T H E S O U L I N T H E M A C H I N E

by Joan Dean




What film profession did Elvis Presley share with James Earl Jones?. Paul Newman played the part, as did Montgomery Clift, Ryan O'Neal and Anthony Quinn. Robert Ryan, Stacy Keach, and William Holden probably gave their best performances in the role. Directors as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Raoul Walsh, Claude Lelouch, King Vidor and Rouben Mamoulian were attracted to the drama and cinematic potential inherent in the part. John Garfield, Kirk Douglas and Sylvester Stallone received Academy Award nominations for their performances. In 1931 Wallace Beery won an Oscar for his portrayal of the part; forty nine years later so did Robert DeNiro.

Cowboys? Statesman ? Soldiers? Entertainers? No, they all played boxers: prize-fighters, palookas, and pugs. Some, like Muhammad Ali in The Greatest (1977) and Canada Lee in Body and Soul (1947), were real boxers. Others were closely modelled on real boxers - Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). And others, like Sylvester Stallone's Rocky or DeNiro's Jake LaMatta, were less faithful to their real life counterparts. In On the Waterfront Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy only alludes to his missed opportunity to "have been a contender" but we still see him as a boxer in our mind's eye.

Americans are, or at least were, fascinated by boxing. Since the late nineteenth century the prestigious heavyweight category has been dominated by Americans. The heyday of America boxing film coincides with the heyday of America as a country. Many of the classic boxing films date from the immediate post World War II period: Robert Rossen's Body and Soul in 1947; Mark Rodson's Champion in 1949, Robert Wise's The Set Up in 1949; Raoul Walsh's Glory Alley, one of the finest B-films (all of 79 minutes) ever made, in 1952; The Harder They Fall and Somebody Up There Likes Me both in 1956.

For the movies the drama of the ring provides a convenient vehicle in which a typical American, almost invariably a poor city fellow of immigrant stock, overcomes obstacles (usually nefarious mobsters, grinding poverty or middle age) and personal weaknesses (typically strong drink, fast women and double cheeseburgers). Along the way, he may be tempted, as William Holden is in Golden Boy (1939), to continue his career as a classical violinist or, as John Garfield is in Body and Soul, to pursue higher education. Sometimes, he triumphs in defeat by fighting the 'good' fight or by discovering the soul that comes with the body.

By the 1960s, when boxing had become dominated by Afro-Americans, white America, and with it the film industry, grew uneasy with the now familiar formula. Only Requiem for a Heavyweight made for the big screen in 1962 with Anthony Quinn (and a television version with Jack Palance) survives the decade.

Before the 1970s, almost none of these films, with notable exception of Body and Soul, dealt with black boxers at all. In 1970 The Great White Hope changed that decisively, but the film was so bleak, so pessimistic that it did little to renew interest in boxing films. That was left to Sylvestor Stallone in Rocky I through to Rocky V, a series that spanned the fifteen years between 1976 to 1990. Stallone based his original screenplay for the first Rocky on a now obscure New Jersey boxer named Chuck Wepner who lost to Muhammad Ali on a technical knock out in the fifteenth round. Rocky was, of course, the quintessential American hero: draped in the flag he is as much a product of the Cold War as Rambo was of Vietnam.

As if in atonement for turning its back on blacks and on boxing, America is in the process of canonizing if not deifying Muhammad Ali. He brought down the house at the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games in Atlanta last year and at the Academy Awards earlier this year as When We Were Kings won Best Documentary. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay (in tribute to the American statesman and orator Henry Clay, whom Norman Mailer identifies as Ali's white ancestor), he joined the Nation of Islam in the sixties, refused military service, lost his title, lectured on the college circuit, created a self-promotion campaign and enjoyed a series of comebacks that put Elvis's to shame. Now suffering from a physically debilitating form of Parkinson's disease, Ali was once the most widely recognised person in the world.

When We Were Kings is a documentary account of "the rumble in the jungle" - Ali's fight in Zaire against George Foreman. The film is no small way indebted to Norman Mailer's book 'The Fight' which first appeared in 1975. And in no small way the film's strength depends on Mailer's lucid on-camera commentary.

Oddly, the most frustrating quality of When We Were Kings is how little we see, hear, or learn of George Foreman. At the time Foreman was a fearsome brute of maniacal energy, prodigious strength, and overreaching arrogance. Ali was hardly over the hill, but it had been more than a decade since as Cassius Clay he had KO'd Sonny Liston to win the Heavyweight Championship. With Foreman's 40-0 record and the odds at three to one against him, Ali's brilliant rope-a-dope, as it later became known, was the unlikely strategy that defeated Foreman.

George Foreman, perhaps best known for naming three sons 'George', became a jovial but still formidable man advertising holiday cruise liners and motels on American television. And then, twenty-one years and thirty two and one-half pounds after first winning the Championship, he won it again in 1994. He was 45 years old and a sweetheart of a guy. But that film has yet to be made.

As often as not, American boxing films are about comebacks, as are When We Were Kings and Raging Bull. Now undisputed as the best boxing film ever made and widely named as the best film of the 1980's, Martin Scorsese's movie undoes as many of the formulae of boxing films as it revitalizes. Like many of his predecessors, Scorsese's Jake LaMatta overcomes enormous obstacles ranging from the physical (his hands are so small they might be mistaken for a girl's) to the spiritual (his soul is so small no one suspects it's there at all).

Most critics agree that in the end Jake finds some spiritual redemption and attempts to atone for his maltreatment of everyone who has ever come near him. I'm less certain than many of the critics that Jake undergoes a spiritual awakening in banging his head against his prison wall, but I still love this film.

The National Film Registry, a branch of the Library of Congress, has preserved it and some one hundred other films in absolute mint prints that tour the US. Seeing Raging Bull again in what must be considered optimum conditions has not only spoiled me, but made me wonder if I had ever heard the film before. As densely textured as Robert Altman's celebrated multiple tracks in Nashville, the sound in Raging Bull begins with elegant classical music, the howling ringside mob and the isolated, amplified concussive blows that Jake gives and very often takes. And that's what is heard before the scathing dialogue that is rooted in the language of domestic, not sporting, violence.

There is a brilliant homage to Raging Bull in Christopher Guest's wonderful comedy Waiting for Guffman during auditions for a community theatre production in Blaine, Missouri. Up steps a demure, grandfatherly gentleman who announces his intention to read from Scorsese's film. In a kind, sweet voice he intones: "You fucked my wife? You fucked my wife?" In the ring, of course, Jake's rage is not only acceptable but essential; elsewhere, especially in his personal life, it is monstrous, horrifying, unbearable.

Scorsese's films are often about obsessions. Jeusus of Nazareth, Rupert Pupkin and Jake LaMatta are all driven by a consuming passion that dominates their lives. Jesus wants, of course, to save mankind; Rupert wants to be the King of Comedy, but Jake's obsession is two-fold: he wants to be Middleweight Champion of the World but, no less importantly, he fears that he may be made a cuckold. That fear, combined with his natural predilection toward violence, propels both ascent and descent.

Boxing has attracted the attention of American intellectuals for decades. George Bellows is best remembered for his paintings of boxing scenes, most notable the unflinching 'Both Members of This Club' (1909), which Robert Hughes describes as possessing "brutal energy [that] outstripped anything else in American art in the 1900's." Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates and Ishmael Reed have all published serious books on boxing. It is a subject that occupies not only the pages of men's magazines like 'Esquire', but also those of 'The Hudson Review', 'The New Yorker' and 'The Journal of American Studies'.

Cultural critics, following the lead of film-makers, usually 'read' the fights symbolically, as epitomizing the agon between good and evil, brutality and dignity, black and white, instinct and intelligence, body and soul. Film-makers have always recognized that the story behind the fight bears some emblematic relationship to the fight itself. Otherwise, we may just be watching some guy bite off another guy's ear.

 

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