Wednesday, March 14, 2012

One for St Patrick

You got a holiday; film enthusiasts have got a film for you. Christmas: It’s a Wonderful Life. Thanksgiving: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  Easter:  It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, Groundhog Day: Groundhog Day.
It’s a little more difficult to match a good documentary film to a holiday. Holidays are mostly celebratory, steep in magical traditions that are often fanciful and documentaries are devoted to unvarnished reality. Docs are not always feel good stuff; in fact, they’re more often incendiary fare, though sometimes just heartrending or emotionally draining (Finally watched How to Die in Oregon from beginning to end last night, and I cried from beginning until the end.) 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day and have I got a Documentary for you. 

It’s a peculiar, compelling and dare I say, hard-hitting film, and while it may have you scratching your head, it won’t leave depressed. This is a real side of real Ireland. (An expert will weigh in on this statement later) I do promise that it’s not god-awful rainbows and leprechaun stuff.  No Paddywhackery. 

Knuckle is a documentary about bare knuckle fights that take place over a period of twelve years among three different feuding Irish Traveller clans, the Quinn McDonaghs, the Joyces and the Nevins.

The Irish Travellers, as their name implies, are a nomadic people. At one time, the Travellers used colorful horse-drawn caravans and they did some brusking and tinsmithing as they traveled about, but now get around in vans and cars as they look for work and the next best place to settle for awhile.  

The story is simple if the true motives are never quite clear. Bare knuckle fighting is a tradition of resolving disputes among Traveller clans. The best man of one clan takes on the best man of another clan, and when the fight is over, the dispute is done. Or that is the intention if not the reality. The fights have rules enforced by referees from neutral clans. No families members are permitted to attend out of fear that an all out clan brawl might break out. 

The filmmaker, Ian Palmer, though not an artist, has a nose for story and the persistence to follow it for over a decade. Palmer gained the trust of the Travellers, and was permitted unusual access to a way of life that many of us might never know existed. Though Palmer interviews all three clans, his story becomes that of brothers who feel they must defend the family’s honor and each other after a tragic event involving one brother and a member of the Joyce clan.
James Quinn, the bare knuckle champion and most sympathetic character, is also a reluctant pugilist who prefers socializing to training and fighting.  He does what he came to do and goes home. The first time that he appeared on screen, I thought, Randy Couture, the retired American MMA fighter. They share the same expansive shoulders, flattened nose, squared-off jaw and balding head.  But Quinn’s fights have none of the UFC glamour that Couture’s had. No arenas, no entrance music and light show, no professional commentary or ring girls. Quinn’s fights are brutal, back road affairs with untrained opponents, who take their thwacking stoically, yet the fights are also entrancing and in due course they come to move the heart as we understand how Quinn is trapped. He was set up years ago, most likely before he was born and he fights to end something that cannot be resolved by fighting. James Quinn is the tragic hero of Knuckle. It is worth your time to see it. 

Since Knuckle is at its core a fight film, I asked my son Malachy, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor and (I pray former) MMA fighter, to give me insight into what was going on on screen in fight terms.
Malachy "in the zone" before a fight in Atlantic City
 "Knuckle was an entertaining documentary; I had seen the footage before on YouTube but never knew the stories behind them.  This is what makes it fun to watch whether you are a fight fan or not.  I have spent considerable time in fight gyms across the United States so I guess I am somewhat qualified to critique the fighting in the movie.
Were Quinn and his opponent's fighting technique technical? Yes and no.  They are fighting for honor of their family name in the back roads of Ireland and not for million dollar paydays in Vegas.  If you've seen a street fight (just search YouTube) probably what you will see is wild right hands thrown from hip level with bad intentions also mostly missing.  

The Travellers, while not the most athletic (smokers, drinkers, and probably a lot of corned beef hash,) do show technique, largely Quinn is the more skilled fighter.  These bare knuckle fighters in comparison to elite boxers are sloppy plain and simple.  Coming from an MMA background I have seen some very successful sloppy strikers.  It can be called unorthodox to be more polite but the point is that sloppy doesn't make their strikes inefficient.  

While boxers typically have 16 ounces of padding in their gloves to cushion the blow, MMA fighters have just 4 ounces, making a landed heavy punch while sloppy very effective.  Just look at Chuck Liddell footage.  In bareknuckle fighting the effectiveness increases, but it also makes it much more dangerous to throw a heavy handed sloppy punch because the risk of breaking your hands is very high. 

 These Traveller fighters are tough, and as uncivilized and trashy as it looks to bludgeon someone else on a muddy road, there is something primal and exhilarating to fight with your bare hands for honor within the set of rules that these men abide by."

Knuckle is being adapted into a dramatic series by HBO. For those viewers who after seeing Knuckle, believe they have been permitted a rare view into an authentic and secretive culture and have instantly become experts on the Irish Travellers, I have invited friend, anthropologist and Ireland scholar, E. Moore Quinn to give us her best thoughts on the film.

If you are looking for something dramatic this St. Patrick's Day, by all means see the dramatic film In the Name of the Father too. It stars Daniel Day Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite - Brilliant 
Have fun, wear the green, but please people allow the dog some dignity. 

Folks in New Zealand enjoying St. Patrick's Day
Sydney, Australia

Thanks for reading. Please follow. Please comment and let me know what you think. Send me a photo of St. Patrick's Day celebration in your nation, city, town or home. Read about dyeing the Chicago River Green here!   

Finally, here is a shout out to Irish blogger Tom Dowling. He writes about theater, architecture, the environment and of courses the pictures. Tom Dowling's Blog

And check out one of my absolute favorite small film festivals has issued a call for entries for 2013.