's a film I have not yet seen). It turns out that I was right to be excited: Tyson is a highly compelling film. Mike Tyson is surprisingly humble at times, and extremely forthcoming, never flinching from describing his insecurities and fears - as he describes his early experiences as a fat, awkward, bespectacled kid being bullied and humiliated in Brooklyn and how they shaped him. One apparent bit of confusion between fellatio and cunnilingus aside - something I think, if I were Toback, I would have helped Mike out on - he's as articulate, after a fashion, as he is talkative. Toback takes us inside Tyson's own experience of things, asking us to see the world through Mike Tyson's eyes - his paranoia and mistrust, his aggression, and much more of his gentle side than you're likely to ever encounter elsewhere (like home-video footage of his baby girl having a faux "boxing match" with her dad and winning, with Tyson playing possum on the kitchen floor and applauding her victory). As someone who has done a fair share of interviews, I admire Toback's skill in getting Tyson to open up and knowing how to assemble what he says into a coherent and compelling whole. I sat engaged and oddly inspired, listening to Tyson talk about himself; though I have not seen Michael Mann's Ali, I suspect that all the energy and talent that went into trying to fictionalize that boxer's life amount to a film less compelling, less thought-provoking, and far less elegant than this film, which mostly just lets Tyson talk, periodically illustrating his stories with archival footage. It's enough, and makes me hope that the film is enough of a hit that it will be followed by other such documentaries, akin to Errol Morris' First Person, where an interesting person is simply allowed to hold forth and show you the world as he or she sees it (I vote for a doc on John Lurie). It'd be nice to see Toback get some recognition, as well. Even if some of his later films - like Harvard Man - seem best quickly forgotten, he's a unique American filmmaker and industry outsider who deserves more attention than he receives.

There are certainly flaws to Tyson, mind you. Toback overrelies on split-screen techniques which sometimes distract and annoy, as you try to figure out via lip reading which image of Tyson - almost the sole voice heard in the film - is the one speaking. Further, though they're not especially distracting, Toback's set-ups of Tyson walking alone on the beach - intercut with the interview material during several of the split-screen moments - seem more than a little phony, a cliched evocation of introspection and depth that Toback would have been better off leaving out. (You can almost imagine Tyson himself suggesting shooting this footage to Toback, whom we gather is his friend; if so, Toback should have known better than to use it). Also, one feels, Tyson's self-descriptions are more honest and accurate when he is describing himself as a younger man; one mistrusts some of his assertions about his later life, for instance that Evander Holyfield had been head-butting him through two fights, thus provoking the bites - or his utter denial of claims from Robin Givens that he was abusive, or that the supposed rape of Desiree Washington was fabricated by her (he calls her a "swine" in the film). By limiting the scope of the film to Tyson's own self-presentation, doing nothing to challenge him, Toback may be glossing over various areas where Tyson's self-perception is lacking or self-serving, and constructing a version of Tyson that, while sympathetic to the man, is likely not entirely accurate.

Perhaps, though, that's precisely Toback's intention: to counterbalance the image that Tyson is a subhuman thug, by letting viewers see the world through his eyes. Not only is Tyson rendered human and comprehensible, Tyson renders its subject almost likeable. In a way, that's an even greater accomplishment than crafting an objective portrait of the man. It's certainly more surprising: I enjoyed spending an hour and a half with Mike Tyson tonight: who would have thought?
Mike Tyson. Photo taken by Larry McConkey, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Tyson opens tomorrow at Cinemark Tinseltown.

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