One of my best college friends, John "Fattie"--and his thug brother Chug--went to grade school in Brooklyn with Darren Aronofsky, where according to John, they used to throw his ass a beatin'. Every time I come out of an Aronofsky film I feel like ole Darren's returned the favor, in spades, to all the world. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM was like being raped in the eye and now he pummels us with the wide-eyed stare-down into the dilated pupils of death that is THE WRESTLER, which includes scenes of Mickey Rourke getting punched with a staple gun, slicing his own forehead with a razor, popping steroids; sticking his thumb into a meat slicer; doing pile drivers (in both definitions), and waking up in the beefcake-postered rooms of grotty coke whores. I was so "wounded" by DREAM back in 1998 that I was glad John had beaten up Mr. A, a sort of a priori payback for the beating Mr. A. had just given me, cinematically speaking. But with THE WRESTLER, we 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 and Tyler Durden taught us, a punch in the face can set you free. Forget about Spielberg's meaningless morals of "pursuing your dreams" - punching them is much more cathartic.
Though the fly-on-the-wall grainy video style of the film leaves little room for expressionistic detail in the visuals, Aronofsky more than makes up for that limitation in the sound editing. Noises start so quiet as to be subliminal, growing slowly louder--as in the cheering of fans that blurs imperceptibly with the whoosh of exhaust and backing up of forklifts in the storage areas behind the supermarket where Randy the Ram works by day. But the real gist of it is found in the triumphant spectacle of a man charging into battle and risking death, whether it be in the world of blood and muscle spectacle as in THE WRESTLER, or putting on a show like ALL THAT JAZZ, where death and mortality seem to be happening to you 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 tries for this sort of "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 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 illusion of permanence in the seat, presumably you're less anxious to escape the one, but which one? Aronofsky's pain has transformed cinema, has split the difference between gut-bucket materialist atheism and the sublimely transcendental; you hear it in the subliminal heart monitor "beep beep" that follows Randy the Ram wherever he goes, like a squad of Valkyries all played by Jessica Lange as animated by Ray Harryhausen and choreographed by Bob Fosse. "Bye Bye Life..." All that's missing is Ben Vereen, in tights!
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 superficial sighs of frat boy irony and aggressively couched indifference. Cobain taught us that even raging against the machine we could feel like phonies, but before the dawn of that awareness 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 --THE WRESTLER is flash frozen in that world. The Ram still plays his cassette tapes and old 1980s Nintendo wrestling game, still digs the bright-colored spandex and the Guns N Roses (his favorite horror film director is certainly John Carpenter. We can see Randy easily playing the Rowdy Roddy Piper part in THEY LIVE). Randy's sort of 80's has-been has already been satirized (BALLS OF FURY to name just one) even before this movie came out. That's cool. Randy knows; 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 (Tomei was big in the 90's like Rourke was in the 80's) 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. When Randy gives a big speech about burning the candle at both ends, you know he's not looking for sympathy, he's just letting you know what's at stake, why to him it matters more than life itself that he give the fans a great pile driver. 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 sand as mother time packs our towels and shovels, always too soon? Just keep facing inland and maybe we wont notice the scythe-swipe tsunami rolling towards us. 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 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 in a game that's fixed?" 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 he wishes to staple your body with a staple gun and being able to shrug and say, "Bring it, scythe-swipe tsunami!" 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 F. 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 will feel the same), just say 'bring it' 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. 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 about being true to your nature, to make that one good sting, so you don't have to ever crawl again; just go ahead and drown, just ride that dead frog to the bottom, whooping as you plunge, breathe in the water and let the mermaids swim to you, algae-covered Oscars in their ancient coral hands.