Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Wrestler

The Wrestler is a haunting interpretation of the hyper masculine and performative world of professional wrestling. Masculinity is central to every part of this movie but the message attached to it is complex. Many aspects of plot, character and theme present traditional masculinity in a negative light while other aspects reinforce it. This ambiguity suggests that The Wrestler was intended as an artistic search for truth rather than a platform for a political or social message. Nonetheless, the truth that the viewer arrives at has profound implications for the social construction of masculinity.

The plot follows an aging professional wrestler named Randy “The Ram” Robinson as he attempts rebuild his life. Formerly immensely famous he is now reduced to small-time matches and a dead-end job at a supermarket. At the beginning of the movie a heart attack makes it unsafe for him to wrestle and shocks him out of an illusion of invincibility. The plot is thereafter constructed around three important elements: Randy’s struggle to come to terms with being out of the spotlight, his attempt to reach out to his daughter Stephanie and his relationship with a stripper named Pam.

Scenes showing Randy’s interaction with his fellow wrestlers are the most visually interesting parts of the movie. These scenes were shot using real wrestlers, not actors. The men’s bodies look like unreal, massive jumbles of sculpted muscle: hard and armored. The wrestlers are walking archetypes of masculinity taken to its extreme. These scenes play with the border between reality and illusion. The viewer sees that Randy relies on steroids and tanning equipment to maintain his body. Costumes, hair dye and makeup enhance the wrestlers’ performance. At the same time, this has real consequences: the steroids and strenuous activity damage Randy’s heart. This interplay between the real and unreal is most dramatic in an early fight. Images that reveal the tricks and staged nature of wrestling matches are juxtaposed with very graphic violence and snapshots of medics healing the very real wounds of the wrestlers after the match. In a later scene, Randy challenges the claim the wrestling isn’t “real” by revealing a serious-looking scar from a badly-coordinated maneuver. Throughout the movie the viewer is faced by the dichotomy of Randy’s masterful presence inside the ring and his poor existence outside of it. Clearly, masculinity is a performance that does not reflect the real lives of its actors and actually does them harm.

The Wrestler is driven by Randy’s desire to connect to people and his difficulty in doing so. Trapped in a hyper masculine role he is socialized to be self-sufficient and to undervalue connectivity. However, his heart attack cracks his armor and sends him search outward for support. He is torn between two sources of emotional support: the adulation of his fans and interpersonal relationships. The two are not compatible because the fans expect him to maintain his performance but Stephanie and Pam can only accept him if he opens up. Unfortunately, his experience has equipped him only with the tools to pursue the first, and more destructive, source of fulfillment. The viewer sees Randy struggle to interact equitably with people again and again, when serving supermarket customers, asking forgiveness from his daughter and building closeness with Pam. He meets one discouraging failure after another, causing him to pour himself back into wrestling. The film’s climax is Randy’s choice between self-sacrifice for the fans or healing with someone who cares about him.

Although these elements suggest a nuanced and questioning look at masculinity, the film’s promotion relied on popular constructs of violent masculinity. Far from criticizing the wrestling industry the filmmakers worked with it. As mentioned before the film used real wrestlers and trainers in several scenes. Part of the publicity for the movie involved a plotline in the WWE broadcasts in which Mickey Rourke (Randy) staged a feud with a wrestler, actually fighting in the ring at one point. The filmmakers were quite open about their desire to have major wresting industry leaders support the project. Once again, this is a piece of art and not propaganda. The filmmakers have created a sympathetic portrayal of wrestlers as individuals without questioning the broader context in which wrestling occurs. Ambiguity is vital to depth in art, and the film’s lack of social introspection doesn’t detract from its worth as a study of character. Although I believe that looking at the wrestling industry and male violence in society as a whole is important, injecting these subjects into The Wrestler would have diluted the movie’s power. This is ultimately the story of and individual’s struggle with mascunity and society, and a moving one.

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