Monday, March 5, 2012

Knuckle (March 7th at the Cleveland Museum of Art)

[KNUCKLE screens Wednesday March 7th at 7:00 pm at the Cleveland Museum of Art.]

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

I'm not sure about the rest of the world, but in Cleveland St. Patrick's Day falls on a Saturday this year. So you know what that means? Excessive drinking, fighting and partying among the Irish-Americans will grow beyond the capacity of the fabric of time and space to control it, thus distorting the universe and producing the dreaded cosmic dimensional anomaly known as a "green hole," threatening to suck the entire solar system into alcoholic binging and debauchery. This is the apocalyptic year of 2012, after all; maybe that’s what the Mayans were on about. In the words of Stephen O'Hawking, professor of Astrophysics and Advanced Drinking at Dublin (Ohio) University, "Get the #I@! away from my whiskey you @P^&_%!"

With felicitous timing the film series at the Cleveland Museum of Art has chosen this run-up to Green-Beer Vomit Day for a booking of the documentary KNUCKLE, a feature scrutiny by documentarian Ian Palmer that chronicles ten years of bouts and challenges between rival clans of Irish bare-knuckle brawlers. Know ye that I liked this film, a lot. And I'm not exactly a kiss-me-I’m-Irish type. I won't even read James Joyce for fear of liver damage (the Irish name is just God laughing at me; I'll go into detail about my ancestry in a future posting). But KNUCKLE may just make my top-10 list, before the world ends later this year.

Palmer, first and foremost, isn't out to do the next real-life ROCKY or whatever else sports documentarians or mixed-martial-arts fanciers have on their agendas when they stake out Gold's Gym. His boxers are not pro athletes by any means but the insular "travelling people" of Ireland, often mistakenly referred to as "gypsies" (they are not ethnically Roma or Sinti). After being hired to videotape a Traveller wedding in 1997, Palmer found himself intimately welcome,  a rarity for “settled” folk, among the Quinn MacDonagh family, and he was drawn into recording a longstanding feud between the Quinn MacDonaghs and the rival Joyces.

The feud, going back decades, periodically flares up in Traveller-organized backyard bare-knuckle fighting tournaments, held out of view of police and media. It’s not anarchy. Neutral clans referee to ensure “fair play.” Fights that don’t end with a surrender or draw get stopped (generally) before someone is severely injured or killed, and gambling is rife.

We see the Joyces using VHS video-production technology (ah, so that’s perhaps why filmmaker Palmer gained entrĂ©e into this sanctum) to send the Quinn MacDonaghs taunting and often obscene tape challenges to further fights. The putative hero of the drama is their chief target, James Quinn MacDonagh, a big soft-spoken bloke, husband and father in the classic "quiet man" mode (even one of the Joyces speaks comparatively well of him). James is more or less the gladiatorial champion of his family in these grudge matches. A bullied youngster who voluntarily sought to train in boxing to bulk up and defend himself - other Traveller boys get forced into it whether they want to or not, we're told - James has risen before to the occasion to fight for his family honor against the Joyces. James, before going off to yet another battle, seems reasonable enough, as he declares that he’s tired of the feuding and fighting and wants to move on peaceably, but duty calls, and so on.

Despite James’ decisive victory calming things for a while, the narrative leapfrogs ahead to yet more videotaped challenges and additional Traveller fighting a few years later, this time a November 1999 marathon of bareknuckle fights between various Quinns and Joyces, eagerly attended by the clans, with Joyces winning four matches out of three.  

A few years later - and a few years of elaboration on the shadowy origins of the feud, which unsurprisingly involves casualties of a pub fight – Palmer is there again with his camera for yet more Quinn and Joyce fighting. At a gathering of Traveller womenfolk, the (until now camera-shy) wives lament the state of things that pit their men to repeatedly pound each other. It is especially sad because the Travellers are composed of a handful of tribes seldom marrying outside the nomad strata. Everyone is closely related; the Joyces and Quinns are, in fact, cousins. It’s sad, all right – but still the victors are welcomed as household heroes, and the defeated go on to send further video challenges and insults.

Palmer himself begins to tire of his enabling/complicit role in the ongoing, unresolved brutality. And James, despite repeated proclamations that he’d like to be done with all this and be respected for his successful construction career instead of street boxing, is still at bouts to organize and referee. Will the cycle of violence ever end?

It would be too Marketing 101 to call this a true-life FIGHT CLUB, but there is a certain similar sense of delving into a forbidden, cathartic and strangely exhilarating machismo courtesy Palmer's lensing. And even more beneath that, I wonder if the filmmaker has caught something here that perhaps even he hasn’t quite grasped. I’m sure the feminists and effete critics who will adopt this film as Exhibit A for pighead-male-testosterone stupidity won’t.

It’s this: Even given the violence, the bloody noses, the broken hands and the doubts that the feud will ever be settled, there aren’t any of the horrors here witnessed any given weekend in Cleveland, Homs or other urban areas where thug gangs and tribalists clash. No drive-bys, no car bombs, no shotgun blasts (and these people do have guns), no RPGs.

It would seem Ireland’s Travelling People, as ill-educated and ill-regarded as they might be judged, have evolved “fair play” outlaw-boxing as an effective, if ungraceful, social safety valve for dealing with clannish hatreds and persistent disputes. Imagine if the Arabs and the Jews, not to mention the Bushes and Husseins and bin Ladens, just went at each other in regulated back-alley bare-knuckle tournaments. Nobody would much love each other at the end of the day, but there would be a lot fewer widows and orphans and cripples and unexploded IEDs and land mines in the world. Imagine how Northern Ireland’s own tragic Catholic-vs.-Protestant history might have changed if the combatants took a few cues from the ways of the Joyces and the Quinn MacDonaghs.

And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Cassady afraid of being beaten up by Big Joe Joyce the `King of the Travellers’…Well, yes, maybe I am at that. I’m very afraid. Don’t plan on seeing me around Public Square this St. Patrick’s Saturday, or any St. Patrick’s. But still, for a movie that I thought would make the Irish look worse than protagonists in JACKASS or THE HANGOVER, KNUCKLE truly surprised me and made me think.

A side note, though, for Cleveland’s St. Paddy’s crowd at the Art Museum: You can try to punch out that big green guy in the back, but he’s The Thinker, actually a bronze sculpture, not some naked drunk. True story! And the humanoid metal things in the Armor Court are just empty suits from medieval times, not some advanced boxing robots like in REAL STEEL. If they seem to be walking and taking swings at you, that’s probably the Guinness messing with your brain. Just thought I should tell ye. (4 out of 4 stars)   

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