Saturday, September 10, 2011

Boxing as metaphor

I'm not a big fan of boxing movies.

I'm not a big fan of sports movies in general, which is a paradox that deserves fuller consideration at some point. See, I am a big sports fan. I just don't particularly like the portrayal of sports in movies, for reasons I won't get into right now.

What I will get into, today, is boxing movies, and how I'm not a big fan of them. If you want to know just how not-a-big-fan of boxing movies I am, I'll tell you that my favorite boxing movie is Rocky III. Yes, that means I like it more than Raging Bull. (That sound you hear is the sound of several people no longer following my blog. I do owe Raging Bull another viewing, and it's certainly more than merely a boxing movie.) It would also mean I like it more than the original Rocky, but that's because I haven't seen the original Rocky. That tells you a little something about my feeling toward the boxing genre in general. I love Rocky III because I watched it about ten times when I was a kid, and I think we disavow our childhood movie loves at the peril of the integrity of our souls.

So anyway, I'm not going to be first in line when Warrior comes out this weekend.

But I want to use Warrior as a jumping off point to consider boxing movies in general. I don't even have a prediction about whether Warrior will be good or bad, because I haven't seen more than a short trailer for it, and I just don't gravitate toward that type of movie in general.

But a lot of people do, and I think this is strange, because not a lot of people are really boxing fans.

Your experience may be different than mine, but I only know two people who I consider to be big boxing fans. Your average sports fan doesn't really like boxing, and your average non-sports fan doesn't really like boxing. Some people must really like boxing because they used to sell those fights on Saturday nights for big bucks on Pay-Per-View, but few people I knew would ever pony up the bucks.

I think boxing used to have more fans when it had bigger names. Boxing is a bit like tennis and golf, in the sense that there's currently a star outage at the highest level of the game. As I type this, for example, I could not even tell you who's the current heavyweight champion of the world. I used to know this automatically when it was Mike Tyson or Evander Holyfield or (very briefly) Buster Douglas. Now, I could only guess, and part of the problem is that the belt is potentially divided between three people, so it's very rare anymore that there is one unified champion. (If I'm reading this correctly on wikipedia, the belts are almost unified right now under Wladimir Klitschko, but he is the WBA "super champion" while another guy named Alexander Povetkin is the WBA "regular champion." It's all very confusing. And yes, I'm realizing right now that we Americans probably stopped knowing who the boxing champion was when it stopped being an American.)

Anyway, the point is, there are a disproportionate number of boxing movies made, considering the number of boxing fans out there. This must mean that people who don't really care for boxing do care for boxing movies.

Part of this is that there is something classic about boxing as a sport. It's the kind of sport that's romanticized in the annals of sportswriting history. I tend to imagine that the same grizzled sportswriters who spent their careers waxing poetic about horse racing (another not-especially-popular sport) would also wax poetic about boxing. These theoretical sportswriters all lived in the 1920s, wore a rumpled gray fedora and a matching sport jacket, smoked big cigars and carried bottles of whiskey in their back pockets. And man could they write.

But part of this also has to do with the fact that boxing is relatable to us as a metaphor. Few other sports telegraph what's at stake in such a visual way with such a clear understanding of the outcomes. Two men are standing in a ring. The goal of each is to knock the other off his feet, for at least ten seconds. No punching below the belt. No biting. No kicking. Ding ding! There's the bell. Go at it.

Because boxing is so essentially simple, it works easily as a metaphor. (Better than, say, cricket.) Many movies deal in some way or another with a person facing his/her demons, or struggling to overcome an obstacle. In fact, almost every film deals with struggling to overcome an obstacle, and boxing as a sport provides a good visual for the completion of that objective -- your opponent is on the mat, and someone raises your hands in victory, at which point, the crowd cheers.

I guess the reason I'm not that interested in it, myself, is because I find that the possible outcomes of a boxing match -- especially a cinematic boxing match -- are somewhat banal. If you are following the most obvious narrative for a climactic boxing match in a movie, it features the protagonist getting pummeled by his opponent, then somehow finding the inner strength to come back and turn the tables. Suddenly, in a flurry of punches, he's bested his physically superior foe, and David has beaten Goliath, quite improbably. And yes, even the great Rocky III features this same dramatic arc at the climax, as Rocky rises up to overcome the ferocious Clubber Lang (as played by Mr. T).

I said I wasn't going to talk about why I don't like sports movies in general, but maybe I actually will. See, the boxing movie epitomizes what I don't like about most sport movies, particularly most fictitious sports movies: It has an extremely predictable outcome. You could say that most movies in general have an outcome you can predict, but something about sports movies makes the predictable outcome all the worse. You see, one of my favorite things about sports -- real sports -- is witnessing an amazing athletic feat, a comeback you would have to see to believe. The reason these comebacks resonate to us, in real life, is because they really happened. They need the ring of truth that a screenwriter can't create.

Let's take an extreme example. It's Game 7 of the World Series and the team we're rooting for is down 11-1 going into the ninth inning. If this happened in real life and they scored 11 runs to come back and win, it would be the most amazing thing we'd ever seen, and all the more exhilarating for that fact. If it happened in a movie, however, it would seem totally bogus. We would consider it a flight of fancy dreamed up by a screenwriter, and it would not seem like something that could really happen.

But back to boxing. Boxing movies depict the underdog coming back from the equivalent of a 10-run deficit and winning. When this happens in real life, it's scintillating. When it happens in a movie, it's incredibly familiar and ultimately disappointing.

The thing is, the boxing movies that are really worth their salt are not directly about the outcome of a particular match. Like Raging Bull, they find their dramatic punch (if you will) in other events in the boxer's life, not his performance in the ring. So I guess that begs the question -- are these "boxing movies," in the traditional sense we're imagining them, or are they dramas in which the main character happens to be a boxer?

It's probably worth it at this point to bring into the discussion last year's big entry in the boxing genre, David O. Russell's The Fighter. I think part of the reason I was not as interested in this movie as I would have been, or thought I should have been, was that I expected a more non-traditional boxing movie, and got a pretty traditional boxing movie. Sure, Russell gets in some good grit and some good details from the boxer's life, and a significant amount of the drama surrounds his relationship with his brother and mother. But it does climax with one of those trite come-from-behind matches where our protagonist wins in the end.

Then the question becomes, "Does the fact that Mickey Ward is a real person, and this is really how that fight went, matter?"

If I haven't already been rambling from topic to topic and discussion point to discussion point, I certainly am now. So let me try to get back on track as I wrap up.

It's clear that there is something essential about boxing that works as a metaphor for life's struggles, to which a wide range of movie viewers respond.

Or perhaps there's just something viscerally satisfying about seeing a guy get repeatedly punched in the face.


Nick Prigge said...

Considering my 2nd favorite movie of all time is a boxing movie ("Million Dollar Baby") I feel compelled to respond, though not to say I'm going to stop following your blog. Because I think you get it right when you say "The thing is, the boxing movies that are really worth their salt are not directly about the outcome of a particular match." Which is true of "Million Dollar Baby."

I'm pretty sure Ebert said that it wasn't a boxing movie, per se, it was just a movie about a boxer. Or something along those lines.

It never even seems to turn up on sports movies lists and I personally think that's because it, like so many great movies, transcends genre.

Vancetastic said...

Yeah, I get it right except for the fact that no one calls a bout in boxing a "match." Do they? I realized after the fact that it's probably considered to be a "fight." Loser! Can't even get the terminology right.

Million Dollar Baby did not occur to me when thinking of this topic, so yeah, it's probably more accurate to say it's a drama in which the characters are boxers. We don't really say The Wrestler is about wrestling, do we? I thought of going the route of discussing all the boxing movies I'd seen, then decided that would get unwieldy very quickly.

Thaddeus said...

My two cents on your "sports yes, sports movies no" attitude is this: it's toughest for films to satisfy some people on things that they're most familiar with.

Medical dramas that make little medical sense will have an uphill battle with doctors. Movies like "Antitrust," with awful tech-speak, really don't work for anyone who's worked in new media, web design, etc. And I'd never suggest that the victim of a sexual assault should watch a movie like "Extremities" or "The Accused."

Or, look at it this way: I'm from NYC and I will never watch a single movie about September 11th. My reason is that I don't think those movies have anything important or "real" to say about the topic, certainly not within the confines of a 2-hour cinematic narrative.

Things that you know intimately and are passionate about can be very hard to convey, especially in the artform that is popular cinema.

Do you like sports documentaries? Not biopics, like The Hurricane, but actual documentaries? It'd make sense that those work for you, while stories like The Replacements or The Natural don't...

Vancetastic said...


Excellent point. And you are making me realize I need to modify my terms further. I generally don't like sports movies that rest on the outcome of a particular game, which means that a movie like Field of Dreams is fine by me. (And is probably among my hundred favorite films of all time.) However, even what I'm defining as stringent rules have their exceptions. Major League is a very traditional sports movie in almost every way you can imagine, yet I dearly love it.

And you're right, I do think that my knowledge of sports probably sets me up to be disappointed. Then again, I'm even disappointed by movies about sports that I don't know as well as I know baseball and basketball. I'm a pretty dumb football fan -- which is to say I like football but I don't have a perfect understanding of its intricacies -- and yet I still got incredibly thrown by the slopping play choreography in Any Given Sunday. (Not nearly the only problem with that film.)

During the course of this discussion I need to come clean on an embarrassing detail about my post, and if you already knew it and didn't take me to task, I thank you ... Warrior is not actually a boxing movie. It's about mixed martial arts. I guess that's what I get for writing a post about it when I don't think I've actually seen more than a few little bits of footage from the movie, using it as an example of a trend it does not even particularly exemplify! But MMA is, in the terms of this argument -- especially since it includes all sports movies -- essentially the same thing as boxing.

As for 9/11 movies ... if you can make one exception, I would see United 93. It's one of the most seemingly realistic recreations of any event I have ever seen, and it is super intense. If having something meaningful to say about 9/11 is the same as making you feel the exact way you felt on that day, then United 93 pulls off that trick. It doesn't really have a message other than "this shit happened," and maybe that's the only message about 9/11 that's worth telling on film.

Thaddeus said...

No worries, man. To be honest, I can't imagine how *for purposes of the story it's telling* an MMA movie is wildly different than a boxing movie. The plot sounds the same...

I appreciate the recommendation, and yeah, United 93 has a great rep. Especially after losing a relative to a plane crash, I do doubt a simple film can really convey that feeling. And I really don't wanna feel like what it was like to be on that plane, anyway. Honestly, it was scary enough being on the ground, a couple hundred miles away from my family and my beloved city.