Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: The Wrestler Reviewed by a Smart Mark--There is No Old Timer's Day for Professional Wrestlers

We live through them.

We admire them.

We worship them.

They worship themselves.

They bleed for us.

They bleed for themselves.

There is redemption through violence.

We give them forgiveness.

They seek glory.

We give it to them.

They love us.

We love them.

They fade into anonymity.

We allow them to.

There is no old timer's day in professional wrestling.

Mickey Rourke's movie, The Wrestler is a movie about professional wrestling that ironically has nothing to do about professional wrestling. The Wrestler is a human drama about love, loss, pain, redemption and destiny. The Wrestler is also an existential drama. What do you do when to do you, to be yourself, to follow through on all that you are, to truly inhabit and exemplify oneself--your ultimate personhood--means to die? Is this the ultimate act of humanity and triumph? Or, is it the ultimate tragedy?

The Wrestler follows the twilight of professional wrestler, Randy "The Ram" Robinson's, career. As metaphors for his fall from grace, rather than Madison Square Garden, the Philadelphia Spectrum, or my very own New Haven Coliseum (never underestimate the Connecticut-WWE connection), it is now high school gyms, bingo halls, VFW posts, and little attended fan conventions that are now the Ram's stage. Played brilliantly by the now resurrected character actor Mickey Rourke, the Ram is a shadow of himself, but for those dozens as opposed to thousands of his glory days (or tens of thousands) the Ram still bleeds, cries, works, takes bumps for, and sells. For the Ram, a man who is a real worker and old hand, he yearns for "the pop" and believes in a sacred obligation to entertain and amaze the audience. The Ram is their hero for the night. He makes worries disappear. He entertains and amazes. He is a living superhero that little boys and girls dream to be as they enjoy one night with dad (and maybe mom as well) where they escape the rigors, pain, disappointment and monotony of "the real world." Ultimately, professional wrestling, when done right and done well, is epic story telling that requires the utter dedication of its storytellers:

The Wrestler is also a multi-layered narrative where the in-ring action is coincidental and complimentary to the action outside of the squared circle. Professional wrestlers live a life on the road. They travel some hundreds of days a year and their "road family,"--the other professional wrestlers--become kin. The blood family, the kids, wives, mothers, and fathers, are often neglected. Traditional relationships often fail. Consequently, wrestlers become addicted to the road because those temporary moments of stolen bliss with groupies, drugs, or the bottle (and yes drugs and alcohol addiction are "relationships") become substitutes for the often more difficult obligations of wife and children. If wrestling is about the "pop" or the "rush," the road is a means to this end:

Accordingly, Mickey Rourke's character has difficulty...and difficulty is a polite phrasing..with maintaining a relationship with his daughter. Evan Rachel Wood (played by Stepanie Robinson), has distanced herself from her father. The Ram is a bogeyman, a shadow over her id and greater psyche, a dark father to avoid and run away from. The Ram desires a relationship with a local stripper played by Marisa Tomei. Like a professional wrestler, she too is judged by her physicality. Like a professional wrestler, time is her enemy. Like a professional wrestler, there is no old timer's day for exotic dancers. The irony of the Wrestler's father-daughter relationship is one that many can relate to: dad was often away from home, hustling and working, and thus he just wasn't there as a physical presence in the morning at the breakfast table or in the evening for dinner. As we presumably grow older and wiser, we come to understand that dad was in fact there, as those checks were coming in the mail, keeping a roof over our head, and food in our stomach. This is one of the universal narratives which makes the Wrestler so powerful:

The Wrestler is an accomplishment of film making and storytelling that is compelling and oddly beautiful. As a smart mark, a label which describes those of us who know that wrestling is "fake," but also understand how "real" it is, the Wrestler is sound, smart, and laden with moments that smart marks will "mark out" for. When the Ram "blades" (he should have mentioned taking extra aspirin to thin one's blood to get that real crimson tide a la Rick Flair) you feel part of kayfabe. When the Ram walks down the aisle to work in the deli section of a Supermarket, you will understand how utterly devastating this juxtaposition is: from walking through that tunnel to the applause of tens of thousands, to now doing "the walk" as an anonymous functionary, we can imagine that pain. The old school, "Texas catch can," chain wrestling era, smart marks will watch with fascination and disgust at the "New School" of extreme wrestling depicted in the film where ring work and craft are cast into the dustbin in exchange for cheap pops, high spots, staple guns, "hardcore," and less than creative, innovative blood sport that demands too much.

Smart marks are a brotherhood of sorts. Yes, I used brotherhood universally irrespective of race, class, gender, or those other categories of identities that often divide us. I smile when some talk about professional wrestling as the domain of poor or working class white folk. Those who makes those claims don't understand the range of our shared popular culture--"our" being a broad cross-section of humanity. In fact, there was and is something radically democratic about professional wrestling. Sure, it isn't perfect. Of course, it is a stage for spectacular, exaggerated, and ridiculous, racial caricatures. But us, we ghetto nerds, are still in the audience cheering, dreaming, smiling, and clapping with folk, black, brown, red, yellow, and other. Me and my fellow ghetto nerds, a generation of us, all wanted to be Hulk Hogan. We saw red and yellow, not Black or White. Me and my dad and my uncle screamed for Rick Flair and bowed in respect. Me and my dad jumped up and down at the New Haven Civic Center when via closed circuit television Hulk Hogan body slammed Andre the Giant at Wrestlemania. These are the stuff from which memories are made and why we smart marks follow our chosen "sport" almost as a religion, even as we simultaneously praise, criticize, and bemoan its current state of affairs.

Professional wrestling is a story of tragedy and triumph. At the end of the film this tension is made painfully and mortally clear. Do we die as we lived? Is this a triumph? Or do we die as something else, something less than how we imagine ourselves to be? I think you can guess my answer. In short, see the Wrestler.


1. Who is to blame for the current state of professional wrestling? Is it a function of a monopoly where the WWE has no incentive to maintain excellence? Is it the fault of fans for lowering their standards? Is it the fault of professional wrestlers for teaching the audience to demand a more extreme, high spot style as opposed to a more intelligent, and in my opinion, fulfilling traditional style of wrestling?

2. Should their be a union for professional wrestlers? Should their be an off season?

3. How many wrestlers have died before age 65? Should we panic? Be worried? Is this an anomaly in the world of sports? Is professional wrestling being unfairly singled out?

4. Greatest era and greatest territory? I vote either 1970s WCCW or 1970s and1980s AWA/NWA. Your vote? Could it be the 1990s WCW-WWE-ECW era?

5. Two people: Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit. Is the Wrestler also their story?

6. ECW in its hayday, can it ever be topped?

7. For those who have seen the Wrestler, is the Ram's character channeling Sean Michaels, Terry Funk, Jake Roberts, all three, or some other combination of individuals?

8. If you could fix three things about the WWE to get it back on track, what would they be? What is your favorite WWE storyline now? TNA storyline? Why? For me, Sean Michaels and JBL is brilliant in its simplicity. Will they ruin it?

9. Will the great grandchildren of we ghetto nerds be watching professional wrestling? Will it be something we can recognize? Will we still be watching it?

10. Which is the sadder scene in the film? The legends convention where the old timers are selling videotapes in a DVD/digital era or the Ram playing Nintendo with his young neighbor? Could the movie have ended any other way?

11. My smart marks, why do you still love pro wrestling, its physical story telling mixed with soap opera melodrama for men?


Anonymous said...

awesome movie. Awesome review.

There was definitely a whole bunch of jake the snake in that story. I was at a panel discussion with Aronofsky and Rourke, and they mentioned that at one of the earlier screenings, Roddy Piper spoke up. They were scared he was gonna say ti sucked, but he said it touched him. He even got a little bit emotional, saying it wasnt HIS story, but it was the story of a LOT of guys he knows.

Yeah, as a big wrestling fan in the eighties/early nineties, I went in expecting a great flick, and I got it.

Storyline wise, there isn't just ONE, but here's some memories

Earthquake killing Jake's Snake by sitting on him.

Randy Savage almost killing RIcky The Dragon Steamboat with the ring bell.

Ravishing Rick Rude being stripped of his tights (airbrushed with Elizabeths picture) by a furious Randy Savage.

Million Dollar Man stuffin a 100 in your mouth after knocking you out, then making Virgil get it back. (And his eventual beef with Virgil)

Brutus the Barber Beefcake givin dudes fucked up cuts after knocking em out.

Ultimate Warriors wild interviews.

Koko B Wares Parrot, Jake the snake's Snake, Davey Boy Smiths Bulldog, Hacksaw Jim Duggans 2x4

Razor Ramon actually being a white guy

aw man, its too much to remember. Im just OD'ing now. Anyway, first time on the site. Wont be the last


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Great review, and I can't wait to see the movie. I myself have fond memories of eighties wrestling, particularly the matches they used to show on Saturday nights on NBC when there were no new SNLs. Remember Boxing Bobby Orton? Mr T's tag team match with Hulk Hogan? The latter was 80s pop culture nirvana.

Pro wrestling may have a bigger cultural influence than most would acknowledge. Bob Dylan has said that Gorgeous George was one of his biggest influences, and I'm pretty sure Bill O'Reilly picked up his interviewing style from watching wrestling.

TOPolk said...

I must commend you on an awesome post full of excellent choices in video clips. Very well done.

In regards to your closing point, you're so right. I've been a wrestling fan since I was a kid and it was never an issue of color as it was good versus evil. I took a friend of mine to an event and she was surprised. Surprised to see upper class black folk hanging out with rednecks hanging out with middle class hispanics. You won't find that at the theater or at your local NBA game...

Now to toss in my two cents on a few of your questions:

1) The current state of professional wrestling rests solely on the shoulders of the casual fan. Vince has always been about doing things to attract the casual viewer. Sad because I really miss a good 40 minute match.

2) Union? No. It wouldn't work in what is pretty much a virtual monopoly. An off season - yes. Time off is needed for both the fans and the wrestlers.

4) Greatest era? That timeframe that was post-WWF New Generation but pre-Attitude. Basically the WWF when everyone was watching Nitro while Bret Hart and HBK were carrying the show.

8) Favorite Storyline? Right now as much as I love the JBL/HBK story, I'm really digging what they're doing with Orton's character right now. Which is sort of amazing because I think he's an insufferable prick, but this cold-blooded monster they're creating is awesome.

11) Why do I still love pro wrestling? Sometimes I have to ask myself if I still do. I don't watch it anywhere near as much as I used to. I went to WrestleMania 24 and since then I've barely touched the stuff. But even so, the art of the squared circle still holds a place in my heart/mind because if for nothing else, it's a nice place to escape to every now and then.

rob said...

Chauncey De Vega!!
I agree with TOPolk. What an awesome post you have created on this subject! I am blown away by your details and let me tell you I'm actually something of an expert on this subject; I made the The Wrestler Squidoo Lens and linked to the Canadian The Wrestler movie trailer. Now I'm going back to link it to your blog. This post is world class my friend.

xenojive said...

First time to the site, and I can say it wont be my last. I "get" the "respectable negroes" really is a slap in the face to prejudging society.

Anyhow, I want to give my answers to your questions, but I don't have much time now. However I will answer question #6 for now I believe. The ECW question.

Well, honestly...I can say NO. ECW combined the best theatrics and angles from fans who loved WWF style booking, albeit from a more "gritty" realistic side. It also gave us the chain wrestling and old school athleticism of Southern promotions. And really, how many people heard of lucha libre before ECW?

Gordon, Heyman and company really made something special in that little bingo hall. It was a spirit that infected not only the crowd and fans but the workers as well. How else can you explain the level of workrate those guys/gals gave without being compensated like the big two in those days.

The wrestlers could have stayed in WWF or WCW and made more money, and done way less work...but they knew ECW was the place to be if they ever needed a booking and wanted to showcase themselves with no barriers.

I'll always love the original ECW and I guess that also answers another one of your questions about what the best era of wrestling is. For me it would have to be mid to late 90's ECW.

Thanks for reading.

chaunceydevega said...

thanks so much for the praise.

i also want to thank pwtorch for linking this...i love that site, and have followed its newspapers/zine for years, so that was a nice compliment.

.it is is nice to see that the movie is generating the excitement it deserves--and that professional wrestling still has a solid and mature, not age wise, but in terms of appreciation, cadre of fans.

i was thinking once more about that moment when "things changed" so to speak, and yes, it was likely no one moment, but i have to admit even we folks who are more traditional bear some responsibility here.

how many of us didn't pop when Foley took his dive off the hell in the cell? or a generation (or 2) earlier when Snuka flew from the steel cage at MSG?

chauncey d