Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bulls Hit!: "American Bullfighter" (2008)

This heartfelt documentary chronicles a man's struggle with alcoholism, and his decision to replace the addictive properties of alcohol with the addictive properties of fighting bulls. Ironically, you would have to ply me with liquor to get me to stand in a ring with a thousand pound animal and having only a tablecloth and a litter-stick at my disposal.

Alex LeMay was born in the United States, but was raised overseas thanks to his father's teaching jobs. Alex's happiest time was in Spain, where bullfighting was his baseball. Later, he also bottomed out in Spain at the age of 34, an alcoholic.

Back in the States, Alex signs on to the only American, and English-speaking, bullfighting academy in the world. It is based in San Diego (in a cul-de-sac) and run by the passionate Coleman Cooney. Alex gets to know his fellow students: scientist Dave, quiet South Korean Yung June, and female Kelly (in a field that isn't exactly open to women). Bullfighting training begins, and Coleman puts his students through intensive exercises that look silly at first, until the group travels to Mexico to meet their first small cows in the ring.

Dave and Alex get bumped around, but Kelly does very well. Next, the troupe heads to Spain, and frustrations begin to rise. While Alex is doing a great job staying sober, nerves are frayed, the animals are bigger, and before the film ends, Alex gets some bad news from his father.

Shot on what looks like very simple video cameras, Alex LeMay has put together a very good film. While the focus is on him, he gives more than enough screen time to the other students at the academy, Coleman, and even explains Spanish language bullfighting terminology. His narration is deadpan without being boring, and you find yourself rooting for everyone involved. LeMay acknowledges that bullfighting is a controversial sport (although the word "sport" lessens this Spanish cultural tradition that has been around for centuries). The bulls killed are butchered for their meat, but LeMay doesn't let his cameras dwell on the gorier side of bullfighting. He generates actual suspense over the smallest events, but I was spellbound all the way.

While I was enjoying the film, and learning all sorts of things about bullfighting (one subject calls bullfighting "controlling huge violent animals with pieces of cloth"), I was frustrated by my lack of knowledge of the documentary's main subject. Who is Alex LeMay? What happened when he hit bottom in Barcelona? I only learned in the closing moments that his father was a professor. I wanted LeMay to tell us more about LeMay, so we could really get behind him (so to speak) when he gets into a three hundred year old bull ring with his parents watching him.

"American Bullfighter" bounced around the festival circuit before being released on DVD, and I hope you'll seek it out. You'll never watch the 1953 Warner Brothers cartoon "Bully for Bugs" the same way again. (* * * *) out of five stars.

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