Mike Tyson has made me almost shockingly emotional. More than once. From discussing all the love he has to give, and how he can’t receive it, to his genuine tenderness and nostalgia for his former trainer, to all the women he mistreated, to his violence and vulnerability, to the pigeons he’s been raising since childhood and adores (a la Brando’s On the Waterfront Terry Malloy), the man’s troubles hit me to the core. You can say I’m being conned or manipulated or white-washed by director James Toback who clearly loves his friend. Say what you want. This fascinating, deeply flawed American icon moves me. Like Gary Gilmore moved me in Norman Mailer's The Executioner’s Song or in Mikal Gilmore's beautiful Shot in the Heart, Toback took on a troubled, talented man turned criminal with a raw, yet lyrical sensitivity, and a deeper awareness of how both the world and the man, can misdirect their power and passion to crush themselves -- no matter how much potential they’ve got. With Mike Tyson, add collective racism. He's often viewed as some sort of primal animal, and you’ve got multiple issues to contend with -- personally and politically.
Heady, poignant, scary, humanist, controversial, heartbreaking, and maddening, Tyson pushes potent buttons. The famed “outsider” director who made, among other pictures, his masterpiece, Fingers, The Pick Up Artist and the terrifically underrated Black and White (which featured a stellar, scary turn by Tyson in a brilliant scene with Robert Downey Jr. ) turned his camera on his friend of many years, former heavyweight champ, fallen icon Tyson and the result is hypnotic. Shot entirely from Tyson’s perspective, the style will unnerve those who have serious problems with the former boxer. But many will see a man in pain, and a man who’s never resolved his pain, and perhaps a man who never wll. Which in our current culture of constant. empty apologies -- those PR tours of redemption -- Tyson’s emotional honesty is deeply refreshing. Yes, he’s still fucked up. And yes, he’s the first to admit it. For 90 minutes we watch Tyson's captivating face, world-weary and at times, teary-eyed, discuss his life -- from the heavyweight championship he won at 20, to his the trainers, to his wives, to his loves, to his pigeons, to his rape charge, to his stint in prison and then some -- and it becomes mesmerizing, poetic.
I talked with Toback about his movie and our lengthy discussion went to many places (our mutual love of Thomas Hardy and Dostoyevsky and our frequent siding with the supposed “bad guy”) so I’m parceling out some key moments, proving, once again, that Toback is a man who is never at a loss for words, ideas, or demons -- demons he embraces like a familiar friend.
Thomas Hardy as related to Mike Tyson:
Re-occurrences are not unlikely in fact, they are inevitable and you put them in movies and people say, “Oh get the fuck out of here” that’s too convient. And then you say, read some Hardy and live a little and you’ll not only see it’s not convenient, it’s inevitable, these things that you feel fit too neatly are constantly occurring. One of them happened to Tyson. When he got out of prison, I was thinking, I’m going to use him now in this next movie Black and White…and I was just visiting my mother and I’m walking down 72nd Street to Columbus Avenue…thinking whether Mike has his old cell phone number which I’m sure he hasn’t so I can call him about the movie and as I’m thinking this, there’s a knock on the window of the City Grill Restaurant and there’s Mike sitting there with a friend and I come into the restaurant and I say, "You are not going to believe this. I was just thinking about getting your number and calling you to ask you to be in… Black and White" and he says, "You’re not gonna believe this(and he says to his friend) ‘Who was I just talking about?’" The guy says 'James Toback' and he says (points) "this is James Toback." So that was a truly Hardy-esque moment. I love Hardy.
Favorite Thomas Hardy?
Jude the Obscure by far…
Of course. The darkest one of all . . .
Yes, of course.
And, favorite Dostoyevsky?
My favorite is The Possessed. Stavrogin's confession -- one of the greatest chapters in the history of world literature. And I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love Notes from Underground, which I used with Jimmy Caan in The Gambler: “I am a sick man, I am a spiteful man, and I think my liver is diseased.” Once you’re a devotee of Dostoyevsky, you feel a kind of allegiance to his spirit. I literally feel that my life could not have been what it became without him, he was the only writer, I’m not so insane that I literally think it’s true, [but he’s the only writer] who ever addressed me directly and personally. I actually felt he wrote this to communicate it with me. He is speaking directly to me. And I will someday answer. I regard my movies as a response to him. Not an argument. But an extension and a feeling that I am somehow carrying out his inspiration.
This was a very Dostoyevskian line: Mike Tyson saying “My insanity is my only sanity.”
That’s right. That is exactly what happened with me when I flipped out on LSD when I was 19 and a sophomore at Harvard. I lost my sanity for eight days. And that was my sanity. Those voices, that madness. And you can know it’s insane and at the same time say that’s all there is, everything else is just an illusion. And of course it’s tough to fit in the social universe with that attitude and that psychology. But what can you do, if that’s what you believe? Fortunately I gave up that belief…but I knew that I’d never get over it. I knew that if I ever became an artist that it would become the subject of my work so that even if I’m doing a movie about Mike Tyson, I’m really doing a movie about how madness lurks under the primary layer of consciousness and is ready to erupt at any time. And how the behavior of people who are living in some kind of close juxtaposition to madness is always going to be potentially disruptive, subversive and radical because one is not subject to the normal restrictions and limitations that a quote un quote ‘sane person’ who has never been quote un quote ‘insane’ has had to deal with.
The rape charge and critics as lemmings:
First of all there’d be no reason on earth for him to spend 15 years lying to me about it… He’s always told me, not told me, it’s far too impassioned to use a verb like “told” -- he has always insisted that it is a horrifying example of railroading and that he under no stretch of the word could possibly be thought of as having raped her…In fact, he said if 500 people were watching he said there isn’t one who could legitimately say that’s what happened. But when you put in the fact, as you’re just talking about, people don’t see anything but the outside information surrounding context and that’s what they believe. Because it’s easier to do that. It’s easier to go through life always believing what the herd mentality leads you to believe because you’re always on safe ground. As long as I say what I am supposed to say, no one can nail me, because I’m just saying what everybody else is saying or everybody in my group is saying. It’s like opinions of movies. There are film reviewers who are incapable of having an opinion till they have polled the group they are part of and make sure they are not going to be off base. It’s embarrassing to a point of being ugly and creepy. The idea of that I would ever have an opinion because I thought I was supposed to have it is so nauseating to me that I would rather slit my throat. You’ve packed it in as a human being… I cannot say what I think because I’m afraid of what people I want to be a part of might not like me and will be upset that I said it or think there’s something wrong with me? Fuck them and their ancestors.
The rape charge was always suspicious to me -- and what does convicted really mean anyway?
You start to look at it and say, this is fucking ridiculous. What do you mean, convicted as if it were a word we should be in awe of and the case is closed, discussion is over. Oh my god! It means he did it! No, it doesn’t. It means it was he was convicted. The reason I have this fresh in my mind is because many people ask me about it. Convicted rapist. Convicted, convicted. This is why Wittgenstein was my favorite philosopher because he was the first one when I read him when I was 15 who started making me think about language as a suspect. That language can be used to conceal, to deceive to mislead even uncousiously as much as it can be used to reveal. And that often, we use language as a tool of preventing meaning from coming through not as a way of creating meaning or truth.
Yes, writers say a lot and mean nothing, even when they’re being supposedly “out there” -- it’s often always just enough to please their group.
Yes. I think this kind of group thinking, class thinking, is the bane of any kind of honest approach to life and I am always so antagonistic towards it wherever I see it, that I’d rather defend someone who is guilty then convict somebody who is whether he is innocent or not, the conviction is based on this kind of group thinking…where we all know this. Everybody knows that. Who’s everybody? Well, I and my friends. It's always going back to the basics. This is why Dostoyevsky was the greatest novelist who ever lived, because he assumed nothing. He started with the notion, (well that’s not true he assumed the Russian Orthodox Church was perfect, but if you put aside that insanity) everything else he did started with a fresh perspective of human personality and the dynamic of human behavior and love and sex and madness and money. Nothing was assumed. Everything was original.
Tyson felt like a tragic Greek figure in this movie...
That’s the first thing he said [when] the movie ended. He said: “It’s like a Greek Tragedy the only problem is I’m the subject.” And then he saw it for the third time, he came up to me and said: “You know people always said they were scared of me and I always thought ‘what are they talking about? Why are they scared of me?’ and he said tonight I was watching the movie and I thought,’ I’m scared of that guy.’” One of the reasons Mike Tyson is a great “fictional” character, a great leading man in the movie that is about Mike Tyson where he’s playing himself is precisely that he’s a character who really only tells the truth, he gets through to you as who he is. There is no evasive misleading stuff…
That Holyfield fight and the ear:
You end up saying he should have had a third ear to bite. Because Holyfield is clearly intentionally head-butting him to the eye…Holyfield is a dirty fighter…and Mike snaps. And he goes crazy. And, as he says, I don’t regret having bitten him, I regret that I lost my discipline because that’s the one thing a fighter needs is his discipline, and I lost it. So I lost my faith in boxing and I lost my faith in myself. That was a real turning point for him, not because he bit his ear, or ears, but because he lost his sense of control. He went insane in the ring... you’re watching a person whose gone insane and that’s one of the wildest and weirdest moments in film history to me. He went back home drank some wine smoked some pot and fell asleep. You have this image of a billion people arguing and talking about this crazy event that happened and he’s sitting there alone.
And... one of the most moving moments of the picture, the famous: "I'll fuck you till you love me..." Watch James Toback discusses that chill inducing, sad, scary and complicated moment with me.