' ' Cinema Romantico: Ali: Sports as Theatre

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Ali: Sports as Theatre

In the pages of Sports Illustrated Richard Hoffer once wrote how “when it comes to boxing, filmmakers find it surprisingly unnecessary to exaggerate the melodrama. Using no more special effects than a flickering fighter, pawing desperately against fate on his pale canvas backdrop, the movies cover the waterfront (you might say).” His overriding point is elegantly implicit: “No movie can top the outsized drama of real boxing.” I’m inclined to agree with Hoffer, and not just about boxing. I think it is difficult for any movie to top the outsized drama of any real sport. The one scene in the one movie where I am inclined to disagree, however, comes via Michael Mann’s “Ali.”

I am admittedly no expert on boxing. America’s version of football – college, that is – is the sport that most draws my passion, and as the years pass the more I realize I am drawn less to its statistics and strategy than its theatre. All the world’s a stage, and what were the actors at the old Rose Theatre called? Players.

Michael Mann understands that sensation. As a complete product “Ali” left me not so much disappointed as apathetic, often coming across oddly distant from its infamously charismatic protagonist. I felt as if Mann – who, in interest of full disclosure, is my favorite director – could not truly find his way into Muhammad Ali’s headspace, to convey what drove him and transformed him from Cassius to Muhammad. Yet, as with any Mann production that is not wholly satisfying, there are still moments and scenes of sheer transcendence.

One such moment, the best such moment, is the re-creation of the match against Sonny Liston in 1964 that gave Ali – then still Cassius Clay – the heavyweight title for the first time. Being that boxing matches are broken up into rounds they are, by their very essence, structured in individual acts, a fact which merely underscores their theatricality. Thus, Clay vs. Liston was a Six Act Play with a brief epilogue. It accorded this on all its own, of course, without the movie, but in the movie Mann very much highlights the truth of this dynamic.

(Watch the sequence here.)

Act I. The music playing as the play commences is quiet and contemplative but subtly intense. When this curtain is drawn we know violence awaits. So much of the First Act involves Liston prowling after Clay, throwing a punch, missing. More prowling, throwing a punch, missing. Over and over. Liston actually attacks as the bell rings, leaving the audience with an uneasy feeling for our hero as the curtain falls.

Act 2. More of the same. Liston prowls and punches, Clay dances and avoids. Mann's camera is inside the ring and outside the ring and above the ring, and he ably conveys the way in which Clay could turn that forebodingly condensed 20x20 space into a cavernous canvased dance floor. He backs up again and again in loping but graceful strides, somehow never running out of room to move to.

Act 3. The tide turns. Clay finally hits Liston - for real - and a sequence noticeably devoid of music finally cues some up, and it is purposely cued up at a point after a momentary Liston flurry. Clay shakes his head, disobediently, tauntingly, as if to say "If that's all you got, you got nothin'." Clay punches. Then Mann shows a close-up of Clay's bright-white boots, shucking and jiving. Then a Clay flurry, but shot differently than anything else in the fight up 'til now - frenetic, whomp-whomp-WHOMP, what I imagine a flurry in boxing must feel like. A ring that previously felt limitless now feels contained, unescapable. But listen to the music. It remains quiet and contemplative, like an elegy. Ah, but an elegy for whom? You assume Liston, right? The curtain falls again.

Act 4. Here is the twist that literary professors still debate today. Did Liston put something on his gloves? In the 4th round Clay is blinded. By what? The original Sports Illustrated article notes that it was a caustic applied to a Liston cut that eventually made its way into Clay's eyes. Others will forever contend Liston purposely applied a caustic to his gloves to blind Clay. Mann, smartly, alludes to something nefarious, but stops short of saying This Is What Happened. So, what happened? We'll probably never truly know, and it's better that way. The tide has turned back toward Liston.

Act 5. And thus, Clay becomes desperate, barely hanging on, as the music switches to suspenseful strings. Then drums start pounding ominously, counting down to the inevitable end, to the Liston punch that lays Clay splat on the floor. It's all over! But it's not. Clay survives.

Act 6. Now Clay can see. He instantly goes on the offensive. A flurry of punches. That elegiac music returns. Again we ask, an elegy for whom? Then two things happen. 1.) A breathtaking shot of Liston in a poetic slow-motion that betrays a broken, beaten man just waiting for the end.

2.) Drums reappear on the soundtrack and the piano picks up the pace and a singer wordlessly, soulfully croons. It's an elegy for Liston, a hymn for Clay. It's all over but the belt-raising. The tide has turned for a third and final time.

Epilogue. The two men sit in their corners. We know what's about to happen. Then, it does. A shot of Liston spitting out his mouthguard. It hits the floor and lingers there. Liston has surrendered. Clay has won.

You’ve heard it 12 million times. “It’s just a game.” And yes, it is just a game, but it’s just a game in the way that a movie is “just a movie”. So many movies are merely movies but, at the same time, so many movies become more than the sum of their parts to reach a higher plain of emotional truth. That plain is reached in part because of the way the movie is made just as a game can reach that same plain because of the way it is played. Or, because of the way a match – as in, a boxing match – is fought.

And I wonder if that is why I am resistant to “Ali” as a complete product. So many Sports Movies are about the build-up, how all manner of trials and tribulations work to create a singular event. In a sense, the movie breaks down, takes apart and psycho-analyzes the event to determine how it happened and what it wrought. The Clay vs. Liston showdown in "Ali", on the other hand, stands apart from everything else in the film.

Mann captures on camera that which I would have thought impossible - the way in which a sporting event can be about nothing more than the beauty and purity of itself.

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