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That hero mentality

The interviews are running behind schedule. Granted, there’s lots to keep track of, namely, a day’s worth of meetings with local and national publications, and three interviewees, Price of Glory director Carlos Avila, and two of the film’s stars, Jon Seda and Jimmy Smits, who’s also scheduled to attend the film’s DC premiere this evening, and then head off to Tipper Gore’s home for a reception honoring the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.


So, like I say, there’s a lot going on. And surely there are worse places to hang out than the lobby of a Four Seasons Hotel, where the armchairs are cushy and there’s enough space between you and the businessman smoking a cigar in the chair across from you, that the aroma is less awful than it might have been. And then the word comes down, Jon Seda’s ready to speak, for twenty or so minutes, after which you’re whisked off to see Avila and then, at last, you find yourself in Smits’ room, where you wait again, for a minute or two, because he’s changing into his evening’s apparel, something smart and elegant but not too formal, you know, something appropriate for an audience with Tipper.


Each of the interviews is gracious and a little strange at the same time. It’s not like anyone thinks this movie-promoting process is logical or fun, but sometimes it can be revealing, of yourself as much as of those people known as “the talent,” those people who want you to like them and more important, to like what they’ve made. Because they’re professionals, used to doing press, all three men understand the need to pitch Price of Glory as, in Smits’s words, “an American film with a Latino heart.” He observes (as I’ve seen him tell TV interviewers as well) that, “if this was the 1940s, this would be the O’Donnell family, it’s an immigrant experience.” He continues, “It’s the story of the underdog overcoming all odds, the red white and blue on the ropes, the big prize belts.”


The story follows the traumas and triumphs of the Ortega family, headed by failed boxer Arturo (Smits) and his wife Rita (Maria del Mar). Arturo passes on his knowledge, drive, and enthusiasm to his three sons, Sonny (Seda), Jimmy (Clifton Collins Jr.), and Johnny (Ernesto Hernandez). “With Arturo,” Smits notes, “it’s the only thing that he knows how to give them. From his point of view, it’s love, it might be tough love or border on abuse at points, but it’s all he feels he can give his sons.” And besides, the familial drama is based on real life, a story and stage play by sports journalist Phil Berger, and then researched by Smits and Avila, who spent time at Silver Gloves Tournaments, watching, Smits recalls, “whole families coming in minivans, with the support of grandmothers as well as the fathers. We saw the discipline that’s involved, the pride of the family, and there’s something so familial and intimate between a boxer and his trainer.”


Indeed, the tensions between Arturo and his sons comes in his insistence that he be their trainer, sometimes at the expense of being their father. He wants his sons to be champions, and the price is high. Thirty-year-old Seda, a former amateur boxer in real life, sees the father-son conflict as emblematic. While he grants that the film includes some boxing movie cliches, he sees in them an enduring appeal: “It’s that hero mentality” he says. “Sometimes you want to see someone win, and in this case it’s not just one person, it’s a family. It’s kind of like the Cosby show on TV, we’re like every other family, going through all these trials and tribulations, and we can still come out on top. So I think it’s about communication in a family. I want my own son to be the best and to have the best. But I want to make sure I’m not pushing him too hard.”


Seda’s boxing background came in handy: “It’s like riding a bike, no matter how long it’s been since the last time your rode the bike, it’s just a matter of refining your tools. I’ve been in the ring, I know what it’s like to get hit. And it’s less about the physical training, in the end, than it is about the mental preparation: boxing is a chess game. You have to be skilled enough and have trained hard enough to know how many different ways you can counterattack in any situation, at any moment. That’s what I love most about boxing, the one on one competition: when the bell rings, it’s just you and the other guy.” He has his own ideas about boxing, as a sport and corrupt business. “I think it’s more and more about entertainment, like wrestling,” Seda says. “Not so much in the middleweight divisions, but in the heavyweight division: I’m not going to lie, there are fixed fights. It’s become a huge show. I’ve said it myself, I’ll never watch a Mike Tyson fight again, after he bit Holyfield’s ear. And then I find myself watching the next one.”


And yet, all three men see the film’s focus on boxing as, in part, metaphorical, a way to get at broader, more universal concerns, with forming an identity, maturing and taking responsibility for yourself and others. Thirty-year-old Seda observes of his role as Sonny, “I had to remember when I was 22, when I was a much different person. Not that it was so long ago, but now I can call myself a man. When I was 22 I was still immature, and I was still boxing when I was 21, and had that swagger about me, that young confidence.”


Director Carlos Avila had to develop his own confidence on the job. He was drawn to Berg’s script right away, but the film took five years to get financed, which meant he spent time researching and refining the project. He says, “You know, as a first time feature director — most of my work has been independent and for PBS — this picture was a bit of a challenge, because I thought it was something we’d do down and dirty for half a million dollars and it turned into a $12 million film, with a major star, and the hardest part was adapting to the scale, showing up to the set and seeing all these trucks and all eyes were on me.”


Smits feels fortunate to have worked with Avila. He says that he’s “always looking for roles that show a different side of me, and while TV audiences are used to seeing me as the idealistic lawyer or heroic cop, this guy is very flawed. I also was drawn to the fact that it involves the next generation of filmmakers, in Carlos. The vibe between us was good, and we realized early on that we’d have to be much more than the actor-director relationship, that we’d have to be a partnership if this was going to work, because of studio politics and all that. Usually, they say “Wrap!” and the director takes his 150,000 feet of fetus and makes a baby, and then you see it on the screen. But Carlos kept me in the loop on the first cut, choosing the music, and finding rhythm of scenes and deciding on marketing. I wanted to give my opinion, but I ultimately didn’t want to intrude on his vision, because it’s his movie.”


Avila is proud of the film and the soundtrack. On walking into his hotel room, you’re hit with a huge, pounding sound, and Avila is setting the dials on the stereo. The cd has just arrived, and he’s thrilled that you like it, and starts playing the tracks of which he’s especially proud. He says that on one level, “I want to use the movie as a vehicle to get the word out about these great artists, like El Gran Silencio’s ‘Caminando’ and Pastillla’s ‘Be a Star.’ They were blown away because we spent more money on the one single as they did on their entire first album. This is the bomb, there’s so much energy: Latino artists are the product of listening to so many different kinds of music, from rock to world, to the traditional music of their own country. All of these bands use older traditions in their music. Gran Silencio is always sampling mariachi music. I wanted to make a modern movie that reflected what’s happening musically, in our community but also internationally, in Latin America, Mexico, Europe, and the United States: a lot of these bands are American bands. This is the future,” he says. “Latinos aren’t going away, Latino music isn’t going away, and I think it’s important to start paying attention to it, beyond the pop stars who make the cover of Newsweek.”


Avila says, “I wanted to do the film for several reasons, including the boxing and the visual possibilities of that, and that it was a family movie, the ensemble nature of the story. I was very conscious of trying to give everybody their day in court, a throughline that made sense. At times that can be unwieldy, at least in the script stage, but we were mindful of it in the editing room, to preserve the three very specific relationships the sons had with Arturo. For me, it’s not just about a father trying to live his dreams through his sons, it’s about three young men who are trying to figure out who they are in the shadow of that father, trying to individuate. In the case of Arturo, it’s how do you become complete? He always envisioned his life as being one where boxing success would validate him, so he couldn’t do it himself, and he tries to monopolize the lives of his sons, and be complete through that effort.”


When you ask Avila about the usefulness of boxing as a metaphor for this self-discovery, given its famous corruptions, he’s ready. “I didn’t want Arturo to be naive, thinking that boxing is all about the glory and being the successful champion and not pay attention to the realities of that world. And I think it’s effective that we show the maneuverings and the manipulations and the machinations that go on. But perhaps it’s the idealism of wanting to be the best you can be, there’s a sort of purity in that dream. I spent a lot of time with trainers and fighters: certainly boxing is a violent sport and it’s a corrupt sport, but you have to listen to these guys. It’s about class as well. I spoke with one guy who was the son of migrant workers, and he was working in a garment factory next to a gym, and he wanted to make enough money boxing to send back to his parents so they could get out of the fields and open a Mexican restaurant. What are you going to say to that? It’s an idealism and it’s their avenue. Even as a filmmaker, you want to make a certain kind of film, but there’s this business side of it too. It’s the modern world, and you can’t always be idealistic, you’ve got to be realistic.”


As for his own aspirations — longterm and immediate — Avila combines hope with practicality. “I grew up in the United States, but in a Latino neighborhood. I want a Latino audience to come out and be inspired by the movie, but I also want other audiences to see it.” After all, he says, “You do this work because you hope to dispel stereotypes about Latinos and their communities, but you won’t have any impact unless people come out and see the movie.”

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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