Directed & Written by: #AnthonyVander
A strangely alienating film from writer/director Anthony Vander, Spar is an interesting take on the boxing underdog story we’re all familiar with from the likes of Rocky, but with the added tone of disaffection one might find in a Godard movie. With dialogue that is unnoteworthy to the point of seeming unscripted, Vander achieves a documentary-like tone which almost feels like a new cinematic movement, but ultimately leaves an unsatisfying feeling.
Aspiring boxer Isabel (Nicola Roffe) is accosted by Denise (Stephanie Siadatan), who asks if she wants company going to the gym to develop her pugilistic chops. Isabel cryptically declines her offer and heads off alone to ‘Left Hook’. At the gym, Isabel introduces herself to the suitably grizzled coach, Barry (Gary Swan), and sets to work on her training whilst being condescendingly regarded by every other man in the building. Whilst these men (including Edwin de la Renta, Jordan Pitt, and Darren Oderinde) are lackadaisically getting on the wrong side of Barry through their poor performance on the eve of a big fight, Isabel possesses a sombre determination that puts her in stark contrast. When the time comes for her to test her mettle in the ring, Isabel refuses to the let the canvas keep her down; she’s not just fighting for the match, she’s fighting for her pride.
As an allegory for the struggle of women trying to be taken seriously in a man’s world, Spar hits its marks perfectly serviceably and makes that agenda clear to the viewer. Also worthy of praise is the verité achieved through the shaky camera-work, tasteful use of slow-mo, and interesting use of music and silence (one fight sequence in particular owes a lot to genre classics like Raging Bull). The diverse cinematography holds the viewer’s attention throughout, and the variety clearly shows a lot of imagination on Vander’s part.
However, whilst underdog stories usually have a grand, dramatic pay-off, Spar feels oddly anticlimactic, or at least not as triumphant as it could have been. Perhaps this is because Roffe et al don’t have much to play with in terms of dialogue. Exchanges are brief, generally un-illuminating, or blandly perfunctory. It makes me wonder whether the film was scripted at all; in many ways it might have been more interesting as a brooding, silent piece. The effect is an overwhelming sense of isolation and alienation, which is not inappropriate for the story, but with so little time to get to know Isabel’s character, it doesn’t serve to endear her to the viewer either. Whereas directors in the trade of alienation, such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Fellini, would have leavened this aspect with a tight script and a serving of surreality, Vander keeps it intractably sustained throughout. The result is a fictional narrative experienced by the viewer like a contrived documentary. It’s an interesting tone, and one which I almost felt compelled by for the most part. However, Spar never provides a character for us to really root for, aside from Isabel’s preordained role as the protagonist.
Like a hot-headed pretender to the middleweight crown, Spar offers a style sandwich with not much substance in between. The ‘short film’ format is truly a difficult one, as filmmakers need to achieve as much emotional impact as a feature in considerably less time. When it works it can be sublime, but unfortunately Spar shows how any leaks in the ship’s hull can quickly sink it. By combining its wonderful visual style with a wittier script, this could have been a real winner. Unfortunately, the film got KO’d in the final round. I hope everyone involved gets back to the cinematic gym and takes another short very soon.