Monday, June 27, 2011

Anton Perich’s Muhammad Ali, Resurrected

He was the most famous person in the world, bar none. Yet, the once-and-future heavyweight champion readily granted a group of Manhattan cable-access filmmakers entree to his training camp, at a time when hardly anyone knew what cable access was. After one unheralded airing, Anton Perich’s Muhammad Ali was lost and forgotten. Reconstructed by Perich, Muhammad Ali 1973-74 screens this Friday at Anthology Film Archives in conjunction with a new installation of filmmaker’s work at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn.

There are no talking heads in Perich’s hazy black & white first generation Sony Portapak film, unless you count Ali’s, which talks a lot. Indeed, the Ali in Perich’s Ali is a perfect Rorschach, electrically charismatic to his fans, or an egomaniac prone to braggadocio to his detractors. Either way, it is the same Ali. In fact, Perich’s film allows viewers to make up their own minds (should that still be necessary at this point), providing extensive raw (in more ways than one) footage of Ali while preparing to retake his title.

Along with throngs of fans who flocked to Ali’s Dear Lake, Pennsylvania training camp and pseudo dude ranch, we watch Ali sparring and conditioning in long uncut sequences. Few if any fighters ever heard as much applause as Ali, simply as he went about his regiment. There are also long segments of Ali regaling his thoroughly dazzled “interviewers,” Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie, with his aphorisms. Perhaps the biggest scoop of the film comes while Ali names the boulders dotting the ranch after famous boxers. Perhaps surprisingly, he gives respectful nods not just to Italian Stallion Rocky Marciano, but also his old nemesis, Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

For Ali’s fans, Perich’s film is a straight shot of the pugilist icon, presented in an unfiltered fly-on-the-wall style. Rather than editing them per se, Perich lets his scenes play out, as if viewers really are in the Deer Lake audience. Only Ali could command this sort of attention.

In a way, Perich’s film underscores just how public a celebrity Ali truly was. Watching the ease with which Ali assumed his outward “sting like a bee” persona in the 1970’s, one wonders if he still has a private persona now that the ravages of age and an occupation in which brain damage is a day-to-day fact of life have forced the legend to retreat into privacy. Yet, for hundreds of millions, he remains “The Greatest,” a judgment Perich’s film will likely reinforce. A unique opportunity to see the fighter in his prime, Perich’s Muhammad Ali screens this Friday (7/1) at the Anthology Film Archives.