The Smashing Machine was one of the first documentaries about mixed martial arts, being a slice of life from one of the earlier fighters in MMA, Mark Kerr. Kerr was a multi-time winner of UFC tournaments and was one of the early stars of MMA. At one time, he could make a credible case for being the toughest guy in the world. The movie is critically acclaimed, I guess because critics like blatant emotional manipulation and racism.
I understand that MMA isn't for everyone. They find it brutal, ugly, whatever. And there is a certain element of brutality in it, particularly in the UFC early days and in vale tudo competitions (which is MMA's mean older brother, a Brazilian style-vs-style competition with minimal rules even). But the movie never makes an argument in any sense of the word. It never says, "MMA and vale tudo are brutal sports where people get injured". What the movie did do is . . . every time it showed an MMA competition it played music straight from a horror movie -- a jangling, discordant music. The movie further manipulated the fighting scenes to be high contrast and oversaturated, creating a harsh and ugly glare to everything -- like in the Matrix movies when they scene is set in an official building with that green light washing everything out. Actual MMA events, on the other hand, look nothing like what you see in the movie. There is no discordant music, there is no lurid lighting. Yet, the documentary takes the stand that it's merely presenting the information with neutrality (there are no voice overs, no interviewers, nothing to make a person think they're not witnessing these things straight out of life) when, instead, it's being highly manipulative, using colors and sounds designed to sway judgment in a particular direction. And I find that dishonest.
I find it dishonest because American MMA is reasonably safe. It's safer than boxing, it's safer than pro wrestling, it's safer than football, it's safer than ice hockey, it's safer than surfing, it's safer than skydiving. If the movie was against MMA and presented an argument, I might disagree with it but that's all. It didn't even emphasize the ugliness -- the blood and wounds -- it manipulated the images to make them more horrible than they, in fact, were. Instead of presenting an argument, it's just manipulates emotions, instead.
The movie also showed, or seemed to show, that all MMA fighters were living miserable lives, even though they mostly only interview two of them -- Mark Kerr and Mark "the Hammer" Coleman, another early MMA fighter.
It is my understanding that most pro fighters really love their job. Like artists, you never have a lack of people who are willing to fight professionally. No matter how poorly you pay them or how poorly you treat them, the fighters will always show up. I understand that people might think that fighters loving what they do is not sufficient to allow it in society. People love heroin, after all, and any one of a number of self-destructive activities that we don't allow people to engage in. I grasp that. But, in general, like artists and other exploited professions, the people in those professions love them. However, you can't really context that the fighters don't love to fight. Almost all of them really, really do.
In The Smashing Machine, even victory brings no pleasure. Mark Coleman, after winning the first Pride FC Grand Prix, is shown with the bent around his waist, in his dressing room looking sad. Was that sadness or . . . er, physical exhaustion, since Coleman had just fought three fights in one night. But even in victory, there was no pleasure, just unending pain and suffering. Again, it is my understanding that professional fighters love their work. While it is certainly emotional for them, well, that's part of why they like it. Yet, the movie takes pains to show that there is simply no joy in these men, ground down by their miserable lives.
The movie also touched on Kerr's drug problems. Somewhere along the line, he picked up a morphine habit. The movie attempts to place this entirely on the brutality of MMA. After a fight, Kerr would need something to help him with the pain. Except . . . content-wise, well, Kerr never says that. And, indeed, it sorta seems like his junkie alcoholic girlfriend might be part of his problem with drugs. But the un-subtle subtext of the movie is happy to lay that on the feet of MMA, too.
Even with the brutality and injuries, there's a lot of manipulation. Near the end, when Kerr is knocked out of the Pride FC Grand Prix, the movie treats a stitch on his chin like it's some sort of major operation, taking a long time and causing considerable pain and stress. The truth is, four stitches in your chin is something that's handled in a couple of minutes. I've been stitched. It's no big deal. It isn't some grueling affair. But, hey, the movie can't wait to just rub it in, again, to the discordant sounds of their nightmare soundtrack that MMA is a horrible, ugly, brutal thing where there is no joy.
But that wasn't the worst. The worst is the depiction of the Japanese.
The movie takes place during Kerr's stint in the Pride FC, a Japanese MMA promotion. The Japanese are also filmed in the oversaturated, grainy style of the film and what is emphasized is their, well, inscrutability. The Japanese promoters come off as inscrutable Orientals. It is hard for me to emphasize how strongly I feel that, and Adrienne agrees (and indeed pointed it out to me). The way they're filmed also makes them seem ugly. The naked racism is pretty shocking. The inscrutable, ugly Orientals with their wily ways taking advantage of a clean cut American kid. I don't know that it was intentional, but someone should have gone, "Guys, are we really comfortable portraying Japanese people as ugly and inscrutable?"
I'm certainly not saying that you couldn't criticize Pride FC. Almost all sports organizations are shady and take advantage of athletes; fight organizations more than most. I've heard MMA professionals say that Pride treated its fighters "like cattle". But, again, the film wasn't about facts. It made no arguments. It just showed a bunch of green tinted, ugly Orientals manipulating what should have been, and would have been without their nasty interference, a clean cut all-American boy. It abjured facts for nasty, hateful images and if there was any bearing to fact, it was entirely a coincidence.
I mean, wow, I don't know the last time I saw a movie this manipulative. Without coming out against MMA, it depicts it as a place of literal horror that leads to lasting injuries, drug abuse and systematic humiliation. While doing so, it paints the Japanese with the brush of racist caricature. It's a pretty nasty piece of work. Fuck this movie.