[31 January 2006]
What is it about the bull that inspires men to violent sport? In ancient Crete, they devised bull-vaulting, Brits had bull-baiting (which helped give us pit bulls and bulldogs), the Mediterranean region still celebrates bullfighting and the running of the bulls, and the American rodeo features bull riding. Each of these games harks back to some primitive instinct that I don’t quite recognize in myself, to a time when bulls and men ran naked and free and sometimes produced half-bull/half-man offspring who lived in mazes.
Of all these sports, none is as queer as bull riding. It originated with the first American rodeo in the mid 1800s. Whereas other rodeo competitions correspond to a useful skill in the ranching industry, like steer roping, bull riding comes from the Pecos Bill School of Cowboying. There is no rational reason to ride a bull (it bucks to remind you that you shouldn’t), but its outsized ludicrousness is part of the point, like taming a tornado.
Though I admire something in this cockeyed aspect of it, I was reminded while watching Time-Life’s Ultimate Bull Riding, of my first response: “Good god, what are you thinking?” The disc is basically separated into two sections, bitchin’ rides and gnarly falls. Everybody falls. It’s just a question of how bad.
According to Dr. Tandy Freeman, Director of Medical Services for Professional Bull Riders’ HealthSouth Sportsmedicine Team, “All these guys ride with a certain amount of pain.” The most frequent injury is a concussion. Basically, the only protective gear they wear is a Kevlar vest and a glove to grip the rope. The most gruesome falls usually occur when the rider falls off the bull with his hand caught under the rope, so the bull spins and tramples the helplessly dangling rider. (The most common surgical procedures undergone by bull riders are for shoulder injuries.) Then there’s the way a two-ton animal bucking underneath your crotch tends to tear at your groin and internal organs. Of the 56 professional bull riders currently in competition for the fledgling 2006 season, 20 are listed as injured on the Professional Bull Riders website.
Like NASCAR racing and gladiator games, death is the primary allure for spectators. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, superstar Chris Shivers opined, “Ninety percent of the people want to see blood and guts. I bet you go to those folks’ houses, you’ll find tapes spilling out of their cabinets of people getting stomped on and rolled on and busted up.” The makers of Ultimate Bull Riding apparently agree. The disc opens with a montage titled “Hitting the Dirt.” It could also be called “Hitting the Horns,” “Hitting the Hooves,” “Hitting the Rodeo Clown,” and “Getting the Head Stuck Between the Starting Chute Bars While the Hand Stays Attached to a Crazed Animal.” The chapter title, “Just Chute Me,” may work better straight than as a pun.
The rest of the disc is essentially an extended clip reel. An interesting effect of watching eight seconds loops of riding ad nauseam is that it eventually lulls you into a meditative state, free from thoughts of bodily damage. This lets you consider the sport from abstract angles, where bull and rider fuse into a timeless reverie of mutual antagonism.
Still, this doesn’t teach you anything concrete about the sport. The following sections, “90 Point Club” and “Classic Action,” give you names of famous riders and tantalizing retro footage of ‘70s rodeos. But you’re still left wondering, who are these guys? I would have imagined they’re young and possessed of tremendous courage that borders on insanity and/or rank foolishness, and that the average career lasts about eight seconds. But the bios of stars like Shivers show them to be clean-cut family men who have been pros for years. A few interviews would have made easy and useful bonus material.
Ultimate Bull Riding‘s closest kin may be the skateboarding video, which also revels in endless clips of bone-shattering tumbles. But skating videos also strive to capture the culture from whence the participants come. Here we don’t see anything about the role of the bulls, who are also scored, develop their own fan bases, and are sometimes treated as well as the riders on the road. There’s also a dearth of footage featuring supporting characters like the clowns and barrel men, typically only glimpsed running like mad at the edge of the frame. Bull riding has been increasing in popularity; it’s primetime entertainment on the Outdoor Life Network. If the Pro Rodeo organization that put these clips together wants to attract more fans, more detailed information can only help.
The disc wraps up with “Last Waltz,” a comic set piece using classical music as a counterpoint to the action. It’s like ending Saving Private Ryan with Tom Hanks performing a little soft-shoe. At a certain point, dizziness from watching heaps of carnage turns to queasiness and exasperation. Shouldn’t we have outgrown our bizarre chest-puffing attachment to bulls by now? As far as I can figure, this sport is about confronting mortality with deliberate self-mutilation, achieving romance through bodily harm. For the life of me, I just don’t get it. As Tennyson once put it, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”