The Boxer Rebellion

Girlfight floats like a butterfly, stings like a feminist. Dancer in the Dark stumbles badly in its attempt to make Björk into a saint. Our man gives Best in Show four paws! 

Directed by Karyn Kusama
Screen Gems

Dancer in the Dark
Directed by Lars von Trier
Fine Line

Best in Show
Directed by Christopher Guest
Warner Bros.

As Diana Guzman, the teen-age heroine of Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight, Michelle Rodriguez is a featherweight boxer but a heavyweight glowerer. When angered, her eyes roll up like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist, then slit menacingly, and her nostrils broaden. She’s pretty scary, but what’s even more frightening is how sullen and closed-down she seems when she isn’t clawing at high-school girls. When Kusuma cast her in Girlfight, Rodriguez had little in the way of acting chops, and for the first 15 minutes you might fear that she’s too mulishly self-contained to carry a feature film. As it turns out, though, her early inexpressiveness is the key to the drama. Diana convinces the macho skeptics at a rough Brooklyn gymnasium to let her train beside the boys, and as her body hardens, her spirit opens up: She gets tougher and more vulnerable at the same time. Gradually, this girl you might not look at twice on the street becomes the most alive character in a film this year.

Girlfight belongs to that most promiscuous of genres—the go-for-it sports melodrama—but transcends it and then some. It doesn’t have the jacked-up opportunism of the Rocky clones; it’s a fairy tale with a backbone. A feminist backbone. You know what’s at stake from the outset. When Diana walks home to the Brooklyn project where she lives with her dismissive father (Paul Calderon) and younger brother (Ray Santiago), a neighbor marvels that she’s “the living likeness” of her dead mother. That’s our cue that Diana stands for more than herself. She could be the reincarnation of millions of abused women who at last have learned to give as good as they get—or, by necessity (because they are, as we’ve heard, the “weaker sex”), better. You realize that her dad is hopelessly outclassed when he announces, “School was so boring I thought I’d piss my pants waiting to get out in the world”; and Diana asks, “So: Did it happen?” And then, after a beat: “Did you get out in the world?” He never realizes that he’s been definitively dissed.

We’re used to seeing boxing from a male point of view—in the case of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), a punishing one. But in Kusama’s scenario, the fighting isn’t about surrendering to the beast within. Just the opposite. For Scorsese’s Jake La Motta, the violence in the ring becomes a degenerating and increasingly bloody addiction; for Diana (the name recalls the goddess of the hunt), it’s a way of controlling and shaping anger—of giving it focus and precision. “Power is half the story,” explains her reluctant trainer, Hector (Jaime Tirelli), who seems to discover, in the course of their sessions, that this woman is a more apt pupil than most overly proud men. Diana’s fighting isn’t about delivering knockout blows; it’s about staying alert and winning on points. It’s a means of self-control and of acquiring the self-knowledge on which self-control depends.

Kusama and her director of photography, Patrick Cady, have a distanced and deliberate strategy in the ring, and they don’t often stray into woozy Expressionism—the blows to Diana’s head make her more, not less alert. Is that credible? Not wholly, and I found myself slightly disappointed that Diana won so often, since the thrust of Girlfight would be the same (or stronger) if she took the occasional fall and had to pick herself up off the canvas. But then, I’m a white man and not the primary target for the inspirational tale of a Latina girl who gets fit and jumps into the ring and gives nasty old dad a swat or two and (oh yeah) lands a gorgeous guy in the balance.

Diana’s Prince Charming, Adrian (is this a wry nod to Rocky?), is a boxer himself with a trophy girlfriend, and both his love for Diana and their climactic confrontation in the ring require a suspension of disbelief. But since the writing and acting are so grounded that disbelief is easy to suspend. Adrian (Santiago Douglas) has never gone out with anyone on his level before. When she takes a swing at him, whispers that she loves him, parries, and then takes another swing, he can hardly be blamed for his disorientation. Their final match is an amusing metaphor for learning to live with a woman who can’t, ultimately, be counted on to yield.

Kusama, a native of St. Louis and graduate of the film program at New York University, has a wit that sometimes flies below the radar. A couple of scenes take place in a science class, where a teacher—John Sayles, a co-producer who used his own money to get Girlfight made—lectures on heat, energy, and the power of molecules in motion. Classroom lectures in movies tend to announce the film’s themes with all the subtlety of a brick to the head, but these stay just on the fringes of perception. Girlfight is one of the most suggestive feminist rabble-rousers ever made.

One of the least suggestive is Dancer in the Dark, which opened this year’s New York Film Festival with a groan. The convoluted narrative—about a Czech immigrant (Björk) with movie-musical fantasies who’s going blind and working overtime at a dangerous factory job to earn money for her 12-year-old son’s eye operation—would have been laughed off the screen in 1925. But 75 years later it arrives with Lars von Trier’s insistently uninsistent technique—handheld camerawork, high contrasts, a gorgeously desaturated color palette, and a jerky syntax. The anti-technique helps to soft-pedal the old-fashioned corn of the plotting, and it somehow meshes with Björk, who has what I can only describe as a steely limpness. With her Asiatic-masklike features and untraceable accent—it’s Icelandic with a note of Scottish—she makes you believe that this character’s queer wavelength might actually be real and not the brainless whim of some misogynistic Dane. At times the movie’s crudeness has an eerie beauty, but the musical fantasies—shot with 100 cameras, so they play like Busby Berkeley numbers passed under the blade of a Benihana chef—are a bewildering hash, and the protracted climax on death row is nearly unendurable. This is one of those supposedly feminist films in which a woman chooses martyrdom when it would take about five minutes to clear everything up. Björk has managed to convince herself that she’s playing a saint, but I wouldn’t be surprised if von Trier just thinks the essential nature of women is masochistic idiocy.

Best in Show is the latest fun “mockumentary” from Christopher Guest, the director of Waiting for Guffman (1996) and one of the comic masterminds of This Is Spinal Tap (1984). This one revolves around the finals of a dog show in Philadelphia, and it’s even more entertaining than Guffman—less dependent on people’s stupidity and lack of talent for yucks. What nails it is that Guest and his cast of brilliant clowns have done their research. They know what it’s like to obsess over one’s four-legged progeny, and they’ve got the little details of showing right. The magic is in the minutiae.

Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock are tense yuppies who turn their Weimaraner into a frothing neurotic. Eugene Levy is the dweebish four-eyed husband of cheerful nymphomaniac Catherine O’Hara; their point of connection is a Norwich terrier named Winky. John Michael Higgins and Michael McKean are the snappy gay owners of a Shih Tzu. Jennifer Coolidge is the Anna Nicole Smith-like young wife of an elderly zillionaire and a very special friend of no-nonsense handler Jane Lynch. They’re all so deep inside their roles that they can think in character, and they’re masters of the teensy aside that signals bottomless anxiety.

Best in Show has an uproarious wild card in Fred Willard, who plays a hack commentator convinced that he’s the most amusing fellow on television. With his red bow tie, Eddie Munster hair, and endless stream of smutty, sophomoric quips, he steadily unnerves his learned partner (the marvelous Jim Piddock) and has the rest of us laughing until we choke. With results like this, a new Guest mockumentary every couple of years would be aces by me.

Politicians have turned to violence in the movies again, and as usual, they denounce it as if it’s one-size-fits-all. The lack of nuance in the whole discussion is a good indication of why no government body can ever be trusted to play censor. The word no one is using is “context.” For example, everyone denounces the porny violence of slasher pictures like Scream (1996), but I haven’t heard too many conservative American politicians moaning about The Patriot (2000)—which, after all, celebrates our own Revolution, and in which the violence we cheer is against people who slaughter innocent women and children. But it’s precisely the righteous violence—the bloodshed tinged with sanctimony—that strikes me as the most dangerous.

Put it like this: If you gathered together a hundred slobbering psychopaths, showed them Dirty Harry (1971), and asked them with whom they identified, the slobbering psychopath or Clint Eastwood and his long .44 Magnum, most (if not all) would say: “My man, Clint!” And I bet most of them would say they like the part best where he blows a big hole in the slobbering psychopath.

People who commit acts of violence don’t view themselves as psychos but as righteous avengers. They might be avenging real injustices or tiny slights, or—like those Columbine kids—a pattern of abuse. They might see themselves as avenging a lifetime of poverty and indifference and racism. But they believe they are entitled as individuals to make decisions about who lives and dies. And a large—and socially and politically acceptable—strain of our culture reinforces that belief. When, in 1988, CNN anchorman Bernard Shaw asked Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis how he’d feel if his wife were raped and murdered, he was taunting him with the Death Wish (1974) scenario. A case can be made that Dukakis’ inability to rise to the occasion and say, “I’d want to blow the culprit’s fucking head off”—or, at very least, call for the government to do it—lost him the election. At the heart of this country’s wide support for capital punishment is a vision of the state as an extension of the individual’s desire for vengeance.

Of course it disturbs me—as both a critic and a parent—to see violence used as porny spectacle to get kids off. But, as Stephen King has put it, horror and violence “feed the alligators in the mind.” While I worry that those alligators are breeding a little too rapidly, I can’t imagine a society of humans in which we don’t need that kind of release. Other eras had gladiators, witch-hunting, and lynching. Not so long ago you could find bear-baiting and pig-sticking; and, in some cultures, you can still see cockfighting. Meanwhile, politicians who think nothing of attending boxing matches in which real blood is spattered on a canvas denounce splatter pictures for being sick, and then do their damndest to put a gun in every home.