First things first: The Fighter. Dan, you ask if I thought the movie was a little square, then you go on to ask (rhetorically) if a director as brilliantly gonzo as David O. Russell ought to be expending his talents on such a conventional movie. The answer to both questions is yes. The Fighter is very conventional in its outlines. I wouldn’t give it any prizes for aesthetic daring, except for the way it interweaves documentary or TV sports footage into the fabric of the movie proper. But it’s still an unusual, heartfelt work.
As I’ve said before, it’s not really a sports film because nobody in the movie finds fulfillment through sports. Boxing is just what Micky * does; when the film starts, he’s already good at it. The real fights in The Fighter occur in living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens and on public streets. (Notice how the bout titles never appear over shots of boxing matches; they always occur in the very last shot of a scene preceding a bout, over an image of Ward and/or his family.) The Fighter is about how hard it is for talented people to transcend working-class or poor origins and reach their fullest potential without repudiating their roots. It’s about people figuring out how to love each other without validating each other’s manipulations and self-deceptions. The movie is a family drama about a guy trying to figure out how to succeed at what he does. Job No. 1 is identifying the forces stopping Micky from achieving his potential, then neutralizing them without permanently harming anyone’s feelings.
In context of this here Slate Movie Club thingy, a yearly metacritical roundtable (or as the French like to say, wankfest) the word “feelings” is quite important, and should be. (Grabs soapbox; stands on it.) There is an entire subset of film criticism (not represented in this year’s Movie Club, and certainly not by Stephanie, whose byline should be heralded by the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse music from Raising Arizona) that sneers at the very idea of doing such a thing. It’s not scholarly or contextual and lacks the pretense of detachment, and hence cannot be “real” criticism, and if you do it, you’re not writing about movies, you’re writing about your feelings. Bullshit. We can talk about composition and cutting and long takes vs. short takes and video vs. film endlessly; God knows I have. And we can put movies in context of the industry or TV or the Internet or wider trends in the arts. And we should; we absolutely should. But it’s also important for critics to remind themselves daily of the fact—the fact! not opinion, fact!—that most viewers don’t give one-hundredth a damn about any of that stuff.
They should give a damn. One of the reasons mainstream movies are so generally mediocre to awful is because the ability of the average viewer to read images is only slightly better than their ability to read text. And the system likes it that way; it’s much easier to crank out variations on cheeseburgers than to challenge moviegoers’ aesthetic palates and expand their range of acceptable cuisine. But viewers won’t give a damn about the aesthetic, political, and social components of filmgoing if we don’t open the door of personal response—emotion, minus the whithers and wherefores and qualifiers, the wearily above-it-all routine—to lead them to a consideration of films outside their comfort zones.
How can we critics do this? By starting at the core and working our way out; by talking first about the heart of the film—what the movie is saying about the characters and world it depicts; whether or not what’s on screen bears the slightest relation to the truth as we have experienced it; the feelings the movie evokes in us and why and how it evokes those feelings. Emotion is the gateway drug to all cinephilia—and I don’t just mean the “That movie rocked!” variety or “Dude, that blew!” variety. I mean real cinephilia, which is endlessly curious and always on the search for the next innovation, the next curveball, the next epiphany. That comes from feeling—from personal response. Nobody falls in love with movies because some director framed a shot in a particular way or slyly quoted F.W. Murnau. That stage of appreciation always comes second or third or tenth in a cinephile’s evolution. No, people fall in love with movies because they speak to them honestly and directly and with eccentric conviction, like new friends they really didn’t expect to make—people who just sort of came out of nowhere and made them realize, “Oh my God … I’m not alone! Somebody else gets it.”
Bringing it back around to The Fighter: I like a lot of the movie’s technical and narrative details. I could do a whole video essay just on the integration of traditional film narrative and TV journalism techniques in Russell’s direction (but I won’t, because I couldn’t possibly top Kevin B. Lee’s video essay comparing the movie’s climax to the real-life bout that inspired it). And yet all these aspects are subordinate to the film’s beating heart, which is the tale of a man gradually realizing that most of what he was told about himself, his family, and life generally was a self-serving pack of lies—then deciding what, if anything, to do about it. It’s an emotional procedural.
Correction, Jan. 5: This entry originally misspelled Micky Ward’s first name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)