|directed by James Toback|
Mike Tyson isn't a difficult guy to figure out--or, at least, he doesn't think he is anymore. Given the opportunity to wax nostalgic for the entirety of James Toback's documentary Tyson, the former champ indulges in a series of anecdotes taking us through his training under Cus D'Amato, his rape conviction, and the infamous "Bite Fight," concluding that it could all be traced back to his bullied childhood. From there, it becomes easier to understand that everything in his life--from his demeanour in the ring to his hunger for sexual conquest--was dictated by a desire to push himself to the edge, something he did for the better part of twenty-five years until inevitably losing the eye of the tiger. ("Old too soon, smart too late," Tyson states in a chillingly matter-of-fact manner.) But for all his exorcised demons, he carries with him a great deal of bitterness and obliviousness. Regarding the "ten or twenty million" he won in a hundred-million dollar lawsuit against Don King as "some small amount," Tyson clearly maintains the perhaps-unavoidable, unshakeable detachment from reality attendant to living a superstar's lifestyle. As obvious as Tyson may seem, there's a fascinating conundrum to be found in its subject's recitation of the most famous lines from "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which invites questions as to how and when he was hit by the epiphanies repeated herein--and what, precisely, he's still missing to complete that sense of self-awareness.
Because this man fits so comfortably within Toback's autobiographical pantheon of poetic brutes leading double lives, one gets the distinct feeling that the filmmaker has attempted to fill in any thematic gaps with expressions of his own auteurism. Backed by a cacophony of conflicting, overlapping voices (Tyson's own), the shifting-split-screen aesthetic occasionally draws insight into how the boxer's whirlwind existence has affected his mind, yet as a drum beaten relentlessly, it more often suggests a conscious link back to Black and White (Toback's first narrative film to feature Tyson) than a visual representation Tyson's duplicitous or schizophrenic tendencies. As such, Tyson's number one problem is that it fancies itself as not so much a genuine portrait of its subject as a general dissertation on the follies of life. Make no mistake that the hour-and-a-half we spend with this man is an engaging one--particularly considering that the most stinging indictments of character come from Tyson himself, whether he realizes it or not. Ultimately, Tyson is just a little too comfortable with leaving us the simple platitude that choices are made and every decision has a consequence.-IP
May 10, 2009|I was largely oblivious of this man, who had somehow slipped beneath my radar until editor Bill kindly offered me a comprehensive crash-course in preparation for Tyson. But my reactions to the films of James Toback were perhaps easy to predict. His wonderful hyphenate debut, 1978's Fingers, knocked me on my ass with astonishing ease, and I quickly recognized the familiar tropes that have been dissected by countless critics over the course of Toback's storied career: mothers, black culture, double lives, three-way orgies... When we finally met at Boston's Liberty Hotel, Mr. Toback answered my questions in lengthy, lecturing paragraphs about how his second documentary in twenty years in some sense deals with how much of himself he sees in the ex-heavyweight champ--a point made clear long before he ever vocalized it outright. I suppose the same could be said for the rest of his work: an overwhelming percentage of what he has to say in Tyson can be traced back to the major themes of his first credited screenplay, The Gambler. From the way the conversation shifted in tone when I started talking about Tyson through the prism of his other films, I think Toback was pulling rank as a self-conscious auteur. Recognizing me as a young turk who had done his homework (and a stringent believer in the auteur theory to boot), he switched from his standardized patter to general philosophizing that, in its pre-emptive critical deflection, effectively rendered any real conversation moot. (Three-ways sadly went undiscussed.) As such, there's a palpable familiarity to the whole thing: his responses weren't canned, exactly, but they're definitely reflections of philosophies already laid bare on the silver screen for all to see.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: So how are you doing?
JAMES TOBACK: Other than no cartilage in my knees, the movie's going great. I've been very pleasantly surprised by this almost unanimously great reaction. Usually my movies have separated people. There are a lot of devotees who gets excited and people who sort of can't wait for a movie of mine to come out so they can shoot arrows in my neck. And then in between a lot of people in who kind of feel ambivalent. And this movie, of all movies, I was sure would have that kind of split, and so far it's been almost like Shrek in the way it's come across. Which I can't explain, except that I think the surprise of the way Tyson comes across wins over most of the people in that group of potential antagonists, where they go expecting to feel anger and rage towards him, and they end up being, in a way, disarmed.