Two Reviews and The Ballad of Ezra Sacks

To be fair, I was pretty out of it when I went to go see Tyson.

But damn, I had just really wanted to see that movie.

I had never seen a film by the director, James Toback, but I’d heard about him bandied around by other directors, the film bandied around at Sundance and the poster hanging on the 11th floor of the documentary of his life called The Outsider.

I had heard this was his comeback film, but furthermore Mike Tyson was a phenomenon I had not really experienced. As neither a fan of boxing nor someone acutely attuned to life during his peak years, all I knew of him was that he talked with a lisp and that he bit someone.

To see Tyson then was a wholly unsettling experience. We spend the film on Mike Tyson’s face for the most part, cutting and intercutting with the different accounts of his life, the different stories, in various split screens, occasionally getting out of our tri-fascination with the man to see him in media, proffered forth by his trainer Cus D’Amato or describing how he will force a man to suck his dick “until you love it”.

The man, Mike Tyson, is a monster, but of Frankenstein-style proportions. In listening to his story, it is impossible not to implicate society in his creation. Faced with an absent father and a mostly absent mother, the man was a child of the streets, a hood who discovered his own power at an early age when another child, a bully, snaps the neck of a pigeon he kept as a hobby, only to be bested by Tyson in his nascent rage. He says from then until his boxing career, he just wanted to keep people from hurting him, to hurt them before they hurt him.

But later we see Tyson describing to us, in modern-day, how he envisioned his glove throwing through the other man’s skull and we see this is a creature bred for violence, something he demonstrates for us again and again. After all, Mike Tyson is at his best, at the top of his game walloping people, hurting them to stop them hurting him. We see him even knock out a man in 8 seconds in the ring. Darker moments abound too, like the flip-out at a press conference where Tyson threatens a heckler with a dick-lashing, or his conviction for rape. Even though Tyson feigns innocence for the rape, indeed in some way he might be, we hear later that his very concept of women is to find someone powerful and to subjugate them, to “totally ravish them”, “to completely dominate”. For him, there seems no separation between violence and love, sport and identity.

When we see him at the end of the film, he describes himself as a man on the brink, a man who has to be fabulously wealthy or have nothing at all. After a series of defeats, a fall worthy of his mantra–that he was hurt before he could hurt them–he has left boxing behind, scorned and somewhat broken. But without that channel, he has reverted to his child-like exuberance. In the videos with his children, he seems to show genuine love for them, much as he must have once loved the pigeons he described. The idea is that Tyson is somewhat of the eternal child, some sort of monstrous version of Tom Hanks from Big. Trapped in adolescence by trauma and training, he is eternally lashing out to destroy, or sulking and petty. He is in the ring or he is playing as one plays with other children. He is what he is and what he says is all that can be said by himself.

In this way, Toback has made a very interesting, fascinating and frightening film. Mike Tyson in many ways seems the contemporary counterpoint to Jake La Motta and Tyson seems almost a darker, documentary-counterpart to Raging Bull. Two men are boxers. Two men never give up until they are beaten, until life beats them, until their tragic flaw takes them down. One is real and one is based off of one who is real. But Tyson is in many ways a swan song, much like An Evening With Jake La Motta was in the structure of Raging Bull. In the end though, Toback has shown us that unlike Raging Bull, Tyson is a tragedy not just of the man–since the man is a monster and falls from one form of monsterdom into a more gentle disuse–rather it is the tragedy of us that we create this monster, that we create him to destroy him, that men like him are made to burn, products of a society where violence is given to a child like a bottle.

***

There is little to say about The Merry Gentleman, a film where little is said.

That said, I will say the theater I saw it at was terrible, the projection shaky, the sound a little off. Whenever they paused on a static shot with a street sign, the letters vibrated, all terrible things.

I even had some terrible Mexican food before from a place called Maya–it was so bad, so tasteless and spiceless, it made me wonder if I had a cold.

But, given that, I’m sure I would have hated it, if I didn’t like it so much.

That is because much of The Merry Gentleman is a very ugly film. The film is directed by Michael Keaton and the man obviously had neither budget nor experience lighting just about anything. Some of the shots look hideous and obvious and a place supposed to be obviously a business, central to the script, looks just art-directed enough that it feels like it should have the production-value of some extras, of which there are none.

Much of the film functions in this way, in obvious slapped-together fashion. When this is done in a “mumblecore” or an obviously “young” movie, it often feels forgivable as we are caught up in the energy of the performances, and yes, the hipster-nihilism of it all (“Oh a boom pole. Who cares. I’m a hipster.”)

But The Merry Gentleman is very obviously not a “young” film, a Bujalski or a (yuck) Swanberg. It is a film about two people embarking on their second lives, who don’t care much to talk about it, thank you, with the audience or anyone else.

I say that, becuase the film has hardly any back-story, shit, hardly any dialogue. A woman with an accent–it’d be hard to describe her as young, but she’s not old–gets a black eye and disappears overnight leaving her life behind. She goes to a new city, takes a new job, makes a new friend, the receptionist sitting next to her–all of these are anonymous, even the city (Spoiler: I found out it was Chicago by watching the credits). The woman, Kate (Kelly Macdonald) goes about her new, bland life until she sees a man standing on top of building who she thinks to jump and she calls out “No!” at which he slips and falls backwards, the police are called and what passes for action here occurs.

But slowly. Everything is done at half-pace in The Merry Gentleman. The man, we find out is Frank (Michael Keaton), a man who kills other men. Is he a hit-man? A contract killer? A retired Batman from a previous Michael Keaton film? All we know of him really is that he’s a tailor, as we see him sew a pair of pants. And is he coming to kill Kate when he finds her under a Christmas tree? All we know is that he doesn’t, he helps her move it, and she thinks he may be “the sweetest man” she’s ever met.

Which is a relatively big deal in the world of this film, becuase Kate for all her ordinariness and reticence, is much the object of desire. Her receptionist friend tells her that with “straight hair and that accent” she wouldn’t have to fuck her boss. A lonely cop (Bobby Canavale) tries with half-a-wish to sneak his way into her life which only appalls Kate. Even the man who gave Kater her shiner, the film’s opening moment, appears with little explanation other than “this is what I do” and “praise Jesus”.

While the police don’t manage to help her, it is guessed that Frank does, as he wanders into her predicament and wanders out, the husband taken care of. And then, with a little more ceremony and a few more questions unanswered, the movie ends with our characters moved on, or not.

What Keaton aims for is a sort of American translation of the sort of style Wong-Kar-Wai brings to his films in Hong Kong and in ways The Merry Gentleman feels like a downscale In the Mood for Love. It’s not the film that that film is for various reasons–the style, the intensity of the actors, the lack of exoticism–but in other ways, it’s an admirable film for the American indie. A sense that more can done with a little and that there are stories to tell, on the down-and-out for shoe-string budgets, in America too.

***

I was primed to leave behind my Advanced Production class. I’ll admit to my ennui–what my dad calls Weltschmerz–and I assume the normal condition of the post-art-school collegian. Still, I had tired of the endless critiques of the un-critiqueable. Even I, a self-styled critic, just wanted to see now what people would do and felt the futility of badgering them, after all, you couldn’t make someone make a different movie then the person who they are would allow them to make. Such a feat is Sisyphean in nature and foolish to boot.

But when Matt Morgenthaler asked question after question as I squirmed to exit that teched-out basement-classroom, I felt bored when I heard him ask for Ezra’s story of what he did out of school. I thought I’d heard it before, sitting in his office, an eager freshman, looking for the stories of those around me.

But what he told us was different than what I had heard and I stopped my iPhone apps to listen.

“Well, I moved out to L.A. having written my first screenplay and no one wanted anything to do with me. Every door I approached was shut in my face.”

“I sought out Marty Scorsese–we called him Marty back then–and he had been my teacher. He was finishing up directing Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman and I approached him, said hey Marty, great class. And he just told me yeah, but there’s nothing I can do for you and that was that.”

“What my script did get me was interest from an agent, who wanted nothing to do with what I had but encouraged me and told me that he’d read the next thing I wrote. So in my desperation, seeking something to write, I ended up at USC Grad School. They gave me a scholarship.”

“It was the unanimity of every door being shut in my face that took me there.”

“Well, while I was there, I got to take a class on the lot of 20th Century Fox, with a vice-president for production. And I was a New Yorker, I had never been on a movie lot before. And for the first time, I saw a wall full of scripts, scripts the studio had bought.”

“And so I asked the teacher, who fairly liked me, if I could take the scripts home, a few of them that had recently been bought by the studio and read them.”

“I did and I churned out my second screenplay and I really thought this was something special, something great. So I sent it to this teacher, the VP of production at Fox, the one I had the class with and I never heard back. I gave it to the agent. He just gave me mixed signals.”

“Finally, I had to send more copies out, but at the time if you wanted copies of your script, you’d have to bring them to a script-copying service and that was expensive and I was broke. So I had a friend who had gotten in to AFI and he told me he could sneak me in to use their one-gigundo Xerox machine they had there.”

“And as I was xeroxing the pages, my friend at AFI was reading them. And he told me, this is really good. I said thanks. But he was serious and he said, you know what, I’m a reader at United Artists and I’ll write some coverage of this.”

“That was Friday. By Monday, I woke up at 8am and got a call from a woman receptionist saying ‘Is this Ezra Sacks?’ and I told her yes and she said hold for Mike Medavoy, to whom I was then connected and he said how fast can you come here and I said 30 minutes. By the time I got there, the whole executive board was in a room and they’d all read my script.”

“And they asked me if they were the first ones to see this and I said yes, because I could lie through my teeth, of course that agent had seen it and that vice-president teacher at 20th Century Fox, but I said yes and they smiled.”

“And that script didn’t even get made, but it got sold and the headline was in Variety the next day: United buys script from first-time scribe Sacks. And after that I never did another script on spec.”

But here Matt interjected: “How did you support yourself between when you got to LA and then?”

Ezra continued.

“Well, I had a small stream of money from my parents, but that dried up suddenly. But I got a lucky break. I noticed that the local radio station didn’t have a film critic. It was Los Angeles and they didn’t have one on the air, like Gene Shallit or someone back home.”

“So I knew someone there and came in and pitched and they asked if I knew film critcism and I said of course, I’m a film student, I used to write about movies all the time. And the manager came in and said ‘OK, let’s have him record a tape’ and this of course was death because I had no idea how to sound for the radio.”

“So I recorded a tape of my reading some movie reviews and they said ‘No, that’s terrible’ and then after conversing amongst themselves, they said, well let’s see what he’s like with a few drinks. And they’d give me a few drinks and I’d sound drunk and they’d tell me to come back the next day. And the next day, they’d say no and tell me to try it high and I’d come to record and I’d sound stoned. And the next day they said, well, let’s have him try it on tranquilizers and I sounded, well, like I was on tranks. And this was free entertainment for the DJs, they were getting a real kick out of this, but after that the manager said fuck it, let him go on the air and after that I was in.”

***

I don’t know why I felt the need to recount all that right here. Maybe it’s because I consider now how one might make it in this world. Maybe because at end of my film school education, I got to hear something about someone I respected that was so interesting to me and helped illuminate his path. Maybe it was just because it was the sort of story I’d like to hear.

But then, I’m going on too long again.

But as always, there’s much to write.

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2 Responses to Two Reviews and The Ballad of Ezra Sacks

  1. EZRA SACKS IS FASCISTS!

  2. Morgenthaler says:

    Glad I could string out a blogworthy story for ya Nick đŸ˜‰

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