What are the Fantastic Debates?
Last year, I attended the Debates but didn’t write them up. It was just a fun evening out at the end of a long string of movies I saw and reviewed. In the year since then, though, every time I’ve told someone about the Debates and the fight between Michelle Rodriguez and Tim League, they’ve been captivated. They are fascinated that this event exists. They want to know more.
And so this year, I’m dedicated to bringing you the same sort of breathless blow-by-blow account of the Debates that I could have expected to read in the papers the morning after an Ali-Frazier match-up as a kid.
Because these are not just about entertainment. Oh, no. No, these are battles over the most important ideas in our current cultural conversation. These are life and death struggles, fought verbally first and physically second. There is no more significant event during the week of Fantastic Fest.
And this year, we were ringside for every single punch that was thrown.
The format is simple. Owen Egerton is an Austin landmark in his own right, a novelist and theatrical performer with a decided emphasis on comedy. He’s a perfect host for the Debates each year, a consummate artist at stirring up trouble between the contestants. He entered the ring ready to rumble this year, full of energy, and after the wait that everyone had to get in, and after the rising temperature in the place took its toll on some of the audience members who had fought to get into what turned out to be a very hot ticket at the festival, Egerton’s energy was just right to really work the crowd.
There were four Debates this year. Each one consisted of two two-minute opening arguments in a pro and con back-and-forth on an issue. There are two three-minute rebuttals. And then there are two three-minute rounds in a boxing ring. And then the audience picks the winner by applause.
As you can see, this is an entirely scientific approach to settling these matters. There can be no disagreement after this. These questions are settled for all time, and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it.
The first question this year was debated by the Zellner Brothers. David and Nathan Zellner are probably best known for their short film “Sasquatch Birth Journal 2” and their feature film “Goliath,” or for their voice work on the enormously popular “Red Vs Blue” series. They are, to put it bluntly, lunatics. Both of them. They put so much time and energy into these debates in terms of appearance and persona. I have no idea what the question was that they debated last year, but I remember their fight. I especially remember the way it turned into heated making out in the ring, certainly not the ending to the fight that was expected.
This year, Nathan took the ring first, shirtless and with his hair grown out like he was the WWE version of Alan Ginsberg. He was here tonight to argue the point that Robots Are Totally Inferior To People. And he was passionate about it when arguing his point, too. He pointed to the examples in fiction of robots taking over the world and enslaving humanity. He emphasized that this is our planet, and we cannot lose it to something we invented.
Interestingly, David did not disagree with the crux of Nathan’s argument. He agreed that robots are going to take over the world, but in a crucial difference of opinion, he thinks that’s a good thing. He welcomes it. He’s already getting prepared for the eventual domination of the artificial intelligence. David wore a strange MacGuyver wig and a calculator breastplate as he tried to explain why we should just embrace the inevitable.
In his rebuttal, Nathan revealed that David has been having sex with a robot, which is one of the reasons he’s got no problem with them taking over. Again, David confirmed what Nathan was saying, and he detailed his various encounters, including the time he reached third base with a Rhoomba. With this sort of major philosophical gap between them, there was no point in continuing the conversation. They had to fight.
But David changed the rules a bit when he explained that it would solve nothing for man to fight man. Nathan appeared shocked, ready to start the fight. David said that the only way to settle this particular disagreement would be for Nathan to fight… a robot! David unveiled his latest creation, an updated model of a beloved ’80s mainstay, a slightly larger version of Small Wonder, a powerhouse of punching technology called… MEDIUM WONDER!
Nathan had a distinct height and reach advantage over Medium Wonder, but like all machines, Medium Wonder kept after him without mercy, without pity, without feeling. Unflustered and unflappable, the machine threw sharp punishing body blows at Nathan, winding the Beatnik Giant. Nathan managed to last two rounds, but it was obvious to all of us ringside, each time we heard those tiny metal fists crack one of Nathan’s ribs, this was no contest. When the audience voted, Nathan must have felt doubly betrayed, because as a crowd, we decided that Robots Are Superior To Humans.
Stings, right? But that’s the Truth, and that’s what the Debates are all about.
The second Debate was, for many people in the crowd, the reason they were there. After all, how often do you get to see two members of the Fellowship of the Ring step into the ring against each other? The statement being debated here was “World Of Warcraft” is a huge f**king waste of time. Elijah Wood was on the pro side of that statement, and Dominic Monaghan was on the con side. A little backstory. Elijah has been coming to Fantastic Fest for several years now, and he’s one of those guys who throws himself into the festival with abandon every year now. He seems to love it here, and I think everyone at the festival has loved having him here. He’s always willing to jump in and play, whether on the Fantastic Feuds or in a karaoke party or during this year’s opening night festivities before “Human Centipede 2,” where Tim League and a huge collection of Alamo staff members danced along with Elijah and his “Yo Gabba Gabba” appearance, which was playing on the screen. That’s one of those “I can’t believe I really saw that” moments that Fantastic Fest does so well, and a great example of how much Elijah’s become a part of this festival.
So of course if he’s willing, you’ve got to get him in the boxing ring. And this year, Monaghan is here with his new film “The Day,” so why not find something that the two of them disagree on fundamentally, and in this case, it’s “World Of Warcraft.” Talking to Elijah earlier in the day, he was serious about his distaste for the game, and evidently Dominic is equally serious about his love of the game. Certainly when they were in the statement-rebuttal portion of the evening, they both were very passionate in explaining their stance. I’d say I side more with Elijah on the issue. I’ve tried “World Of Warcraft” exactly one time, and right away, I realized it was not an experience for me. That’s not what I look for in gaming. Having said that, I can see how it would appeal to some people very specifically. I’m a little flabbergasted by how addicted some people are to it, but i guess everything attracts some extremists, and it’s hard to judge the majority of people by the worst-case scenarios, the folks who play it for five days straight in diapers or how quit their jobs or divorced loved ones in order to play. That alone makes me want to side with Elijah, although it’s clear that Dominic hasn’t been ruined just because he enjoys a game.
In the ring, I think things were a little more clear-cut. I’m going to hazard a guess that Dominic Monaghan has been in a boxing ring before. And not just once, either. He knows what he’s doing. He and Elijah traded rapid flurries of punches, but it was Dominic who controlled the fight. Elijah held his own for the entire first round, but in the second round, he was in trouble. He spent some of the round dancing, staying away from Dominic. There may have even been some running, but I wouldn’t swear to it. I think for the sake of their friendship and Elijah’s oh-so-dreamy good looks, it’s a good think there was no third round. The applause told the same story as that second round, and the decision went to Dominic, so no matter what logic tells Eljiah, the truth is now inarguable: “World Of Warcraft” is not, despite what Elijah Wood thinks, a huge f**king waste of time.
The third Debate was, hands down, my favorite of the night. Andy Howell is an old friend of mine from the Austin area who has moved quite a bit since graduating college and joining the work force. He’s moved a number of times because he is what we call “a sooooper genius.” Right now, he’s a staff astronomer at LCOGT and adjunct faculty at UCSB. He’s also one of the hosts of “National Geographic’s Known Universe.” He was a regular contributor at Ain’t It Cool for many years, which is how I met him, and he’s one of the most ridiculously smart of any of the ridiculously smart people I’ve met over the years. He’s also an incredibly nice guy, and the last one I’d think of in the boxing ring.
That was until I saw the “F**k NASA” guy. Who, you ask? Check this out, and don’t play it someplace where people with any IQ whatsoever might be offended:
How can you not want to beat that guy senseless? Especially if you’re an astrophysicist? Andy’s a guy who got into science because he has big questions about the universe, and the work he does is slowly chipping away at the answers to those questions. When he spoke tonight, it was no joke. He talked about why NASA represents one of the highest accomplishments in human history, and I agree with him fully. NASA is an example of what America does well. There was a problem we needed to solve, and NASA was the thing we built to help answer it. The “F*k NASA” guy had no real response to Andy’s points, instead ranting about free energy and hidden space alien contact.
Andy stands somewhere around 6’10”, and the “F**k NAsA” guy couldn’t have been an inch over five feet. I tell you this so you can imagine the pain that rained down on the little guy from above. Andy kept dropping the anchor on the little guy, and the little guy kept sitting down. I think the fact that there was Alamo Drafthouse staff there pushing Andy to not kill the guy helped, because it felt like Andy eased up a little in round two. On the plus side, there’s no chance he damaged the little guy’s brain, so that’s good.
It was easy for the crowd to decide this one, and lest you get called into the ring and pounded by an oversized astrophysicist, know that this is a proven fact now: NASA does good things for the world, and you are not allowed to shit-talk them.
The final Debate was between Alamo Drafthouse owner and operator Tim League, the grand poobah of this decadent week-long movie orgy. He fought Michelle Rodriguez last year and surprised everyone when he happily punched her in the face shortly before she started re-arranging his limbs and teeth. This year, he challenged no less than James Quinn McDonagh, one of the men featured in “Knuckle,” a documentary about the Irish traveller community. This is a man who could punch a building to death. This is a fighter. This is a guy who doesn’t understand fear except when he sees it in the eyes of someone he’s about to beat to pieces. So why would Tim, father to two newborn baby girls, want to step in the ring with the guy?
Because he’s crazy, and that’s what he does.
In this case, the idea being debated was carefully designed to make James Quinn McDonagh mad every time he heard it stated: a Texan is tougher than an Irishman. Interesting theory, but based on the evidence in that ring, not 100% medically accurate. Tim went on to explain that he means it in theory. The average Irishman, the average Texan. His explanation of his point was very articulate and even flattering towards James. But nope. Big guy wasn’t having any.
The fight was interesting because Tim had obviously trained. He bobbed and weaved and got in close and landed some great punches and stayed away from the bizarre bear grip stance that Quinn McDonagh employed. Not one of his punches even seemed to phase James, though, and at one point, Egerton notified him over the microphone. “James, you may not realize this, but you’ve just been hit in the face.” My theory is that Tim took James drinking at some point before the fight, because once you’ve been drinking with Tim League, it’s impossible to want to kill him, even if that appears to be your sole skill set. By decision, the match went to League, which means despite the obvious evidence of my eyes last night, A Texan is Tougher Than An Irishman. End of story.
It was a great evening, an evening of bloodied faces and bruised egos, and an evening that will be long-remembered. Until next year, it appears the bloodlust of Truth has been sated.