Monday, August 22, 2005

BODY POLITIC

Between a picnic for a chiropractic center, a graduation ceremony for a massage school and Hempfest, one could say this was a weekend of EVENTS. Of course, one of those events being hempfest, my recollection of the weekend's events is hazy at best. I'm getting ready for a second refill (3rd cup) of (black, sorta sludgy) coffee. A delivery man has dropped off our bi-weekly supply of shortbread cookies. The perk is that he drops a giant plastic bag of said cookies on my desk. The drawback is that, as a result, I have a giant bag of shortbread cookies on my desk. I tend to eat them. With coffee. The result is my feeling fat, oversugared and highly caffeinated.

So . . . Hempfest. Great outdoor setting, vibrant, fun atmosphere, sunny day, lotsa "hemp-fortified" food and cooling lemonade. Semi-interesting music blared from at least three different stages (and numerous DJs, with the occasional MC, played sets in tents strategically placed throughout the venue), and some attendees created their own performance art. One girl (with whom my wife and I were in mad lust) wore a shimmering wraparound with a top and gossamer wings that folded back into a cape, opening her wings ("spread" by means of wooden, hand-held extensions and waved in arcs) and creating a psychedelic spectacle that might not have needed chemical enhancement to be trippy (though I may never know for sure).

As an all-weekend festival, the event was a doozy. As a political rally, I had a lot of misgivings. The political diatribes weren't much more articulate than those offered by the average Judas Priest stoner: Vague pronouncements about the criminals in the current administration, unweildy comparisons between the drug war and Vietnam, exhortations to "come out of the closet" as potsmokers . . . Levels of veracity vary on the talking points; but sadly, I fear that stonerdom is gonna need to, erm, sober up a bit if we're going to come up with a coherent political agenda.

Still, it's hard to knock a day when stoners from all walks of life can congregate and partake, shop for jewelry and pastries (enhanced or otherwise) and listen to live music. So maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree worrying about the political rhetoric; maybe it's enough that a public space was set aside so that stoners from all walks of life could congregate, partake and chill.

Now I'm sure some of you are thinking that you may have gotten away without having to read a movie review. Well, no such luck. I had the pleasure and privelige of seeing Murderball this weekend, and I'd be criminally remiss, I think, not to share my observations. So, without further fanfare . . .

MURDERBALL: A Review

As the son of an amputee--my father lost a leg in Vietnam, well before I came to be (in point of fact, before he even met my mother)--I've always had mixed (but strong) feelings about the "overcoming adversity" storyline in cinema about the (for lack of a better word) disabled. Obviously, it's not intrinsically problematic to admire one's accomplishments all the more in light of the obstacles which he's had to overcome; but all too often, such admiration takes on a paternalistic and self-serving tone. Documentaries are both more immune to such posturing and more prone to it: Limiting the scope of cinematic observation to the real keeps filmmakers from imposing the facile narrative contrivances of the average "inspirational" film. At the same time, in this age of reality TV, the intrusive camera can be used to shoehorn the ostensibly real into the ill-fitting confines of our prejudices.

Murderball, the fantastic documentary in theaters now about the mind-bogglingly rough game of quad-rugby, the well-deserved nickname of which provides the film with its title, nicely avoids such traps by making it clear from the beginning that these guys could kick your ass. No, really. You may, for a moment, feel a trace of pity or sadness when the opening shot--a deliciously stark digital framing of Mark Zupan changing from his jeans into a pair of athletic shorts, preparing to work--sucks you in. Watching Zupan struggle through a simple act of changing, after all, may make you appreciate how easy it is for you to do the same. But it becomes clear soon after, when a quick-cut montage of a typical game of murderball is set to the chugging riffs of a Ministry song (I couldn't quite identify the track, but it was definitely from the A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste/Psalm 69 era of the band, shortly after their peak days of Land of Rape and Honey), that this movie isn't here to offer facile truisms about courage or strength of character (although there's plenty of both on display). No, this is a movie about hard, complex, beautiful people playing the toughest game on earth.

No, really. The toughest game on earth.

You've seen rugby, right? The one where burly, largely toothless guys play something like football, but with fewer rules and no body armor? Yeah, well, these cats play it in wheelchairs. These guys--all of them quadriplegic, with impairments in all four limbs (but with enough upper body function to operate a wheelchair)--run a ball across a modified basketball court in chairs tricked out like the armored cars in The Road Warrior, and score goals by getting both large wheels of the chair across the goal line with the ball securely in their laps. Oh, and the defense does everything they can to halt the would-be touchdown. Defense usually involves crashing hard into the chair and knocking it over, sending the receiver tumbling across the court.

The game scenes in this film operate on a visceral level not unlike that of Fight Club, wherein all manner of suppressed or misdirected emotion emerges in calculated burst of sheer physical force. Those who are not inclined to see documentaries in the theater should take note: There is no action in any movie this summer more potent, more adrenalizing, than watching this game being played. And the prefab uplift of most sports movies--the adrenaline they try to raise in films like Rocky, Victory or what have you--will seem seem false, and possibly misguided, by comparison.

Indeed, the real subject of the film would seem to be testosterone. A segment on the sexual function of quadriplegics (yes, there is such a thing, thought the sheer squareness of a medical video primer on the subject excerpted in the film is downright laughable), in which Zupan asserts asserts that those in a chair are likely to "really wanna eat pussy", seemed to confirm my suspicion that, more than overcoming any obstacle, these men seek potency, confirmation that they're still forces with which to be reckoned. It's not just that they manage to be fathers, lovers, athletes, pranksters, drinkers and brawlers. It's that they want to be good fathers, great lovers, funny pranksters and hard drinkers; and if they're gonna play the games and get into the fights, they wanna win. Zupan takes exception to the notion that anyone would hesitate to hit a man in a wheelchair . . . and slyly, almost cruelly, warns that the real danger of hitting this disabled guy is that he'd hit back.

The movie has so many subplots that it would be useless to go through them. Bob Lujano, who lost all four limbs to Miningococcerina, a variation of meningitis, provides both the most poignant meditation on disability and the funniest comic relief (he's hidden in a small box as part of a gag cooked up by the guys to mess with the staff at an hotel), is worth special attention; and watching Joe Soares try to navigate his relationship with his intelligent, talented but dissolute son is as powerful an exploration of parenting as I've ever seen.

I should also note that the film makes exceptional use of pop music from The Polyphonic Spree, Ministry and others, giving a cogent focus to the narrative and aiding scenes in succeeding on a truly cinematic level.

Indeed, this is more than a good documentary, a good sports movie or a good movie about the disabled . . . though I'd have to say it's the single best example of all three that I can think of at the moment. What Murderball is, first and foremost, is great film: Beautifully shot (within digital confines, of course), perfectly edited, chocked with surprises only real life can offer but conveyed with the precision that only great storytelling can achieve. It's the best film I've seen all summer. Go. Now.

7 Comments:

Blogger Stine said...

Le Sigh. Our muse.

As for Murderball...

word.

2:26 PM  
Blogger amandak said...

OK, my eyes are officially peeled for that flick. If lyamhound so succinctly sings it's praises, one must at least try to partake. Personally, I saw "Valiant" this weekend. Harumph.

3:26 PM  
Blogger TexinSYR said...

ref the Seattle Hempfest...surely the remarks by Jack Cole, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition were interesting, weren't they? (http://www.leap.cc) Here's a guy who is one of 5 cops that founded this org that now numbers close to 4000 people. It's comprised of cops, judges, prosecutors and others in the criminal justice system who call for an end to the Drug War. That's quite provacative. When the people tasked with carrying out the policy are forming an opposition to the policy, people take notice.

10:07 AM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

I can only comment on the speakers I saw that particular part of that particular day. If I'd made more time to spend, I might have gotten a better sense of the political meat. By late Sunday afternoon, it seemed to be down to semi-coherent hippies.

I am aware, however, that there ARE a lot of suit-and-tie hemp/marijuana advocates, and numerous cops and prosecutors who oppose current policy because it simply doesn't work from an enforcement perspective.

Thanks for pointing Jack Cole out to me. He's a name worth looking for in the future.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Missuz J said...

May I have your permission to print out this review and share it with my students? SUCH a good read!

1:53 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Thanks for the compliment, darling, and of course you can reprint it and show it to some students.

I'd recommend you take them to the film; but even if it's around there, it's rated R (language, sexual frankness, maybe some benign nudity).

2:31 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

8/24/05

So, amandak--I've heard a bit of critical harumphing about "Valiant". Too bad--looks like they wasted some great vocal talent (delicious Ewan, sardonic Hugh Laurie).

Purplestine and I are finally seeing "Kiki's Delivery Service" this evening. We watched "Layer Cake" last night and enjoyed it; but I don't yet feel inspired to write a review. Maybe tomorrow . . .

3:16 PM  

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