Murder Ball 2005 (Movie Review)
I play basketball twice a week with a group of other mostly middle-aged guys in an elementary school multi-room near my house. The multi has an indoor outdoor carpet instead of a hardwood floor. Every couple outings, I get some little injury that sends me to Kaiser where some tech will say something like “I know you don’t want to hear this, but after a certain age you really shouldn’t be playing sports like basketball.”
It’s perfectly reasonable advice and I’ve never been a macho guy by any stretch. I don’t take it because, at the risk of sounding like Robert Bly, there’s still the shadow of a warrior in me down there. If I let it die, I tell myself that I’ll be truly old. A few weeks ago one of my basketball friends recommended Murder Ball.
Murder Ball is a documentary about wheel chair or quadraplegic rugby, a contact sport for athletes who have some disability in all four limbsthat was originally called “Murder Ball”. In fact, it's as much demolition derby as it is rugby.
This riveting MTV production expertly crosses two genres that at their best explore the human spirit. The first is disability movies like the Sea Inside, Coming Home , My Left Foot, and The Mighty. Usually these celebrate the spirit and mind/heart that survives inside the disabled individual with the notable exception of the Jane Fonda does guy in wheelchair section of Coming Home. In addition, they are almost always painfully politically correct. The second genre is the competition/sports docudrama. Most recently Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom became unlikely docuhits by ferreting out the competitive fire in venues that looked nothing like football. In this genre, the competition becomes a metaphor for life , triumph, etc. and all the kids wind up being loveable. Murder Ball crosses the two genres then stomps on both of them.
Murder Ball focuses on three individuals. Mark Zupan, is the star of the U.S. team, who is equal parts fierce warrior in his chosen sport, spokesperson for both the sport and the possibilities of life beyond a life changing accident, and occasional philosopher. Joe Soares is the Bobby Knight of the sport, a man who would have been a great athlete had it not been for polio and who became a great athlete anyway. Soares is so driven that it doesn’t just border on demonic, you expect him to sprout wings and fly around the gym like some devil beast who then rips his opponents hearts out and eats them. The drive defines him and lets him transcend his body yet it also is shown to limit him as a father and a husband. Soares, once a great player, is forced out of the game by his own physical degeneration and instead of taking the news gracefully vows revenge against his long dominant US team by coaching Team Canada. The third major character is Keith, a young man yet to become a player, who is just finishing rehab after a motocross accident.
Unlike the standard Hollywood gonna get me an Oscar portraits of disabled people, these are scary dudes. They’re angry. They hate their limitations. They’re routinely crude and abusive. Soares is shown berating his son at a barbeque because he doesn’t know how to check his steak to determine if it’s the way he likes it. Keith comes home from rehab to a newly decorated house fitted with ramps and accessible bathroom and says “This sucks.” Zupan ‘s relationship with the best friend who drove the truck that resulted in the accident is shown as both less than idyllic yet somehow tenacious. “Right after the accident, I just about blew up his pager because I was calling him so much to make him feel my anger,” he admits. The result is not a lifelong bond or loving buddies a la Rory O’shea Was Here. As you watch the former best friend revisit the site of the accident, there are no epiphanies or there is no sudden eloquence. There’s just pain and guilt.
In another sequence, the guys play a joke on an able bodied person by stuffing one of their teammates into a box and tricking her into lifting it. In between they drink beer, talk about getting hardons, and work on daily routines like putting on shoes or feeding themselves that they once took for granted.
That anger over their lost physicality takes form in their chosen sport. These guys don’t get off on writing poetry or being Steven Hawking, they express themselves by crashing into one another in armored wheelchairs. Where most disability movies celebrate the spirit transcending even not needing the mundanity of the physical body, Murder Ball makes the case for the opposite. These guys are celebrating the fact that they still have bodies. They enjoy getting sweaty, wrestling with one another, and competing. One of the best moments in the film comes when one of the guys tells the story about someone congratulating him for being in the Special Olympics. He responds by saying, “Nothing against the mentally disabled, but the Special Olympics are about honoring mere participation, this is about winning. We’re real athletes and competitors.”
To them, an essential part of being alive is still having the body outside the sea inside.
Midway through the movie, the players talk about still being um “players” and the ways that being in a wheelchair can serve as a surprising chick magnet. One subtext of the movie is that all of the guys are shown to have perfectly happy dating or married lives, though only one winds up with a woman who also has a disability. In fact, part way through, I began wondering if there were female murderballers out there. Where Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom have deeply feminine sensibilities in which boys and girls compete together and against one another, Murder Ball is pure testosterone.
Ultimately, it’s a movie with two strong subtexts, masculinity and America. If you just had the soundtrack, you would be virtually certain that this was a gladiator picture or a football game. Murder Ball is an unrepentant celebration of male expression of men who respond to having their masculinity and adequacy challenged at the most fundamental level. In turn, it is also a meditation about what it means to be an American male. The frame of the movie is the US’s fall from dominance in the sport. Joe Soares, the player who sought revenge against age by coaching the Candian team, gives a moving speech about what it means to be a disabled American. As a Portugese immigrant, he discusses what his life might have been in another country and praises the United States for being the place where he got to make a “whole” life for himself rather than being hidden in a closet or being considered a symbol of familial imperfection or feebleness. Soares also emphasizes the “make” part of the equation. He expects to be active and competitive not subsidized, even when at certain levels he depends on the support of others to survive and just play his sport.
For all the principals, there’s a mixture of impotence, anger, and cluelessness that all but screams NASCAR dads. I don’t know if it’s intentional but the last scene of the movie makes an interesting political statement. As the U.S. team seeks to reload, the coaches and Zupan go to a rehab center to expose disabled Iraq war vets to the sport, where for the first time you see women trying it out. It’s a much more eloquent statement about where America is headed and where it stands in the world than I’ve seen in any Michael Moore movie.
I do have to include this warning. Murder Ball, as its name implies, is the polar opposite of a chick flick. It’s literally bloody and profane. There is male sensitivity in the movie, but it’s effective because the individuals are so unselfconscious about it. Director Henry Rubin and writer Alex Shapiro use a jerky handheld video style where the picture never quite holds still. I suspect this was done on purpose because it gives the movie a raw, choppy feel that’s true to its subjects. Unfortunately, the jerkiness gets in the way of the viewer getting a feel for the sport itself. The camera has little sense of the apparent tactics and flow of the sport, so the action sequences come off as scoring fests.
As great movies do though, it doesn’t back off from being disturbing which also happens to be the reason it has so much heart.
One of my first online friends was a man who had spent his entire life in a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy. It was several months before it even occurred to me that he had to use voice recognition instead of a conventional keyboard He had wonderful stories about how he’d learned a lot about human nature because of the way that people in rooms simply assumed that he wasn’t there so they literally said what was on their minds. He also had a great sly sense of humor where he would say he was happy but not jumping for joy. Often we talked about football and other everyday stuff, but sometimes we would get into conversations about how he saw himself when he dreamed. If he’d never walked in waking life, did he imagine himself as able-bodied in his dreams, etc. Of course, he would find a way to take my prying questions and turn them back on me.
He made a living as a computer programmer, owned two homes, and live twice as long as he was supposed to which meant that he almost made it to forty. I was literally the last person he “spoke” with and shortly after my friend died, I got an e-mail from him, something that momentarily scared the hell out of me.
As it turned out, it was his best real life friend who was shutting down his deceased friend’s computer. I exchanged messages with this guy for a bit to compare notes on our extraordinary mutual friend. This is what I remember best. I learned that my friend’s greatest love as a child was going to amusement parks to ride the roller coasters. They always got to go first in line and though unusually composed, he would go into rages when the operators tried to keep him off the coasters because he wasn’t “tall enough”.
Up to then, it had never occurred to me that a quadriplegic could ride a roller coaster, though obviously there’s nothing to stop him from doing it. It had never occurred to me that a quadriplegic would have wanted to, yet this was his way of showing that he could be as physically fearless as anyone else. We never met in person. This is the sort of movie, he might have made.