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Saturday, November 24, 2012

“The Fighter” and the Truculent Camera Eye of David O. Russell

(Originally written in January 2011, reposted November 2012) 

A doozy of an inspirational populist crowd pleaser with big performances, David O. Russell’s The Fighter could be catalogued as unabashed awards-season bait. It seems an uncomplicated enough, family-oriented blue collar picture (with some f-words thrown in) that will have audiences cheering for a stepping stone boxer and his fight to the welterweight championship, and leaving with their expectations more than satisfied. This is a far cry from the quirky and philosophical I Heart Huckabees (2004), Russell's divisive previous effort that could only find a kind of audience that was as intellectually precocious as its subject matter. The Fighter is about the practicalities of a career path coupled with an aggression that is more private than public, and Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) is the 31-year-old prodigal son striving to succeed on the road of pugnacious accomplishment. He had great promise, but is running out of time. His peak boxing years almost out of his grasp, he fears becoming a disappointment. He lives in the shadow of failure, as his older half-brother, Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) tries to relive the past in Mickey, while hiding from the reality of a future he threw away in favor of crack addiction. Russell is no stranger to making nakedly personal films about family (his debut was the wildly uncomfortable incest comedy Spanking the Monkey), but even though The Fighter is an acquired project, the first in which he had no (credited) hand in the screenplay, it comes from the heart, landing its punches obliquely this time.

Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) dominated by images of himself.

Russell was himself a late bloomer in the indie movie movement (he was 36 when Spanking the Monkey was released in 1994, with some short film work behind him), and still has yet to fulfill his early promise. The 1999 Gulf War heist drama Three Kings was a moderate success, marred by stories of on-set fighting between Russell and star George Clooney, in addition to the grumblings of writer John Ridley, whose treatment was appropriated by the director. I Heart Huckabees was a box office failure.  His next film Nailed couldn’t get finished. Russell is marked with one of the most difficult reputations in Hollywood, and he’s only getting older. Mulling over The Fighter, the film is a sweeping gesture by a talented filmmaker, examining the nature of his own profession (filmed images), who feels he’s running out of time. Like Mickey and Dickie, he’s at odds with the camera, struggling to control images and ease the existential and familial shit that plagues him. A film set, a boxing ring, a household – it’s all wrought with conflict and invasive violence.

Home movies: The Fighter

The Fighter may be viewed as a struggling director's opportunity to "sell out," but rather Russell's acquisition of the material may have been a kind of gift in a time of need. After the commercial failure of Huckabees, Russell made plans to satirize the dire state of the United States healthcare system. Titled Nailed, the project appears to be an ambitious, Strangelove-like ensemble indicting the entire political/economic apparatus, the story being about a woman accidentally shot in the head with a nail gun and who subsequently cannot find proper medical coverage; the effects of the accident lead her to be overpowered by sexual desires, which are taken advantage of by an up and coming politician. Nailed would have been perfectly timed for a release after the election of Barack Obama and the healthcare debates that followed, but production was shut down three times, actors quit (e.g. James Caan, after one of those Russell squabbles), and financing failed to be secured for completion. Russell's behavior on the set did little to aid his reputation as a difficult administrator, and the filmmaker found years of work and millions of dollars leading to an unfinished movie that no one would touch. He was out of work, and at over 50 years old without a new release in five years, also running out of time.

Early promise: David O. Russell uses the actual footage of Eklund vs. Leonard
Enter Darren Aronofsky, another maverick visionary whom despite any of his own set-backs (the troubled production history and release of his only big studio film, The Fountain), had succeeded in cementing a consistently provocative body of work with Pi, Requiem for a Dream, and then most successfully The Wrestler. Aronofsky's follow-up to The Wrestler was to be The Fighter, perhaps a kind of glass-half-full companion to the downbeat Mickey Rourke starrer. In an all-too-convenient swap of material, Aronofsky decided to pursue another – and more fitting – companion piece to The Wrestler that he has conceived long before, moving out of the ring and onto the ballerina stage with Black Swan. Remaining as a credited executive producer, Aronofsky passed The Fighter on to the out-of-work Russell.
Perhaps Aronofsky and the film's star and chief coordinator, Wahlberg (who had worked with Russell twice before), saw this as a perfect fit for Russell. Whereas many young filmmakers found their footing in their 20s fresh out of film school, Russell didn't release a feature film until he was 36, 1994's indie comedy Spanking the Monkey, which won him a prize at Sundance. After the delightful low-budget screwball farce Flirting with Disaster, he moved his capital towards a big budget studio endeavor at Warner Bros., 1999's Gulf War amalgamation of action, politics, and comedy, Three Kings, starring George Clooney, Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze as four 1991 Iraq War soldiers who come across some of Saddam Hussein's stashed gold and plot to heist it out of the country. Off the bat, Russell's participation was a forceful and single-focused one, as he disallowed any participation from the original screenwriter, John Ridley, to the extent that he claims never to have read Ridley's original script so as to not disrupt his own original ideas. Worse than the predictable Writers Guild tiffs involving who gets what credit was Russell's chaotic and despotic directorial methods, one of obstinate hard-edged aggression to both crew members and celebrated movie stars like Clooney. Seen by some as verbally abusive, furious in the stabilization of his vision, he eventually came to blows on the set with Clooney in a much-publicized confrontation during the final phases of production, the actor saying "life's too short" when asked if he'd ever work with Russell again.

God's Eye View on ESPN

Adding to Russell's reputation were the spats he had with actress Lily Tomlin during I Heart Huckabees' shooting, which I’d venture have been seen on YouTube more than the film itself was viewed in theaters and on DVD. Ecumenical camaraderie between the director and his cast/crew are elements not to be heard of on a Russell set, as the filmmaker was in the constant position of a poised fighter in a defensive position, lashing out aggressively when his choices were criticized. News then followed from the set of Nailed, where James Caan quit after Russell would not allow the actor to make the gurgling sounds of choking on a cookie a specific way. Caan, himself an actor with a pugnacious reputation, refused to vocalize as his character died – the way Russell directed him to do it – stating that in reality a choking victim would be unable to make any sound. That simple conflict over "sound or no sound" led to Caan "resigning,” and eventually the movie shut down entirely. Russell is talented, but he's a fighter, and not in any kind of flowery idealistic sense of the struggling artist; he's literally a director who seems to foster animosity on his sets, even to the detriment of his career going anywhere.
Russell's camera, like Dickie's fist, is an aggressor.

This is essentially speculative. But knowing these stories about David O. Russell and the pickle of his career, in addition to the promise of his early prospects, gives The Fighter's opening minutes an aura of rebellious bliss that beautifully fits Russell's clenched-fist soul. The intro to this film has the soulful grunge of The Heavy's "How You Like Me Now" beating along with Mickey Ward's training with Dickie, as the brothers' journey on the gilded road of boxing legend is captured by a documentary film crew. The in-your-face lyrics denoting a temperament of ferocious self affirmation attains its crescendo as the camera dollies back from Mickey at an accelerated speed, conveying a sense of abundant and physical splendor. The high altitude of movement and character we're seeing during these opening credits and introductions as Mickey's silently punching the air and Dickie's flinging his own self forth with his endlessly brash talking, seems a kind of statement on Russell's own part, embracing the trajectory of his reputation. The 1990s indie enthusiasm for the younger Russell is in synch with the lyrics.  Of course, in the context of The Fighter the song is directly linked to Dickie's stasis and prospects, as the man who in the 1970s knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard, and then became a crack addict. He will live out the past through his younger brother Mickey, the great new pride of Lowell, Massachusetts.

Melissa Leo as the latest of David O. Russell's colorful and overbearing mothers.

But these forceful, self-destructive personalities fit Russell’s mold, as the director’s embarking on his own rebirth here. It also cleanly fits onto a slate of themes explored in previous Russell pictures, particularly regarding a young man's relationship to his family and teachers, which at times can be a little too close (the mother/son incest of Spanking the Monkey), as he struggles to break free from the schematic rules laid out before him to become his own man (Jason Schwartzman's self-realization between Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin's 'Existential Detectives' and Isabelle Huppert's nihilist in I Heart Huckabees). The impositions of self definition here are, yes, family and corporate structures of capital (determining who Mickey fights, often against his own self interest), but also the televisual images of film and documentaries, which are as difficult to evade in the process of self definition as a family's own impositions.
On HBO: Mickey Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and brother Dickie, with two very different relationships to the camera.

The Fighter begins in 1993, the year that Russell's career as a feature filmmaker began, the locale being Lowell, Massachusetts, identified as one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution in America, the poverty and squalor in the tough community projecting again this resonance of empty dreams and sapped promises from a wellspring that once was prosperous. Meanwhile, the people in this world are surrounded by, and in essence defined by, the surrounding camera lenses. Given their ubiquity, the citizens of this neighborhood cannot avoid responding to such impositions; consequently, you have Mickey who wants to exist independently of the image, and Dickie who is mugging for it. Both of them are photographed by a HBO documentary crew in the film’s opening moments. Mickey is stand-offish, while Dickie cannot stop talking about his brother – which is essentially just another way for him to talk about himself. What we have then is a bridge in The Fighter that connects the provincial birthplace of the Industrial Age to the Information Age, the early nineties being the time when MTV began assigning "reality" to television with The Real World. The Fighter is life as film, on film, all the time, and whether the lens belongs to HBO or ESPN or belongs to Russell's viewfinder, the camera is always running and is nearly impossible to hide from.

The incredible demands the videoscopic world makes on Mickey and Dickie is demonstrated early on as Mickey checks into Atlantic City to make his "comeback," the fight we've seen him training for during the opening segments. As his family settles in, they're informed that Mickey's opponent is ill and won't be able to fight – but there is a replacement. The proposition is impractical for Mickey, but he won't get paid a dime unless there’s a fight. ESPN is calling the shots, and if Mickey wants to make any kind of economic headway on the last few months of activity, he has no choice.

Reunited with Sugar Ray: The Fighter

This is enthusiastically endorsed by Dickie, who pronounces that Mickey is ready to do anything and take on any comers. Mickey understands the flip side: his opponent is much bigger than him, a former middle-weight who outweighs Mickey by nearly 20 pounds. He's told that the replacement just got out of prison, so "he's probably out of practice." Of course, he's not, and the 20 extra pounds are not flab but toned muscle. Mickey gets his ass handed to him, and goes back to Lowell disappointed. The celebratory hype of a new pride for his hometown amounts to the fear of being nothing more than a disappointment in his failed brother's shadow. Of course, making it worse is how everything is on tape and film, with color commentators (including Sugar Ray Leonard) weighing in.

The confusion of history's integrity becomes a central issue then in The Fighter, as life is less lived as a ceaseless progression of "present" moments than it is a simulation of reality and the past, performed, rewound, and rebroadcast. Dickie's grand achievement in youth, knocking down Sugar Ray, is not something restaged by Russell, but the actual footage from 1978 is intercut into The Fighter, confusing the directorial vantage of history the movie is giving us, with reality and theatrical simulation, all melting together. Dickie is eager to re-enact this glory through Mickey, and so is very "actorly," over-the-top in his appeals for attention to the camera eye. Mickey, because he can perceive this so acutely in his brother, is skeptical of the image, as he is increasingly skeptical of the expectations of his family. He's subdued, quiet, and passive in front of those same lenses.

There has been an appropriate amount of award speculation for Christian Bale's magnificent channeling of Dickie Eklund, as the actor quite amazingly without hesitation throws himself – perhaps to the detriment of physical and mental health – into the portrayal of Dickie. This is Bale's much-noted practice as an actor, who is tireless in his intense research and ability to remain in character throughout production (the intensity became infamous during his recorded off-camera tirades as Terminator: Salvation was being filmed: "Be fucking professional!" – denoting a kind of aggressive dedication that figures into how Bale got along so well with similar psychological types like David O. Russell and Michael Mann). Christian Bale lost a lot of weight to play Dickie, transforming his Batman physique to something wiry, jittery, and unhinging. The opening scene proclaims Bale's work loudly as "performance as spectacle," the same way many viewed Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, or Mo'Nique in Precious. It's a transcendent portrayal that feels dangerous to the audience as it may have been dangerous for the performer. As such, it is exhilarating.

As Mickey, Wahlberg will not be given nearly as many accolades for his restrained, but no less remarkable, characterization. For example, Roger Ebert notes, "The weakness of the film is the weakness of the leading role." Wahlberg's Mickey is not "sufficiently analytical," according to Ebert, and seems to be constructed with rougher edges than the more conventionally developed over-powering characterizations we see in Bale's Dickie, or Melissa Leo's similarly marvelous rendering of the boys' manager/mother. "Mickey Ward has less personality than the hero of any boxing movie I can remember," Ebert says, and the gist of his criticism is technically correct, but the great critic has himself not sufficiently analyzed the dynamics of Wahlberg's withdrawn approach in the context of a movie that is less about boxing and even family than it is about how individuals perform – and are expected to perform – for cameras.

Indeed, one of Russell's techniques here was to use the cameras that were actually used by ESPN in the early 1990s to capture a particular kind of period visual sense. Home videos, antiquated news video, live sports broadcasts, HBO documentary video-making, and of course the "film" The Fighter all commingle to the extent that in many places in the picture, we are not sure from what camera we are viewing things: is this ESPN's camera? HBO's? Or is this the omniscient/invisible eye of David O. Russell and his cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema? As in our own chaotic videoscopic Information Age, the cutting lines between the officially documented and the poetically private are blurred.

The possible annoyance of this is felt in Mickey Ward as he takes a local bartender, Charlene (Amy Adams), on a date to an art-house cinema. The choice is very surprising: Fernando Trueba's Belle Epoque, an arty endeavor set during the Spanish Civil War that no blue collar guy from Lowell would ever dream of showing to his date. As Mickey and Charlene walk up to the theater, we overhear a smarmy, educated young man say loudly to his cinephile companions, "The cinematography is supposed to be gorgeous!", a lovely and self-deprecating comic insertion by Russell, who's a film lover's filmmaker. Hearing the cinephile, Mickey frowns.

Not really giving a shit about the "gorgeous cinematography": Amy Adams and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter go see Belle Epoque.

It's not just that Mickey Ward – to say nothing of his date – wouldn't give a shit about the photographic virtues of a movie (Charlene notes that he fell asleep during the movie). But if we look at this deliberately over photographed/videographed/cinematographed movie The Fighter in a poetic way beyond its concrete, blue-collar movie-lover's crowd-pleasing satisfactions, we can make interpretations regarding the overabundance of moving images, and how they have power over us and, in essence, define us; the actual circumstances of a "thing in itself" may be manipulated, cut, and lit in a fashion that communicates something distinct from the nuanced truism of a given situation or individual. The "gorgeous cinematography" of the camera eye haunts Mickey, and he doesn't trust it.

That's how Wahlberg's performance functions in the context of The Fighter, and makes it distinct from Bale's. Bale/Dickie is eager to be the over-the-top ham actor; it's a golden marriage of character and performer. Just as appropriate is Wahlberg to Mickey's simplicity and distance. Mickey does not want to embrace the usual grand-standing postures of the sports hero, whether it's Rocky Balboa, Jake LaMotta, or Muhammad Ali – all of whom had actors play them to Academy Award nominations or wins (so too will be the case with Bale, or the similarly camera ready personalities displayed by Melissa Leo or Amy Adams). Mickey does not want to go through the hackneyed struggles on a path of glory; he's a straight-edged man who feels like he's running out of time and understands the best place for him to be is away from the kinds of conflict that would, in a boxing movie, compel the performer to act histrionically. He wants to be free from the impositions of family and image, and just wants to succeed while he is physically able. We can perceive the tragedy of Dickie Eklund in the way he too-willingly embraces the power of images. In prison, he greets the HBO production about his life like a movie star at his own premiere, proud that he will be seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

The scene where we watch the HBO documentary along with Dickie, Mickey, Mom, and all quarters of the family, is then tremendously significant. Mickey's bitter ex-wife tells him that she's forcing their son to watch the documentary, even after Mickey begs her to turn it off. "I want him to see who his uncle really is," she responds. Mickey and Dickie's mother is changed by what she's watching, wondering why "they" are doing this to her son, as the images make her see Dickie in a way she has been resistant to acknowledge. "It's the way he is, mom," Mickey tells her, "But you refuse to see it." Images assuage us and play into our inherited schema. But in the same way that Shakespeare often will have his characters over-hear themselves, and so in that process of self-observation, be open to change, Dickie's attitude changes during the HBO screening in prison. He sees his life, his own self, and understands in his currently sober state of mind that his son will be watching this in addition to everyone else close to him. He is disgusted. He demands the show be turned off, so shortly after esteeming it with enthusiasm: "That's my fucking life!" he cries to the fellow inmates, who seem to be captivated by what they're watching as entertainment.

Of course, Russell is in the business of making images and he understands their power, and here he's making his first movie about real people and actual events, the challenge being to make a conscious examination that is richer than hollow and hackneyed biopics. The presentation of the Dickie Eklund documentary is the turning point in The Fighter, where self-definitions are re-adjusted as the viewers (Dickie, Mickey, mom) begin to see themselves in the mash-up of moving pictures. Beyond passive viewing, they become activated through the process of self-identification. Russell wants to remind us that the process of film ingestion is capable of being psychologically intimate, dialectical, and transformative, beyond the escapist catharsis that it is manufactured as too often. This is demonstrated in the casting. One of the main characters, a local cop who trains Mickey whenever Dickie's absent, Mickey O'Keefe, plays himself, and the mannerisms of this non-actor conveys a certain authenticity to the material while also beautifully reminding us of the dynamics of true-life reconstruction and dramatization. The other faces in the film (for example, some of Mickey and Dickie's sisters – of which there are seven), feel like real faces pulled from the streets of Lowell, as opposed to actor faces. Actor faces are, after all, treated with a bit of contempt, as the sisters oppose Charlene because she's an "MTV girl," which is a symbolic way of saying that she's attractive and sexually nefarious – again playing into the videoscopic context of The Fighter, where contextual media/broadcasting tropes define individuals.

Mickey O'Keefe plays himself in The Fighter.

At this stage in the story, after Dickie has been paroled and Mickey has decided to take on new management, he has become a surprising success, earning an underdog's title shot and redefining himself as a welterweight phenomenon. Instead of opposition and enormous conflict involving Mickey between Dickie, his sisters, Charlene, the new managers, Mickey O'Keefe, the mother and father, and the media, there is an invigorating reconciliation as Mickey Ward accepts the conflict while also persisting in doing things his own way. He steadfastly refuses the camera, his family, his neighborhood, or his girlfriend to define him, while also making peace with them – as long as they make peace with each other. Dickie too, who seems to be on the verge of relapse after parole, walks to the crack den that has victimized him and instead of getting a fix, drops off the celebratory "Welcome Home" cake his family offered him, transcending the elements that have hitherto defined him, whether that be drug addiction, the family, and most significantly the demons and lost dreams of his past. He steps outside of the simulation and into the action of the present moment, in Mickey's corner, clean and sober.

The poetry of that reconciliation between the image and reality is fully realized when the end credits begin, as Russell bookends his film with the two shot of Mickey and Dickie talking to the camera, a reflection of the image that began The Fighter. Instead of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, it is the true-life Mickey and Dickie. This could be a moving true-life closure that we see in other biopics, but as we hear the two men thank the crew of The Fighter, a more meaningful thought is offered. These two men are out of the simulated fiction of a feature film where they are portrayed by movie stars and can exist in the real world as themselves, conscious of the camera eye, with its 'gorgeous cinematography,' a world where the truth of subject matter and history is inconsequential to the lensing of it. They are free from the prisons of "glorious moments" and are able to exist peacefully in time.

David O. Russell himself may have finally achieved his long-awaited TKO then with this picture, already on pace to be his most profitable and highly regarded work, and which has not been scathed in the least by on-set clashes or fist-fights. Far from a convenient hired gun project, The Fighter has Russell's fiery soul wired into it; though a boxing picture, there are seemingly very few minutes featuring professional bouts, most of the fights being outside of the ring or inside the mind. It would be nice to think that the contentious filmmaker, though there's still much fight left in him, has reached his own acceptance of permanent truculence, coupled with the structuralism of an artful performance: the poetry of aggression. Like Mickey Ward's title attainment in the late rounds of his own boxing career, maybe the Sundance darling has at last lived up to his promise.


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