The timing is truly fortuitous: two non-fictional movies about people in decline, having once been successes in their fields, trying to restore whatever former glory they had, all captured on film, yielding movies that are critically acclaimed, psychologically penetrating, fascinating to behold, and revealing, accidentally, the true character of America.
I’m talking about “Tyson” and “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” two limited release documentaries about Mike Tyson and hair-metal band Anvil, respectively. If you are in the DC area, “Tyson” is playing at the Gallery Place Regal Cinema, and “Anvil!” is playing at the Est Landmark Theatre. I cannot recommend these two films enough.
Structurally and thematically, these two films are very familiar. They are both documentaries, shot in very plain style, about Mike Tyson and the hair-metal band Anvil. Both of these subjects share the dubious distinction of having once been successes in their respective fields–boxing and hair-metal, respectively–but who now find themselves mired in faded glory.
Of the two, “Tyson” is more self-conscious, simply by virtue of the fact that the entire film consists of Mike Tyson talking about himself. While this may sound like a very unappealing prospect, after all, who wants to listen to a brutal thug, former convicted rapist, ear-biter, money waster, womanizer like Mike Tyson talk about himself for 70 minutes? I wouldn’t blame you, but all the critical acclaim piqued my curiosity, and I’m glad I watched the movie, because Mike Tyson turns out to be a fascinating, if not likable or sympathetic, human being. He is extremely self-aware (but in a way that both obscures and reveals, more on that later), very articulate and eloquent, brutally honest, and completely fucked up inside, and completely aware of it.
Mike Tyson has no illusions about his psychological motivation and need to fight, as he recalls a youth as an overweight kid, constantly being picked up, and using that resentment and fear to eventually channel into aggression. It’s absolutely fascinating to understand Mike Tyson as he understands himself, because beneath the ferociousness, the sheer power of his technique, now you, as the audience, know that there is a deep current of childhood insecurity, fear, and an alienation bordering on sociopathy, that fuels Mike Tyson’s impeccable boxing skills during his peak.
The most poigant part of the film is the part when Tyson recalls Cus D’Mato, his mentor, and more importantly, his father figure which he has been missing for his whole life. When Tyson talks about D’Mato, he does so affectionately and sincerely: he talks about how his mentor gave his life purpose, taught him discipline, channeled his raw skills into controlled technique, and gave his life some badly-needed stability. Which, of course, are all gone when his mentor dies before he won his first world championship. And you can tell, and Tyson can tell you in no uncertain terms, that the loss of his mentor re-awoke all his fears of abandonment, and the film makes it clear that was the beginning of Tyson’s fall.
Tyson then goes on to talk about his various fights, his problems with women, and how he lost all his money. And here Tyson tries to be revealing to the last drop, but it is also here that his self-analysis runs into a wall that Mike Tyson, perhaps out of an instinctive need to protect his psyche, cannot get past. He candidly talks about how his need to dominate women, sexually and psychologically, has come to hurt him, as evidenced by his disastrous marriage to Robin Givens and his rape conviction. But he refuses to acknowledge his own responsibility in this, especially in his rape conviction: he simply brushes it aside and calls Desiree Washington a “filthy swine of a woman.” Similarly, when he talks about his legal battle with Don King and his attempt to get his money back, Tyson reveals that he really has no concept of money, because he speaks of $10 or $20 million as a “very small sum.” Yes, Tyson admits that he has no one to blame but himself, but his refusal to really go deep both obscures his own self-understanding but also reveals, to the viewers, the limits of one man’s, and perhaps every man’s, ability to be fully accountable to himself.
In the end, Tyson acknowledges that he is fucked up inside, that he has never had a normal, psychologically healthy life, that he has never had any resemblance of a family, and that he’s trying to have a normal family relationship. I never got the sense that Tyson blames all this for his problems, because if there is anything that Mike Tyson wants you to know, he blames no one but himself. Now, whether you buy this or not is another question, but for my part, I tend to believe him, for the most part.
Switching gears a little bit, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” is by no means so self-focused. It’s marketed as a real-life version of “Spinal Tap,” which really goes to show you that life imitates art. But if you are going in expecting a real life Spinal Tap, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, you’ll be treated to a genuinely warm, affectionate documentary about two friends who saw each other through everything, who genuinely love what they do, and who cheerfully carry on their tasks in spite of everything.
Anvil, along with other bands of that era and genre, like Whitesnake, Quiet Riot, Poison, played a part in establishing hair metal, and it is by no means a joke, as the filmmaker got everyone from that time period, including Slash, to talk about the role and influence of Anvil. But for whatever reason, they never found lasting success, so now the two guys in Anvil have regular jobs, but they still soldier on, recording their 13th (!) album, hoping for something, anything. The film is a chronicle of their attempt as they go about doing this.
Is it funny? Undoubtedly, but it’s not played for cheap laughs. The film never laughs at the two guys in the band, but takes its humor from mishaps on their tour through Europe, managed by an incompetent, if very loyal, fan of theirs. This movie could have been a disaster, especially during the parts when you see how the band is playing in clubs for audience of tens. It could have easily taken the route of too much bathos or too much mean-spiritedness at their decline. However, the film avoids both, and instead, strikes a gentle balance: chronicling the improbable comeback attempt with much sincerity and cheerfulness as the guys in the band treat their own efforts. In the end, the film comes across as a genuinely affecting look at friendship, because really, it is the friendship between the two guys in the band that form the core dramatic relationship in the film. They are like an old married couple: they bicker, finish each other sentences, see each other through no matter what. Truly, this is a testament to friendship, united by a common love of music that comes across not the least bit phony but totally genuine. By the end of the movie, you will truly appreciate their friendship, and even more, you genuinely want to see them succeed.
Switching gears once more, now I want to talk about the more meta-textual aspects of these two films. In truth, these two films are very sophisticated in terms of what they demand from the audience. They both require the audience to have a meta-textual understanding of these movies: because neither “Tyson” nor “Anvil!” would make much sense, if any at all, if the audience were not aware of their subjects. In fact, both films derive their thematic heft precisely because they require the audience to know what happened to Mike Tyson and Anvil, their histories, and more importantly, what the movies are created for.
Why is the last reason important? It is important, as I will argue, because if you understand the reasons why these movies are made, you will have understood the true essence of the American character. For all intents and purposes, these two movies are made as deliberate attempts by the subjects they portray, Mike Tyson and Anvil, to rehabilitate or revive their own brands in the public consciousness, and as such, part of an overall effort to make money for the subjects.
There is nothing wrong with this, in it of itself. But it does sort of change the view you understand the movies. It doesn’t change the fact that both movies are interesting and fascinating to watch, and it blunts none of their aesthetic achievements. However, what it does change is the audience’s perception of the movies. Now you understand that neither Mike Tyson nor Anvil is so acutely self-aware and psychologically penetrating for the sake of being acutely self-aware and psychological penetrating: they are only so because being so helps them come across as more sympathetic figures. Because if there is one persistent, running theme in the American consciousness, it is the tale of the fallen celebrity, baring his soul for the world to see. We’ve seen this time and time again, and time and time again industry people know that this is the type of product that sells. It sure got me to see these two movies.
What is even more revealing is that the subjects of the films know this too. And again, like I said before, just because they are doing it for commercial reasons doesn’t change the fact that both Mike Tyson and Anvil say a lot of interesting things about themselves. You should not discount the movies because of this. But what this reveals about the American character is three-fold: first, that we are fascinated by failures, especially failures of famous people; second, that we are even more interested in seeing these failures unfold in public, and often spectacularly messy manner; third, that beyond all this, we are most interested by the way famous people understand their own public, spectacular failures and having this understanding process unfold in public as well.
But wait, there is yet another layer: that these people, who has had their public, spectacular failure, who has come to terms with their failure in public ways, KNOW that this is what Americans are fascinated by, and are willing to commercialize this, without necessarily being completely becoming commercialistic shills.
I submit that this is the very essence of America, because the way America deal with failure is an interesting balance between two extremes. On the one extreme, there is what I would call the Don Quixote approach, that is, complete and utter denial of reality and trying to succeed despite the certainty of failure. On the other extreme, there is what I would call the Sysphus approach, that is, knowing with certainty that the effort is futile, but doing it anyways out of some existential anguish, or a sense of nobility at braving the meaninglessness of an absurd situation.
Instead, the American way of dealing with failures is somewhere in the middle: aware of the unlikelihood (but not complete impossibility) of making a comeback, giving it everything that one has got, including being totally public and transparent about oneself and one’s efforts, and hoping that success, even in some attenuated, lesser form, would come. And if that success, however slight compared to what has come before, is that proverbial “second act” in American lives.
In this light, I think it is appropriate that both “Tyson” and “Anvil!” ends ambigously with no resolution: Tyson doesn’t know what he’s going to do, and Anvil doesn’t know if its 13th album will bring them any more recognition. But what these two films show, and what the subjects are conscious of, is that their last, best hope lies in coming clean about their own failures in public, and hoping for the best.
And if that’s not American, I don’t know what is.