Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Reem 1-03: Back Home

We're in the midst of a kind of renaissance for sports documentaries, especially on television. ESPN's 30 for 30 series is the standard-bearer here, and has some level of objectivity, but most of the genre exists for explicitly promotional ends. Despite being essentially commercials, these documentaries are often quite compelling, visually striking, sophisticated pieces of cinema.  HBO's 24/7 series, used to promote its boxing pay-per-views, was the first to attain this kind of quality, and 24/7 has been followed in mixed martial arts by both the UFC's official Primetime shows and a bevy of fan-made web videos. Of this latter set The Reem stands out as a trendsetter.

The Reem is a strange mixture of hype video and cinema verité. It's shot in slick black and white and set to a soft hip-hop soundtrack that imposes a sense of flow and rhythm onto seemingly mundane moments like Alistair Overeem playing video games or walking through an airport. Some would say that this is just a very ordinary video dressed up in flashy film-school techniques, and there's a degree of truth to that. But technique matters, and even aside from it there's an undeniable charm to The Reem that deserves consideration.

A big part of the series's appeal is the quiet charisma of the athlete at its centre. Alistair Overeem is a masculine fantasy, a physically massive and incredibly conditioned man, once a lanky kickboxer but now grown into a literally larger than life figure. Joe Rogan used to sell Brock Lesnar by saying that he looked like the man who would play the cage-fighting world champion in a movie, and Alistair Overeem arguably fits that description even more. (For one thing, he doesn't have a tattoo that looks like a dick on his chest). And despite this he is quite soft-spoken and reserved, possessing a quiet confidence but not bragging about it much. When Overeem takes a limo home from the airport, he seems kind of abashed by the luxury, as if acknowledging the ridiculousness of his own success. Even when he attempts to call out Fedor at the end of the video he is polite and complimentary of Fedor's ability. Watching The Reem is not to imbue godlike traits in an ordinary man, as the average sports narrative would have you do. It is to begin to think of an almost supernatural man as ordinary.

The usual brash and arrogant sports personality often seems to stem from social awkwardness and introversion (in MMA, Brock Lesnar and Nick Diaz are the best examples of this phenomenon). Overeem seems to be the opposite -- his quiet nature belies an internal arrogance that it's hard to not get drawn into. It's this arrogance that cost him his last fight[1], and it's on display here when he points at a wall and remarks that "all my [championship] belts will be coming there". It's kind of hard not to be drawn into Overeem's outsized ambitions, especially when his physique seems to promise that he can accomplish all these things, and he makes for a strangely likeable protagonist. There is, after all, a thin and perhaps nonexistant line between arrogance and charisma.

The scene where Overeem looks at his trophy case is interesting as a whole. In one sense, this scene is a further confirmation of the promotional nature of The Reem, serving as a device to highlight all of Overeem's accomplishments over his decade-long fight career. But the scene works much more effectively than, say, a highlight video would. Trophies tap into Walter Benjamin's ideas of the historicity of objects. Benjamin believed that objects carried historical moments with them better than human memories did, with the ruin being a prime example. The trophy serves a similar purpose in this scene, acting not so much as a proof of victory but as a trigger for memory. Overeem spends the most time lingering on a small, dinky-looking plaque he won for his second fight. He says "Even that stupid plastic card thing that came with my second fight... I know what effort I put into it, I know what tensions came with that fight, I know I was always very dedicated...".  Overeem values the trophy not as an object in itself or as a marker for accomplishment but as a trigger for memory, a physical representation of the past.

From here we move into a training sequence that takes up most of the episode. The training montage has become a cliché by now, but The Reem uses it in an interesting way. Instead of the heavy epic-rock music from classic training montages like those in Rocky or The Karate Kid, the subdued but steady beats from earlier scenes simply continue. There's a kind of fluidity to the cuts between different shots of Alistair's training: instead of building to a crescendo, they're strung together in an abstract and obscure but fascinating way, a bit like visual jazz. There's the sense of process, of repetition and slow building, and the impression that all of these things - Overeem visiting his family, playing video games, training, fighting -- are all part of one continuous pattern. It's easy to see why the gym (traditionally the boxing gym, but a MMA gym serves the same purpose) has been so attractive to filmmakers from Clint Eastwood to Frederick Wiseman.  The gym combines ordinary, procedural reality, with the hyperreality of fight sports.

We get a bit of a sense of the other members of the gym, from Alistair's less-famous teammates to his trainers, but they are very much supporting characters, spending most of their interview time praising Overeem and establishing him as truly special. Overeem does stop to put over Siyar Bahadurzada, who would go on to achieve a bit of name recognition among MMA fans, although nowhere near as much as Overeem. Once again, the larger-than-life picture the other interviewees paint stands in pleasant contrast to Overeem's seemingly subdued personality.

It is a bit shocking to see Golden Glory painted in such an idyllic light, given how far south things between Overeem and them would go. In many ways this episode (unintentionally) sets up a status quo that is later dramatically knocked down. The episode also (more intentionally) lays out a path for the rest of the "season". Alistair lists his goals at the end in a combined interview/call-out, setting his sights on a fight with Fedor, the DREAM heavyweight title, and the K-1 grand prix. Not all of this would go according to plan, but "Back Home" establishes a clear pattern that affected audience's expectations. In this it is perhaps not so different from a typical TV show after all.

[1]There's a strange time displacement in watching and talking about this episode when you haven't seen the rest of the series but know what happens to Overeem in the future. It's like being spoiled, but not exactly.

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