Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Wrestler

Dir. Darren Aronofsky

Throughout the first part of Darren Aronofosky's latest film The Wrestler I couldn't help thinking about a film made 10 years ago: the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, and how the majority of that film is devoted to lead character Barton's attempts at making a 'wrestling picture'. I kind of wonder if Aronofsky's film wouldn't be the modern realization of Barton's insinuated masterpiece, the difference being that The Wrestler is not kept under lock and key by a megalomaniac studio executive for it's “fruitiness” and abundance of “that Barton Fink feeling”. In place of said feeling is a different kind of feeling, but a similar perspective. An aging professional wrestler, Randy 'The Ram' Robinson (played superbly by Mickey Rourke), beaten down by life's daily tragedies makes one last attempt (or is it?) at reaching the perfection of his craft. At least that's the idea anyway. The lively and gigantic metaphor of struggle, appearance versus reality and the utterly depressing realization that life has a habit of moving forward without one's permission is what makes The Wrestler memorable but what also causes it, at various points, to falter under its own weight.

Roland Barthes wrote an essay about wrestling where he postulated (academics don't 'write' they 'postulate') that people who love wrestling love it because the outcome is predetermined, known long before the wrestlers begin to throw their weight around, and that, categorically, the line between good and evil is physically manifest in the two hulking masses in spandex. Most people would call that theatrics, but Barthes is not interested in the apathetic spectator, but rather the fan. In the film, Aronofsky does a competent job at playing down the false pretense under which so many wrestling matches take place, but this sentiment is at times painfully counteracted when he jibs the simulated intensity of the sport by showing lengthy conversations between various wrestlers about which moves will be used during their match, and promising not to go too hard on each other. He oscillates between trying to create a mockumentary of wrestling and desiring to make an emotionally engaging film. The emotionally engaging aspect mostly wins out, after The Ram's post-match heart attack leads him into complex set of emotions that occur only when a person is deprived the ability to do the one thing they know how to. The turn at this juncture leads the viewer down a dark, sad passage of the narrative where Randy seeks out love and finds failure and rejection. His relationship with his daughter, Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), is beyond repair; "broke" as she puts it so eloquently in one of the films most climactic and upsetting scenes. He courts a stripper, Cassidy/Pam (Marisa Tomei), who continuously refuses to accept her own feelings for him on the basis that he is a "customer" (at the strip club where she works), furthering the film's theme of conflicting dual existences and the subjectivity of reality. In the end Randy enters back into the only world he knows for what, we are meant to believe, is his final match. It is before this match that The Ram delivers one of the most poetic pieces of dialog written for the film. While Pam tries to convince him not to fight, citing his medical condition he brushes her off saying “The only place I can get hurt is out there”, referencing the world outside the ring that has all but left him behind. Its too bad that the entirety of the film isn't as subtle and moving as it's final sequence. It feels like Aronofsky saved all his credentials and aptitude for this scene and while it certainly succeeds in convincing the viewer of the authentic emotion behind one of the most contrived of spectacles, it doesn't entirely make up for the leaps and bounds of progress that brought us there.

When The Wrestler finished and Bruce Springsteen's “The Wrestler” began to play over the closing credits and the image of The Ram flying through the air towards what might be both his simultaneous victory (the match) and ultimate defeat (his death), I walked out to my car to drive home. When I started the engine Springsteen's “Racing in the Street” flooded out of my speakers and I couldn't help feeling that that song better captured the tone of The Wrestler than the song that bears its namesake. “Racing in the Street” is a nostalgic look back on a life spent in the carefree and daring world of street racing and the life that has blown by the singer in a blur of passion and loud motors. He, like The Ram, is left with just the overbearing memories of youth and highly localized fame. The Wrestler is a movie about the crushing reality of age and commitment to an art form. I think Roland Barthes would agree with my calling wrestling an art. For all it's cheap tricks and glossy, exaggerated appearance, wrestling is still profoundly important to some people. Aronofsky's intent may have been slightly contradictory at times but what he ultimately achieves is something between a life-size mock up of a fictional, iconic figure and an emotionally devastating portrayal of a defiant man in the shadow of defeat. The Wrestler shows how when something is truly important to a person, their entire life even, it doesn't make a damn bit of difference how sophisticated or widely accepted it is. It only matters that it exists for them and for those who share that same passion.

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