Subverting the genre

"Girlfight" director Karyn Kusama pulls no punches when it comes to cinema.

By Michael Sragow

Published October 5, 2000 7:02PM (EDT)

It has become a promotional clichi: Each new phenomenon from the world of independent film has an accompanying noble tale of a director who realized a unique vision only with the help and support of deep-pocketed friends, and whose feature debut inevitably sprouted from autobiographical roots. "Girlfight," the spunky story of a volatile, underclass teenage Latina who straightens out when she takes up boxing, fits the clichi -- and transcends it.

The film, the first from writer-director Karyn Kusama, shared the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It soon generated tons of ink about the difficulties the director had raising the $1.3 million she needed to make the movie. Kusama, the daughter of a Japanese-American child psychiatrist and an educational psychologist, went through a period of teen anomie growing up in suburban St. Louis and at one point found herself at a boxing gym in New York.

When I spoke to Kusama by phone two weeks ago, she never once groused about the hardship of having to peddle a script. Of course, studios and boutique companies did balk at her project, and some of the moneymen indicated they would have preferred a film about a middle-class white gal. But in the end her mentors -- filmmaker John Sayles and his longtime partner in life and movies, producer Maggie Renzi -- pledged their financial support, and support from the Independent Film Channel followed.

Kusama resisted exaggerating autobiographical connections to her fictional story. Sure, she had sparred at Gleason's gym in Brooklyn in the early '90s, mostly to get in shape and take her mind off smoking. But her actual seminal experience was leaving the suburbs and finding her existential footing when she hit the pavement of New York. "The moment I touched city soil I was a goner," she told me. "I had always been painfully aware that the quiet and solitude of suburban life was not really for me." She attended New York University Film School as an undergraduate, entering in 1986. "Girlfight" has its "Rocky" elements, but it also stems from Kusama's affection for the gritty urban fables of Elia Kazan ("On the Waterfront") and Robert Rossen ("The Hustler") and the supercharged soap operas of that ultimate chick-flick director, Douglas Sirk ("Imitation of Life").

Kusama's appetite for dynamic melodrama and her knowledge of melodrama's need for galvanic acting energize "Girlfight." Kusama knows that the movie grows out of her star Michelle Rodriguez's eyes. Rodriguez's glance can transfix, seduce and kill -- sometimes all at once. The first close-up of her glower registers on audiences with all the shock of the bad guy shooting his gun at the camera in Edwin Porter's "The Great Train Robbery."

What grabbed you about boxing?

For me, it was the social dynamics in the gym: the alternate family that starts to emerge from boxing relationships. You see surrogate fathers and sons and even surrogate grandparents and grandchildren. The boxing gym is one of those rare places where you see old people who are being listened to and respected. It's almost an ideal of what the world should have been, or once was and is no longer -- where you could see life lived with decorum and a sense of ethics. There was a surprising politeness -- surprising because you do not find it in the outside world. I could see why so many young guys would take shelter in that space and feel safe there.

I felt that kind of safety in a pretty famous old gym called Gleason's, in Brooklyn. I kept looking at what was going on there and feeling so aware of these young guys who felt they needed protection. And that's what athletics can represent, especially in inner cities; that's why it becomes such an appealing second route for guys to take. But I began to wonder about these guys' female counterparts -- their sisters, mothers, girlfriends. Where did they get to go for this sense of safety? They don't get to go anywhere. It's just not as common to find that kind of place for women.

Were you often the only woman there?

Oh, there were days when I would be the only girl, but even when I first started there were always women. It was frustrating for them, because there was never a venue for them to compete against one another -- they weren't even let into the Golden Gloves until, I think, 1996. And a lot of women wanted to be in a competitive zone and couldn't. But there were trainers who worked out with you. And after I sparred, I found out pretty early that this thing of getting hurt and getting hit wasn't for me; it didn't wake me up the way it does some people. Some people can move through it and not even really blink. But I liked everything up to the contact -- the contact to the middle of the nose, in particular, always stunned me. On the other hand, boxing and training for boxing are an incredible workout.

Joyce Carol Oates' book "On Boxing" is one of the best books ever written on the subject, yet she views it as a totally male sport. Did getting inside boxing interest you because of the idea of invading a male province?

I think my interest came more from the concept of facing yourself -- because you have to look into yourself in order to face your opponent with any effectiveness. I know that in Oates' book she asserts that there's no place for women in the ring. I'm not sure I agree with that -- obviously. [Laughs]

How long was the concept of doing a boxing movie bubbling around in your mind?

About two years. In January 1995, I remember, it was a lonely month, and I wrote the first draft of the script. I probably went through a couple of drafts over the years; it took maybe a year and a half for me to start to improve what was a very rough piece of crap, basically. The script was able to germinate for a long period of time, even up to our final draft when I was casting in the winter of '98; then in pre-production in '99 we made some little changes.

How central was boxing to your inspiration and how central was doing a movie about a working-class hero?

Both were, at least as concepts. At this point boxing movies are a genre in and of themselves, and I felt like it would be interesting to subvert that a little bit. Lucky for me, but sad for all of us, that subverting a genre can mean just putting a woman in the main part! And I am really interested in this tradition of working-class heroes: melodramas with men who have to come to terms with their animal self and whatever kind of intellectual self, who have to realize those are out of balance and then try to balance them. A lot of women live with this same sense of imbalance. I wanted to tell the story behind one of them.

I've seen you refer to "On the Waterfront" as a precedent. I also love that movie, but I do think there's something troubling about the '50s religiosity of it all --


-- and the priest being such a central figure. It's great that Marlon Brando's character gives up the way of the gun; there's also something too holy about the way he does it. But when you have a woman who's not an ex-pro, like Brando was in that film, but a novice, and boxing is giving her the discipline she needs, you don't have to get sanctimonious about her process of maturing.

I tried to steer away from any sort of clear-cut moral, which I think is the one problem with those movies. Much as I love them, they do suffer on occasion from a simplistic sense of right and wrong. I say that -- and then, at the same time, I love that sense of right and wrong. I think, in "Girlfight," the priest [from "On the Waterfront"] becomes the trainer.

Another thing you don't fall into is wringing your hands over the corruption of the sport.

That was actually a conscious decision. The territory of the corrupt world of pro boxing has been covered pretty well. I felt like exploring more of the pure sport of it. And in a funny way, in this amateur world -- even though it's the low-rent version of the sport, with less experienced fighters -- you're seeing and, I hope, understanding more of the fundamentals: the jab, the hook, the footwork, building your legs. You sort of forget about that by the time you start watching the pros and start focusing more on the purse, the card girls, the promoters, who are a circus unto themselves. And, in a way, by exploring the amateur world, you tend to see more of the emotional life of the fighters. Half of them are terrified and it shows.

Speaking of revealing emotional life: The power of the movie seems to rest on what happens when you close in on Michelle Rodriguez's face. Was that challenging look something you tested for when you were auditioning actresses for the part?

It wasn't conscious. I knew the opening scene was going to be one in which the main character stares down the audience. But a lot can happen in that stare, and it didn't have to be as confrontational as Michelle's stare just naturally is. I think her stare is really effective, because in the first 30 seconds of the movie she turns the table on the audience's expectations. It's almost as if her stare indicates we are not just watching her, she is watching us.

I really love that about her look. Nothing seems to escape it, or her. I didn't go for that when I was casting. I got lucky. The first time I videotaped her training, the trainer kept turning back to me and saying, "Oh, my God, she is really scary." It's interesting how much one's eyes can communicate in terms of the ability to do harm or be scary. I always thought there would be a very ambivalent feminine presence in this film's main character; I always knew that she should be extremely beautiful without being pretty. And in the movie, that's what Michelle is.

The story points up the parallels between the relationships she has in the ring world and outside it.

It's almost a clichi how many strained father-son relationships there are in boxing, and how that can play into the relationship with a trainer, who may then have to war with the father for the soul of a young fighter. A similar dynamic exists in my movie, where the biological father is not sufficient and the surrogate father has to earn his place with her. I think that process of seeing her find a teacher, a mentor, hokey as it might sound, is fundamental to the story. And it's a key human experience -- finding people who show you the better way. That's something else kids are looking for when they walk into that gym: somebody to teach them.

It seems that in the course of the story, you go through all the traditional male-female bonds -- daughter-father, sister-brother, girlfriend-boyfriend -- and flip them into a realm where the relationships are more just and equal.

[Laughs] I didn't think to myself: "Let's make a reversal of every significant relationship in the movie." But "Girlfight" is a movie, and it presents an idealized version of relationships, and they do seem to neatly twist. I think the one that will never reverse is the teacher-student relationship; I think that trainer will always be her teacher. Still, I wasn't conscious of how the rest of the relationships were all flipping over on each other.

Was Sayles [for whom Kusama was once an assistant] a trainer/teacher/mentor for you?

John was definitely that for me; I'm so blessed to have had the experience of working for him and for producers who have always worked with him. I couldn't have learned much more about this particular end of the filmmaking spectrum than I did from them. I certainly look to other filmmakers for that same kind of inspiration. But I can't say I got to work for Todd Haynes ["Poison," "Safe"]; I can't say I got to work for Douglas Sirk, because he's no longer with us.

So Douglas Sirk is one of your favorites?

I love him. I loved the nakedness of his characters.

But a movie like "Written on the Wind" is so sad and pessimistic compared to yours.

I love the way his characters eventually come to this point of self-realization and state it out loud; I find that a hopeful concept of human behavior. And I think he makes absolutely beautiful-looking movies. So he's one version of an ideal moviemaker, he and early Kazan, and Robert Rossen -- "The Hustler" [Rossen's 1961 pool-hustling movie] might even go into the top three of all time for me.

What are the other two?

Oooooh! Now you got me. I've got to say "Written on the Wind," the Sirk film, grabs me by the throat every time. And we'll just have to let one float.

Sirk was the epitome of a studio craftsman. Do you think you'd go to work for a big studio? Have you had offers?

Right now, I'm working with a co-writer on a hybrid of sci-fi and horror -- it's very different. I can't wait to get my hands into it. But it will be independent. I'm afraid that, to me, going to a studio would be like giving sweets to a diabetic. It's not for me. [Laughs] It would kill me!

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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