Friday, February 20, 2009

The Wrestler

I saw the movie The Wrestler last week. I had a few reasons to go see it. First, I'm a Darren Aronofsky (the director) fan. I really enjoyed Pi and The Fountain, and I thought Requiem for a Dream was very interesting. Aronofsky has made some freaky weird movies and I'm generally in favor of that. Second, I've been a pro wrestling fan, or "mark", for a few years and was interested in seeing how that world was portrayed in the movie. Third, there's all that buzz about Mickey Rourke's performance as the main character, Randy "The Ram".

The Ram is a broken down wrestler who was once a superstar but is long past his hey-day. He's wasted a lot of his life on booze, drugs, and cheap sex, while pounding his body in the ring. He lives show-to-show in a trailer that he can't always make rent on. He works part-time on the dock at a grocery store. He has a daughter who hates him, whom he never sees. His only close relationships are playing with the kids in the trailer park, with the other wrestlers and promoters, and with a stripper at a club he goes to. Those relationships aren't close. The Ram has a heart attack after one particularly brutal match and tries to straighten out his life. He tries to restore his relationship with his daughter, he turns his back on the wrestling and starts working in the deli of the grocery store. He also tries to get closer to Pam, the stripper. Unfortunately his life has left him no margin or grace. Pam, who dances under the name of Cassidy, begins to care for Randy, but tries to cut off their relationship because she can't get too close to a customer. In response he goes out for a wild night with his wrestling buddies causing him to miss a dinner date with his daughter. As a result she finally and irrevocably cuts him out of her life telling that she doesn't hate him anymore because for her he no longer exists. He then loses his job in an outbreak of depressive rage and returns to the wrestling ring for a 20th anniversary rematch of his greatest triumph. As he prepares, Pam shows up to prove she does care for him. But now he is set and heads down to the ring. The film cuts to black at the final moment of the match as Randy dives from the top rope in his signature move, presumably to die.

It was an interesting movie. It was a hard story to watch (even more so since I was tired). I like tragedies but there was very little hope to hold onto. Lance Storm, a former wrestler whose website I read, said that despite the great performances he didn't enjoy the movie because he couldn't like Randy and he sees enough of these stories in real life. The commentary is very interesting in approaching the film from the standpoint of wrestling psychology. In a wrestling match it is important to establish your good guy, "face", as someone the audience can like and root for. You can't expect the audience to care about somebody by default. Storm didn't feel that the movie set Randy up well so that we could care about his fall. I can see his point, but as he admits he may be too close to the story. As someone more removed it was easier for me to root for Randy especially as things begin to lighten for him in the middle of the story. To put it in wrestling terms again it was like a glorified squash match where the bad guy, "heel", is demolishing a weak face or no-name wrestler, but the good guy gets some unexpected offense in the middle of the match and starts to look like he might pull a shocking upset, only to get beaten back down in the end.

The thing that I found most interesting about the movie was the way it played with the idea of real and fake. We all know that pro wrestling is fake in a sense. In their terms, it's "worked". It presents itself as an athletic competition, or even duel to the death, but is really a complex, half choreographed and scripted, half improvised performance designed to entertain. Hence the WWE's self description as "sports entertainment." However, within that there is real athleticism and real risk being taken. Even the best trained wrestlers run tremendous physical risks working together. When Owen Hart accidentally broke Steve Austin's neck with a pile driver it wasn't because either man was an amateur who didn't know what he was doing. When Brock Lesnar lifted the 500 lb. Big Show and superplexed him off the top rope and collapsed the ring, they were working together but that was a real feat of strength. It's amazing some of the acrobatics those guys can do and some of the blows they can take. It was interesting to watch The Wrestler from that perspective and to see some of the discussions before the match where guys are working out what will happen. It was particularly interesting to see the in-ring communication because that's something I've heard about but that they obviously don't highlight on WWE programming. Then there's the level of fakery involved with fans. "Randy 'The Ram' Robinson" is really Robin Ramzinski. There's the wrestler who basks in the adulation of fans and the man with a weak heart who works on the grocery dock or deli counter who's lost track of his daughter. At the same time, Randy's relationship with Cassidy is just as worked as his wrestling life. There's the woman he watches on stage and who gives him lap dances while seeming to care for him. But that is a front for the real woman whose name is Pam, has a son, and dreams of moving into a house down near Trenton in a neighborhood with good schools. She's been working him like he works the fans and when her real self encounters his it scares her and confuses him. Obviously overlaying all that is the fact that neither Randy nor Pam is any more real since they're played by Mickey Rourke and Marissa Tomei who may not be any more real either.

As I said, it was an interesting movie. Rourke and Tomei deserved their Oscar nominations and it's well made. It's rough, taking place in the back stage world of pro wrestling and a strip club. It's a hard movie about a hard life and tragic.

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