Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Punch-Drunk Love: Tyson
Great storytellers know when to tell the story and when to get out of the way and let the story tell itself. In his latest film, director James Toback does the latter. His documentary consists of little more than two or three camera angles of one stationary subject – a man, sitting in a chair, talking about his life – with some archival B-roll mixed in. Visually speaking, it isn’t much to look at, but dramatically speaking, there’s no better place to look. There are few individuals capable of holding us rapt for 90 minutes of autobiographical rambling, but Toback’s film features one of them: Mike Tyson. In Tyson, the former heavyweight champion provides impassioned tales of his childhood, boxing career, love life and prison sentence that are interesting but nowhere near as fascinating as the spectacle of the man himself. Here, Tyson isn’t just the storyteller. He’s the story.
That’s the long way around to saying that whenever a camera is tightly focused on Mike Tyson’s tattooed face, it’s in the right place. Who else is so fearsome and so docile? Who else is so enchanting and so terrifying? Who else is so repugnant and so sympathetic? Who else is all of those things at the same time? Tyson is easy to read and yet impossible to comprehend. He’s vulnerable and yet elusive. To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, he’s a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma. To watch Tyson is to have your opinion of the man challenged and then affirmed and then challenged again. Never has a man with so much history, so much baggage, so much lore, seemed so undefined as if new, malleable and ever-changing. When Tyson says in his typical blend of idiocy-cum-poetry that sometimes insanity has been his only sanity, it’s a fitting contradiction, because the most familiar thing about Tyson is his foreignness.
Toback’s film invites us to understand Tyson in a way we haven’t before, without ever pretending that Tyson is easy to understand. Toback’s occasional use of split-screen, while also refreshing the visual palate, effectively suggests the fractured state of Tyson’s spirit and psyche. Indeed, in the course of one long interview, the notorious boxer runs a gauntlet of emotions. He weeps over the 1985 death of trainer and father-figure Cus D’Amato. He curses boxing promoter Don King, who manipulated Tyson for his own financial gain. He speaks of ex-wife Robin Givens with both wistful affection and jaded disappointment. And so on. That Tyson does all these things with the intensity of someone visiting these emotions for the first time is what makes Tyson – and Tyson – so provocative. This is a man who has moved on but never forgotten, who is forgiving and resentful, who is both victim and victimizer.
With Tyson, there are always contradictions. An interesting case study involves his relationships with women. Tyson claims in this film that Givens lied in their famous 1988 Barbara Walters interview in which the actress painted her husband as at least emotionally abusive if not physically so, and he claims that he never raped Desiree Washington, which earned him a three-year stint in prison. But at another point of the film, Tyson talks about wanting to “physically dominate” women. And when referring to the 1992 rape conviction, Tyson makes a remark suggesting that, well, even if he wasn’t guilty that time, he was probably guilty of forcing himself on women on other occasions. To watch this film is to see a man who has been punished too much and maybe not enough.
That Tyson’s victims don’t have the opportunity to plead their case or otherwise defend themselves will make Tyson, for some, a crime against documentary journalism. It isn’t. Toback’s film, while one-sided and undoubtedly sympathetic, is also unmistakably straightforward in its methods. This is Tyson on Tyson. Nothing more. Nothing less. No, you won’t hear from Washington or the officers who arrested Tyson for rape (who, let’s not forget, might have selfish motivations of their own). But you also won’t hear anyone come to Tyson’s aid, to validate his depiction of events. All we have is Tyson’s word and our gut instincts. Sure, there are plenty of reasons to doubt Tyson. Then again, it’s also worth wondering: When else has Tyson been this free to speak his mind? When else has our access to the man been so unfiltered?
Personally, I don’t believe everything Tyson says in his interview with Toback. If he isn’t a calculated liar, Tyson is almost certainly a delusional one. (I think it’s possible he genuinely believes many of his mistruths.) Then again, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a sports figure speak from the heart the way Tyson does. His ringside interview moments after his final bout, in which he admits that he’s boxing solely for the payday and long ago lost his taste for fighting, reveals a man as candid as they come. As a boxer, Tyson was adept at creating a monstrous image that would intimidate his opponents while attracting audiences, increasing his share of the purse. But when not portraying Iron Mike, Tyson is almost defenseless. It’s as if he feels too much and lacks the ability to manage his reactions, which sometimes leads to touching moments, as when he reached up to wipe blood from Lennox Lewis’ cheek, and other times leads to horrifying ones, as when he bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.
It’s easy to label Tyson a psychopath, a mindless thug, a heartless beast. His rape conviction supports that image. His cold stare supports that image. His pure physicality in the ring (and out of it) supports that image. But that’s not what you’ll see in Tyson, and the disparity deserves to be taken seriously. Yes, this is Tyson as witnessed by one of his friends. But how many friends has Tyson had? Over the years, he earned celebrity, money and infamy, and yet in so many ways he’s still the young kid he was in Brooklyn, all alone, fighting to stay alive. We have repeatedly ogled him, but we’ve never allowed ourselves to feel for him, never given him a chance to be anything other than the monster we wanted him to be. Toback’s film dares audiences to look into the fighter’s eyes and not care. I, for one, went down for the count.