The Hands of Bresson

Sundry observations on the art of cinema and world film culture

Sundance ’09 Review: Tyson, Humpday

with 2 comments

Mike Tyson, reflecting

It’s Sunday, and the tourists have arrived. Thank God, because it was a little eerie walking around town and seeing so few people on the streets. Lots of the new arrivals are badgeless ski bunnies and goateed snowboarders heading for the lifts, but that’s fine. At least there are slow-moving clusters of North Face–attired gawkers to steer clear of on the sidewalks and, like always, little-to-no elbow room at the Main Street pubs. Time for a quick bite? Forget it. It almost feels like a film festival again! Seriously, though, there are noticeably fewer journalists and industry professionals here this year, as I noted in an earlier entry, and the downtempo feel here seems keyed to the country’s gloomy economic state of mind, even if my inbox is still flagrantly stuffed with decadent-party invites (e.g. “Graphic Sexual Horror Hits Main Street!”) and breathless promotionals.

At least we have the movies. But here again, my samplings have not made much of an impression. Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, one of the most buzzed-about films here, was an entertaining dude-on-dude romp that pushed the boundaries of Seth Rogen-style bromance comedies into comically uncomfortable territory. Two friends, married Seattle traffic analyst Ben (Mark Duplass) and globe-hopping boho wild card Andrew (Joshua Leonard), reunite and decide, on a drunkenly competitive lark, to make an artsy gay-male porno starring two straight men: themselves. In essence, Shelton has remade Old Joy by invoking the doofus-y vernacular and hapless male sensibility of The Puffy Chair. The film is genuinely funny, but once the yuks subside, there’s not much left to carry you home. In fact, of the eight films I’ve seen over the past two days, only a couple have resonated with me. Should I be surprised that they’re all documentaries?

Let me home in on my favorite: Tyson. I don’t mind saying right out of the gate that a) my interest in sports is limited, for the most part, to cultural history and b) the idea of seeing a documentary about controversial heavyweight Mike Tyson at 8:30 in the morning left me stone cold, even though I sensed the director, James Toback (Fingers), an intimate friend of the former champion for over 20 years, would bring some of his own raw energy to the boxer’s reflections. Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I found myself marveling at this stylized, incredibly intimate portrait of the troubled boxer when I attended a public screening Friday at The Racquet Club here in Park City. Sure, Tyson is candid and movingly eloquent about his stints in juvie detention centers and his close relationship with trainer Cus D’Amato, who vested trust in the wayward young man, took him into his home as a surrogate son, and built the scared teenage street brawler into an intimidating, world-class fighter. (He chokes up and barely restrains himself from bawling while reminiscing about ol’ Cus.)

What I found so disarming, though, was not Tyson’s willingness to discuss his bumpy road to triumph or the sordid details of his well-known personal travails in and out of the ring, though he has plenty to say about his fraught marriage to Robin Givens, his rape conviction, and the life-long anger problem that led him, quite infamously, to bite a chunk out of Evander Holyfield’s earlobe in a title bout and viciously beat promoter Don King (“He doesn’t know how to love anybody”) in front of a swank hotel on his long, lonely spiral downward. Revelations like these should be a given for a film that purports to scrutinize a public figure. The only talking head in the film is Tyson himself, and Toback craftily blends rich archival footage with split-screen images of his subject’s poignant, funny, and audacious testimonial. What took me by surprise, though, was Tyson’s curious and irresolveably complex outlook on the darker corners of his psyche, because Toback’s vibrant film is, at its core, not a portrait, per se, but an extended self-interrogation. Mike Tyson is a man who has stared into the abyss and is still staring, unable to peel his eyes away from the turbulence at the core of his being, the “madness…the chaos of the brain,” as he puts it, and he doesn’t blame anyone but himself for his failures.

Tyson is proto-Kierkegaardian in grappling with the slippery nature of his identity (reflected in Toback’s conscientiously fragmented shots of his subject), and he has a poetic expressiveness that belies his brute strength as an athlete. His sole motivation in pummeling challengers, he tell us, was to avoid the feeling of humiliation he had as a bullied kid on the streets of 1970s Brooklyn. And he makes a convincing argument for why that primal fear has never left him, even at the Olympian height of his repute. (“No one will ever fuck with me again.”) When he tells a reporter at the end of his last ignominious fight, “I don’t have the ferocity … Boxing is not in my heart anymore,” you can’t help feeling relieved for Tyson, who seems, at this point, to have tempered his demons and reached a place of spiritual well-being. But it’s not easy watching a legend fall to his knees.


Written by eyemaster

January 31, 2009 at 7:23 pm

2 Responses

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  1. I don’t think you watched Mike Tyson, “Fall to his knees”. It’s a catchy phrase to end your story on but it is just innacurate. You should not sully your pretty good review.

    He also says he has too much respect for the sport of boxing to continue (to treat it badly).

    I like the part about staring into the abyss. Although that’s catchy too. But I think he is doing it.

    I hope Mike finds some peace because from his story, I felt like I was listening to a fascinating, intelligent, basically good human being with an amazingly American story. Many of us can relate to those highs and lows in life although they may be experienced for us on a much less grand and consequential scale.

    marjorie heidsieck

    February 1, 2009 at 1:54 pm

  2. Marjorie, if you saw the film (and it sounds like you did), then you’ll remember that in Tyson’s last fight, against a Class C no-name boxer, he is knocked to the mat in the second round, more than once. This is what I was referring to–literally watching a great fighter, exhausted and out of practice, lose a bout to a minor pummeler we’ll never hear of again. I found that touching and tragic, especially when he graciously congratulates the kid and tells the announcer he’s through with the sport. I also see your point about “catchy phrases,” which writes sometimes are in the habit of employing. By the way, I like what you have to say about the film. Sounds like it resonated with you as much as it did with me.


    February 1, 2009 at 3:38 pm

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