Come Out Fighting

Come Out Fighting (1973 Australia 50 mins)

Dir: Nigel Buesst Scr: Nigel Buesst, based on the play by Harry Martin Phot: Byron Kennedy Ed: Tony Patterson

Cast: Michael Karpaney, Joey Collins, Bethany Lee, Cliff Neate, Peter Green, Bob Horsfall

From the red dust north of Dalmore Downs
Sharman’s tents roll into town.
Twelve will face the auctioneer.
Sharman’s boxers stand their ground.
Fighting in the spotlight
Eyes turn blacker than their skin
For Jimmy Sharman’s boxers
It’s no better if you win

- Midnight Oil, “Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers”

The first two scenes of Come Out Fighting suggest two possible genres through which to read the film. In the first scene a young Aboriginal man sits in a dingy bed-sit. As he sips at his cup of tea a baby can be heard crying off-screen. We might guess that the child belongs to him (we’d be wrong – it slowly becomes clear that it’s just that the walls are very thin in this low-rent block of flats). But we might also guess that this is going to be some kind of “kitchen-sink” or “social realist” film. We might even speculate, because the man is black, that issues of race and racial conflict are going to play a significant part in the narrative action.

The second scene puts us in a boxing ring. As manager Stan Harkness (Clifford Neate) waits for his fighter to arrive, two other fighters practice sparring. The location and its attendant markers of physicality are what we have come to expect from a fight film, or more properly, the boxing film genre. Through framing, lighting, sound and, most importantly, editing the visceral nature of pugilism will be impressed upon us. Must be impressed upon us; because if a boxing film can’t convince its audience of the inherent truthfulness – the realness – of these bodies and the pain they both inflict and endure then, judged by the genre’s raison d’être, it is a failure. Boxing films are physical, and pain is their truth. The fights in Come Out Fighting were real bouts and the fighter in question – Al “The Bomb” Dawson (Michael Karpaney), the man from the previous scene – was an actual boxer and, until this film, a non-actor (those interested can catch Karpaney playing himself in a cameo in Kenny [Clayton Jacobson, 2006] as he spars with the title character). This would seem to vouch for the integrity of the on-screen fights in the film.

Writer and director Nigel Buesst however introduces this second scene with a long tracking shot across an array of photographs and endorsements that cover the walls of the gym. Prominent among the images is a picture of the great multiple-division Australian champion (and, at the time the film was shot, world middleweight title contender) Tony Mundine. As an Aboriginal boxing champion his significance on the “wall of fame” here as a role model for Dawson cannot be understated. That Mundine was never beaten by an Australian opponent in a 16-year career might set up anticipations fuelled by earlier boxing films and supported by the opening scene, of a “triumph of the underdog” narrative.

But what this shot hints at, in opposition to the genre’s dominating signifiers of physicality, is that in this film representations matter. This becomes clear immediately after when Stan tells the two sparring fighters that a television crew is on the way and that, as he wants the gym shown in a good light, he expects “no smart alec stuff”. The fighters put on a little performance for the camera and then stop when they realise the cameraman hasn’t loaded film. It’s appearances that count here, and representations of self are paramount. It soon becomes clear that this is where Al struggles – the cameras are here to capture him after all; he is (as Stan explains since the real article is nowhere to be seen) the rising champ – and he is expected to play the game in and out of the ring.

Returning briefly to the scene’s establishing tracking shot, notable too is the prominence that corporate sponsorship plays in this sport. Boxing is a commercial, professional sport in every sense. Not only is the sport part of the capitalist system but its gyms and its fighters are branded commodities – brands that must perform and represent themselves well. Television is the key vehicle in the film for fixing the locus between money and images, capital and spectacle. As well as the presence of the television journalists and the network coverage of the actual bouts, Al later appears on a sports quiz show which, while its host humiliates and devalues him, shamelessly flogs sponsors’ products.

When Al does finally show up he plays the laconic card. “You do the talking Stan, I’ll do the boxing.” Yet this isn’t quite the endorsement of action over words that it might appear to be – and in a fight scene soon afterwards, when Dawson beats his opponent by knockout, this also doesn’t function formally as it might be expected to. After the fight, complaining that Al didn’t perform as he could have, Stan tells him that people pay good money to see him fight – not bludge. The racist implications are clear but it’s apparent that Al is expected to not just play the game but also play it by the rules – rules which are defined by spectacle (television cameras are omnipresent during the fights) and the “right” attitude and appearance.

Historically boxing has offered a means of advancement for marginalised ethnic groups both in Australia and internationally, particularly in the United States where not just African-Americans but Irish, Italian and Jewish fighters have won significant titles and prize money even while experiencing incommensurate social gains. For example, Ken Burns’ documentary Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005) details the experiences of the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world (a title won, incidentally, in Rushcutters Bay, Sydney) who, to select just one example from a litany of harassment and persecution, was prosecuted under the Mann Act for “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes” – he had posted his white girlfriend a train ticket so she could visit him interstate.

Australia has its own history of limited racial integration delineated by the boxing ring’s ropes. Jerry Jerome was the first official Aboriginal champion, winning the Australian middleweight title in 1912, but a better known Aboriginal contribution to Australian boxing is the legacy of unofficial tent boxing. Epitomised by white retired fighter Jimmy Sharman’s Boxing Troupe, itinerant groups of fighters – white and black – would tour rural towns and agricultural shows where they would offer to fight all comers. For Aboriginals this entrée into white society was strictly limited to the fight arena and was valid only for the period in which they could be exploited for the profit of the tent owners – many if not most Aboriginal tent boxers ended their lives penniless and physically ruined (1). With Come Out Fighting Buesst became the first to use boxing as a way to cinematically address racism and Aboriginal experience, and passing references are made to this significant earlier tradition throughout the film.

In a scene that personally rates as the most moving in the entire film a minor character discusses the old tent boxing days when he boxed for Jimmy Sharman. Saying he’s not sad that the tent era has ended he delivers a monologue straight to camera about how they were never paid for their troubles and how boxers would end up brutalised and “punch-drunk”. Delivered haltingly, the non-actor’s soliloquy holds the power of truth. It stands in stark contrast to the nationalistic and egalitarian myths often perpetuated about the tents – I originally found the lyrics to the Midnight Oil song quoted above in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald entitled, “Sharman the Showman is an Official Bloody Legend” (2).

Themes of systemic racism begin to emerge after two students come to see Al in his dressing room immediately after the first fight. Stan is clearly miffed when, after they leave for a party, he asks Al what they want. Hearing that they want him to talk about Aboriginal land rights at a student demonstration, Stan reminds him that he’s just admitted he’s no good at talking. Stan, with his own latent racism, seems confronted by the fact that Al would even consider himself in terms constituted by race; “You don’t even know one end of a boomerang from the other.”

But at a student party Al is reminded again that it is postures and representations that matter most. The camera takes in a poster of Chairman Mao before alighting on a conversation between Al and a young idealist; the conversation stalls after the student discovers that Al has no clues about Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. Another signifier of the zeitgeist and of the (branding) gap between the student and gym habitués (who wear Channel 7 “TV Ringside” t-shirts) is the famous early 1970s Labor Party slogan, “It’s time”, worn by one of the partygoers.

It’s worth mentioning in passing, in noting the era and considering the bed-sit, gym and party as markers of place, that Come Out Fighting typifies an approach that Adrian Danks has commented on in regard to filming in Melbourne more generally (in contradistinction to Sydney) (3): large-scale public spectacle, architectural and landscape markers are ignored throughout the film in favour of small interior spaces that describe the city environment through its denizens and subcultures. A patchwork quilt approach is deployed whereas a Sydney filmmaker might hire a skywriter to spell the message out. This is certainly true of other independent Melbourne films of the era such as Pure Shit (Bert Deling, 1976) and Queensland (John Ruane, 1976).

As Al moves from the ring to the party he moves into a social arena. Here the genre elements of social realism reassert themselves. Albert Moran includes Come Out Fighting in a sub-cycle of “indigenous issues” films in his discussion of social realism as an Australian film genre (4). Come Out Fighting predates the other films Moran lists (he would presumably categorise Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout as an “art film”), and it is surely also one of the first films to explore urban rather than rural or traditional Aboriginal experience.

In attempting to argue that social realism is a proper genre within Australian film, as opposed to a sociological designation for a group of films that share some themes or subjects but have little formal connection, Moran defines it as a form rooted in the ideological universe of its characters. These characters are ordinary people both defined and limited by their broader milieu. Distinct from most other genres, including the boxing film, the actions, attitudes and personal development of the protagonist in a social realist film are not the central motivating force. Wider social factors such as poverty or prejudice always play a deciding role in the film’s form. Downbeat or unhappy resolutions often feature, emphasising that social problems require more than a bit of personal grit and determination, they must be addressed at a social level.

Come Out Fighting does feature a downbeat ending and, in utilising real events and non-actors, could also be traced to strands of social realism that follow from Italian neo-realism and that movement’s direct influence on Buesst and his comrades in the Carlton filmmaking scene partly through the work and knowledge of Giorgio Mangiamele. The film was made for only $6000 through the Experimental Film and Television Fund. Due to this small budget, using footage filmed at scheduled fights (5) was economically expedient. But nevertheless these fights give the film its veracity; but what strikes me, and ultimately makes the decision to use the footage as part of the plot an artistic one, is that Buesst only had to reverse the screening order of the fights (he wins the first and loses the last) in order to reverse the entire trajectory of the film. This makes it clear that he always had an “unhappy” ending in mind.

To return to the film’s problems of social realism, the students, the very people who supposedly do want to address the “social problem of the Aboriginal”, prefer it to remain at a patronising, generalised and abstract political level. At the party, and in a key scene where they – with Al’s love interest, white student Susan (Bethany Lee) ¬– watch Al being humiliated on a sports quiz show – where the host offers Al the disingenuous clue “it’s not Cassius Clay” – the students’ well-meant liberalism quickly breaks down into a kind of privileged superiority that is little different than the racism of the game show host or any of the other more obviously bigoted characters. Subtly articulated in these scenes too is the position of women and indigenous peoples in dominant society – look for Al’s first sexual approach to Susan (crucially, soon to be reciprocated) and his comments about the game show hostess. Again Al makes the wrong kind of self-representation.

The students’ discovery that Al is not capable of providing the right kind of appearance for their cause – he won’t speak at the rallies, so what use is he? – closes this door to him. In another scene he literally closes the door on his own past when he turns away two Aboriginal drunks who want him to go with them on a spree. At the gym he shows signs of disillusionment and puts in sub-par work as he trains for the upcoming title fight that is supposed to send his career into orbit. Al’s problem is that he doesn’t like the looks of most of his options – and nor do they like the looks of him. He’s looking for a position of authenticity in a world of appearances.

Unsurprisingly, Al loses the title fight, just as he loses any interest to fight for a place in a world that neither respects nor values him. In a beautiful and remarkable final scene he hitchhikes out of town with another Aboriginal man. Cars pass and no one stops but then, without a change of shot or a car slowing down, Al and his friend disappear. No more appearances, no more false images.

Endnotes

  1. Mike Cronin and David Mayall (eds.), Sporting Nationalisms: Identity, Ethnicity, Immigration, and Assimilation, Routledge, UK, 1998, pp. 37-8.
  2. See Daniel Lewis, “Sharman the Showman is an Official Bloody Legend”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 2003: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/04/14/1050172535850.html.
  3. Adrian Danks, “Don’t Rain on Ava Gardner Parade”, Twin Peeks: Australian and New Zealand Feature Films, ed. Deb Verhoeven, Damned Publishing, St. Kilda, 1999, pp. 173–185.
  4. Albert Moran and Errol Vieth, Film in Australia: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 142–156.
  5. Those interested can see a complete listing of Michael Karpaney’s competition fights at www.boxrec.com – the fights featured in the film are Joe Archer (25/9/72, win by KO) and Sila Nomura (13/11/72, loss on points).