directed by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein
A few minutes into Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's Fightville, we see a couple of young MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) trainees wrestling in the stark confines of a shithole tucked away in a Louisiana strip-mall. The gym's popping red-on-white colour scheme resembles nothing so much as the Space Station V lounge, but the weirdest thing might be the (unseen) stereo blasting Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" to set the mood. Tucker and Epperlein have a good eye and ear for this strange minutiae, and it's this low-key humanity that makes their follow-up to more sombre, Iraq-centered docs like How to Fold a Flag and Gunner Palace as compelling as it is. While an early backstage glimpse of bandaged wrists and wastebaskets overflowing with bloodied paper towels suggests a high-minded melodrama about the corporeal cost of fighting for a living (think The Wrestler), the filmmakers thankfully turn out to be much more interested in the daily grind that a commitment to the sport entails.
Fightville divides its time pretty evenly between profiling two up-and-comers (Dustin Poirier--since drafted into the UFC--and Albert Stainback) and offering up a general state-of-the-sport address on mixed martial arts, with some metaphysical noodling about the nature of combat thrown in for good measure. It's successful when it steers clear of this more philosophical material, which, however sincere, isn't much deeper than the wisdom you'll find wrapped around a Starbucks cup. Much of this chatter is courtesy of loquacious Gladiators Academy promoter Gil Guillory, who if nothing else has perfected the Sorkin walk-and-talk. A likeable windbag, Guillory says an awful lot about the fundamental humanness of combat, the warrior's code, and the rules of man--and some of it sticks, as is true of most raving prophets who talk long enough to say something worth hearing. I suspect, though, that we're meant to take his monologues more seriously than is reasonable, not least because they're frequently juxtaposed with cutesy onscreen aphorisms from unexpected (if not entirely alien) sources like Walt Whitman.
No matter. Both Poirier and Stainback are genial company, and the filmmakers serve them well by refusing to lionize them, or to inflate their underdog narratives. This is very much a profile of men in transition, working at a particularly time- and energy-intensive job, yet a job nonetheless. Poirier is something of a blank, though his earnestness is hard to fault: He's relaxed and guileless despite his ambition to make it to the top of his profession. His longing pre-fight ode to peanut butter-chocolate ice cream--"You can get it at Wal-Mart," he deadpans--is, in its way, as revealing about the suffering athlete as anything in Black Swan, not to snark too much on Darren Aronofsky, whose recent films till similar ground. Stainback's future is less assured, but he's the more compelling subject for it, his off-kilter expressions and tearful talking-head confessionals recalling a younger, sweeter Tim Blake Nelson. Their stories are nice structural foils for one another, attesting to how the sport consists, at bottom, of a series of contests between two people, one of whom necessarily comes out diminished at the other's expense.
As in that early practice scene, Tucker and Epperlein's footage carries a nice, bodily charge. They're evidently drawn to the garish extremes of the sport, focusing on the dimly-lit moments before fighters enter the cage and framing fights off to the side from ground level, just far enough to catch the harsh neon glow of the corporate banners that drape these upstarts. Aesthetically fresh and surprisingly lyrical, the film also works as a rhetorical exercise, presenting mixed martial arts not as a fringe sport--"Human cockfighting," one subject snickers, referring to John McCain's famous dismissal of it--but as a gentleman's activity. Lazier sports docs tend to get drawn into a redemptive narrative that treats the combat arena as a kind of reset button, launching hangdog failures back into the prime of their lives. Fightville is smarter, recognizing that if there's any redemption in fighting, it's not so much in the outcome of the match as in the serious preparation. MMA, the film seems to argue, is a finishing school for lost boys, and regardless of how Poirier and Stainback fare in the big leagues, by the end of their time at the Gladiators Academy, they'll have at least made the grade.-Angelo Muredda
originally published April 6, 2012
Fightville begins its limited run at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto on Friday, April 6th.