Lawless: A hymn to how violence used to be
Sat, Sep 8 2012 04:20 | shia laBeouf, Nick Cave, films, film review, bare knuckle fighting, violence, street fight, lawless, tom hardy, weapons, Guy Pearce
Lawless is perhaps one of the best films I have seen for a very long time, for many reasons. There’s no getting around the fact that what could have been a star-studded dud, exceeds expectations and offers us a glimpse into a past we rarely consider. Albeit from a much safer place.
Based on a book, based on a true story the film is set in prohibition Virginia with a tangible of air of the authentic. In a time and a landscape both intoxicating and unforgiving it offers us an arena in which we all feel we know, but proves that most of us probably don’t. Tom Hardy seems to dominate this blogs film section of late and he comes into his own here. Much like his role as Bane here he also dominates the screen too as a brooding and menacing figure. Hardy plays the eldest Bondurant brother, the patriarch of a family gang of bootleggers and mentors in violence as he does in business.
The film is written by Nick Cave and the script is punctuated with a subtle acceptance of the consequences of breaking the law and making enemies of it with graphic and well placed depictions too. If the Wild West and all the retellings of it are revised, romantic, myths about the birth of America. Then the revisiting of the turbulent and desperate Depression era is surely the mythologising of the nation’s puberty. Stark demonstrations of effectively used brass knuckles, knives and honest gun fights make the point in visceral blood-spattered, scream-stifling, toe-curling fashion. It’s still Hollywood but without the lacquer we come to expect so often.
Compared to the slick, urban masterpiece of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Lawless doesn’t tread quite such familiar ground. Often we see films place “gangsters” as box office busting, flawed, semi-heroic, pedestal pacing, vessels of immorality. They sit beyond the social pariahs of their modern counterparts. Thanks to hindsight the names and the deeds of Al Capone, Dillinger et al. are well known folk tales. The comparatively obscure Bondurants are presented as opportunistic, rustic and greedy exponents of base desires and base actions – struggling with their own limitations and taking those assumed expectations and running with them.
It strikes me as interesting that Britons and British media prefers to downplay the violence of their forefathers, most people seem unaware of Victorian society’s relationship with the coshes, knives and bare-knuckle boxing which dominated it. Recent films are doing their best to remind us now and again, but ironically it’s not as high on the list as Dickensian rogues and the school Master’s cane. Class and power are far bigger preoccupations it seems.
American history and particularly American film strikes me as starting with the violence and working from there. Lawless is no different. Scenes are riddled with the audience seeing weapons concealed to be drawn later. Hardy offers us a real life example of confusing your opponent with questions to distract them before blindsiding them. The relentless nature of fight scenes within the film leaves us in no doubt how “real” the film makers intended them to be. Whether they succeeded or not, is something I’ll leave to you to gauge.
Martial artists these days often forget that weapons only stopped being the norm for many people relatively recently. We often think in terms of hand to hand combat, facing a weapon is rightly of extreme concern because we ourselves rarely if ever carry one. Society as a whole still has a lust and an urge for the days when that wasn’t the case, especially if the protagonists are that much more everyday. It’s important to reconcile the realistic with the reality, what’s likely with what’s entertaining and engaging. Every so often a film like Lawless comes along and gives everyone a meditation on reconciling those contradictions. Asking questions of us all, this is a film worthy of high praise and closer inspection.
Gypsy Blood: Close to the knuckle
Fri, Jan 20 2012 10:55 | bjj, gypsy, bare knuckle fighting, boxing, fighting, www.amaclub.org.uk, street fight, fighters, escrima
Gypsy Blood aired on Channel 4 (10pm 19/01/12) to much interest from myself. I always watch C4’s forays into the insular world of travellers with a lot of guilt and voyeuristic interest. The derision and morally obliged sneering these programs create, are always sideshows away from what is an interesting and very real cultural ‘problem’ within British society.
The stereotypes and prejudices this community attracts are well documented and to a certain extent they are the skeleton for selling these documentaries to a wide mainstream audience. What Gypsy Blood tackled albeit somewhat ham-fistedly, is the phenomena that was once an everyday part of life for most people in Britain.
The scenes of hunting and butchery may have added an extra dimension to the violent and visceral nature of gypsy life, but it also highlighted just how people used to live and in many cases had to live to survive.
While you may find scenes of skinning and slaughter unsavoury; to eat meat in Britain and not know where it comes from when you pluck neat, vacuum packed chunks of meat from the shelves of your local supermarket, makes it hard to criticise people who make use of their own will and resources to feed themselves and their families.
As someone who grew up in a reasonably rural setting these ideas are nothing new and nor should they be seen to demonise a group of people. Unfortunately many comments over twitter as I watched the program seemed to use this as a second strand with which to condemn the gypsies on display.
In more mainstream culture boxing fans might be more au fait with the brilliantly named Tyson Fury. A gigantic figure quite literally, his moves into professional boxing give a glimpse of how the community finds itself both at odds with mainstream society and uses its ways to integrate in some small way.
The scenes of the children being educated in a mainstream setting should remind people that the power of education runs both ways. The cultural capital to these children is clearly very different to that of our own. How many middle class families insist their children now how to spot particular traits in working animals for instance?
Seeing a 7 year old boy check the wingspan of newly hatched chicks serves a stark illustration to the ways in which the travelling community are in many ways losing a race with the march of time and technology. It comes as no surprise that many of the complaints and accusations levelled at travellers can be traced not only to their status on the margins of society but the antiquated and somewhat odd way they have preserved their culture in ways only they see fit.
It is slightly ironic and coincidental that Channel 4 also regularly document the ways and lives of the Amish, who are perhaps a lot like the gypsies in being a somewhat maligned and stereotyped minority albeit in a much more positive tone. The supposition about religion and selective resistance to modernity might well be a way in which society at large deals with these groups.
For me the main draw was obviously the fighting culture that exists amongst gypsies. It is clear from both their treatment of animals and their own code of honour that fighting extends much beyond the man but out into the world. Like Filipinos and Brazilians the gypsies have a long and complex tradition in fighting cocks, dogs and each other to earn both reputation and status alongside cultural standing. This alone will be alienating to a society where fighting anything and anyone straddles and usually falls headlong into the criminal and subversive realm.
Interesting those countries mentioned above and their people would likely be seen in much the same ways as the gypsies are “lesser-developed”, archaic and in this case, vicious. But in those worlds the men who rear and fight animals or train themselves in the spheres of BJJ or Escrima respectively are not any different to the gypsy men who settle disputes with their fists.
Anyone who has the read excellent books A Fighter’s Heart or the sequel The Fighter’s Mind by Sam Sheridan will know the mixed feelings a little study and exposure these kinds of worlds can stir up in the Westerner.
The program showed this rather nakedly and almost indulging us viewers in the need to gawk and stare as the men threw punches, letting flesh and bone impact and collide. It was interesting to hear the familial lineage of the man whose grandfather fought so hard he lost a hand in the process of gaining victory. It was told in a way modern boxing fans might wistfully look back on the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ or Benn vs. Eubank etc.
While arguably the gypsy pugilists were accomplished and hardened fighters, it is easy to dismiss their brawn and brutish technique as a quasi-boxing style. What there might be in a lack of style is made up for in the truly universal spirit of ‘gameness’. The willingness to fight and the express wish for it to be passed down father to son was made plain numerous times. This is linked both not just to a sense of pride and self-worth, but also the reputation and future of the family within the community.
Parents in our society might well worry and endeavour for their children to strive for A level results and better themselves – here we see a similar paradigm placed on the ability and more importantly willingness to fight. Reference to the prejudices and difficulties these gypsies see coming from both their own community and the outside world were clearly evident amongst the numerous references to “not being talked down to or like you’re a fool”.
Feminists might cite with glee and some knowing glances; the overt masculinity to the point of parody even the pre-pubescent gypsy boys demonstrated for the camera, but aping their fathers shows just how predominant this culture is within the community.
Much disgust was rightly aimed at the lack of safety when allowing kids to spar and fall on concrete without any regard for safety. However it must be contextualised in two ways. First the question of how much of the scene was for the benefits of the camera and demonstrating the desired toughness the gypsies place so much value upon. Secondly we should consider whether this is any more dangerous than other sports and pursuits. In my classes children are never allowed to touch each other let alone spar; it is neither beneficial nor appropriate. However in the world were fighting is bred into you, it is a method that goes back to the year dot and is certainly no different to the millennia of training environments across the globe. It is simply alien and therefore shocking.
For anyone who has an interest in both boxing and its history they will be keen to point out that as recently as the Victorians Britons of all classes and creeds settled disputes in very public and very popular bare-knuckle matches. While far more bloody than some may care to contemplate the nature of bare-knuckled fighting actually seems far more palatable than that of professional or even amateur boxing. As Bob Mee suggests in his excellent if somewhat unashamed love letter to the bygone art of bare knuckle fighting Bare Fists the gloves of modern boxing cause far more damage and encourage far more trauma to the head and brain. Certainly the deaths in professional boxing that have caused so many accusations and controversies are far more shocking than the toll seemingly recorded in the annals of the bare knuckle histories.
Popular culture such as Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes franchise stars Wing Chun exponent Robert Downey Jr. who portrays the spectacle as Homes vividly meets and beats an opponent for fun! This longing and need to prove ourselves publicly and brutally was made famous by Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club made into a feature by David Fincher. It was particularly popular amongst young males in both formats but served as a reminder and insight into the masculinity attached to the desire and willingness to meet another man as the Ancient Greeks did and as these Gypsies still do.
Personally as a martial artist I see the pursuit of bare knuckle fighting as nothing shocking or new. These are pre-arranged fights and both participants are willing and able. Likewise there is a strict code and ethic attached to the fight both before during and after. Seeing the men shake hands and “put an end to the matter” struck me as far more, civilised than the brutal and savage street fights the news covers seemingly on a daily basis. For our society to judge with such an aloof and “informed” position leaves me uneasy to say the least.
For me, the programme had its problems and flaws but likewise the portrait painted of the travellers was a difficult and unflattering mixture of emotive themes and events. To pretend it is something new or specific to a underworld is utterly wrong and foolish. It is however a controversial relic from how life used to be and when framed in such a provocative community it is no surprise much of the outrage and disgust will be misguided and unbalanced.