So Beautiful to Watch
Fighting is truth.
As Gil Guillory sees it, his career is an extension of human history. A former fighter, he now runs USA-MMA, promoting mixed martial arts bouts in Lafayette, Louisiana. “There’s something about beating another man into submission that the world is attracted to,” he says, while you watch a few fighters bouncing on the balls of their feet, shadowboxing and kicking. A percussive beat on the soundtrack punctuates their movements. Framed by doorways and silhouetted, they’re poetic here, at the start of Fightville.
They’re also products—of their own lives, of a culture committed to particular masculine and also commercial ideals. “By nature, [man’s] a warrior,” Guillory goes on, “So when you say ‘fight,’ everyone is gonna turn and look.” In his world (the one “attracted to” cage fighting), selling that entertainment is as important as providing it, the show and the look work together. Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s new documentary considers the effects of this apparent shift—from fighting as primal contest to spectacle for paying consumers—a shift that depends equally on that fighting’s brutality and its poetry.
Screening at DOC NYC on 6 November, Fightville follows Guillory, along with Louisiana’s Gladiator Academy member Tim Credeur and a couple of young fighters they’re bringing along, Dustin Poirier and Albert Stainback. All speak eloquently to their aspirations and contexts, helping you to understand how anyone might find an identity or a sense of community in MMA. In this focus, the film recalls Epperlein and Tucker’s Gunner Palace and How to Fold a Flag, two excellent documentaries about young men at war in Iraq and then come home to the States, as they grapple, differently in their different contexts, with how to be men, and how to live with themselves when they’ve acted—violently, sometimes horribly—according to someone else’s ideas of what that means. Fightville also recalls Epperlein and Tucker’s remarkable Bulletproof Salesman, in which Fidelus Cloer explicates and also ponders his philosophy and his business, namely, selling armored vehicles in war zones.
Both that film and this one look at how risk and fear can be exploited by merchants, even well-meaning merchants; both keep close focus on these sellers rather than buyers, and specifically, how they tell themselves that what they’re doing is at once rational, righteous, and socially responsible. Both films include intertitles that comment on what you’re seeing, sometimes indirectly, sometimes surreally: “And if the body were not a soul, what is the soul?” Fightville quotes Walt Whitman, just after Credeur extols his fighters’ creativity: “All painters they use the same paints, the same canvases, the same types of brushes,” he notes as you see hard bodies being perfected in the gym. “But the paintings themselves are so different and so beautiful to watch.”
The documentary also cites P.T. Barnum (“Without promotion, something terrible happens… nothing!”), simultaneously confirming and questioning Guillory’s faith in his mission: “I can’t make money if a fighter can’t sell tickets,” he admits, meaning that he typically must overhype a fighter in order to make his living, and sometimes fighters believe that hype, at which point he has to explain they’re not actually worth the enhanced paychecks they begin to want.
Fightville looks at cage fighting as a means to identity and an unending sales pitch, and also at the products sold, that is, vulnerable young men. (Tucker says his interest in cage fighting evolved as he was making How to Fold a Flag, and found veteran Mike Goss fighting in Texas.) Certainly, they don’t see themselves as such. They reveal they’ve survived difficult childhoods: after Dustin’s mother reveals he spent time in “juvenile courts and boot camps,” he underlines, “I definitely think fighting has opened up the path of redemption for me”; Albert explains his motivation, “If I had to give some kind of Freudian guess at it,” as a desire to be a “defender.” If his determination is extraordinary, his story is too typical: “My dad used to beat my mom senseless and I always put that in my mind, I think about certain things when I go to my angry place.”
Fighting, if not rage, is a culture, for boys and soldiers and entertaining warriors. They craft their heroic self-images carefully. “When that fear and that doubt comes up, it’s almost like a person,” Albert reports, “I beat the fuck out of it, you know, I kick it down the stairs, I chain it to the basement, kick it a few more times for good measure, then I head back upstairs and I lock that door, because I will not let that fear stop me from doing what I want to do.”
What he wants to do is be a champion fighter, feel respected, resilient and confident, masters of destinies they say they don’t believe in. Here the fighters are perpetually constructing their ideal selves, their bodies (and black eyes and broken noses and scars) emblems of their efforts. As Guillory and Credeur add in to the process, helping them to see the worth of it, the kids see themselves making dreams out of nightmares. Dustin says he’s “full of joy” when he’s at work in the cage (though he also demurs from calling himself a professional fighter until he’s actually making a living at it; until then, he tells people, “I drive a delivery truck, I can’t lie to somebody”). As much as Dustin means to move on, to sign a contract with a company like the UFC, Albert concedes the show, practicing his stare in the mirror, donning a derby and white coveralls (after Alex in A Clockwork Orange) en route to the ring, posing as someone else to insist on his own creation. While he struggles to find hope and direction in that pose, he confesses he’s distracted by life, a breakup and his job.
Montages, sometimes slow motion, show him in the gym or his newly empty home, on the sidewalk passing by the gym, feeling unfocused and worried about how to tell Gil—who makes his own show of his job. His priorities shape his family, as he enlists his wife and young children in the promotions (watching as his daughter, “who’s three years old,” helps with flyers, he parses carefully: “It’s not a gimmick, but it sells”). The film helps tell this story of the entertainment, helps you to understand your part in it. During a tough fight, Dustin and his opponent Derrick pound one another until their gloves are as bloody as their faces. The camera is low, peeping through the cage, as Derrick, the favorite, leans over Dustin. Little speech bubbles appear, translating their muffled exchange: ““You are doing good,” the larger boy tells his adversary. Dustin answers, “Thank you.”
So self-possessed, so aware of the performance, they nonetheless keep turning that performance around, rolling it on top of itself. “I want it to be my only option because I love it that much,” says Albert. “Maybe that’s a little foolhardy, but I don’t care.” Yet he does care. The film ensures you know that, as he appears again and again against the dark red wall of the locker room, exhausted while and because he pushes himself. Fighting is a fiction, but that doesn’t make it less true.