Theory Teacher's Blog

Fighter or Boxer, from Metaphor to Genre

A week ago, after watching The Fighter, which I think deserves to win the Academy Award for best picture next week, one of my friends and I decided it would be fun to take a boxing class. She did some research and found a gym that would be good for both men and women, and we drove down to take its free introductory lesson. The Uppercut Boxing Gym in Minneapolis is a very cool place, owned by Lisa Bauch, a former boxer herself and now promoter of women’s boxing. What impressed me about Uppercut is the diversity of people there — age, gender, race, and skill level, from people like me to genuine competitors — all there to see what they could do and to get better. And what impressed me about my first boxing class is how hard it is. Boxing is not just fighting, and it’s not even just a sport; it’s an art that requires incredible mental concentration and self-discipline about the position and movement of your hands, feet, knees, hips, shoulders, and head. You may be strong, but if you’re not moving your whole body just right, your punch won’t have much force or accuracy. 

And of course boxing is also a popular Hollywood genre, and coincidentally I’m right in the middle of teaching the textbook’s chapter on genre in my film class, for which we’re watching two classics of the Western genre: The Searchers and Once upon a Time in the West. Inspired by how much I enjoyed the boxing class (and knowing I really didn’t have time this semester to drive down to Minneapolis to take another one), I decided to watch some more boxing movies: Ali, starring Will Smith (2001), Raging Bull, starring Robert Di Niro (1980), and Girlfight, starring Michelle Rodriguez (2000). I’d seen them all before, but it was fun to see them again all together, and watching them all together, I could get a good sense of the samenesses and the differences. And one of those differences, as I want to argue now based on my obviously very small experience at a boxing class, is that some boxing movies are about real boxing (the art that I mentioned above), and others are just about punching and violence. But all of them have some kind of politics to them.

So, the archetypal boxing story is about a person’s desire to be better than they are, to escape poverty or a bad neighborhood, to overcome his or her own personal demons, etc. Boxers are essentially at war on two fronts — at war with all the forces in their community that keep them down and at war with themselves. In that way, the boxing story is not just the story of a boxer; it’s also a story about the community the boxer is in. As one of my fellow bloggers, [here],  rightly pointed out about The Fighter, it’s not just a movie about an individual, it’s a movie about the whole town of Lowell, Massachusetts, a town suffering from a long postindustrial decline. The boxer’s ability to transform himself is a metaphor for people’s ability to transform themselves. And especially in this movie, the real fighter is not the boxer, but the boxer’s brother fighting his crack cocaine addiction and his failure to live up to his family’s expectations. Hence, the boxer is a metaphor for this struggle to transform oneself and escape the life and the place where one feels trapped. Those who analyze film and novels call this sort of metaphor condensation. Condensation is the essence of all story telling, but it’s especially apparent in genre films, since the vehicle for condensation is what defines the genre and the metaphorical meaning. A very different film from The Fighter, but also a good example of condensation, is Ali, which uses the boxing genre to tell a very political story about racism in the context of the Vietnam War during the 1960s. Mohammed Ali’s personal triumphs and his refusal to compromise his integrity are explicitly presented as a metaphor for the civil rights struggle.

But the metaphorical meaning is only part of the meaning. The ideological meaning is affected by the ways in which the movie displaces a complicated political reality (i.e., the real causes of poverty in a town like Lowell or the real problems of crack addiction) onto a simpler story with a clear moral. And so, if you want to make a decision about whether a movie is good or not, you have to look not just at the metaphor/condensation (which is obvious anyway), but at how the metaphor interacts with displacement or metonymy (which is more complicated and interesting.)

So, I want to compare and contrast The Fighter with a few older movies. First, possibly the two most famous and classic boxing movies are Rocky and Raging Bull, and noticeably they came out at about the same time: Rocky in 1976, and the sequel in 1978, and Raging Bull in 1980. Although Raging Bull is the critics’ favorite, always ranked as one of the best movies ever made, my guess is that far more people are familiar with Rocky. In some ways, the movies are the same in that neither of them actually has any boxing in them. In my opinion, they are both extremely violent punching movies, in which Rocky and Jake La Motta are able to win fights not because they box well, but because they can take a lot of punishment. Essentially, what we see on the screen for two hours is a man getting hit in the face over and over until the opponent’s arm gets tired. These are movies about endurance and survival, and that’s the metaphor. Personally, I don’t like either of them for this reason. In reality, nobody who boxed the way these two men box would ever win a professional fight, which are scored on points, not on how many times you can get punched in the face and still stand up. I’ve never seen a real boxing match in which the referee let a boxer get hit like that. It’s absurd and even a little grotesque.

But what’s also interesting is how different the movies are, and one might even speculate that Raging Bull was a political response to Rocky. Think about the character of Rocky. He is an ordinary, slow, passive, quiet, but resilient guy who loves his wife and wants her to be happy. It’s hard to imagine him actually fighting anyone because Sylvester Stallone plays him as someone who doesn’t even seem to want to fight. He acts as though he hardly has an aggressive bone in his body, until he gets punched enough times and then reacts. Symbolically, we can see the appeal of this film, since Rocky is also a film about a man fighting his own circumstances of poverty and illiteracy. Nobody chooses to fight those things, but we have to fight. Thus, in some ways, Rocky is a very working class film, but it is a conservative working class film that displaces the real social problems onto a sweet, innocent man who endures. And of course, there is also the racial element, since it celebrates a poor white man’s triumph over a rich black man in a way that is typical of Hollywood’s tendency to tell stories that are contrary to what is typically the case in reality.

Jake La Motta’s character in Raging Bull is the exact opposite of Rocky. As the Village Voice review notes, he is a paranoid, violent man who abuses his wife and lashes out at everyone. The boxing industry is corrupted by the mafia who ask him to lose a fight on purpose. The fights are filmed in a way that exaggerates the violence, and scenes are edited to move back and forth between the boxing ring and his home to emphasize how his psychotic rage carries over from one to the other. Often, the movie is so violent and disturbing that it’s hard to watch. Whereas Rocky is sentimental, Raging Bull is brutal.

We might be tempted to imagine that Jake La Motta is a more realistic portrait of a boxer than Rocky. We might even say that the modernist film style of Raging Bull takes the Rocky character’s ability to endure punishment to such an extreme that its brutal violence exposes the ways that Rocky‘s realist style actually conceals the violent implications of its own story. This is why it seems to me that Raging Bull was made in reaction to Rocky. However, Raging Bull is not really a boxing movie but an anti-boxing movie since the main character is an unlikeable anti-hero and goes against the basic archetype of the genre — a rather obvious fact that Joyce Carol Oates fails to understand in her discussion of all these movies in her incredibly stupid and profoundly ignorant review of The Fighter for The New York Review of Books [here]. So, which is the more realistic, the classic boxing story or the classic anti-boxing story?

In my view, neither of these movies, for all their pretences at truth, are realistic, and neither has much to do with boxing. They have everything to do with the politics of the director, and in neither of these movies do we get a nuanced or complex sense of the cultural location of these two men who are (presumably) struggling against their own cultural location. What makes The Fighter a better movie than both Rocky and Raging Bull is that we do get a complex sense of Lowell, Massachusetts and the difficult, daily choices the characters in a diverse community have to make. In addition, we also see real boxing, not just punching, and some actual discussion of boxing strategy. In some ways, the character of Micky is too sweetly innocent like Rocky — the kind of false image of a boxer that Raging Bull goes against — but Micky’s character is more complex than Rocky, and his whole family’s avoidence of his brother’s crack addiction adds layers of psychological depth to all the characters. And this is why I said at the beginning of this blog that understanding the metaphor of a film is easy enough to do, but to understand whether a movie is good, and to understand how it is working ideologically, we need to look at the metonymy — in other words, how the movie manages the social context by displacing complex and hard-to-represent factors onto simpler, more palpable images and plot-lines.

Similarly, Girlfight is a real boxing movie, in which the main character actually learns how to box. Its realism and understated style are appreciated by a New York Times review [here]. The main character Diana Guzman lives in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn with her emotionally and physically abusive father. At the beginning of the movie, she is full of anger that she can’t control. By the end of the movie, she learns self-discipline by involving herself in a community of other boxers, and figures a way out of her circumstances. In many ways, it is a standard, archetypal boxing story, but in my opinion it is far more realistic and less sentimental than the  romantic, patriotic, and gratuitously violent Rocky films, and still just as inspiring. In my view, Girlfight is a lot like The Fighter in that there is no gratuitous violence at all and instead mostly just a lot of good story, except that The Fighter is about the economic hardship and crack epidemic that followed Ronald Reagan’s economic and social reengineering policies in the 1980s and Girlfight is obviously about something else. The movie carefully explores the political issues of gender without giving us an easy answer as to how men and women relate to each other.


February 20, 2011 - Posted by | movies

1 Comment »

  1. This is great — boxing’s depth expands exponentially (as does my “must-see” film list).

    Thanks for the shoutouts — and the link! — and thanks also for taking down Joyce Carol Oates. She so didn’t get it.

    Comment by Jules | February 24, 2011 | Reply

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