In review: The Wrestler (2008)
Why not try arguing that professional wrestling and science fiction are, at their hearts, exactly the same? Most people have an active interest in the pair when they’re eight or nine, before growing away from it in their teens and returning to it, if they ever do, as socially ill-adjusted adults. When you get rid of all the whistles and bells, both tell the same story of good versus evil over and over again. Both reflect changing political concerns as well: wrestling will always have a roided-up muscleman on hand to play an evil German/Jap/Russian/Arab, depending on how the political winds are tilting, while sci-fi will offer up alien tribes called “The Komune Istz”, who have lots of well-meaning ideas but an ill-functioning society. Both genres give the message that women are objects, both have significant gay followings, and while both are intrinsically American, douche nerd stans for both like to pretend, in a fit of self-loathing, that the Japanese take on the product is superior. So there you go, pro-wrestling and science fiction are exactly the same. Someone get me a fucking media teaching position.
I like pro-wrestling, to a near–embarassing extent: 10 gigabytes of my hard drive is currently occupied with Stampede Wrestling of Calgary shows from the turn of the 80s, as if I really need hour upon hour of pretend fighting featuring “The Viet Cong Express”. Who were actually two Japanese guys. So I’ve got credentials in here. And The Wrestler worked for me in a pretty awkward way, it made me feel how King of Kong must have made video game nerds feel, or how The Client made rapists feel.
You know guys who are really into porn? I mean, really into it, not just the types of character who’ll sign off £29.95 a month for pornsite memberships and occasionally stroll down Soho to have a chug at the back of a skin flick somewhere. I mean the types of guy who go to porn star conventions to have their Polaroids taken with methed-out 43-year-old industry casualties, the sorts of guy who’ll reel off AVN award winners and sit off on the internet in the evening, cataloguing to Wikis whether a certain scene was POV blowjob or close-up blowjob. Those guys. Wrestling has made me feel like one of those guys over and over again. Eddie Guerrero (arguably the greatest wrestler of the modern era)’s death by heart attack, and Chris Benoit (arguably the shortest neck of anyone in history) killing his wife, child, and himself were separated by just two years. And wrestling has made me feel like one of those porn industry stans. It made me feel like I was intellectualising an industry that consists solely of naive, delusional emotionally stunted idiots who are so intent upon following a dream that they’re prepared to be abused, drugged up, pushed beyond all limits, and when they’re out of use, spat back out into the real world with nary a royalty cheque to keep them warm at nights.
Look, The Wrestler is a great movie. Mickey Rourke is fantastic, and any film that rotates to hair metal, Cash Money stripclub tunes, and Brooce has a great soundtrack. I can’t talk about that, I’m not a movie critic. I want to talk about how this shit relates to wrestling.
The clear real life parallel for the movie’s protagonist, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, is clearly Jake “The Snake” Roberts: not only from the alliterative first name-animal-surname title, but the the father/daughter scenes in The Wrestler are at points straight-up homages to the ones between Roberts and his estranged daughter in Barry Blaustein’s documentary Beyond The Mat. Except the ones in BTM are a lot funny, mainly because Roberts’ daughter insists of creating art to show how her father “hurt her”, and then she recites a Sylvia Plath poem. That’s comedy right there.
Jake Roberts was born after his father, the wrestler Aurelian “Grizzly” Smith Snr, raped and impregnated the 13-year-old daughter of the woman he was at the time dating. His life never really picked up after that. Highpoints of Roberts’ post-fame career to date include being chased out of the United Kingdom after the RSPCA tried to have him prosecuted for animal cruelty (he let a snake starve to death), cutting a fantastically drunk promo at the 1999 “Heroes of Wrestling” pay per view, where he offered the sage advice “If you want to play 21, I’ve got 22; if you want to play blackjack, I’ve got two of those”, before pretending to masturbate one of his snakes; and making it so that anyone who has ever visited a professional wrestling event in the past decade has a “Hey, Jake Roberts totally asked me if I knew where he could score some crack!” story.
The other influence on Robinson struck me as Marty Jannetty. While never as big a star as Roberts was in real life, or Robinson was in the movie, Jannetty was the hair metal wrestler: as part of the tag team known as The Rockers he sported an awesome set of Quiet Riot locks, and was known for a partying lifestyle where he regularly burned the candle at both ends. And by that we mean “he fucked up his entire life and spent every penny he earned on cocaine”. Jannetty has made at least four comebacks of note in the past decade-and-a-half, each one burning out faster than the one before, one of which, most notably, as a result of bail conditions relating to his arrested for child molestation.
There’s a lot in The Wrestler that works as a kind of “Easter Egg” for wrestling fans: the opening montage of mocked-up “Apter mag” wrestling magazines featuring a potted history of Robinson’s career is spot-on, from the “DO IT FOR AMERICA, RAM!” headlines through to the over-use of canary yellow as a design colour. Backroom locker scenes are packed with “Holy shit, wait: isn’t that The Blue Meanie/Alter Boy Luke/D-Ray 3000 sitting there?!” moments, and there’s even a well-mannered turn from hardcore wrestling’s very own Necro Butcher as himself, which for some reason didn’t get the Academy nod this year. And after self-mutilating himself at a deli counter, Robinson storms out of his dayjob cutting meat by beginning to rip his shirt off, Hulk Hogan-style. Like I say, it’s the little things.
Will The Wrestler change anything in the long-term? Maybe. Aronofsky and Rourke are now both on record as saying that professional wrestling should be unionised and get the same kind of health benefits and pensions that stunt men do which should, in theory, stop guys who were performing in front of crowds of 30,000 at Madison Square Gardens being reduced to dragging their crippled ass to a job as a night watchman fifteen years later. Will The Wrestler change anything in my approach to the wonderful world of “sports entertainment”? Will it fuck. The main thought I had leaving the cinema was “Well, no 80s headliner would have worked with a moveset like that: heavyweight title holders didn’t start coming off the top rope until the early 90s, and there wasn’t an aerial artist on top of any wrestling federation until Eddie Guerrero around 2003, so why was Robinson doing headscissor takedowns?” Like I said, we’re science fiction’s aggression issues brother.