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pages from a cold island : LIGHTS OUT (part two)

{In memoriam Nika Bohinc and Alexis Tioseco, a couple who loved both Manny Farber and Manny Pacquiao}

"My life story is now on film," Jake Lamotta said. He had little eyes that scanned the rest of the room in a bored fashion as he spoke. "The movie is called Raging Bull and I am played by superstar Robert De Niro. I told the producer I'd like to play myself, but he said, "Jake, you're not the type."

Jonathan Rendall, This Bloody Mary is the Last Thing I Own (1997)

Dan Streible's Fight Pictures - A History of Boxing and Early Cinema (University of California Press, paperback $24.95 / £16.95) was published last year, but only came to my attention via a recent review in Sight and Sound - apologies if it's already familiar to Auteurs Notebook readers. My shameful tardiness is counterbalanced by my enthusiasm for what's one of the most eye-opening books on cinema I've encountered for a long time. Its central thesis is summed up by this 1899 quote from the magazine Motion Picture World.

The fortunes of the prize ring are apparently interwoven with those of the moving picture.              
Without the moving picture your modern prize fight would be shorn of most of its financial               
glamor and possibilities; without the prize fight the moving picture would not appeal to so        
many people as it apparently does.

 

And I'm not alone in my admiration for Streible's tome. The back cover features a blurb by none other than Auteurs member and Austrian Filmmuseum patron Martin Scorsese:


This compelling book forces us to rethink the history of cinema. Dan Streible's thought-  
provoking rediscovery of an entire lost genre of hundreds of early films reminds us how much               
we still do not know about the development of American movie culture. The fact that only a    
fraction of these forgotten films survive, and those mostly in fragments, makes this historical         
account of them all the more valuable.


As Streible puts it, the fact that only fragments survive makes "traditional film interpretation impossible. Further, the imagery in surviving fight films carries no hint of the vast interest and controversy that surrounded them. The popularity of A Trip to the Moon, The Great Train Robbery, The Lonely Villa or Cabiria can be attributed to aesthetic quality or cinematic novelty. But the static camerawork of the Johnson-Jeffries Fight (1910) piques little curiosity in iteself. Only the extracinematic aspects of the movie's production and reception explain why so much commentary and frenzy surrounded it."

The Johnson-Jeffries encounter - between the pioneering black champion Jack Johnson ("he knowingly fulfilled the role of 'bad nigger.' A braggadocio and a dandy, he gleefully rebelled against conventional standards of behavior. Many white filmgoers no doubt came as curiosity wanting a glimpse of the controversial, larger-than-life figure.") and the superannuated veteran Jim Jeffries.


This was a slam-bang slug-fest, a massive event in popular American culture - the 300 reporters present included such eminences as Jack London, legendary ex-champs John L Sullivan and James J Corbett "and, for Variety, Al Jolson." Johnson's unexpected victory had major ramifications for racial issues across the USA and beyond - his"sporting dominance" spawned a virulent response in the form of "texts glorifying white supremacy and the suppression of black resistance," and quotes Gerald Early begging the question "Who did D.W.Griffith have in mind when his 1915 epic, The Birth of a Nation... depicted scenes of black men asking white women to marry them, a stark contrast to [the source] novels, where rape is the thing that pricks the conscience of the white man? Johnson's mad gestures [his three marriages were all to white women] cried out for equally mad responses."

 

While Johnson-Jeffries provides much of the drama in Fight Pictures, as the U.S. Government scrambled to suppress the distribution of a movie which made a mockery of the racial presumptions upon which the country's society had been ordered. "The copies and editions circulating in so many venues overwhelmed the Justice Department. Its agents resorted to seizing film prints and even to arresting entire movie theater staffs in the middle of screenings... Despite censures, many places allowed showings of the [Johnson & Jeffries] fight pictures, including New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, St Louis, Kansas City, Buffalo, Denver, Hoboken, Pittsburgh and smaller towns. They even played in Peoria."


Streible (Associate Professor at NYU's Cinema Studies Department and a leading light in the phenomenon known as "Orphan Film," dedicated to celebrating and preserving abandoned, fragmentary examples of early cinema) devotes almost as much space to a much less incendiary - but, in cinematic terms, no less historic - contest which had occurred 13 years before.


In March 1897 Bob Fitzsimmons knocked out Jim Corbett to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World in front of 5,000 fight-fans in Carson City, Nevada. According to a headline in the next day's Los Angeles Times, "The Arena was Spattered with Gore Drawn from Fitzsimmons' Face Under the Rain of Corbett's Blows." As noted by "special wire" reporter C. E. Washburn, "to the right of (the ring) was a huge square box, which contained the kinetoscope, whose work today will picture this event to all posterity." Washburn's prediction has been borne out - enter the words 'Corbett Fitzsimmons 1897' into YouTube and you'll see several minutes of flickering, primitive monochrome footage purporting to show the actual encounter itself.


Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was the very first example of what we'd now call a "feature-film" as it ran over 100 minutes - much longer than anything that had been presented to the public before. Many reference sources incorrectly give the "first feature" accolade to Australia's The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), with Wikipedia reckoning the first American feature to have been Oliver Twist (1912). Readers of Streible's book will know that Corbett-Fitzsimmons, on which a certain Enoch Rector fulfilled the duties of what we'd now probably call a director (such a shame his first names weren't David Ignatius), deserves that honour.


Shot on a wide-screen 63mm format, only 25 minutes of this pioneering work exists. These have since been transferred to the current industry-standard 35mm, and pop up occasionally at cinematheques such as the BFI - though those who've seen it will attest it's no Raging Bull, much less a Body and Soul. Indeed, as Streible wryly notes, "the surviving fragments of these archaic cinematic attractions hold little meaning to latter-day viewers. As movies, they are opaque and alien."


Streible, however, thankfully takes this opacity as a challenge rather than a dissuasively impenetrable cloud, however. He quotes historian Robert Darnton's view that "When we cannot 'get' a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem, we know we are on to something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel an alien system of meaning."

 

And that's just what Streible does here, bringing to life a lost subculture of American society and tracing how cinema and boxing enjoyed a genuinely symbiotic relationship from the 1890s to the First World War - and the controversial rise of black superstar Jack Johnson. "Motion pictures... sanitized prizefighting's image," we're told, "replaying the combat without the sight of blood, the smell of sweat or the sound of punches." As E.B.Lenhart of the San Francisco Examiner put it, "The camera has toned away anything repulsively real in what happened... several days back... You are getting all that occurred--with the red removed."


"Screen re-presentation was," Streible notes, "helping professional boxing gain acceptance." By the time Johnson's career had been clouded and effectively terminated by scandal (largely via racially-motivated, media-stoked controversies), both the pictures and the fights had, despite vehement opposition from several different quarters, cemented their positions within the national (and international) consciousness across a wide spread of social strata.


And a decade or so later, during the era of Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, "interest in watching ring stars [had] reached into sectors public and private, the spectacular and the everyday. The Paramount in Times Square ran the Tunney-Dempsey Fight as a daily special, as did first-run family theaters. The movie house aboard the SS Leviathan showed the film to 1,300 American Legionnaires returning from London. The Montmartre in Brooklyn even booked it with a revival of the 1920 art-house sensation The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (!). [exclamation-mark Streible's!]

The main focus of Fight Pictures, however, is on developments in the very earliest days of the century - and of cinema itself. Proving that there really is nothing new under the sun, Streible notes how "piracy" was one of the main causes of a crisis in the film industry as long ago as 1902 (along with "patent litigation" and "a lack of exhibition outlets.") One of Johnson's big bouts occasioned particularly opportunistic and audacious responses: 

According to the New York Times, "The fight management, seeing the possibility of moving           
picture machines equipped with telescopic lenses operating from the hills, had guards      
stationed at all vantage points." Nevertheless, an unidentified party filmed all parts of the bout            
from a hillside near the racetrack. A few days later these bootleg pictures were showing in              
Havana movie houses. 

One name that crops up repeatedly in Fight Pictures is that of the shadowy S.Lubin of Philadelphia, a forerunner of Roger Corman in his eye for a profitable angle and his hucksterish flair for publicity ("Lubin ads in the Clipper consistently bettered those of the competition in size and boldness.")


Lubin's company specialised in 'restagings' of celebrated bouts featuring the actual pugilists concerned (well, most of the time), under controlled conditions that gained in clarity and proximity what they lost in blood-and-thunder verisimilitude ("perfect, exact and clear reproductions" that "represent[ed] the highest type of the moving picture art." ... "Lubin was the sole company to capitalize regularly on boxing subjects. Its production method--staged direction of performers on a set--became standard procedure in the mass manufacture of narrative films after 1903.")
As Variety wryly noted (1908):

Several years ago it was a custom in Philadelphia to reproduce any film which seemed

to have elements of popularity, and at one time merely mentioning the name of the Quaker

City was enough to make film manufacturers outside of that town "throw a fit."

 

It's oddly heartening, meanwhile, to read how the very first "proper" film was preceded by cinema's very first 'press show': "The first screenings of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight were New York press shows in advance of the theatrical premiere... Rector had created a film whose content drew intense attention."


Such attention wasn't by any means restricted to adult patrons - and the supposedly baleful influence of the movies on young minds was a matter of concern in certain quarters over a century ago ("Moving Picture World rebutted the Christian Endeavor's press campaign, saying "the children whom the daily press so sensationally defend, or pretends to, will not see the pictures at all.")
As Streible records,

The film trade also met critics who feared the effects of prizefight films on children--children         
like twelve-year-old Jimmy Flaherty, a streetwise nickelodeon habitue living on Chicago's              
Halsted Street. When Jane Addams opened the Hull House Five-Cent Theater at her famed                 
settlement house,
Moving Picture World asked Jimmy to pass judgement on the "uplift nickel                 
theater show." His response to the wholesome program of fairy tales and travelogues was              
precocious: "It's pretty, all right... but it's too slow to make a go of it on
dis street." And his              
final remark was a progressive's nightmare: "I don't say it's right, but people likes to see        
fights, 'n' fellows getting hurt."


The book as a whole is punctuated with countless such priceless asides. Indeed, the 'Ruse at Rouses Point' - whereby a movie was apparently duplicated by being thrown from a projector just over on the Canadian side of the border onto a screen a few feet away on the American side (an ingenious attempt to circumvent laws forbidding interstate transportation of fight-pictures) - would itself be suitable for big-screen adaptation: "R.W. Ulmer made the tedious but ingenious reproduction in public from Sunday, April 4, 1916, through Thursday. ... The company contended that it had not violated the law because only rays of light had crossed the border. The new film negative thus produced in New York was literally made in America."


Written in a straightforward, sometimes punchy style that only occasionally lapses into academic stiffness - the first, introductory chapter is a bit of a slog - Fight Pictures amply lives up to Scorsese's comment about forcing us "to rethink the history of cinema." Anyone interested in the medium, in boxing, or in the general development of modern American society really should seek it out.

Meanwhile, please find below my rough selection of American boxing films for a future Viennale Retrospective (see last week's Lights Out (part one) for details of this year's Retro, curated by Jonathan Rosenbaum). In a nod to Mr James "Lights Out" Toney - IBF Champion at Middleweight, Super Middleweight and Cruiserweight, and partial inspiration for 2004's misbegotten Meg Ryan vehicle Against the Ropes - the programme might plausibly be entitled Lights Out: Cinema Boxiana Americana. It would ideally be compiled with the assistance of Mr Streible and Mr Scorsese (patron of the Austrian Filmmuseum where the Retrospectives are always screened), and dedicated to Mr (Jimmy) Flaherty. It would commemorate the enormous debt American cinema owes to the boxing-movie genre; would trace momentous changes in U.S. society and culture over the decades; and would also be an excuse to show some good "fight pictures." 

Ali (Michael Mann, 2001)

Battling Butler (Buster Keaton, 1926)
Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)
Broken Noses (Bruce Weber, 1987)
The Champ (King Vidor, 1931)
Champion (Mark Robson, 1949)

The Champion (Charles Chaplin, 1915) short

The Knockout (Charles Avery, 1914) short

City For Conquest (Anatole Litvak, 1940)

Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1896) (fragments)

+ selected extracts from other extant 1890s-1930s 'Fight Pictures'

Dempsey (Gus Trikonis, 1983)

Diggstown (Michael Ritchie, 1992)

Fat City (John Huston, 1972)
Gentleman Jim (Raoul Walsh, 1942)
Girlfight (Karyn Kusama, 2000)

Golden Boy (Rouben Mamoulian, 1939)

The Great John L. (Frank Tuttle, 1945)
The Harder They Fall (Mark Robson, 1956)

(+ Fight For the Title, Erle C Kenton, 1957, short)

Hard Times (Walter Hill, 1975)

Here Comes Mr Jordan (Alexander Hall, 1941)

The Hollywood Stadium Mystery (David Howard, 1938)
Jack Johnson (William Clayton, 1970)

The Joe Louis Story (Robert Gordon, 1953)

Keep Punching (John Clein, 1939)
Kid Galahad (Michael Curtiz, 1937)

Killer's Kiss (Stanley Kubrick, 1955)

(+ The Day of the Fight; Kubrick 1951) short
The Milky Way (Leo McCarey, 1936)

Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004)

Monkey On My Back (Andre de Toth, 1957)

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

Play It To The Bone (Ron Shelton, 1999)

The Prizefighter and the Lady (W S Van Dyke, 1933)
Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)

Requiem For a Heavyweight (Ralph Nelson, 1962)

Right Cross (John Sturges, 1950)
The Ring (Kurt Neumann, 1952)

Rocky (John G Avildsen, 1976)

Rocky II (Sylvester Stallone, 1980)

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006)

The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1948)

Shadow Boxers (Katya Bankowsky, 1999)
Somebody Up There Likes Me (Robert Wise, 1956)

Spirit of Youth (Harry L Fraser, 1938)

Tyson (James Toback, 2008)

Undisputed (Walter Hill, 2002)

Unforgivable Blackness (Ken Burns, 2004)

When We Were Kings (Leon Gast, 1996)

World in My Corner (Jesse Hibbs, 1955)

NB: Cinderella Man is a deliberate exclusion. We's all Max Baer fans on dis street.

***

pages from a cold island is a monthly dispatch from the European film scene by Neil Young.

Vienna’s Filmmuseum supremo Alex Horwath informs me that back in 1992 – his first year in charge of the Viennale – the Retrospektiv was ‘Boxkampkino’, a survey of the “boxer-film” subgenre. 2012 appeals as a “20 years on” “rematch.”
Let us also acknowledge Luke McKernan’s “Boxing 100: Boxing Films of the Silent Era,” screened at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone in 1997 (centennial of THE CORBETT-FITZSIMMONS FIGHT.

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