Heroes of the Fist

Neil Young

Dan Streible, Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema, University of California Press, 2008

“There is nothing on the screen this week, there is nothing anywhere this week, that for implications and sheer electric excitement can come up to the pictures of the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight, run off at the Yankee Stadium in New York, the night of 19 June... These pictures of the fight must be among the best ever made; they are a night with the gladiators, a round trip to Mars, they are practically everything.” Otis Ferguson, “All the World Loves a Winnah”, The New Republic (1936)

While not quite a clean knockout, Dan Streible's Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema is one of the most eye-opening books on cinema to have appeared in the last few years. Its central thesis is summed up by this 1899 comment from the now long-defunct magazine Motion Picture World:

“The fortunes of the prize ring are apparently interwoven with those of the moving picture. Without the moving picture your modern prize fight would be shorn of most of its financial glamor and possibilities; without the prize fight the moving picture would not appeal to so many people as it apparently does.”
The back cover features a blurb by none other than Martin Scorsese:
“This compelling book forces us to rethink the history of cinema... [A] thought-provoking rediscovery of an entire lost genre of hundreds of early films [which] reminds us how much we still do not know about the development of American movie culture. The fact that only a fraction of these forgotten films survive, and those mostly in fragments, makes this historical account of them all the more valuable.”

As Streible puts it, the fragmentary nature of the surviving reels makes “traditional film interpretation impossible. Further, the imagery in surviving fight films carries no hint of the vast interest and controversy that surrounded them... the static camerawork of the Johnson-Jeffries Fight (1910) piques little curiosity in itself. Only the extracinematic aspects of the movie's production and reception explain why so much commentary and frenzy surrounded it.”

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