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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Real Bodies, False Identities: Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler”

I might as well disclose how I grew up a big professional wrestling fan. Yes, yes - given my Halloween costume of two years ago – as Rowdy Roddy Piper, joined by the Hoadley brothers as Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Randy Savage - I'm sure some of you know. And to this day, whenever Erik (of the Hoadleys) and I hang out for a weekend, joining our diet of pizza and beer is the equally unhealthy dose of bad wrestling from the land of long-long ago. Our speech patterns gradually become more juvenile over the weekend, until we have finally regressed back, Benjamin Button-like, to our adolescence, to a time before rent, love, taxes, and insurance. Eventually, we reach a point of no return, identifying with our pro-wrestling heroes by referring to ourselves in the third person (The Niles says, or The Hoadley is going to, etc).

It's easy to be ashamed of liking professional wrestling because, well, on its surface it’s a little silly. Basically a bunch of guys aggressively groping each other while in their underwear. But that “stupid” is also very funny (particularly with beer), and even contagious. As a child, my dad took me to the Civic Center, sometimes with my sister, to see Hulk Hogan, Piper, and the whole group of "Superstars". And my sister would get just as into it as I was – perhaps more. I had all the LJM toys, now entrusted to my younger brother who is planning on re-painting them. And I almost cried on February 5, 1988, when Hulk Hogan lost the championship to Andre the Giant, a day dubbed by Hulkamaniacs as Black Friday. Hogan losing brought into question the existence of God and purpose in life, being that Hogan was supposed to be "Immortal": he can't lose. The way to lose to Hogan is to do your finishing move on him – but you need to do your finishing move in order to beat anybody. The bad guy wrestlers would thus be in a catch-22. The sun had been eclipsed on Black Friday, 1988, and I grew into the weariness of puberty.

This was probably a little off-putting for my dad, who endured tapings of Saturday Night's Main Event on the weekends, when he would much rather be watching Benny Hill. He would stress to me that it's not real – it's totally fake. They don't get hurt. Here, let me take you to Roosevelt High School – there's real wrestling there. However, Real wrestling was, as we all know, boring and even closer in appearance to homosexual pornography.

Baseball helped to partially subdue the wrestling thing, though video games and Nintendo, again to my dad's dismay, swooped in to steal me away from the real world and into an environment where my body was treated to hours in front of a television and projecting my ego onto 2-dimensional landscapes with action figures in better shape than me, their actions dependent on my control. I looked like many-a-man that loved videogames and wrestling: unhealthily scrawny, thick glasses, bad teeth, sometimes a mouth breather, wearing socks pulled up to my knees with short-shorts covering tighty-whiteys. If only I'd discovered D&D and comic books, I would be complete.

This bespeaks the divide between the Real World and the Virtual one, of videoscreens and false identities, between real flesh and geography, versus the artificial. The mantra regarding wrestling is thus repeated: "It's so fake." To quote a nice priest that tried to quell the rough-housing of my sixth-grade class at St. Hubert’s Catholic school: "When Macho Man Randy Savage jumps off the top rope and delivers the flying elbow of doom into the Big Boss Man, that's not real. When Earthquake jumps and squishes Hulk Hogan, the Hulkster's not really hurt. Y'know. When Ultimate Warrior gorilla-presses Ravishing Rick Rude and drops him to the mat, then gives him the Warrior splash of super-doom, that's not real." This wasn't beyond us. We accepted wrestling as entertainment. We were more befuddled as to how Father Steve knew so damned much about WWF. Maybe if we pooled our money, could we all come over and catch Summerslam and Royal Rumble at the church rectory.

But something bothered me, even then. These men in the ring are real men, with real bodies. And there's no damned way that some things, when colliding with real flesh, don't hurt. Who are these men? And what happens when they get old? I mean, they are not like Jesse Ventura in The Running Man, digitally created so that a digital Arnold Schwarzenegger can finally be killed for the network heads. In the 1990s, some of these men died, in the ring and out. Owen Hart, Curt Henning, Rick Rude, Junkyard Dog, Big Boss Man, and others. Some, like Chris Benoit, went bad-shit crazy and killed their families and then themselves, probably related to a bad dose of pain-killers. And others, from the heyday of the 1980s, would pathetically endure, with sagging muscles, and protruding guts. This was their life – a career with no 401K, doing the only thing that they knew.

Their bodies are ripped apart, and then put together again by medications (Hulk Hogan doesn't have a real knee anymore, I think). This is how they get paid. Unless they are good talkers, like Ventura, who was, after his spinal problems forced him to retire, arguably the best color-commentator in the history of the sport. They must use their bodies for capital and survival. When the body does not work, they are functionally useless. These guys, once breathing symbols of Ronald Reagan's pumped-up "USA!" aggressiveness and righteousness, are now a representation of our own economically feeble times, when all the subprime loans are being called in for payment. The body was living on borrowed time and money, so to speak, and now it might as well not exist, like so many other Americans who thought they were part of the Middle Class, of a Normal Life. They are not real, after all, with their families, romances, and domiciles. In the dark days of 2008, they are labor, meat, barely held together, sustaining themselves on technological and medicinal means until they expire, like an old vehicle.

This is what Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler is about, and why it’s an important film to watch and discuss at the present moment.

The Wrestler begins with Quiet Riot's "Bang Your Head" (at least I think it's Quiet Riot), the camera scrawling over magazine covers from the 1980s, which capture the career heights of Randy "the Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke). He was an adored sports entertainment icon, and the magazines indicate that his greatest feud, peaking during a match at Madison Square Garden, was against “The Ayatollah,” the decade’s token Middle Eastern bad guy: USA vs. Iran, and the war that settled the score (to borrow a famous wrestling tag line) set in the squared circle rather than a battlefield. The Ram never lost to the Ayatollah, because America didn't lose. Twenty years pass. The carefree head-banging of Quiet Riot is quelled by the deconstructive post-rock of Kurt Cobain, pessimistic in nature, shunning the previous decade’s glam. Cobain is called a "pussy" by the Ram, who adds, "Nineties fuckin' sucked."

Randy is now wrestling at VFWs and school gyms, taking in as much as a modestly popular local band does during gigs. He lives in a trailer that he can barely afford, sleeping in his van when the landlord locks him out for not paying the rent. He works part time at a grocery store, stocking the docks for a pip-squeak boss, taking any available hours that don't conflict with his wrestling schedule. For recreation, he frequents a strip bar, having Rolling Rocks, tequila, and lap dances from his favorite stripper, Pam (Marisa Tomei), with whom he has his only meaningful conversations. Well into his fifties, Randy has no plan or no retirement option, and needs steroids, blow, and painkillers to keep him sustainable for action. The pain his body endures is all too real, and Aronofsky accentuates each blow Randy receives, filmed in hand-held close-up. On the mat, Randy will cut himself with razor blades to give the illusion that his opponent has busted him open. He sacrifices himself for the performance. Pam equates Randy to Jesus, another guy who gets the shit kicked out of him for two hours, but that "Passion" is meaningful, powerful, even entertaining for the spectators. She sees the symbolism (a little heavy-handed perhaps) in Randy's ring-name: the sacrificial ram that dies for the sins of the world.

Both of these characters, Pam and Randy, dwell in double worlds. They have two names. Randy's real name is Robin Raminski, and he doesn't like being called by his last name, indicating attachment to the persona he has created – or a painful estrangement from his origins that remind him of who he really is; Pam has a stripper name, Cassidy, in a profession that is just as fake as Randy's, though contingent on the performance, even suffering, of the body. Their conversations are simulated conversations, because Randy has to pay for her time, and she is wary of speaking to him as anyone other than as a customer. Randy has a daughter, Stephanie (Rachel Evan Wood), with whom he is estranged because of too many broken promises. He was better at playing his invented role as wrestler than the natural role as husband and father.

At this stage in his life, Randy is fine with his solitude. He is focused on simply keeping his grip on the present: paying the rent, pumping his body up for the next big match, tanning, hair, etc. He has short-term goals because that's all he can afford. He purchases illegal medications in the locker room, costing him $995, though the seller, a jacked superman, is fine with taking $400. This exchange is analogous to so much deregulized subprime lending that led to the housing crisis of the last year, a housing bubble that, economists warned, would lead to a bubble burst (September 15, 2008). The body of Randy will also eventually burst. His body is not his own, much as most homeowners don't actually have houses (the banks own the houses). We can hear the high-pitched sound whenever he puts his hearing aid in or takes it out; his experience of living is dependent on technology, or outside forces. His heavy breathing is the result of a split clavicle from 1988. It hurts for him to move, and Mickey Rourke's performance incandescently yet naturally communicates the soreness of each step. The body is running out of time, though the character of The Ram cannot exist in Time. His own Being is illusory. His bubble bursts in the form of a heart attack, following a hardcore match in which his body endures a staple-gun, barb-wire, broken glass, and a fork-gouge. He wakes up in a web of tubes, keeping him breathing, and is sedated by injection so that he can sleep while he undergoes bypass surgery.

Randy cannot wrestle, the University hospital doctor tells him. He can only moderately exercise. If he does wrestle, he will die. In effect, Randy cannot be who he is, or the self he has created and known for the past 30 years. At last, he realizes how alone he is. At an American Legion event where washed-up wrestlers gather to sell autographs and videotapes for fans, Randy observes his "frat brothers" (as Roddy Piper calls his comrades), and how their bodies depend on canes, wheelchairs, colostomy bags, etc. At home, he puts on his glasses and looks at an old photo of Stephanie. He tries reading. He gives in to the lure of Nintendo, asking a neighbor kid to join him.

The two play Randy's own wrestling game, enacting the 8-bit primitive characters of the Ram and The Ayatollah. The kid talks about newer games involving the war in Iraq, wherein the player is either a marine or British special forces on specific missions. We notice how, as Randy and The Ayatollah dish it out on the screen, that America's ideology hasn't changed much; just the technology has. It's just that better graphics have made the virtual more real. The kid comments on Randy's own game: "God, this is old." Later on, Randy tries jogging and almost suffers another heart attack. His body cannot keep up with the man he immortalized in 8-bit 1988 Nintendo.

He wants to have a "real" discussion with Pam, who undergoes the exchange cautiously (she has a "don't involve yourself with customers" policy). She amiably tells him to see his daughter, and then gets out of Randy’s car as quickly as she can. Randy says "Stephanie" to himself and goes to find her. Of course, in kind of a movie-cliché situation, Stephanie wants none of it, and tells Randy to leave her alone.

He takes more hours at the grocery store. At the deli counter, where he has to interact with customers (something Randy dislikes), Randy is first controlled by the customer number machine ("Number 47..."), but gradually finds a groove transcending his occupational circumscriptions and he moves into a more genuine and humane interaction. We notice that he gives up clicking on the number machine altogether, sometimes throwing the customers meat and cheese like a friendly football pass, dancing behind the counter. He will retire from wrestling.

Pam, who is as interested in Randy as she is cautious to know him, offers to help him find Stephanie a present, an action that will attempt to heal the rift. It is the first time he sees Pam in daylight, without sleazy makeup or clothes. He is only more attracted to her, and she more reticent to communicate. Having a beer together, they bond over their distaste for the 1990s. She also discloses that she has a son, adding another dimension of broken beauty to her. This is intertextually an interesting moment, as much has been made of how Mickey Rourke mirrors Randy, in light of his fall from great heights during the 1990s. But the same can be said of Marisa Tomei, following her Oscar win in March of 1993. In her, we see the repeated motif of faded dreams and what could-have-been (despite great supporting turns in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and In the Bedroom). There's a stink of rotten longing in The Wrestler, and the need to pull ahead of the pit of the past, whose demons cling tightly to the victim's heel.

This idea comes through more clearly as Randy convinces Stephanie to come with him to the Jersey shore, where years ago the two of them used to visit a fair. He would take her to the haunted house; she would get so scared that she would cry, but then beg him to take her back immediately after they escaped. She doesn't remember these details, but they have pummeled him as much as any physical punishment in the ring. "I tried to forget all about you," he confesses. As an unreal character, it would be easier for him to delete the real people in his life, but he is ultimately still a body, still human, and this is impossible. The two of them illegally enter an old ballroom, indicating that human bliss is constantly subterfuged by the regulations of governance, and he leads her in a waltz. She wonders of all the dances that must have happened here in the past, and how that contrasts to the ballroom's present ruin. But this dance is real, isn't it? Having its own magic, though the music is created by a movie director, the tenderness executed by a team of technicians and artists? Identity is not in celluloid, a videoscreen, or a magazine cover. It is experienced through our bodies – heart and mind.

But in Randy’s quest for normal and stable relationships in a life that for him has been mostly fabricated is derailed. Pam states that their relationship is not real. He has to pay for her time. This woman, who's become his confidant during lap dances, has never existed. Feeling self-pity and anger, Randy goes to another bar, does blow and picks up an easy woman with a fireman fetish. He wakes up wearing fireman boots; even in the most rudimentary and short-term of relationships, Randy must adopt another persona. He falls asleep in his trailer and misses a planned dinner with Stephanie, who does to him what he has tried to do to her: she psychologically deletes him. To her, he might as well have never existed. Now he realizes that not only is he alone, but in his pursuit of something real, he is fundamentally Nothing and useless. He angrily walks off his job, punching a meat slicer as if to punish the Ram's body that has made him a spiritual vacuum. Nihilistically, he agrees to do a rematch with The Ayatollah, a 20-year-anniversary event that will generate a big crowd. Why not? Being in the ring is all he knows, and is the only place he is acknowledged as a human being.

This nihilism reminded me of Frank (James Caan) in Michael Mann's 1981 film Thief, about a man who realizes that, in his pursuit of a normal life, he's actually nothing, which leads him to destructively sever himself from anything to which he has been close. Mann, like Aronofsky, shows how the economic systems in which these characters are trapped disallow them from realizing an idyllic dream existence or any moment of peace. They aren’t even allow them self-respect. This idea of exploitation is felt in Randy's relationship to his greasy boss (who watches porn in his office, continuing this motif of a civilization drenched in the simulated experience of closeness), much like Dennis Haysbert's relationship to his boss (Bud Cort) in Mann's Heat (1995), which was also about social structures that don't allow individuals to move forward.

Randy, the sacrificial Ram, enters the ring with The Ayatollah. At this moment, Pam realizes that she and Randy are the same. She begs him not to go in the ring. "I'm here," she pleads. "I'm really here." But Randy realizes that the only place he really exists is in the ring. Randy has lost his illusions, far ahead of the nostalgic fans who adore him, or the script of American righteousness conquering Islamic hatred. He doesn't exist in the real world, and never has. He decays as a wasted body, and will expire in the midst of action. Suffering chest pains, he ascends the top rope and prepares to do his finishing move in the All-American ritual of victory over the Evil Terrorist. He glances longingly at a window, seeing a place to which his soul can fly and finally be free from the Body (Aronofsky incorporates a certain Gnosticism that ties The Wrestler to his earlier films, The Fountain and Pi). He jumps out of the frame and the film ends.

The characters of The Wrestler struggle to make ends meet, its working class empathy making it perfect for the Springsteen song playing during the credits. It is a flurry of lost souls trapped by circumstances and occupation, imprisoned by their bodies in the Land of the Free, where the Body is negligible as health care is too expensive. These characters are far removed from technological means enabling success (I wonder if this will be one of the last contemporary films to feature a payphone; Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, which The Wrestler closely resembles, may be the other). The American parable is re-enacted, though it's a sham (The Ayatollah isn't even Iranian; he's a light-skinned African American used car salesman). For many, Gus Van Sant's Milk is a timely motion picture that captures our need for hope and change in the coming age of Obama. But for me, as a liberal, The Wrestler is a much better showcase that perfectly captures the spirit of the present. It is a world where the middle class is evaporating, and people live paycheck to paycheck. The Body is at odds with Time.

The 1990s killed our sense of Time with the new forms of Information technology, while simultaneously they questioned the moral simplicity of the previous decade (like Kurt Cobain). The simpler era’s ideology has consequently crept back in the last eight years, being unveiled as something cancerous, in regards to our international and economic policies. The Wrestler communicates this sense in a raw fashion, calling its own realism to attention while also acknowledging its artifice and the artifice we construct in our rituals for entertainment and coherence. As the baby-boom generation ages, and healthcare only becomes more restrictive and expensive, the suffering lemmings fall over the cliff into a puddle of wasted flesh that is harder to turn away from, though difficult for us to stomach. For me, few motion pictures have been so timely in telling us where we are at.

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