The Wrestler: An Unrealized Potential; (at least from where I was sitting)
“The Wrestler,” directed by Darren Aronofsky was one film I had always wanted to see. This was mainly due to the much-hyped screen “debut” of a long-lost Mickey Rourke. I was even willing to stomach the idea of watching professional wrestling in order to witness something extraordinary…
To begin, it is a given that the story line of this film almost demands sentimentality. This is not a problem. We think of the quintessential sentimental film “Rocky” * and its improbable story line, but somehow it renders our sentimental hearts moved. We are moved by a well-written script (Stallone), its rough-edged camera work and editing, good direction (Stallone) and supporting role performances in Shire and Meredith. It need not court a realistic turning of events, nor contain the acting performance [a] Rourke can give, but rather, in its honest dialogue and warmth in originality – it has no problem at all reeling the viewer in.
*In revisiting (viewing on my tiny television screen over a holiday weekend) the original “Rocky”, I came to appreciate the skating-rink scene, and this, far more than I recall the first time viewing it over 30 years ago. Why was this? I remarked upon the dialogue in each scene, how refreshing and original it was (despite its out-dated-ness). For a full five minutes we watch Stallone woo Shire as he stomps around the ice rink mumbling things about what it means to be a southpaw. Was it the cold outside in contrast with the warm couch and wood stove filling my need for a nice holiday weekend escape? Or, was I displacing the disappointment I have in current films that had me slipping into a mythical “new remembering” of this film? Was it desperation at trying to consider anything I see these days as wonderfully written that had me adopting such nostalgia?
In “The Wrestler”, Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson, played by Mickey Rourke is shown to us from the very start of the film, from the back – not through a subjective camera point of view, (as if seeing things through his eyes) but an objective one – he is our object given — to watch, to look at, to get to know. Aronofsky uses this technique over and over, creating for us a nice figurative motif. It us up to the director, (the painter of the canvas) to have us meet metaphor with motif and realize what is offered here (given the story line) as a possible redemption, real-life resurrection or return.
“Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience . . . We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible.” DFW
It is of no coincidence that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is mentioned in this film. Though briefly, and, only once, it is purposeful in that the director of this film hopes to have the suffering of Randy realized by the moviegoer. It is here, with the idea of sympathy from the viewer, [a pathos realized for the story to succeed in its telling] where the dilemma for Aronofsky exists, and where the reference to Gibson’s “Passion” is ironically relevant.
Gibson’s film, in giving to us his story of Christ’s suffering, concentrates on the ‘how’ and not the ‘why’ of his protagonist. Gibson concentrates his efforts on showing us the actual graphic depiction of a crucifixion. For art, this approach becomes flawed, for part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience. If all we are given are images composing [a] crucifixion, what would cause us to feel anything for the specific person suffering if we are not given his story?
For Gibson’s approach to work — the story must already be known; the audience already having a knowledge of the ‘story’ before even entering the theatre. With the person of Christ, this is possible. We care despite not being given the story of Christ’s life here, by the director, in this film being shown before us only because we are inclined to “already know the story”. The director knows this, and, is thus afforded this “luxury of neglected story line”—– for we are able to tap into an already-existing (however fraught with controversy) story line template. The director then, can concentrate on giving us the far-easier-to-produce shock-value graphic tale.
All of this leads to the showing of suffering, or, its counterpart, the conveyance of an inner suffering with which an audience can identify. The former relies upon the literal; and for the two films involved here, is destined to be graphic, violent, bloody. The latter relies upon storytelling and metaphor, allusion and symbol. The endgame for the director of a film is to make his audience care. It is easy to show blood pour; it is difficult to make an audience care that it’s pouring.
The potential of “The Wrestler” resides in this very distinction made between the two methods of depicting suffering (literal graphic vs metaphorical symbolic) and the two types of audiences (collective crowd vs sympathetic moviegoer) involved. Here is where the film succeeds in one respect, and yet, overall, where an otherwise surefire motif loses its potential power in metaphor.
With the world of professional wrestling, we have the boundary well-secured between detached viewer and spectacle: the viewing is of a collective nature, where the event watched is encouraged by [an] audience kept at a sympathetic distance. The collective viewing of pain and suffering as object, and not as subject, precludes sympathy while preserving spectacle.
To watch Randy suffering in the ring is simply abiding by professional wrestling’s intended design, where each blow has no consequence, each spill of blood only serving to further the distancing and preserve the lack of any emotive connection with the person(s) in the ring. The wrestler knows this; the audience knows this. The audience will never understand what it is like up there in the ring if kept at its required distance. This is deliberate on the part of the spectacle itself; the act is understood by both those in the ring, and, those not. And, furthermore, the audience not only need not understand, but cannot know anything about the real-life person in the ring in order to successfully complete its role as spectator.
There is this nice boundary maintained – and, one which must be for it all to work. It is the same boundary created for the mob-like crowd who gathers at the foot of the platform upon which Hawthorne places Hester Prynne amidst 17th century Boston Puritanism. With boundary maintained, no sympathy is possible. The collective crowd no more wishes to know Hester Prynne and “follow her to” her story than do the crowds who gather along the road to Calvary.
But, as spectator of this film, (a film where I will no doubt be asked to watch some violence, blood, depictions of physical and graphically-portrayed suffering) I must know the story for me to complete my role as satisfied (sympathetic) moviegoer. My role is as subjective viewer, not objective. I cannot survive “outside the ring”. I need to know why this specific person’s blood pours, not see blood pouring in an overall general and distanced way for “an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience”– to be realized.
The essence of art, be it film, literature, visual art, etc. is to “make us see”. If we are prevented from seeing, from identifying with, from knowing, no amount of clever motif will get us there, bring us in the locker room, so to speak, up on the platform with Hester, or knowing the historical figure in Christ. And to find a given motif symbolically powerful, we must appreciate its context – its surrounding story.
A way in which this can happen, [and, to Aronofsky’s credit, does] is in the staple-gun wrestling match scene. By employing the use of flashback, (a film tool which disturbs the real-time sequencing of narration) – showing both the blood inside the ring, and then, outside it, afterward, in the locker room – the crucial distinction between the two audiences, objective and subjective is made. Yes, blood flows in both scenes, [and the graphic nature is equal in intensity in each] but the pain in the latter, we now realize, is far greater. Why? Because we’ve been allowed a glimpse into this person’s pain, the pain outside the spectacle with which we, as sympathetic human beings must identify. We never need to have been punctured with staples and razors and glass in order to realize that the pain Randy suffers is not to be found in the ring, but rather, outside of it, fumbling with his hearing aid, begging for more work hours behind the deli counter, searching for reparation with his daughter, shuffling his meds, reflecting upon his life, enduring his self.
…its rough-edged camera work and editing, good direction (Stallone) and supporting role performances in Shire and Meredith.
Given the powerful performance of Mickey Rourke, the symbolic ‘motif to metaphor’ potential set up by Aronofsky in direction, and the multi-level story line of resurrection and return, one would think this film to be able to succeed beyond expectation. But, why didn’t it? What was lacking in the film? Why didn’t the showing of Randy from the back throughout the entire film materialize into something more?
This motif found itself in Randy’s searching for his own front door, the door to his daughter’s apartment, his boss’s office door begging for more hours, and ultimately, his entering the ring. It was so intentional an attempt by the director to show this hulking tattered outdated down-jacket in front of us throughout the entire film, moving away from us while confronting symbolic thresholds in the form of literal doorways which either open or reject. Rourke’s character is shown continually walking away from the movie-going audience and toward those things he was in search of; a faceless large figure shown from the back in continual pursuit of something, and, for added allusion for Rourke himself, something other than that of the movie-viewing audience.
This is the closest thing we get to art in this movie, and yet, it never really makes it to this realm. The outdated puffiness of the down jacket walking away from us is the perfect symbol of the actor himself, — as equal to, or, maybe even more, the character he plays. Rourke the actor snubbed his audience years ago, and his real-life search for reparation and return could not be better portrayed. But, why didn’t it work?
One has to again, look at the surrounding context in which this motif has been placed, and consider again, the time we spend as “distanced spectator” versus “sympathetic viewer”. The supporting performances (by E. Rachel Wood and Marissa Tomei) seemed to never get past cliché. The father-daughter template is the centerpiece, and yet there was nothing offered to make one want the two to reunite, make reparation. Their story, their narrative, is never tapped into nearly enough, nor, without stereotypical image, so we are left at a distance unable to sympathize. Without the narration, we are stuck with appearances, and can only respond to the character as something to look at, and not someone to know. The dialogue contributes greatly to this in its substance and delivery; neither Wood nor Tomei able to do much with the script given them and the lack of their story.
Tomei’s character is given to us primarily as spectacle, a strip-club act her version of the wrestling ring where we cannot see who she really is. Why did the director choose to exhaust so much film time with the audience kept at the collective-crowd level and not that of the sympathetic viewer? One scene in a clothing shop ‘outside the ring,’ and, without much more than this was not enough to make us care about her character. The lengthy pockets of pulp-fiction-viewing give us nothing [except maybe some ratings issues] and – what does this all serve other than to keep the viewer at a distance watching her “act”? Maybe this is the parallel intended by the director – to show us the parallel lives of empty spectacle. But, to do this, one must counter it with the sympathetic.
If anything, this film offers tons of irony. My whole worried-over wariness in having to watch a film about professional wrestling ends up being completely misguided. The wrestling scenes were probably the strongest ones Aronofsky offers, the ones I most enjoyed, (and, yes, from my sympathetic role as moviegoer); the most real and the least spectator-like despite their heavy doses of Passion-ate bleeding. It is ironically the storytelling aspect (the part which should reel me in and make me care about all that blood) which leaves me unnerved and detached. Stomaching the stuff in the wrestling ring was nothing compared to the dialogue, the non-dimensionality of the characters.
If a film’s dialogue is weak, the created characters one-dimensional, and the emphasis placed on the “how” rather than the “why” we end up with a well-devised metaphor with no narrative in which to place it. We then have a great performance given by an actor whose own offering of self (Christ figure complete) is there to save the film from its unfortunate mediocre reception. Rourke as ‘Saviour’ – again, is maybe the best metaphor yet – (to be realized here) – though, one devised not by the director, but by the viewing audience.
In an ironic way, Aronofsky’s passionate portrayal of his Christ figure in Rourke need not be realized through the Gibson spectacle but rather, through the slowly-before-our-very-eyes painful realization that Rourke has found himself not in a realm of resurrection, (that which brought us to see the film in the first place) but in one having to carry the burden of trying to save yet another film.
This film gave me the actor Rourke in his other ring, the real-life ring of professional boxing, unleashing his own barrage of blows to the audience in the form of his acting genius, yet all we can do is wince and suffer with each glove to the face as we recognize [once again], the wasted talent before us. Rourke’s performance as Randy rings true to life, true to form in the furthered echo of his own acting career, where his films (barring “Diner”, “Rumble Fish” and that gem of acting opposite William Hurt in “Body Heat”) have been just that; mediocre at best, artlessly awful at worst. This is the real tragedy. The more devastating destruction of Rourke doesn’t come from the receipt of blows he endures in the boxing ring all those years, but rather, from the landed gloves of suffering and loss recognized by the moviegoer.
The only thing holding anything together in this film is Rourke himself; his unique talent evident in even the worst of dialogue given him. Loss is the theme here, as it is always in the examination of life; our loss as viewer unable to appreciate a gifted actor, and, Rourke’s, in plying his talent in a constant swill of bad films. Just add “The Wrestler” (despite his outstanding performance) to the already-too-long list.
One scene which may be on par with Stallone and his southpaw is the video game scene played in Ram’s trailer. The outdated Nintendo game with images of wrestlers barely discernible, [stiff and obsolete in geometric form] are a perfect symbol for Randy as he sits in front of us now, worn out, out-of-fashion, tired.
He wins, but he wins at a game so far in the past that his “opponent” (an eight-year-old kid) has no interest in a re-match. This is metaphor at its best. Rourke’s minimized little victory on the video screen (in its equally sad and outdated state of technology) on par with the minimal and spare existence inside a trailer was perfect.