Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Now bleed for me... THE WRESTLER (2008)

True story: one of my lifetime college friends, John "Fattie"--and his thug brother "Chug"--went to grade school in Brooklyn with Darren Aronofsky. According to John, they used to beat him up, but can't remember why. Sounds right. Every time I come out of an Aronofsky film I feel like Darren has got his proxy revenge by beating up on me. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM was like being raped in the eye and now, in THE WRESTLER (2008), he pummels our rib cage. There are uncomfortable scenes here of Mickey Rourke getting punched with a staple gun, slicing his own forehead with a razor, skin-popping steroids, having a heart attack, being told he'll die if he keeps this up, sticking his thumb on purpose into a meat slicer, doing pile drivers (both the coke and wrestling kinds), and waking up in the tawdry, beefcake firefighter poster-covered rooms of grotty coke whores. The effect is rather like bullying in effigy. I remember coming out of the theater after DREAM back in 1998, shaken to the core--angry and traumatized-- I told John I was glad he and Chug had thrown that a priori payback for the beating Mr. A. had just given me, cinematically speaking. But with THE WRESTLER, maybe Darren, Fattie, Chug and myself can all finally bury our grudges and just enjoy the fight... to the death... for what it is: muscle-headed spectacle in a world of aging meat products with bleached hair. 

And that's okay. As the Joker, Bronson, and Tyler Durden all taught us, a punch in the face can set you free. Forget about Spielberg's meaningless urge to "pursue your dreams." Punching is much more cathartic. It clears the cobwebs. Our brains are hard-wired to react to slaps and punches, they wake us up, snap us out of hysterics, get our adrenalin and rage flowing. They can be exhilarating, I made some great friends in school by fighting them. If you don't hold a grudge it's like you both earned the respect of the school and yourselves. Or--if you choose--you can not fight back and just let the punch or slap make you ashamed and withdrawn. If that happens, you got no one to blame but yourself, bro.

Though THE WRESTLER's fly-on-the-wall grainy video style of the film leaves little room for his usual hallucinatory detail, Aronofsky more than makes up for  the sound editing. This is the most creatively sound edited film I've ever heard--seeing it on the big screen with a good sound system made all the difference. There's a great scene of Randy walking to his day job at a supermarket meat counter, going through the back entrance storage area where the echoes of forklifts and workmen chatter starts so quiet in the sound mix as to be subliminal, as if happening outside by the snack bar. Growing slowly louder, we hear a low sound of cheering of fans--as if a sport's game is on TV somewhere in the reception guy's office, but also in Randy's head as if he's making a big entrance to the ring-- the audience cheering blurs imperceptibly with the whoosh of exhaust and backing up of forklifts to create a dizzying mix of what it's like inside a doped-up wrestler's cranium.

Ultimately there is no more triumphant spectacle than that of a man charging, grinning, into the maw of death, whether it be in the world of blood and muscle spectacle as in THE WRESTLER, or putting on a show like the big "Bye, Bye Life" number in ALL THAT JAZZ. At such moments death and mortality seem to be happening to you, the viewer, and your protagonist in another dimension as you watch, vaguely aware that while the fight or musical finale is going on down on the ground, up there, somewhere, just out of sight, but still audible, doctors and nurses are standing over your lifeless body. It's all in the oceanic surging of blood through ears as captured in the roar of the Aronofsky universe of compromised physicality.

Daved Cronenberg also explores this idea of "creative body trauma" cinema, but I think, perhaps, Cronenberg didn't get enough beatings up in Canadian grade school (are there bullies up there at all?). He can't put you in the thick of metatextual thick of it, where your heartbeat entrains to the rhythms of the film until you begin to breathe in how the only difference between a theater seat and a hospital bed is the quality of the drugs. Oresumably you're less anxious to escape the one, but which one? It's tough to know now that Aronofsky's pain has split the difference between gut-bucket materialist atheism and the sublimely transcendental. You can hear it in the subliminal heart monitor "beep beep" that follows Randy the Ram wherever he goes, like a squad of patient mechanical valkyries, animated by Ray Harryhausen and choreographed by Bob Fosse. "Bye Bye Life..." All that's missing is Ben Vereen, in tights, and THE WRESTLER and ALL THAT JAZZ are the same movie. 

Before the grunge wave in the early 90s, it was all about long hair, Billy Squier doing "The Stroke" and Twisted Sister's Slade covers. It was the pride that goeth before the pre-Cobained fall into frat boy irony and aggressively couched indifference. Cobain taught us that even when raging against the machine we could feel like phonies. Before the dawn of that awareness though, we hung onto adolescent cheeseball revelry like a life vest mantra in a roiling sea of homogenized homophobic sameness. Blazing down to the mall in our mom's ratty red hatchbacks--battery-powered boombox taking up the whole back seat, playing ratty little tapes, the smell of cigarettes, naugahyde, and gasoline--THE WRESTLER is flash frozen in that world. Randy he Ram still plays his cassette tapes and his old 1980s Nintendo wrestling game (the royalties for which have long stopped). He still digs the bright-colored spandex and the Guns N Roses, Randy's sort of 80's has-been some of us worried we'd become if we didn't move to NYC. Randy knows he missed the train, but screw running. He just takes it all in stride. Stride could be the name of the band he played in back in '87, if he'd played in a band, instead of wrasslin', which is twice as narcissistic in ways he can't quite fathom.

It all works in favor of Aronofsky's withering vision, and since Rourke's heyday too was the 1980s, wherein he started out too pretty for his own liking, and finished uglied beyond repair, not unlike the decade itself. When he says "I hated the 90s" to a haggard Marissa Tomei, you can feel their world-weary pain, both as actors, and characters (she plays a stripper getting too old for the pole just as he's getting too old for the ropes). In the rest of the world getting old is certainly a pretty major drag but in show business it's worse than death. Fame is an addictive drug. When you fall from stardom, even on a minor level, it's a hard way down, and both characters are bruised from the descent. So when Randy gives a big climactic speech at a small wrestling gig he's headlining--about burning the candle at both ends--you know he's not looking for sympathy, just preparing the crowd for what may result, He's just letting them know in advance why to him it matters more than life itself that he give his fans one of his signature pile drivers. It may be his last speech, so it's important you know he's cool with it. 

Don't we all do the same thing, latch onto the pop culture trappings of a bygone era as a way to dig our heels in the sands of time's sunny beach, as mother time packs our towels and shovels, telling us it's time to go? Just keep facing inland, towards the parking lot, and maybe you wont notice the scythe-swipe tsunami rolling towards you. Aronofsky's cinema is all about turning your head back around, popping your bubblegum, letting the full horror of the wave hit our wide Marilyn Burns CHAINSAW eye, and letting death 'bring it.' We can't avoid aging, or dying, but we can avoid being a wuss about it. That's the core of the masochistic viewer cinema response -- in moving towards inevitable death instead of away from it, we finally experience the full glory of choice, of raising our hands and whooping our war cry as the roller coaster plunges, rather than clutching the safety bar and closing our eyes.

And the big question people have about pro wrestling itself: "How can we care about the big final fight when it's all staged?" Well let me tell you, it's easy to keep your blinders on, but take them off and you will come away as I did, feeling like the prearranged "show" fights are where the real action is, not the other way around. Anyone can fight if they're emotionally invested in bashing an enemy's head in, but it takes real transcendental masochism, capital M, to fight someone you're buddies with, to have him inform you in advance he wishes to staple your body with a staple gun at some point in the fight, and you being able to shrug and say, "Bring it!" Whatever lesson in toughness Aronofsky learned being beaten up in school by John Fattie and Chugg, he has since imparted to the rest of the world. I think here of those lyrics from Jane's Addiction:

"When I was a boy
My big brother held onto my hands
and he made me slap my own face
I looked up to him then and still do --
he was trying to teach me something.

and now I know what it was
And now I know what it is." -- ("Of Course" - Ritual De Habitual)

What was it Perry Farrell and Aronofsky and Rourke and maybe you have learned? Don't go back to Rockville, or Marisa Tomei and your deli job (his in-store rampage will forever be one of my favorite scenes in movies, and I'm sure every 16 year-old suffering through his first soul-crushing after-school job who ever watches this will feel the same), just say 'bring it, death!' and stand your ground. 

One of the reasons I love this movie so much is that it rejects the sacramental "family" life that the Spielbergs brainwashed us to revere without question. Instead, THE WRESTLER validates the choices made by Jesus to get up on the cross and moan for the masses, even though he could have split before the Romans came for him, since he was tipped off in advance. Or there's the fable where the scorpion stings the frog halfway across the river and they both die, because "it's his nature." In THE WRESTLER, it's all a making sure that sting is in front of a big an audience as possible, so that it's on record, and so you don't have to ever go back to scuttling around looking for flies to eat; just go ahead and drown, just ride that dead frog to the bottom, whooping as you plunge, breathe in the water and let the fishy mermaids swim to you, algae-covered Oscars in their ancient coral hands.

Addendums here


  1. This is a pretty amazing post, Erich. A completely serious and totally hilarious piece of criticism. Glad I read it.

  2. Another "Venus in Furs" reference...I like it. (I will have to wait and read the whole piece when The Wrestler finally arrives in my neck of the woods.)

    By the way, I have linked up to "Kill All Jonesters" in my year-end round-up of favorite posts. You can check it out here:



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