When the news becomes the news, you know that the world has been turned inside out. That’s the condition of post-modernity, right?
And when critics spend their time criticizing critics? That’s the new condition of this blog, which has not exactly been timely or regular, now, has it?
This is what comes of subscribing to the New York Review of Books after a two-year lapse. You discover that the new critics are the old ones, still writing about what they know best, but now reaching into the popular culture (mainly movies and TV, some music) for ways to apply relatively ancient standards.
Here’s Joyce Carol Oates writing about David O. Russell’s brilliant film, “The Fighter,” in the current issue (dated March 10), and there’s Daniel Mendelsohn writing about “Mad Men” in the last issue (dated February 24), both of them in a mode of quiet complaint against the enthusiasm of their fellow critics, who don’t seem to understand that these works are not very interesting. My take on “Mad Men,” which is an appreciative critique of Mendelsohn, will appear at HNN next week, and maybe elsewhere–look for it!
Oates assigns herself “The Fighter” because she once wrote a book about boxing, and can bring its intricate history and arcane lore to bear on the movie. This make sense until you realize that all she can tell us is that there’s a difference between fighting and boxing, and then uses the difference both to sentimentalize Muhammad Ali and to frown clinically upon his “rope-a-dope” strategy (Mickey Ward, the title character, uses the same strategy to stall a superior opponent).
The lore is both tone deaf and visually impaired. Who doesn’t know the difference between brawling and boxing except for some prigs who never heard of Sonny Liston, never watched Rocky Marciano vs. Sugar Ray Robinson, never came near a bar fight? OK, that’s an unfair question.
Put it this way. The difference between boxing and fighting is etched deeply in this movie, in the opposite styles of feral Dicky (the stick-figure big brother, the boxer) and stolid Mickey (the muscle-bound little brother, the fighter). Dicky is a flickering apparition, quick feet and fast glancing blows, mostly jabs and counterpunches thrown falling away at a widening angle from the oncoming opponent. Mickey is mortally coiled into overhand rights and uppercuts with feet firmly planted, all squared up against the same kind of ground war he’s waging.
David Russell isn’t being subtle here. Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali are the brothers’ heroes. Everybody on screen knows that Mickey is a palooka, including Mickey himself. He knows he has to grow up, leave the past behind, and figure out how to get retrained for a new world that is neither local nor industrial: like plodding Lowell, Massachusetts, his hometown, he’s anachronistic. He’s a post-industrial man in danger of being down-sized by strangers with faster hands and greater weight.
Who can he listen to, or rather who can he hear, in remaking himself as a man who is utterly dependent on the resources at hand–NOT on himself? That’s the question the movie asks, and so it’s not (just) a boxing movie, and it’s not homage to the genre except in the sense that a mourner at a funeral pays homage to what is now irretrievable by paying attention to what’s still alive.
Could Joyce Carol Oates have noticed some of this without recourse to cliche’s about the disappearance of the working class male? Could she have laid off the “Raging Bull” references? No, because this is a piece of homework, filed as a book report.
The constant comparison to “Raging Bull” is insulting, or misleading, because David O. Russell has done something far better (and we all know how iconic Scorcese’s movie and DeNiro’s performance are): he’s made “the” boxing movie into something other than a meditation on the primal urge to destroy, and be destroyed, by the extraordinary violence typical of the late-20th century, or late capitalism. This is not male masochism–Mark Wahlberg won’t let it be that–and it’s not even about “the ring” except that it advertises the skills you’d better acquire to save your life as well as make a living: welcome to “retraining” in the post-industrial world.
One of the amazing things Russell does is to make the ravaged landscape of Lowell (“the birthplace of industrial America”) look beautiful, eerie, and right next door, all at once, as if this oddly empty, “post”-everything place is not even distant, not even past. This success in “placing” these men is a way of saying that manhood and masculinity are challenged by late capitalism, and by the devotion to family that’s supposed to come with the emotional territory, but that they–manhood and masculinity- aren’t endangered species. They might even be reconstituted by the renunciations Mickey has to enact, by the repudiation of his family, brother included, as the condition of a return to normal human being.
The King Lear cliche is oafish, almost offensive. “Ending The Fighter before the great brawling fights with Gatti is equivalent to ending King Lear before the blinding of Gloucester [that’s in Act III] and the murder of Cordelia [that’s offstage in Act V]: one might do it, and still have a moving story, but why?” Gee, I don’t know, Joyce, maybe because the story is moving without those fights? The point of Russell’s movie is not to trace the arc of a career in boxing–to bring documentary closure, or to satisfy the classical criteria of catharsis–but to show how a boy, a little brother, becomes a man, by renouncing his family and then allowing it to reassemble under impossible conditions.
One final note. Have you noticed that in three really remarkable movies (“The Perfect Storm,” “The Departed,” and now “The Fighter”), Wahlberg has become a specialist in portraying different variations on the theme of working class Boston punk, as if he and Matt Damon are in the running for best actor in a role designed to tell us what it’s like be marooned in the birthplace of industrial America? It would probably not be worth remarking except that both actors are involved on the production side of these movies.