Words From the World of Wrestling Monthly
Match 16, 2009
Words From the World of Wrestling (#9): For the Thrill of Performing
By Benjamin D. Hagen
About two weeks ago I traveled to Boston, MA for the Northeast Modern Language Association’s 40th annual convention. For those unfamiliar with academic conferences, one usually attends an array of ?panels,? each comprised of 3-4 graduate students, associate professors, full professors, or independent scholars. Each student, professor, or scholar delivers a 15-20 minute talk, presenting either a scholarly argument or detailing advancements in his or her personal research (each panel usually has a theme, so the talks tend to have common threads). Since multiple panels run simultaneously (in different rooms, of course), attendance can vary f rom a handful of people in the audience to about 20 or so (this number increases, of course, if an academic superstar like Gayatri Spivak speaks . . . although chances are she would get her own keynote address). After each presenter finishers, the remainder of the time goes to an impromptu Q&A session.
Some of you may remember my series of columns on ECW last year. For the convention, I reworked those columns and the seminar paper I wrote for a class on ?Extreme? Contemporary Fiction into a paper that I presented in Boston (complete with disturbing clips f rom the Terry Funk and Sabu barbed wire match of 1997!). The title of the panel on which I presented was ?S(t)imulated Realities?; in short, a panel on hyperrealism, theories of simulation, and popular culture?a perfect context for an academic discussion of professional wrestling.
Why am I telling you this? Be patient . . .
In order to prepare myself for a few potential questions afterwards, I decided to watch Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008) the day before I traveled to Boston, primarily because the hype surrounding the film and the press it received makes it the closest thing most people (who aren?t wrestling fans, of course) might have to understanding the thesis of my paper. So, foreseeing that I may get a question like, ?Have you seen The Wrestler?? or ?What did you think of The Wrestler?? or ?How does The Wrestler fit into your argument?? I took a day off of crazy reading and writing and grading schedules to attend (for the first time) the local theatre all by my lonesome.
Thus the subject of this month’s column: Ben Hagen’s thoughts on ?that Mickey Rourke movie that Chris Jericho hates.? And maybe the upcoming 25th anniversary of Wrestlemania too.
(The following paragraphs make reference to explicit plot points in Aronofsky’s film. Do not read ahead if you do not want the plot of the movie spoiled.)
Usually a review adopts a confident tone, but in many ways I?m left a bit speechless at watching The Wrestler. In many respects, it’s an impressive film, particularly in its use of handheld cameras and the proximity with which Aronofsky shoots it, both in the ring and out of the ring (hell, even when Randy ?The Ram? gets out of his car!). But, alas, I must admit my limitations. I?m a literary critic (and a wrestling critic), not a film scholar, so this analysis may have to abandon further comment on the ?technical? features of the movie. Rather than developing my thoughts, then, on the filmic techniques within the film, let me linger with a simple, rudimentary question that gets me (and us wrestling fans, I argue) into all sorts of trouble: What, in the end, might one say that the film is about? What impetus drives this project? What, as I watch the final scene, am I to think of professional wrestling and wrestling fans and the fate of the middle-aged wrestler?
I think the recent death of Andrew ?Test? Martin makes this question pretty pertinent.
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(1) In some ways, one might accuse me of thinking a bit too hard about the film. ?After all,? some might say, ?movies are entertainment. They?re there to let us forget about our own lives. They?re there to pass the time. To give us pleasure.? Sure. I have no problem with moviegoers who just want to turn off the old Thinker, plop down in a recliner, and passively consume an accumulation of images associated with some sort of narrative thread.
But I think that The Wrestler demands something else of us. In many ways, it is set up as a typical narrative: a past-his-prime central character, estranged f rom any sense of the past (except in a fantasy world that grows ever dimmer), attempts to reconnect with his daughter, attempts to spark a new relationship that might turn his life around, etc., etc. And yet, at every turn, the film undercuts these typical plot points. Redemption?perhaps the clich?d theme of all clich?d plots?has no place here. The film sets us up again and again, only to confront us with a nigh inexpressible void of loss, of absence, of an impossibility too terrifying to linger with. In the end of the film, there is no going back. There is no secret remedy to make up for a past (and present!) rife with drug abuse and part-time jobs and fleeting memories of all-too-brief fame and success.
So my question remains: what is this movie about, if not about redemption?
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(2) The WWE Monday Night Raw segment between Roddy ?Rowdy? Piper and ?Y2J? Chris Jericho on February 16 of this year, believe it or not, really raises the stakes and seems to complicate this question in disturbing ways. I?m not interested, necessarily, in the segment as a whole, but rather Piper’s answer (or what his scripted take is) to the question, ?What is The Wrestler about?? After some introductory comments, Piper interrupts Jericho and continues:
?Mickey Rourke is my friend, and I watched his movie ?The Wrestler,? and, yes, I cried. The movie is not about a bunch of old timers that want another run. The movie is about the honor and respect we have for everyone. The movie is about the pain?physically and emotionally?and most of all, most important . . . why we do what we do: for the thrill of performing.
?Ric Flair was right: We live for this! I have people that come up to me and they say to me, ?Hey, Roddy, we remember when you slapped Mr. T,? and I have people come up to me and say, ?When my granddad was alive, we watched you; we watched you shave Adrian Adonis’s head.? And, Chris, you want to bury these moments. No, these moments are to be celebrated. These moments . . . last year, I was in the Royal Rumble, and when I came out in Madison Square Garden, 24,000 people jumped to their feet, and just for one second Chris, I felt like I was back in the first Wrestlemania. That was the thrill of a lifetime for me. [Long pause.] I have one hip. And I hurt all the time. But as long as these folks here say so, I will crawl down here on my hands and knees to give them one more memorable moment because ?Old School’s cool.??
Other than Piper’s corny final quip (thrown in there either by Roddy ?King of Cheese? Piper himself or a random backstage writer . . . just for the kids), I think it’s worthwhile to linger over his promo and to think about it in conjunction with the film itself, particularly the violent death match with Necro Butcher (an actual indy wrestler for those unfamiliar with the independent scene) and the final moments of the movie itself. To some extent, I want to demonstrate how very difficult it is to respond to Piper’s promo or to the film itself with any sort of ethical critique or response, particularly when attempting to reconcile Piper’s phrase ?the honor and respect we have for everyone? with the most goose-pimply line he delivers: ?why we do what we do: for the thrill of performing.?
What kind of fans would ask a wrestler to do the things Piper claims he?d be willing to do? What kind of fans would cheer a wrestler for doing the things that Rourke’s character does in his match with Necro? What sort of person accepts that pressure and convinces himself (or herself!) that it’s all about ?respect? for that sort of fan . . . and about something called ?the thrill of performing??
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(3) A cursory (and I emphasize the word cursory here) reading of Aronofsky’s film might suggest that it criticizes the fantasy world of professional wrestling and the particular subjects that such a world generates or incites: subjects who put their bodies through immense amounts of physical strain for years and years (and mostly for little money . . . unless your name is Hulk Hogan or John Cena) only to one day find themselves either unpopular and aging, working in front of crowds tracked by the ?dozen? rather than by the ?thousand.? And what fuels this subject formation? Money. Business. Personal success. A ?butts-in-seats? mentality that pushes certain individuals to perform within a particular discursive space that often ?requires??or so it seems?chemical enhancement (re: drugs: pain killers, steroids, downers, what-have-you).
But it isn?t just The Wrestler himself (or herself) whose subjectivity is formed and shaped by the ?business? of professional wrestling. The Fan?i.e. the Ideal Form of which we are all copies?is also generated in some ways by this discursive field. It doesn?t take much to illustrate this, does it? Nor does it take much to trace how very different fans attending matches between Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee might be f rom fans posting on Internet wrestling forums (i.e. fans like me; fans like you). We are all shaped by a variety of forces that intersect and interbombard one another . . . and part of the result is relatively disturbing. To point the finger at myself for a moment, I might say that the business of professional wrestling has made it possible for me to find two men throwing one another into barbed wire relatively entertaining.
But not only am I a fan who finds this entertaining; I also participate in commentary about how good a particular barbed wire match might be and?like I?m doing now?participate in metacommentary wondering why I participate in commentary and why I participate in finding barbed wire matches (to some degree) fascinating to watch. (Side Note: Just to clarify, I?m actually not typically a sfan of hardcore wrestling. In fact, the death matches of BJPW and CZW and other wrestling promotions bother the hell out of me. [They also tend, when not mind-bendingly disturbing, to bore the hell out of me.] But I still do, to some degree, see blood as an integral part of professional wrestling.)
This sort of subject-formation (of both the wrestlers and their fans, pushed by a particular ?thrill,? pushed by a particular ?need,? pushed by a particular dollar sign) demands, it seems, some sort of ethical critique. Not a flat-out judgment, mind you, but certainly some sort of honest engagement with what one might think of what we all find so damn cool: a business that, on the surface, does not seem all that harmful (consider: dudes in sparkly trunks pretending to fight each other) and yet produces fans who might ask Roddy ?Rowdy? Piper (@ 54 or 55 years of ago) to crawl down to the ring on his hands and knees, to ask a wrestler with ?one hip,? a man who ?hurt[s] all the time? to perform?
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(4) But before I seem like I?m a huge downer, I think it’s important to resist a purely critical reading of the film (i.e. a reading that turns the film into a criticism of the wrestling business). It seems that the film does not, as I mentioned earlier, give us an easy way out, and assuming that the film wants us to dismiss wrestling or to view the impetus that drives Rourke’s character as bad or fans as evil . . . such a reading only settles for yet another facile interpretation. Doesn?t the film make possible a space of celebration? Despite the fact that Randy ?the Ram? finds himself with a bad heart and alone (without Stephanie, without Cassidy), why is it that I find something admirable about his determination to go through with the final match (which, f rom a wrestling critic’s standpoint, is not all that great) and to make that last dive off the top rope?
The thrill of performing.
Piper’s words (whether his or some random writer) haunt me as I remember Randy’s promo at the end of the movie, which makes nearly the same claim: No matter what, as long as fans want to see me, I?ll do what it takes to continue performing. Despite what some might see as sick or insane or disturbing about such a claim, I can?t shake how very important such determination is, how very admirable and noble and dangerous such a goal really is. What makes this becoming-other in which both the wrestler and the fans participate so important, so admirable, so fascinating to me?
Regardless of whatever it is, the film manages to capture it; Piper got it right on the head, in some ways. The film is very much about how the disturbing lengths wrestlers go for the ?thrill of performing,? for very little money, for potential hopes for stardom, and for us. Professional wrestlers aren?t always nice guys (watching a few shoot interviews, especially ones with the Honky Tonk Man will make this pretty obvious), but it seems as if Ring of Honor had it right with their Code of Honor, that there is something noble about the sort of self-erasure that happens with professional wrestlers and the relationships that can develop between massive crowds (or small crowds) and the wrestlers who entertain them.
Bah, it seems a lot of my columns these days end with my hands in the air, with my mind pushing to go in a direction that it’s not yet ready to pursue just yet. Needless to say, if you?re reading this waiting for a typical ?recommendation? one comes to expect these days f rom ?reviews? (whether DVD, film, book, or the like), then I highly recommend the film. But don?t expect it to honor any safe or easy perspectives on what it means to be a wrestler or what it means to be a wrestling fan. If anything, it will confront you with difficult questions, with ethical dilemmas, and the stuff that really important (i.e. worthwhile) thought just might be made of. So go see it.
As always, I look forward to your comments. Until next month (post-Wrestlemania!).