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Punch-drunk life

29 April 2009 2,085 Views 2 Comments author: Adam K

tysonheadline-imageheadThe recent, Cannes-approved biographical documentary (hereafter known as a “biodoc”) Tyson features an insightful interview between the eponymous former heavyweight boxing champion and director James Toback.    The biodoc strain of documentary filmmaking tends to present a panoramic, historically-situated view of an individual, the better either to understand those we deem to be “larger-than-life” or to use particular circumstances to illuminate the universal condition.  Treatments can be admiring of subjects, such as in The Times of Harvey Milk, or damning, as in Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, or somewhere in between, such as in Crumb.  Biodocs frequently use narrative fiction film devices, like chronological linearity and psychological realism, making it understandable that two of the aforementioned films became bases for relatively conventional biopics.

Although its titular figure is no stranger to the biodoc treatment, Tyson wants to present a relatively conclusive account of its infamous cultural subject. 1 The film is a veritable one-man show, a kind of “setting the record straight” for the fallen champ to confront and take stock of his notorious past.  Although slightly balanced by archival material, no one has been recently interviewed but Michael Gerard Tyson himself.  Starting with video of his 1986 knockout of Trevor Berbick to win the World Boxing Council heavyweight title (one of three that Tyson would win and consolidate), the film traces Tyson’s life, from childhood to the present, deploying timely archive footage as if illustrating and projecting his words.  As the boxer’s good friend, Toback effaces himself as interviewer, instead editing their conversations into a purposeful, focused Tyson monologue.  At times, he overlaps and echoes certain discrete phrases of Tyson’s speech and splinters the frame into fragments, a repetitive and overly stylish affect that nonetheless engulfs the viewer more fully into the man’s complex, sometimes even contradictory mindset.  Clearly, Toback, who directed Tyson in his previous films Black & White and When Will I Be Loved, wants to be an unabashed apologist at the same time as an objective observer, relaying the good will of the man he knows now without neglecting the monstrous caricature of black masculinity he appeared to be for so long. 2

I had thought spending an entire interview’s length of time, even vicariously, even today, within the same four walls as Mike Tyson would be as dangerous as being within the same four corners of a boxing ring, but one of Toback’s main objectives is to make the now in-treatment former heavyweight as relatable and as personable as possible.  Dressed in business casual attire, his voice still high-pitched and retaining the famous lisp from his heyday, Tyson comes across as an overgrown interviewee for a lowly assistant position at a law firm, with only his still-intimidating build and crescent-shaped Maori face tattoo hinting at his unconventional former life.  It’s hard to fully express how revelatory his entire performance in front of the camera is, at once guileless and unexpectedly eloquent.  A young, father figure-less Brooklynite embroiled in the unhealthy, rob-or-die world of drugs, sex, and misdirected machismo, it is frankly a miracle that Tyson became any kind of success at all.  In addition to being a merely pitiable sociology lesson on late-70s urban reality, his account of growing up gives clues as to his unique makeup.  For one thing, he raised pigeons as a kid, and his first fistfight was over a bully’s mistreatment of them.  He was the runt of his gang of drug dealers and thieves.  He wryly claims that lung problems, more than viciousness, necessitated his quick knockouts.  Being at the wrong place at the wrong time led him to being imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, never mind the crimes before for which he was never caught.  His otherwise inevitable road to an early grave was halted by boxing, a rigorously structured pastime that allowed the transcendence of material squalor and the cultivation of a much-needed tough-guy persona.  With characteristic understatement, Tyson claims it “relieved tension” and made him “more assertive.”  Few would argue otherwise.  Unfortunately, the aggression of the so-called “sweet science” took Tyson out of the streets but failed to take the streets out of Tyson.

People tend to forget how inspiring the truly meteoric rise of Mike Tyson was.  Toback takes great pains, through both Tyson’s words and his excitingly edited montages, to put deserved emphasis on the eventual heavyweight champion’s public successes.  Armed with punishing speed and quicksilver accuracy, he decimates his opponents in record time.  He was an urchin made good.  Tyson attributes his rigorously learned discipline solely to legendary trainer Cus D’Amato, an “old white man” who virtually adopted him out of prison.  Only when recalling this father-son relationship and the lessons learned therein does Tyson show any strong emotions; hiccupping tears interrupt his words with devastating honesty.  D’Amato was a “street kid” like his protégé, pumped him with self-confidence, and practically built him from the ground up into a prizefighter.  Despite Tyson’s uniformly positive expressions of his trainer’s influence, it’s hard not to feel a touch queasy at the assertion that “Cus taught me to be totally ferocious, in the ring and out.”  D’Amato overhauled Tyson into the fighter he became, forcing him to project his fears and inferiority against his opponent.  Yet Tyson was still emotionally a boy in a man’s body, and D’Amato’s sudden death both propelled and stunted Tyson’s growth.  He became the heavyweight champion of the world, yes, but this traumatic abandonment surely contributed to the rest of his ill-famed career.

So far, Toback gives little indication that the film will be more than a nostalgic puff piece.  Enter Robin Givens and Desiree Washington, two women with incalculable effects upon Tyson’s life.  The first was his TV actress ex-wife, the other a Miss Black Rhode Island and the woman he was convicted of and imprisoned for raping.  Tyson claims that he and Givens, whom he repeatedly and condescendingly calls the “young lady,” were merely too young and immature to have been married.  While completely true, his response clearly ignores his domestic abuse and shirks the responsibility he owes to the situation.  On the subject of Washington, Tyson spits out the epithet “a wretched swine of a woman,” still denies the charges, and instead plays up the admitted horrors of his three year incarceration.  Although the film’s interview is horribly one-sided in favor of Tyson’s excuses, the intercut TV footage, especially the well-tread Barbara Walters interview in which Tyson looks on blankly as Givens describes their marriage as “torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine,” speaks for itself.

It’s little surprise that Tyson’s most terrifyingly honest monologues revolve around his feelings towards women, his wish to sexually “dominate” and intimidate strong ones.  Toback splits the screen into an unblinking close-up on one side and a near-cliché shot of the contemporary, supposedly now contemplative Tyson walking along the beach, accompanied by a reading of Oscar Wilde’s poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” famously written while the author was incarcerated for homosexual acts.  Despite the reading he did during his own prison term, Tyson probably didn’t come up with this recitation idea on his own, but whether Toback was involved or not, certain lines do shed light on Tyson’s choices:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves

By each let this be heard,

Some do it with a bitter look,

Some with a flattering word,

The coward does it with a kiss,

The brave man with a sword!

My richly contradictory response to this moment is hard to grasp.  Tyson’s vigorous recitation of any poet is just one more shock upon the pile, but the irony of a notorious homophobe explicitly comparing himself to Wilde’s narrator is nearly too much to bear. Bathing in self-pity, even self-loathing, Tyson and Toback mourn the man’s very nature, playing up his victimhood rather than his culpability.  Then again, what would be added by piling even more guilt onto Tyson at this point?  A pop culture caricature for over ten years now, the fighter had professional tribulations during the 1990s, including a loss to underdog “Buster” Douglas, huge financial losses, and, post-prison sentence, the biting of Evander Holyfield’s ear, one of the most infamous moments in a public life riddled with them.  Even in this, Tyson shifts blame towards Holyfield’s headbutts as anger-raising causes.  The background to his years-long downfall seems both simple and maddeningly opaque.  Traces of his painful early years growing up — in his words, in “a very promiscuous environment” — led to twisted feelings about women and sex, not to mention the efficacy of violence in building self-esteem.  Would Tyson have grown into the man he is without pugilism, without Cus D’Amato, without Robin Givens or Desiree Washington?  Did Tyson kill that “thing he loves” with a kiss or with a sword (read: punch)?  Or both?  Now apparently as sober and as emotionally self-examined as he’s ever been, does Tyson deserve a second chance?  The questions, and lingering doubts as to Toback’s perspective and overall objective, hang even as the credits roll.

Insomuch as a biodoc’s purpose is to simply reveal that there are discrepancies between the “official story” of a person’s life and its reality, Tyson can be said to succeed.  If, however, it has the more artistic aim of illuminating and questioning both the “official story” and its reality, acknowledging the unknowability of a human being while trying its damndest to get to the bottom of a single life, the film is a more ambivalent achievement.  By focusing solely on Tyson’s view of things, and merely hedging his bets with well-known TV and fight footage, Toback transforms a one-sided story into a two-sided story, with little room in between.  Those disinclined to believe Tyson’s apparent regret over his life can see his inability to take any responsibility for his divorce or for his jail sentence as belying correctives, evidence that an athlete can’t change his routine, as it were.  On the other hand, the articulate, collected, poetry-reciting Tyson of Tyson is so startlingly at odds with his old public image, yet retains vestigial flashes of inadequacy like the Tyson of old, that it may make one believe that a man can truly begin to change.  It’s obvious on which side Toback stands, member of the heavyweight’s coterie that he is.  One’s knowledge and history of Tyson’s career will certainly play roles in preconceptions, expectations, and reactions, but overall, the film is a quick, sometimes astonishing look at pop culture infamy from inside the eye of the hurricane and nowhere else.

Edited by Matt Schneider.


  1. Tyson has been the subject of the television documentary, Fallen Champ, and another film called Tyson.
  2. I haven’t seen any of Toback’s previous directorial works, or even his Warren Beatty-directed screenplay for Bugsy.  For independent New York-based auteurs feted over by the French, I have James Gray, thank you very much.

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