Marcus Pinn on Darren Aronofsky's THE WRESTLER
As much as we at the 'Smoke love le cinema, there will always be directors whose work just doesn't do it for us. But such is the power of movies that every once in a blue moon, a filmmaker whose work we don't care for comes up with something good. For this series, we'll be writing about a rare quality movie from the filmography of an underwhelming director.
Darren Aronofsky is one of those directors people quickly put on a pedestal along with others like Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. Their work is often times incorrectly categorized as "dark" and "edgy" and that really bugs the shit outta me. Sit through the last half of I Stand Alone followed by the climax of The Piano Teacher, then come talk to me about dark and edgy. My breakdown of his work is as follows: Pi is ok on a film school level at best, but I'd rather watch an Eraserhead/Tetsuo: The Ironman double feature. Requiem for a Dream is overrated. Not a bad movie, but overrated. I find that more people talk about that dildo scene than they do anything else. Don't get me wrong - Ellen Burstyn gives a great performance, but it's nothing to go crazy over. It doesn't have the same impact on me that it did 10 years ago. Requiem for a Dream is one of those movies you see when you're young and think it's the craziest thing ever. But then you get older, watch it again in your late 20's/early 30's and go "oh...that's it??" The Fountain was just plain bad. I don't even think we need to get into why. The only people who like that movie are defiant Aronofsky fans who won't admit he's ever made a bad film, put him on that pedestal I mentioned earlier and try to act like he's the second coming of filmmakers simply because his movies have cool jump cuts. I'll admit that he has lots of talent and there's always something that attracts me to his work but - bottom line - I'm pretty indifferent or frustrated towards just about everything Aronofsky has done except The Wrestler. That was the first (and still to this day only) thing he's done that's blown me away.
Rarely do two entities that I love such as golden-era professional wrestling and cinema come together to form something so great. I hate to sound so arrogant, but I'm probably the most qualified to write about The Wrestler. I may not watch it anymore, but pro wrestling was a big part of my life from elementary school through college. And my love for cinema is more than evident. I've waited in long lines for New York Festival tickets (we'll get in to that a lil' bit later) the same way I've waited in line for Monday Nitro tickets. I doubt there's anyone else on the planet besides me who has just as much love for Brian Pillman as they do Robby Muller, or makes comparisons between Lars Von Trier and Mr. Perfect. Don't get me wrong - The Wrestler can be enjoyed and over-analyzed by anyone, but unless you grew up watching WWF, WCW, AWA and ECW you won't really get the film's full effect. I know that's been said many times before and it sounds unfair to some of you, but there's something about outliving damn near everyone you grew up watching and looking up to (on a certain level) before you reach the age of 25. As a kid, it felt like a pro wrestlers were dropped at a rate of one per month: Dino Bravo, Kerry Von Erich, Hawk from the Road Warriors, Owen Hart, Junkyard Dog, Earthquake, Andre The Giant, Brian Pillman, etc. Even Miss Elizabeth, who was only a manager, died way too early. Today there are a few legendary pro-wrestlers on 24 hour death watch as we speak like Scott Hall and Jake "The Snake" Roberts, who should be glad he's lived this long given the abuse his body has taken over the years. The life of a pro-wrestler is tough, sometimes depressing and fatal, and Darren Aronofsky showed that life. Wrestlers make very little money (even the mid-carders barely make a good living), they're on the road for the large majority of the year, never get a chance to really be with their families, and slam their bodies around all the time. There's very few success stories to come out of pro wrestling. Just look at a legend like Ric Flair - been in the business since the 1970's and still has to wrestle today in his 60's in order to make money because that's pretty much all he knows, similar to Rourke in The Wrestler.
I've always felt an eeriness about The Wrestler due to the fact that Chris Benoit's tragic ending happened so close to the development of the film. It seemed like every journalist and reporter in the last half of 2007 was concerned with the death of this superstar who died while he was on top, but I couldn't help but think about all the dead wrestlers who passed away over the years that no one seemed to care about. There was no investigative Nancy Grace report on the death of Ravishing Rick Rude or Chris Candino. Geraldo wasn't doing any specials on Hercules Hernandez or Dick "The Bruiser."
No matter how I felt about Aronofsky after The Fountain, I knew The Wrestler was going to be great just off the strength of that first promotional still of a bloody, bleach blonde Mikey Rourke hanging onto the wrestling ropes for dear life. There's so much pain and hurt in that one frame - in my opinion, it sums up the film. I also knew The Wrestler was bound for greatness because it was going to be directed by a "legitimate" filmmaker without a comedic or cynical undertone. Wrestling and cinema have crossed paths before with stuff like No Holds Barred, Bodyslam, They Live, Suburban Commando and Ready To Rumble, but The Wrestler set out to show the real life beyond the mat. In the film we follow Randy "The Ram" (Rourke), a former pro-wrestling superstar during the 80's who only gets booked for small indie shows today, works part time at a grocery store, is hated by his only daughter and can barely make rent at the trailer park he lives in. Due to the steroids and other various performance enhancers he's shot into his body over the years, he has a heart attack after a match and is told he can never wrestle again. Faced with the reality of no longer being able to do what he loves, Randy has to adjust to a "normal life." Through the course of the film, he tries to make things right with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), starts to work steady hours at a grocery store and forms a bond with a washed-up stripper he's in love with (Marisa Tomei.) Naturally, things go ok at first but eventually he comes to the sad realization that wrestling is the only thing he's good at no matter how dangerous it is for him to keep doing it. Randy "The Ram" is an amalgam of so many real life wrestlers. He went from being a superstar to a part time grocery store employee; in real life, Bad News Brown went from being the #1 contender for the WWF heavyweight title and top bad guy in the company to being a part time security guard in a shopping mall years later. Early on in the film, Randy collapses minutes after a match and has a life threatening emergency. In the mid 90's, after a match in Japan, Dynamite Kid collapsed and has been paralyzed ever since. It's heavily implied that Randy dies in the ring, much like Owen Hart did in real life. We see Randy working some sad indie show at a high school for pennies much like real life legend Tony Atlas.
Have any of you reading this seen footage of or actually been to an indie wrestling show at a high school gymnasium or a local VFW? It's depressing as shit. Those shows are full of broken dreams or dreams that will probably be broken at some point in the future, just like Randy "The Ram." I've never seen any known wrestlers at any of the small indie shows I've been to, but I'm sure Justin Credible and Perry Saturn are out there somewhere sacrificing their bodies for a $150 payday. That opening shot of Mikey Rourke sitting hunched over on a stool in what looks to be some junior high locker room really sets the tone for the rest of the film. So no matter what way you cut it, The Wrestler is real and shows us the gritty and ugly side of a profession some people don't think about or realize exists. Aronofsky more than succeeded in what he set out to do.
My spiritual connection to the movie goes beyond my love of fine cinema and classic professional wrestling from the 80's and 90's. I almost didn't get to see the premiere at the New York Film Festival like I originally wanted to, thanks to Darren Aronofsky's mother. No, seriously - while waiting in line to get tickets to the screening there was a proud, talkative little woman standing a few people ahead of me asking everyone what they were getting tickets for. She asked me what I planned to see: when I replied told her, she gave a thumbs up and told me she was the director's mother and we had a nice conversation about her son's career. Yes, I lied and said I was a huge fan of her son's work. What do you want me to do, be a dick and break down why I'm not crazy about Requiem for a Dream or tell her how I thought elements of Pi were stolen from Eraserhead? That's his mother. She was like a proud soccer mom rooting for her son. The interaction between us was quite sweat...until I got up to the box office and The Wrestler was sold out! As it turns out, Aronofsky's mom bought the last six tickets. Had she not bought all those tickets there, would have been one left for me. I was heartbroken. And confused: why was the director's mother in line with the rest of us regular folk? I'm pretty sure her son could have hooked up a few comp tickets for his closest relatives to the premiere of his own goddamn movie. Luckily, I was able to get rush tickets the day of the show where I once again saw Ms. Aronofsky and felt like scowling at her - but I didn't. I was too busy working up the nerve to go over and shake the hand of Chuck Zito, the famous actor/tough guy/Hell's Angel who beat the shit out of Jean Claude Van Damme in real life.
I understand some of the cynicism and negativity people may have towards The Wrestler. It's tough to take a bunch of big oafs in tights that slam each other around and scream into a microphone seriously. But Randy's story is not that much different than Nick Nolte in North Dallas Forty or Tom Berenger in Major League. Why should The Wrestler get less respect than those films? Professional wrestlers provide just as much entertainment as any other athlete in my opinion. Sure the sport is "fake" or pre-determined, but I guarantee anyone with a cynical attitude or unsympathetic tone towards the life of a pro-wrestler wouldn't make it 3 days at the power plant (the old WCW wrestling grooming school), let alone compete with a bottom card wrestler on any kind of an athletic level. Some of your favorite MMA stars would probably get worked by quite a few of those pro-wrestlers some of you consider "fake" (Rikishi and Bad News Brown to name a few.) And The Wrestler doesn't just reference or hint at the real lives of various wrestlers who passed away over the years. There's many cinematic references and similarities to other films as well. The story of Randy "The Ram" clearly tips its hat to elements of John Huston's Fat City: the old washed up has-been fighter who puts his life at risk to continue performing the sport he loves, not to mention the lives of the main female character/love interest in both films run parallel to the lives of our main characters on some level. The final moments of The Wrestler, where we see Randy jumping off the top ropes to his death, is reminiscent of Anthony Quinn at the end of Requiem for a Heavyweight, a once big time superstar faced with no other option but to keep wrestling until he’s an "old broken down piece of meat."
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