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[whitespace] Joust Do It

A modern-day jousting pro takes on 'A Knight's Tale'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

Matt Machtan looks like a knight. Even here, perched on a 21st-century office chair inside the 10th-floor meeting room of a San Jose office complex--where we've rendezvoused to discuss the medieval action-adventure A Knight's Tale--Machtan, dressed in slacks and a loose gray shirt, exudes a conspicuously knightly vibe.

With his flyaway hair and neatly trimmed beard, Machtan looks a lot like Roger Rees (the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Men in Tights)--only younger, stronger, and more capable of killing me.

Aside from his edgy, semi-swashbuckling appearance, there is also a touch of royalty about Machtan, an aura of strict, well-spoken politeness and etiquette. Is it the modern embodiment of the ancient code of chivalry? Or only the instincts of a highly skilled marketing manager, his official position at Mari Telecom, the Korean-based maker of the popular online game MageWar?

Of course, Matt Machtan is called marketing manager only on weekdays. On weekends, when he's out thundering across a muddy field, wielding giant sticks to knock men off horses, people tend to call him sir.

Like hot-blooded young William (Heath Ledger), the would-be-champion of A Knight's Tale, Machtan is a professional jouster. In fact, he's a two-time bronze medalist, competing in the American Jousting Association's World Jousting Tournament in Oklahoma in 1999, and again in Colorado in 2000.

Currently on the injured list--he wrecked his shoulder in a fall from a horse last October--Machtan has performed at Renaissance festivals around the country, first competing in Wisconsin, where he honed his skills as a squire for four years before embarking on his training as a competitive jouster. Also, like William's dreams, Machtan's dreams of becoming a knight run all the way back to childhood.

"I was always the kid who was running around on the front lawn with the wooden sword, the paper armor, and the garbage-can lid," he says. "My brothers and sister too. We'd invite other kids in the neighborhood, and we'd all get dressed up in whatever armor we could find or make out of grocery bags or whatever, and by the end of the battle, the lawn would be littered with bits of paper. It was glorious."

Glorious too, are the jousting sequences in A Knight's Tale, which follows the low-born William's dangerous scam to pass himself off as a knight, rising in fame and fortune as he wins joust after joust, portrayed as the medieval equivalent of football, complete with fans pounding their feet while chanting, "We will rock you."

While Machtan found the film's anachronistic touches to be somewhat irritating--"When I'm charging at an opponent with my lance ready," he says, "it's not Queen that I have in my head"--he was definitely roused by the sight of horse-riding knights smashing into each other.

"The hits. The falls. The excitement. That's good stuff," he declares. "It definitely got my juices flowing. Being smashed in the chest with a lance. Taking a fall to ground in front of a cheering crowd. I could relate to that because I've done it."

It's no surprise that the film has been popular among Machtan's fellow jousters--"My brothers in arms," he calls them--or that many professional jousting experts have found certain things in A Knight's Tale to quibble with.

"Let's just say that the exploding lances--on every single pass--were significantly Hollywoodized."

"Jousters aren't supposed to shatter their lances on impact?" I ask, incredulous. In the movie, William explains that breaking a lance during a pass is the way you score a point. Three shattered lances and you win the match. Unseat your opponent and you win his horse. "So all of that is, what? Basically horseshit?"

"Basically," Machtan says. "Historically speaking, there was a time, for a short while, that knights would joust with hollowed-out lances, which tend to shatter on impact. But they stopped doing it when one of the kings got killed. By a wood shard. Through his visor."

Through his . . ? Oh. O-u-ch!

"Exactly," he agrees. "While it's fun to break a lance--and I have done it--it's not necessarily the safest thing in the world." As I go on wincing at the thought of a two-foot sliver slicing through my retina, Machtan continues his knowledgeable condemnation of the movie's broken-lance fetish.

"Then there's the cost factor," he says. "If you broke a lance of every pass, you'd be buying new lances all the time. You'd go broke in a single season. Today, we tend to use shaved-down tree trunks."

The way to make a modern lance is to find a heavy tree trunk and take a lathe to it, shaving the lumber down to the proper thickness and length. Though Martha Stewart may know a better method, Machtan says this is the way most jousters accomplish the task. Others, Machtan included, make their lances with good, strong dowels.

"Very effective," he says.

In A Knight's Tale, William's first joust is played for laughs, Unprepared and untrained, he reveals none of terror or anxiety that I would feel if it were me being charged at with a massive dowel.

"I imagine you were a little nervous?" I ask Machtan.

"A little?" he recalls with a laugh. "It's scary enough to joust in practice, with no one watching, but this was terrifying. Even so, I remember getting this intense, sudden shot of adrenaline, just before I started maneuvering my horse forward into a run, and then another big shot of adrenaline, in the split second before the other guy's lance struck me."

"BAM!" he shouts. "BAM! Oh yeah! It was the best feeling in the world!"

As for the actual impact, he compares it to taking a significant tackle in a football game. He liked it. "From that moment on, I was hooked," he says, grinning like a boy in a paper suit of armor. "Though jousting isn't really that scary anymore, I still get that adrenaline rush. Every single time."

Machtan's goal for the future, aside from taking the gold once his doctor releases him to compete again--"In three months and nine days," he says--is to see jousting reach acceptance as an recognized competitive sport. If A Knight's Tale becomes a hit, it could go a long way toward increasing public awareness of jousting associations like the AJA.

Machtan even predicts that jousting will one day be featured at the Olympics.

"Hey, they've already got things like ballroom dancing. As an Olympic sport." Machtan shakes his head, wounded at the very thought. "So my dream is not that far-fetched. The way I look at it, the Olympics have equestrian events, and they have fencing.

"Next step, Olympic jousting."

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From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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