Flash Preview, 7-1: The Greatest, brought down to Earth
With Muhammad, on his Mountain
|Muhammad on his mountain: Ali in the camp he constructed in Deerlake, Pennsylvania, from Anton Perich's "Muhammad Ali, the Long-lost Movie." Image credit Anton Perich and courtesy Anthology Film Archives.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak
NEW YORK -- Raw and with the languorous appearance of being uncut, Anton Perich's "Muhammad Ali, the Long-lost Movie," screening tonight only at 7:30 at Anthology Film Archives, is a stunning, singularly American document of a singular bell-weather of the American trans-cultural scene in the early 1970s, a cinema verite portrait of a man in all his elements, as elementally American as he is elementally African-American and American Muslim, earnest and down to earth, nowhere demonstrated more movingly and simply then in the long middle section of the black and white video, set in a real camp Ali built up top a mountain in Deerlake, Pennsylvania in 1973, on a plateau surrounded by granite rocks he had painted with the names of his history, Johnson, Dempsey, Louis, Leonard, Marciano, Graziano.... After excerpts were shown on Manhattan Cable Public Access in 1973, the footage was "lost in my archives," Perich says, until he edited this new version last year. The result is a document -- perhaps the first -- which sheds and even explains, in Ali's own words, the public showman's veneer that, as much as his boxing, catapulted Ali to the fulcrum of the cultural zeitgeist in the cross-fertilized era that was the 1970s.
The documentary begins with Ali shadow-boxing -- and dancing, more than his soles rarely touching the ground -- in the training facility at the camp, bare-chested with tight tan pants, and ends with him being battered by a succession of sparring partners (including Larry Holmes, who would ultimately defeat him in 1980 for the title) in an exhibition match in preparation for the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman. The most breathtaking section, and the narrative kernel of the film, follows Ali to the camp -- literally so, as he describes his plans to erect a log cabin out of old railroad tresses where he'll live without electricity, installing a well at the center of the house to pump in fresh water. Interviewed by Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie, he contrasts the purity of life there, particularly the access to fresh water and vegetables (there's even a chicken coop with 20 chickens and a white rooster), with the business and pollution of the city, explaining that this repose is one reason he's able to concentrate for four hours every night, from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., on his writing. At the interviewers' invitation he gets up to fetch a sheaf of the results, which a cynic might call a series of aphorisms, but which in their sheer sincerity and poetry have the poignant effect of making anyone repelled by boxing ask why it took a profession that called on getting his brains beaten to a pulp to bring such mental insight to the foreground.
"He who makes room in his heart for others will himself find accommodation everywhere," is just one pearl that Ali comes up with, relaxing on a simple bench in front of his cabin on the mountain, next to Wylie and Bockris. At another point, discussing how uninteresting are rivals Joe Frazier and Foreman, he more than intimates that the bravado of his public persona, far from being simply self-aggrandizing, is a tactic to widen boxing's audience to the broader culture. If the dash and flash helped Ali succeed in this, though, it was ultimately the humility and plainspokenness of this particular American -- and African- American and Muslim -- hero that opened hearts around the world to accommodating him."
While Ali proves accommodating to the film-maker and interviewers, generous with his time as if he had nothing better to do than lounge around dispensing his pearls to these casually clad civilians in jeans and over-sized '70s hats and sweaters, he can't resist zinging them with a classic couplet invented for the occasion:
"I like your interview and I admire your style,
But your camera's so cheap I won't talk to you for a while."
History is glad he relented.