Joe Swanberg's first punch knocked out my right contact lens.
If we're going to do fight analysis, that's where he won the fight. My brain banged back and forth in my head, I was disoriented and suddenly I couldn't see out of my right eye. For a quick second I worried something bad had happened to my eyeball, but then I saw the lens on the floor of the ring. But I never recovered from that huge hit, and I ended up going down three or four times before the ref stopped the fight. I lasted less than a minute.
If we're being honest, I lost the fight the minute I agreed to it. Joe Swanberg has about seven inches on me, and I knew there was no way I would win the physical side of the debate. I just never imagined it would be so brutal.
Some context: The Fantastic Debates are one of the most popular events at Fantastic Fest. The concept is this: two people duke it out verbally, in two rounds of debate each lasting two minutes, and then they get in the ring and duke it out physically, in two rounds of boxing lasting a minute. I fought in the first Fantastic Debate, where I was ambushed by John Erler, a great local comedian, who was playing the character of the president of the local Michael Bay fan club (the topic: whether Michael Bay deserves a lifetime achievement Oscar). He decimated me in the debate and gave me a pretty solid thrashing in the ring.
The Debates are, like a lot of things at Fantastic Fest, a show. They're more WWE than straight boxing. This year's other matches saw twins Jen and Sylvia Soska duking it out in Mortal Kombat outfits and Tim League fight old man tae kwon do Grandmaster YK Kim (director of Miami Connection). It's one part stand up comedy, one part Thunderdome.
Which means you get up there and play to the crowd, who decides the winner at the end of the match. I've seen some people outside of the fest analyzing this thing like it was academics, but it was a show. A painful show, but a show nonetheless.
Our debate stemmed from two things I've written about Swanberg: this Silver Bullets review and this article. Last year at Fantastic Fest some of Swanberg's friends took real exception to those, and that gave Tim League, the cruel master of Fantastic Fest, the idea of putting me up against Swanberg. The topic: some vague version of 'Mumblecore is catshit.' We were the first bout to be confirmed; as soon as the idea was floated my way I knew it was going to make a great show.
What was great was having the whole Badass Digest team as my posse and ringside support. Meredith Borders, Brian Collins, Phil Nobile Jr, Henri Mazza, Evan Saathoff and Film Crit Hulk entered with me to the sounds of the fight music from the Star Trek episode Amok Time. The crowd was pumped and crazy, my team was amazing.
Indiewire has a transcript of the debate. I think Matt Singer leaves out some crucial context that I tried to add here, especially about the tone of the event, but I can't fault his transcription. Yes, I did get roundly booed for making a Hitler joke. I'm proud of that!
I think I won the debate, but there's no doubting that Swanberg won the fight. He came out of his corner aggressively and he shattered me with that first blow. Swanberg claims to have never thrown a punch in his life, but he had real power in his arms. Swanberg had spent the afternoon training with Ti West, making this the second most painful thing West has put me through, after House of the Devil.
Swanberg just kept raining blows on me. I went down a couple of times; each time I fell it was really surprising, like I briefly couldn't believe I was on the floor. My head was ringing, I couldn't see out of one eye and Swanberg had burning fury in his eyes. It was brutal. So much so that people in the crowd were tweeting legitimate concern about my well-being.
I kept going down, but I also kept getting up. The second time I went down Randy, the representative of the gym where we fought, came in to see if I was concussed (there was a mix-up and we were not given headgear at the start of the fight, although I don't know how much that would have helped in the long run). I told him I wanted to keep fighting. I went down again. Maybe again - I'm not sure. This time Randy came in and asked me how I was. I told him I wanted to keep fighting. Thankfully he disagreed and ended it.
Swanberg beat the piss out of me. It wasn't close. I'm not even sure if I landed any good blows. I was too dazed to really be certain. I kind of can't wait to see the video to get a look at how this thing played to the room. I can tell you that in the ring it played ugly.
And now, as determined by the sweet science, mumblecore is officially not catshit. I let you guys down.
I ran into Swanberg at the afterparty. We shook hands and posed for a couple of pictures. I told Swanberg he should consider taking up boxing because he seems to be a real natural at it. I took a whole bunch of Tylenol and headed home.
This wasn't my first fight. It's probably not my last. But I am proud of maintaining my lifetime record of no wins. And I'm proud that I got in the ring and that I kept getting up. I am, however, done seeing Joe Swanberg movies.
Photo by Kevin Pereira