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Murderball: A Masterpiece

June 21, 2006

MTV gets a bad reputation for its reality shows. First they merely distorted reality through out-of-sequence editing and extreme mood music; now they fabricate it altogether by shooting scripted shows in "reality" style. You didn't think The Hills was legit, did you?

But MTV gets a lot less attention for its socially responsible documentaries and reality series, like True Life and its specials on sex. These Peabody-winning shows bring the MTV style–rapid-fire editing, pop soundtracks, slo-mo, extreme closeups, all the fix-ins–to documentary filmmaking, and turn potentially dry educational videos into interesting, enlightening, often moving studies of modern society.

This approach reaches new aesthetic heights with ThinkFilm/MTV Films' Murderball, a simply amazing documentary about the coolest sport you've never heard of, wheelchair rugby. The quadriplegic men who play wheelchair rugby explode every stereotype about the disabled: they fight, they drink, they drive, they fuck, they play a brutally competitive sport. And they don't want your help getting into the car at the grocery store.

In wheelchair rugby, or quad rugby, two teams of four guys square off on a basketball court and pass or bounce-pass a volleyball to each other, with the objective of riding the ball over the goal line at the far end of the court. When players have a more severe disability that makes gripping the ball difficult, they often wear gloves slathered in glue. Everyone rides in armor-laden wheelchairs, which they crash into opponents to stall their movement or disrupt their throws. The crash produces the predictably painful screech of metal-on-metal, and players often topple over head-first onto the floor with only their atrophied limbs to break the fall. Hence the nickname murderball.

If that premise isn't juicy enough, the filmmakers, Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin, found an incredible narrative hook in Joe Soares, a former all-star American quad player who, after getting cut by the American paralympic team, picked up his wheels and became the head coach of the Canadian national team. A narcissistic Robert Duvall lookalike, he's been wheelchair-bound since contracting polio as a child, and between his screaming, boasting and thinly veiled disappointment in his unathletic son, he makes a perfect villain. On an anniversary dinner with his wife, she offers a toast to him. He offers a toast to Team Canada.

The hero, or anti-hero, would be a cliché if he weren't real. Mark Zupan was a hard-partying soccer player who was tossed out of the bed of his best friend's pickup truck after a night of drinking. After spending 13 hours stuck in a stream off the side of the highway, he was one pissed-off cripple. He'd call his best friend any time of day or night to help him get out of bed. Now he's still parties and fucks and fights and swears, but he's one of the best players on the American team–and he says he wouldn't piss on Joe Soares if he were on fire.

The narrative thrust is provided by the teams' path to the Paralympics in Athens, and the filmmakers shamelessly–and beautifully–milk the rivalry for all its worth. It is not only a clever way to imbue a documentary with suspense, but it also vividly demonstrates how quadriplegic people can have a purpose in what able-bodied people like myself often assume are purposeless lives.

Shapiro and Rubin avoid the stylistic traps of documentaries that can make moist subjects dry by studying MTV and Michael Moore. They vividly show the extent of people's spinal injuries by overlaying animation over their necks and switching between computer representations of their skeleton and footage of the player. To introduce the American and Canadian teams, they line up the teams on the side of the court and simultaneously zoom and track in, so the lineups appear to explode into the foreground. When the teams take the court, they jack up the grunts and crashes and film the finest moves in slo-mo. As in all good MTV products, the soundtrack plays a big role: early on, the angry rattle of Ministry plays up the toughness of the players; later, after a tough loss for the U.S. team, a delicate White Stripes-ish ballad amps up the emotion. It's all quite manipulative, and I loved every minute of it.

Some of the footage is impossible to fuck up. It's impossible not to be mesmerized by Bob Lujano, a tiny stub of a man who lost his legs and most of his arms to a rare form of meningitis. By manipulating the muscles where his elbows should be, he signs autographs, gets dressed, opens the refrigerator–in short, he does shit that most of us find difficult when we have a bad cold. He even has a great sense of humor about his disability; he plays a practical joke on some friends by hiding inside a small box.

I hate getting into my emotional response to a movie–I feel like it's the lazy man's way of avoiding real critical analysis–but I'll do it anyway, 'cuz I'm feeling a little lazy myself. I was variously inspired, moved, shocked, excited and disgusted by these men.

My only quibble, and it's a small one, is I got the sense that Shapiro and Evans didn't quite trust the sports scenes to deliver enough drama on their own. I'm a sucker for slo-mo and montages, but there's barely a murderball scene that's not shot in slow motion. I also suspect the relationships between Zupan and his best friend wasn't as fraught as they want us to think; they suspiciously never show the ever-talkative Zupan saying that he doesn't get along with his supposed one-time best friend. When the movie's epilogue tells us that Zupan and his old buddy now talk everyday, I wasn't convinced they weren't already doing that.

But these are all minor flaws in what is one of the most masterful, riveting documentaries I've ever seen. Perhaps the filmmakers' greatest achievement is that they make spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair seem like fun.

One Comment leave one →
  1. hortonhcci permalink
    December 12, 2009 7:18 pm

    Pretty sure it’s “paraplegic” you want, not quadriplegic. Para=2 limbs paralyzed (legs, usually if not always), quad=4 limbs paralyzed (legs and arms). If these guys were quadriplegics, they wouldn’t be able to hold on to a ball.

    Nice review, though. ;o).

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