So this one time I got my ass handed to me in a boxing ring by an indie filmmaker. You may have seen the video; some people have even made gifs of the fight, and they love to tweet them at me, as if I had forgotten that I got pounded in the ring. Although considering how badly I was beaten, maybe they think I've suffered brain damage.
The Fantastic Debates are a longstanding tradition at Fantastic Fest, and they’re one of the craziest and most fun of all the events. Held Saturday at midnight, the Debates are simple: two people have a disagreement and so they do a formal, two round debate. And when the verbal part is over they don boxing gloves and have two one minute rounds of fighting to determine the ultimate winner.
The Debates started as a lark; I debated once long ago (I was tricked - I was told that I would be debating the president of the Michael Bay Fan Club, but it was actually Jon Erler, an improv comic who wiped the floor with me in the verbal rounds) and our preparation was chugging 40 oz bottles of malt liquor. But over time the Debates have become more… well, serious is the wrong word, as the topics are always silly as hell, but the fights have become more real. That change started when Todd Brown, then of TwitchFilm, debated the director of the zombie movie The Dead. The director had been leaving nasty, anonymous comments on Twitch’s review of his movie and Todd had found him out; the debate was over how filmmakers should interact with critics. The debate was heated, but when the two got to boxing is when it got volcanic. The boxing in the past had often been hesitant and goofy, friends tapping each other, but these men were mad and the swings were real and the hits were hard. The swings weren’t just real, they were maybe too huge - the director threw his shoulder out of the socket in the fight. He tried to pop it back in and return, but in the end he was just too injured.
That had been the highpoint of the Debates being “Too Real” until my fight. I was paired up with Joe Swanberg, a filmmaker known for his mumblecore movies, which were very low budget, largely improv’ed and usually had Joe naked in a sex scene. I had savaged one of his recent movies and had made a small hobby of taking potshots at him and the whole mumblecore movement, and he had noticed. From there the idea was hatched - put us in the ring together. I’m up for anything, especially if it’s stupid, so I was in.
The thing to remember about the Debates is that they’re a show. You don’t want to get in the ring and deliver a dull, dry recitation of facts. This event is at midnight. There’s beer freely flowing. The crowd is worked up. In my first Debate I learned that they’re bloodthirsty - when Erler and I danced around each other they booed until a punch was finally landed. So I wasn’t going into the verbal portion to make any particularly salient points about the quality or lack thereof of mumblecore, i wanted to land zingers.
That meant, for me, playing the heel. After all, that dynamic was already in place - you had a scrappy, indie filmmaker debating the mean old critic. I leaned into the role and wrote down some jokes, including at least one about his dick. I may have overplayed it, though - when Swanberg boasted about how productive he was I replied that so was Hitler, and nobody thought that was one of his better traits. The crowd booed HEARTILY. Joe took the verbal portion more seriously, and he made some nice points about indie filmmaking, but none of them made up for Silver Bullets, so I think it was a draw.
It was not a draw in the ring. Joe has a solid six inches (in height) on me, and he is in better shape than I have probably ever been in my whole life, let alone during Fantastic Fest where I live on beer and queso. Our attitudes about boxing were different - I came into the ring to the sounds of the Amok Time fight theme after briefly and goofily training with the Soska Sisters and Joe came in to Beat on the Brat after getting pointers from MMA enthusiast and trained muay thai fighter Ti West. Joe wasn’t even wearing shoes. He was ready to scrap.
As we advanced to the center of the ring to touch gloves and get the basic lowdown from the ref, I looked at Joe’s eyes. He didn’t have the eye of the tiger, he had the eye of the shark - cold and black. He was ready to beat the shit out of me.
And did he ever.
When the fight started we both came out and went right for it, but I couldn’t even get within range of Swanberg. He was so much taller than me, with so much more reach, that he could keep me safely at arm’s distance the whole time. Not that it mattered - as we first came together in the center of the ring he landed a blow on my head that, in boxing parlance, rang my bell.
Imagine that your brain is just chilling out inside your skull, carefully nestled in there safe and sound. Now imagine that something collides with your head so hard that your very brain itself is smashed into the inside of your skull, sort of quickly pancaked and then bounces back. That’s what happened to me, and in an instant I found myself existing in a peculiar dimension made up of pain and confusion.
I don’t remember the exact timeline of the fight, and I don’t really want to watch the video to get it right. Besides, this is how it was for me, not how it really was, so I’m going to give you my subjective perspective on the whole fiasco.
Once my bell was rung the fight was over (if we’re being fair, the fight was over before we even got into the ring. I never had a chance). But I kept going at it, poorly and weakly. At one point my contact lens popped out of my eye (this is apparently why you shouldn’t wear contacts in the ring!). Joe came at me with a flurry of punches, sometimes landing blows on the back of my head, which should have drawn at least some notice from the ref. But this was Fantastic Fest!
The rounds were one minute each. I had boxed before, so I knew one fact about being in the ring - one minute in there is an eternity. If you’re not in great shape you will be a sweaty, out of breath mess in just sixty seconds. It’s a full body experience, and you’re using all of your muscles and trying to use your brain all at once. It’s the most exhausting thing I have ever done, and that’s even without the mouth guard making it impossible to get a lungful of oxygen. I can’t even imagine the stamina it takes a real boxer to be in the ring for a real fight.
I went down more than once. I fell to my knees after one particularly strong punch, and the ref came to my side. “Stay down,” he counseled me, telling me I had done enough.
That was bullshit. I didn’t get into that ring thinking I would win the fight. I didn’t have a hope in the world, and I knew that the outcome of the match - the best case scenario - would be my humiliation. But I knew the one thing I could not do was give up. If I learned anything from Rocky Balboa, it’s the importance of going the distance. And I was determined to go the distance.
I guess it looked pretty bad from the audience. I caught up later with some people (and with some tweets) who thought I was getting really hurt in there. And I kind of was! But fuck it - I had to get through two minutes of this bullshit to prove that, whatever else I am, whatever else I do, I don’t quit. I can be a stubborn piece of shit.
So I went the two rounds. Somehow there was an oversight in round one and neither of us were outfitted with headgear, a requirement of the gym where the event was held. I got strapped into one for round two, but I think Joe refused it (that’s what I remember. Again, I’m not checking the video). It didn’t help, and by the end of the second round I was a real mess. Beat on the brat indeed.
After the fight the ref gave me a concussion test, and there was some talk of taking me to the hospital, but I was willing to be humiliated only to a certain extent and I had reached the end of my rope. When Joe came up to me later I was terse and crummy to him; the adrenaline coursing through body didn’t allow me to be a good loser. I had to go apologize to him later at the afterparty. I’ll admit that I spent the next couple of days grumbling about getting punched in the back of the head, and I was elated when the video proved me right, but that was just sour grapes. I was gonna lose no matter what, and it isn’t like Swanberg took the fight by just pounding on the back of my cranium. He won the fight with the first punch.
I’m proud that I fought. My favorite memories of that day are about the lead up to the fight - ‘training’ with the Soska Sisters, hanging out with Phil and Evan and Noah and Meredith and Film Crit Hulk and the rest of the then-Badass Digest crew who acted as my ring men - and of the time right after, when I sat out in the parking lot and my friends were there for me as my fuzzy brain sorted itself out and they gave me the kind of support only people who truly love you can give. The kind of unconditional support that doesn’t care if you just got your ass handed to you by a guy who makes fucking mumblecore movies. Mumblecore!
I’m proud that I got into that ring. We live in a time where being a critic is too easy - everybody has access to everybody else and can say the nastiest shit imaginable behind a shield of anonymity. Even legitimate film critics rarely meet the people about whom they write face-to-face, let alone fist-to-face. I put myself out there and willingly took punches from a guy who was probably getting back at many, many critics by pounding on me. I showed that I was willing to stand behind my words, even if that meant standing in the way of a flurry of punches. Not many people will ever do that, especially in the social media age.
I lost the fight, but at least I fought. And anyway, beating me up didn’t suddenly make Joe Swanberg’s movies any better.