Tuesday, 3 February 2009

This low and violent art - reading 'The Wrestler'


In her essay ‘The Joy of Sesquipedalians’, Anne Fadiman writes about a pleasure which will be familiar to many readers of this blog: the joy of encountering unusual words. The title is misleading, as the words that interest Fadiman don’t have to be long: she’s as enchanted by sepoy as she is by retromingent; as enthralled by grimoire as ithyphallic. As those of us know who love language, it isn’t the length of the word, but the uniqueness and esotericism of it that provides the thrill: the sense that the word learned gives us access to freshly opened territory, that it expands our imaginative horizons.
A favourite recondite word of my own, a word which pleasured my intellect on many levels when I first encountered it as a younger man, is the word kayfabe. Like many of the words I particularly treasure (the ‘carny’ term forty-miler, for example, or the military acronym TASFUIRA – look ‘em up), it’s an American slang term. Slangs, cants and argots really are one of the best things about language. They’re the flip-side of the official line of bodies like the Academie Francaise: while the latter continually strive to define language with a kind of Papal Index of forbidden and permitted terms, slang is always evolving, always changing. This is because the creators of slang don’t want to create a language everybody can understand: the whole purpose is to create a language in which people from the same field can communicate, without their meaning being grasped by outsiders.
Kayfabe is a word which dramatises this aspect of slang. It’s a term from the world of professional wrestling, and in its simplest meaning it just means ‘fake’. I say ‘simplest meaning’ because, like many slang terms, kayfabe, lacking the rigidity of a dictionary definition, has a pretty high workrate for such a small word: it can be used as a verb, a noun, or an adjective; it can be qualitative or quantitative; it can have positive or negative connotations depending on the user or the context.
Most simply it means the particular brand of fakery associated with pro wrestling, and, by extension, knowledge thereof. It owes its existence to the fact that, in simpler times – or pre-internet times, at any rate – both wrestlers, and the promoters who ran the wrestling organisations, worked hard to hide or disguise the rigged nature of their sport. ‘Good’ wrestlers, or ‘faces’ (‘babyfaces’, originally, but the infantile prefix has fallen out of use over time) were forbidden to be seen socially with the ‘evil’ wrestlers, or ‘heels’, with whom they were supposedly at war. Wrestling journalists would write magazine articles which straight-facedly maintained the line that a wrestler like, say, Kamala the Ugandan Giant really was an African cannibal rather than, in fact, the son of a furniture-store owner from Coldwater, Mississippi.
Wrestling journalism – there’s an odd thing. There are two basic strands. In one corner, we have the legendary Bill Apter, writer, photographer and eventually editor of a whole stable of magazines, of which the most famous was Pro-Wrestling Illustrated, dedicated to presenting ‘the work’ as a legit sport; in the other, Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, an ‘insider’ publication which covered the behind-the-scenes machinations of the promoters and their workers in detail. Everybody read the Apter mags; only a select few read the WON; and here we come up against the reason why a term like kayfabe was needed.
If you’re in on any con, you still occasionally need to talk about the exoteric side of the business. You need to know which side of the line something falls. But to openly discuss the verisimilitude of the work would give the game away. So you need a slang term: in carny talk, for example, an unrigged game, played by the rules, is called a ‘straight’ game; similarly, in wrestling, a fake angle, aimed at the marks, is labelled kayfabe.
A word which embodies everything that, to the intelligent observer (the so-called ‘smark’, or ‘smart mark’ – a fan who’s in on the work), is interesting about professional wrestling: the spectacle, the performative aspect, the crafting of storylines, the referencing of previous feuds and gimmicks. Professional wrestling, debased though it is, may be the closest thing we have to the earliest forms of drama: a primarily physical form of acting with a ritual purpose, playing out battles between conflicting archetypes of light and dark, virtue and immorality, freedom and submission. It’s The Birth of Tragedy in tights.

Kayfabe was never really that much of a secret, of course, and for that very reason few Hollywood movies have ever been able to deal as effectively with the spectacle of wrestling as they have with boxing. Excepting the surreal world of the Mexican luchador movie – Santo vs the Vampire Women, for example – I can think of few wrestling flicks that are genuinely worth watching. There is Paradise Alley, a Sylvester Stallone curio released after the first Rocky film but prior to the sequel; there is All the Marbles, an odd movie directed by Robert Aldrich, which features a good performance from Peter Falk as the manager of a female tag team; and there is, of course, No Holds Barred, in which that fine method actor Mr Hulk Hogan...but no. I have better things to do with my time than write a review of No Holds Barred, and you, reader, have better things to do with yours than read it.
Wrestling movies have always suffered from this problem of verisimilitude. Audiences will flock in their droves to see a simulated boxing match between Sly Stallone and Ex-Fulbright Scholar (no, really) Dolph Lundgren because it is a simulation of something they know to be real. But a movie about pro wrestling is a tougher sell, because it takes as its subject a sport which is actually fake but which is presented as real, so the suspension of disbelief vital to cinema-going is forced to operate at one remove. I had intended, in this paragraph, to look more deeply at the levels of reality and fiction which operate in a pro-wrestling movie which maintains kayfabe; but I have to confess that the mental strain was too much for me, and, for a brief time, I became like a character in a Philip K Dick novel, trapped in a terrifying ontological labyrinth in which I was no longer sure who I was, what I was, what planet I was on or whether I possessed any definite existence. That’s a mood that works well in some films, but it isn’t what people want when they go to see a sports movie.
The odd thing is that good sports movies operate like good wrestling storylines. The Rocky movies, for example, are basically pro-wrestling angles sublimated into boxing. You have a face – Rocky – and a heel – his opponent. The heel is usually a massive stereotype: Apollo Creed in the first two films is a cocky, preening champ in the mode of Ric Flair in his heyday; Clubber Lang in the third is an unstoppable monster from the streets, and Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is an even more unstoppable Soviet Superman. There’s even what smarks call a face turn in the third film, when Apollo decides to help Rocky train to beat Lang.
The most famous real boxing matches in history, too, are those we can easily situate in the context of a narrative. Think of the Rumble in the Jungle, think of the Eubank/Benn rivalry of the nineties, think of Louis vs. Schmelling: all of these fights are memorable not just because of the fights themselves, but because of the stories in which they became enmeshed. Wrestling can be more interesting than boxing at times because the story is part of the deal: not just an additional element of the fight, but an essential part of the action. One of the biggest compliments a wrestling fan can give a performer is that his last match ‘told a story.’
Films, of course, are also in the business of telling stories; and a story about the telling of a story is difficult to make; or, at least, difficult to make well. You can do it well if you have Tom Stoppard on board, or Charlie Kaufman: but those are rare talents, and not every writer can turn in a script like Shakespeare in Love or Adaptation. When writing about the creation of a work of art, it’s easier to write a novel than a film, because a novel can be digressive, can fly away from the story and go down strange tangents – a novel can ‘think’ about a work of art in the same way that we do, but a film can’t. Because a film is more time-bound than a novel, it has to be more direct: it has to tell a story.
Good wrestling matches, like the movies, rely on the suspension of disbelief (it’s a rare smark indeed who hasn’t, at one time or another, found him or herself screaming at the television during a particularly good bout), but suspension of disbelief is hard to manipulate at a distance. For a cinema audience to believe what they see on screen, they have to believe the story they’re watching is real; and any wrestling film which is going to truly work as a movie is going to have to follow the example of Meltzer, rather than Apter: to break kayfabe, take the viewer backstage, and tell the real story.
That real story is not an edifying one. Wrestling has been compared, usually by detractors, to ballet, because of the choreographed nature of the bouts: but, if you actually like ballet as well, it’s not a bad comparison. It’s a performance; it’s dramatic, and ritualistic; it takes a high degree of skill, and superhuman fitness, at the top levels. And, too often, the performance makes a wreck of the performer.
The wrestler only looks physically perfect. Even at his short-lived peak, he will probably be carrying one or two injuries which have left their mark on him: by the end of his career, he may as well be made of glass. He will probably be addicted to painkillers, because only severe doses of drugs will help you to work shows with torn muscles and broken bones; and, if he is serious about getting over in the flashier, muscle-driven American promotions, he will have used steroids at some point; and sometimes, he’ll have used drugs in such quantities that his heart will have became grotesquely enlarged and inefficient. Not a lot of fit-looking men have heart attacks at thirty-eight: but it happened to Eddie Guerrero, a popular WWE star in the main event program, being groomed for a championship run.
It happens to Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler, as well. In real life, mystery and controversy surround Guerrero’s death, and its connection to drug use; but, in Darren Aronofsky’s film, we’re left in no doubt that the drugs play a part. Rourke’s character, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, a washed-up grappler who once main-evented Madison Square Garden, but is now reduced to working indy shows in school halls and ballrooms, picks up his supply from a gargantuan connection at his local gym, as part of a training montage which subverts the usual sports flick conventions. The absence of inspiring soft-rock is the least of it: Rocky never began his training by inserting a syringe full of steroids in his right buttock. After that, the other subversions of training montage convention are small beer, but the point has been made: The Wrestler is a wrestling movie which refuses to honour the kayfabe convention. It may be fiction, but this is the real story.
And it isn’t a story in the manner of Stallone – not even the Stallone who wrote the first Rocky movie – but a story in the vein of Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski. Aronofksy has gone for a very terse, pared-down style, best demonstrated in the film’s few comic moments. In one, Rourke’s character, looking to up his hours working at a local supermarket, walks in on his boss watching porn on the office computer; in another, he wakes up in a strange room after picking up a young woman during a night of heavy partying. Looking around, he notices an inordinate number of posters of firemen, then looks down at his feet, to discover he’s wearing a pair of fireman’s boots.

In another kind of film, the director and performers would linger on these moments – it’s easy to imagine what, for example, Judd Apatow or Will Ferrell would do with either of these scenes. But in The Wrestler, they’re there, and that’s that. The camera holds on neither the boots, nor Rourke’s expression; we don’t get three minutes of improvised zingers about the filth on the boss’s PC. These things happen in the character’s life; we get to see them; and that’s all. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Carver’s spare sentences, and it’s applied as much to the tragic material as to the comic.
It’s a bold move, because by presenting his material in this way Aronofsky sidesteps both the spectacular aspect of wrestling (which, in the end, takes over even Aldrich’s All the Marbles), and the canon of sports movies in general. Both usually function by direct, melodramatic appeals to the emotions. These emotional appeals, however, are familiar to the audience as aspects of the genre, and rapidly become hackneyed. Their effect dulled by repetition, sports movies have to keep upping the ante to get a pop from their audience, and rapidly wind up either going over the top or descending into parody, whether knowingly or not.
Again, the Rocky franchise, and Rocky IV in particular, provides the example. Ivan Drago can’t just be a tough man to beat – he has to be der ubermensch bolshewismus. He doesn’t just beat Apollo Creed to establish his boxing bona fides – he literally kills him. And he doesn’t just have a training camp to prepare him for his grudge match with the Italian Stallion – he has a space-age facility which wouldn’t look out of place in Stallone’s futuristic action flick Demolition Man. Well, at least that explains why the Reds couldn’t hold Afghanistan: they spent the entire military budget on Drago’s gym. To underline the sophistication of Drago’s apparatus, we see Rocky retiring to a cabin in the mountains and training...by running about with a log.
And it’s at this point that the movie enters parodic territory. If Rocky and Drago were shown training in even vaguely similar set-ups it would be believable; it might even be more interesting to set the finale up as a battle of the technocratic titans, bodies sculpted to perfection by Kathy Acker’s beloved Nautilus machines; but to have a man hailing from a country whose economy was falling apart at the time training on what looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, while the champion of the world’s greatest economic power resorts to jogging around with a piece of timber on his back, beggars belief. The only sane response is to laugh cynically, then retire to a private place and weep for a culture which produces such dreck.

In contrast, Aronofksy’s less sentimental approach sharpens the emotional impact of The Wrestler. When, in flashback, we see the brutal ‘hardcore’ match that precedes the Ram’s heart attack, the director’s refusal to engage in the cinematic rhetoric of heroic bloodshed actually makes us more aware of the character’s pain, not less. This is what the Russian Formalists called ostranenie, ‘defamiliarisation’: we’re wrenched out of the usual celluloid context in which we bear witness to masculine suffering (even in a film like The Passion of the Christ, quoted ironically in an early scene), and that makes it new for us and, therefore, more difficult to endure vicariously.
Paradoxically – but oddly fitting, given Aronofksy’s subject – this defamiliarisation is achieved through a rigorous naturalism. The photography is a revelation: things look like themselves, something a lot of movies will run a mile to avoid. Indeed, it’s in a scene where Rourke’s character heads off to the forest for a post-infarction training run that you first notice this. The trees look like trees: the landscape is not romanticised; there is no chance of running into Sylvester Stallone taking a caber for a walk. Compare this with a film like Mamma Mia!, another movie in which the photography is excellent, but in the other direction: everything looks better than life. If you actually went to that island, you’d be disappointed: the sky would never be that blue, the sand would never be that white, the moonlight would never play invitingly on the waves in just the right way. Whereas you feel that if you visited the grim New Jersey backwoods where The Wrestler was filmed, you’d see it exactly as it appears on screen. And not just the forests: everything. In one absolutely perfect scene, a near-empty bar on a grey afternoon looks as desperate and desolate as it should: the temptation to engage in Edward Hopper fantasies is successfully resisted.

The primary motor of the film’s disarming verisimilitude, though, is Rourke’s performance. Much has been written about the physical challenge of a fifty-plus actor learning the skills necessary to perform in the wrestling sequences, but it’s in the film’s more quotidian moments that Rourke really shines. He inhabits his washed-up, beaten-down character with such quiet, restrained intensity that it got under my skin in a way that no performance has since Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast: it took me over. When the final credits rolled and it was time to leave the cinema, I felt as awkward and insignificant as Rourke had. I slumped in my seat; I pulled myself together, shuffled my feet, then fumbled with my bag strap as I picked it up to go – and a look around the cinema showed that I wasn’t the only person so affected.
The Wrestler hit me like a hardway, headfirst fall through a folding table, and not just because of the photography, or Rourke’s performance, or the way it bends the conventions of the sports genre. Like everyone else who enjoys this low and violent art, I found myself questioning my enjoyment. Is it right to love a spectacle which does these things to people? All I can say, on reflection, is yes and no. Wrestling has its problems, and neither its fans nor its promoters can afford to hide behind the mask of kayfabe and keep ignoring them. The obsession with grotesque musclemen has to go. Mexican luchadors, and the puroresu stars of Japan, are nowhere near as freakishly ripped as their American counterparts – and they’re a lot more exciting to watch. And the talent needs to be better looked-after. The one flaw in the ballet/wrestling comparison is that, while ballet does exact a harsh toll on the performer’s body, the ballet world, a more respectable, high-culture milieu, can and does do more to protect its performers. Wrestlers should not be expected to work matches while suffering from debilitating injuries, and they should be given proper medical attention, not dosed up with painkillers and sent out for another show. And medical attention should also mean proper care of their mental health: there’s a frightening rate of suicide in wrestling, and that has to stop.

But The Wrestler also gives an affirmative answer to my question. You can see it in the adulation Rourke’s character receives from his fans; in the backstage smiles of the many real wrestlers who make up the film’s supporting cast; and you can see it in the final scene, where the Ram climbs the turnbuckles to perform his finishing move. Yes, it’s insane; yes, it’s tragic; and yes, it’s something he categorically should not be doing, and if saner heads prevailed in wrestling promotion he wouldn’t: but for a moment you can see why he does it. Like acting, music and boxing, with which it shares a great deal, wrestling is a way in which common men can taste some kind of glory, and a tale told by an idiot can, for a moment at least, take on the numinous glow of great art.
Now, at last, in The Wrestler, those of us who enjoy what Roland Barthes called 'the spectacle of excess' have a film which can transmit a sense of that spectacle's damaged, compromised beauty to a more mainstream audience. They had to break kayfabe to do it, but that doesn’t make them heels. Aronofsky and Rourke for the win.

No comments:

Post a Comment