|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.
But how does that happen, exactly? You almost see him as schizophrenic.
I think that it is that you expect to see a person who is just a kind of psychopathic Godzilla, and then you see that there's a real humanity there, and the people who were sort of Tyson fans and devotees say, "Wow, he's an even more fascinating, interesting guy than I thought." The people who expected to see someone they were going to revile are taken aback by the humanity that's there and the tortured soul--and it makes it much more difficult to be hostile. And I think anyone who is seriously, legitimately surprised in a dramatic way by an intriguing person has had a fundamental nerve hit. We all sort of hope, I think, on some deep human level, that the people out there who are [our] enemies are actually not enemies. Don't have to be. This whole debate of, Is there evil in the world that is unredeemable--are there people we can never trust no matter what--and if so, should we not allow ourselves to be seduced by any sign to the contrary? This sort of Hitler-was-nice-to-his-dogs syndrome. Obviously on a national level, this is one of the things that has caused the greatest debate historically, back down to the Trojan War--do you trust the gesture from the enemy? Or currently, the American approach to Iran: do we say this is our mortal enemy, and we should either bomb them, or resist them, or where should we start a dialogue, and understand that...they're just human beings too, we can reach a rapprochement. Iranians actually love Americans, Americans can feel at home in Iran. That, on a global scale, an international scale, I think is what goes on often on an individual scale. You meet somebody who has had this sort of brute image in your mind, and then you say, "Actually, this person is quite interesting, and decent." And all of a sudden you have a much more open response than you would have if that were what you expected in the first place. If you thought the person was basically an interesting person with humanity, it might have registered, but not with the same power when you went in expecting someone to have an ice pick that he was gonna drive into your skull.
You've seemed interested in that aspect of his personality since your narrative films with him. You always seem to put him in a state of interruption from his personal life.
Yeah, well, you know--he is a person who interrupts his personal life! He is an inherently dramatic figure, and one who seeks drama, and who becomes dramatic almost immediately when he is in the presence of any kind of potentially dramatic situation. And then even [the ones that] aren't a potentially dramatic situation become so because he is there. And I think that, because one is always looking for something incendiary and dramatic--at least I am--and that one of the things that makes a situation inherently worth photographing, recording, remembering, talking about, is that it's a heightened version of reality, it pushes things to the extreme. What is really going on. It is one of the things I find... I mean, I'm an Internet retard, and a techno-retard. I basically died in 1215 AD, and haven't caught up yet with the 14th century. But to the little I know, my impression of the Internet--about Facebook and Twitter and MySpace and all this shit--is that, basically, everything is supposed to be inherently worth listening to and watching. You know: "I walked across the room, and I took a deep breath. Then I felt an urge to take a piss. I went and took a piss. I then washed my hands. I then called my girlfriend and said 'how are you doing?'" This could just go on forever, this sort of meandering, bland, uninteresting stuff. And I think we're being bombarded by it, and all the more reason that what one has a real appetite for--at least I do--is something unusual, exciting, strange, different, intense, extreme. So Tyson, being that kind of character--who, as he refers to himself, is an "extremist"--that automatically...not only interests me in somebody, but then I try to find those moments where that person is in that extreme state.
But in that sense, then, if you're looking for poetry... You're interested in characters [like Two Girls and a Guy's] Blake Allan, [Fingers'] Jimmy Angellelli--I mean, there's a certain façade to that poetry, isn't there?
Well, yeah, but they push themselves to an extreme. They're always trying to reach the highest moment of drama possible in a scene. They are never content to let a situation sit and brew and see what happens. Because what might happen could be inherently no more interesting than what was happening when they started. So they wanna provoke something that makes them feel alive. Because death is looming, death is going to come. If you wait for it, it's gonna come just as fast as if you go provoking it. In fact, oddly enough, it might come quicker if you just wait for it. So the idea is: why don't I keep provoking it, or versions of it, or preliminaries of it, and engage in as many heightened dramatic moments as I can, knowing that I'm doomed. Knowing that the only thing I know is that like everybody else who was born, I'm gonna die. Instead of waiting around for it, instead of thinking that life is a kind of bland acceptance of mortality--and I'm here waiting for the heart attack to occur, the axe to drop, the car to run me over--I am going to push myself as fast and as far as I can in whatever situation I find myself in, and seek situations that are inherently dramatic and provocative. All of these fictional characters that I created live that way, and what made me wanna do a movie about Tyson is that he has lived that way, and on a scale that's as dramatic and out-there as any figure of the last hundred years. Not just in boxing, but really anywhere. You can't find an international figure whose life has been more dramatic or incendiary or provocative than Mike Tyson.
So are you saying that these people you're interested in, by hastening their death, they seek to stave it off?
No, I'm saying by provoking it, they make life as exciting as it can be before it comes, and that often, they actually prolong life by provoking it. I don't know why that's true, but it often is. Tyson sits there and says, "I can't believe I'm still alive and I'm forty. I can't believe I reached the age of forty." Well, given the way he lived, and what his life was like, forty's an old age. And he says, "All the other guys I grew up with are dead, or in jail, or strung out on drugs in the Bronx or in Brooklyn or Manhattan." (pause) Well, the implication is, I, like them, should have died earlier. Most of them did. But here I am, still alive, and maybe I'll be alive ten years from now, twenty years from now. Would I have been still alive if I lived a bland, cautious life? Would I still have been alive had I just done even what my friends did? I went out farther than they did, I became even more provocative, and yet here I still am. And I wasn't looking to die consciously, but I was basically saying to Death, I'm not afraid of you. I'm coming. You are not going to interfere with my destiny. Whatever I have to do to keep myself excited, interested, dramatic, extreme, I'm gonna do. If you nail me now, fine. If you don't, fine. I know you're gonna get me sooner or later, but whenever you get me, it's okay as long as, in the meantime, I've gotten the most out of what I'm doing.
What I'm not gonna do is sit around and say, I know they're gonna get me, but maybe if I just sit here, I can survive a little longer. Which is, on a metaphorical level, what most people do most of the time. They're basically saying, "Play it safe. Be careful. Insure yourself. Do the safe thing. Take precaution. Watch out." These are the lessons most people are taught, it's part of what you could even say is the education of school, of normal quote-unquote parenting, it's, if you are careful, if you are smart, if you are shrewd, if you cover yourself, if you look both ways before you cross on the green, not in between--maybe you'll survive longer. Maybe you will. But the characters that are dramatically interesting to me are the ones who ignore that teaching, and say, "Why don't I go in the other direction?"
But they also don't really seem to understand the way that they live double lives. They don't really understand how one life affects the other.
Because they're in the midst of this ongoing drama. The interesting thing about Tyson in this movie is that because it was shot after he crashed, he's able--as he wouldn't have been able to at any time before this movie--to be meditative and analytical about it, and to see it with some perspective. If we'd made the movie six months earlier, a year earlier, two, five, ten years earlier, there wouldn't have been a movie, first of all. But if there had been, it would have been a fractured and fragmented movie that wouldn't have added up to anything that was really coherent because he would have been seeing that drama from inside it instead of outside.
"...Even if everything were pure, and original, and Edenic, the sun is going to incinerate the earth in another four or five billion years."
So what stage is [Tyson] at--is everyone else at? Regret?
Well, I think that he has accepted his regret, in the sense that he understands he's been his own prosecutor, his own doom, his own self-inflicting punisher. Most of the misery he suffered in his life has been induced and directed by himself. And I think on one level, he could say, therefore I am responsible, but on another, I don't really regret it, because my life has added up to something substantial. Here I am, still alive, I'm happy to be who I am now, and I can move forward with some sense that the future actually exists. So in the long run, I don't really have regrets, because what was the alternative? That [he could've] been dead earlier. So he's been lucky, he's gotten away with a lot just by being alive, and I think he knows that. And we've talked about that frequently, both of us, and said: look at all of the risks we've taken, consciously or unconsciously, over the years. And I'm sixty-four, he's now forty-three, and we're both still around. I feel the same way, and in many ways this movie is an autobiography to me, not just a biography of him, and I think the same think about myself--I think, how easy it would have been on any number of occasions not to be here anymore. And then, it sort of feels particularly exciting and lucky, because you say, I'm living on borrowed time, and I'm still here. I have gotten away with so much already. The odds have been beaten so many times--and I don't just mean in the obvious ways. But even in the way I've driven many times, the way I've gone into the ocean many times. Just chances I've taken that careful people don't take. And yet I'm still here.
You've felt that for a long time.
I've literally felt it as long far back as I can remember. Going back to--and I'm only remembering this now, suddenly--the first apartment I lived in was my grandfather's apartment in The Majestic, which was a huge apartment owned by George Soros' ex-wife, with several huge terraces. One of them, which was outside my parents' bedroom, had a railing which was about three feet high, maybe four feet high, and when I was four or five years old, I climbed over the railing so that I had maybe an eight-inch platform with no railing--I was on the nineteenth floor. And yes, I could hold onto the railing from outside the railing--from the wrong side of the terrace--but the chance of slipping and falling nineteen floors was--what? At that age, fifty-fifty? Sixty-forty? I certainly was seriously jeopardizing my life. Now, I was not aware that I was, obviously in any conscious way, but I think what it shows is this innate flirtatiousness with death. As I was walking around the outside of this terrace railing, my father happened to come into the bedroom, and saw me, and I remember this look of horror on his face. And he came rushing out onto the terrace, lifted me over the railing to the terrace, and said, "Don't ever go out on this terrace again! What were you doing?" He was very angry and upset, and the next day this huge, ugly wire went up four feet higher than the railing had been. It's funny, I haven't thought of it in quite a while--but over the years, I've often thought, first of all, how easily my life could have ended at five...and secondly, what was it in my mind that was so intrigued about doing that? 'Cause, as I say, even though I was clearly not thinking, "I think I'll risk death," I wasn't aware of what the stakes were--something must have excited me about the incredible danger of that, or the strangeness of it.
So what's your body of work been, then? Has it been a coping mechanism? Has it been a defiant action [directed] to everyone else, not just death?
I think it's been a way of saying the more I can do to identify my existence before I die, the better. That Faulkner phrase--I'm paraphrasing, it's not exactly this wording but, "All art comes down to the simple statement painted on a wall, 'Kilroy was here.'" So the ability to do something with your life, it lives on after your death in a way that connects to other people, communicates with other people, makes a statement about the reality you had when you were here. Obviously everything is doomed in a cosmic sense--first of all, in all likelihood, the planet's gonna get destroyed in the next twenty or thirty years anyway. But even if it doesn't, even if everything were pure, and original, and Edenic, the sun is going to incinerate the earth in another four or five billion years. So everything will disappear, eventually. But in the meantime, I feel it's much better to leave something behind of note than simply to come and go.
Sure, but what's the cost? You seem very concerned, especially, with your characters' relationships with their mothers.
The cost is always gonna be high, and I think that there are casualties of all ambition. Every time you seek to create something, or to do something on your own, there is collateral damage. You know, that Hemingway--the disapproval of his parents because of the kind of novels he was writing. And that early decision you make--am I doing this for myself and whoever my audience turns out to be, period, or do I take into account the feelings of: my mother, my father, my wife, my friend. I can't write this or say this or do that because this person will say, "How could you have said this, or written that," and you make a decision, I think, on some fundamental level. "I'm sorry, this is why I'm here, this is what I'm gonna do, and if it hurts you or offends you, I regret it, but it's not strong enough regret to stop me from doing it." Or you say, "I can't do that 'cause that would"--I think very few real artists inhibit themselves that way. I think they feel a compulsion to go out there and do it no matter what. There have been people who have clearly been hurt, offended, angered--they're the basis for this character, and everybody knows it. They feel exploited, they say, "That's about me," and "How could you write about me that way." Well, that wasn't meant to be you, everyone knows it's me."
I was just reading in THE NEW YORKER, this review of the Wittgenstein book...Hans Wittgenstein, actually, the son of one of Ludwig's brothers who committed suicide... (consults an article in front of him) Here's what it is: "Rudy was a twenty-two year-old chemistry student in Berlin when he walked into a bar on a May evening in 1904, requested a sentimental song from the pianist, and then mixed potassium cyanide into a glass of milk and died in agony. The suicide note left for his parents said that he had been grieving over the death of a friend, but a more likely explanation is that he thought he was identifiable as the subject of a published case study about homosexuality." You know, the whole idea--well, who wrote that case study? Wasn't a work of art, but presumably somebody wrote a case study and said, "Well, even though I don't use his name, if Rudy commits suicide, that's his problem."