Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Grappling With Reality in "The Wrestler"

I once used pro-wrestling to break up a relationship. Although I cared for her deeply, I felt it was the right thing to do if I wanted her to be happy. I was a nervous wreck, afraid of the future and the prospect of “growing up.” She didn’t deserve to be sucked into my problems and I was too chicken to tell her. That’s a cop-out answer, of course, but sometimes life is filled with cop-outs.

Many years ago, pro-wrestling was at its peak, attracting over fifteen million viewers per week. As a long time fan, I could describe in detail the intricate dance performed by the most talented of performers. However, wrestling has the stereotype of being followed by mostly beer-guzzling morons who believe every second is real. For one night, I chose to become one of those guys. I pounded down cans of smelly beer (probably Grain Belt) and rooted enthusiastically for the Undertaker. One of my least favorite performers, the Undertaker epitomizes much of what pro-wrestling is ridiculed for: a possibly undead dude with too much goth make-up that rises like a zombie when he’s out for the count as if he has unnatural super-powers. More beers and fake appreciation followed. I soon achieved my goal, even though it was a bittersweet achievement. I guess it wasn’t that hard to pretend to be in a state of retarded adolescence, which probably says more about me than I’d really like to admit.

Similarly, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, the wrestler in Darren Aronofsky’s heartbreaking film “The Wrestler”, longs to go back to the world of the 1980’s where good guys (Americans) fought bad guys (Iranians) and the party never ends. Randy “The Ram”, played to perfection by Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke, was a head-liner 25 years ago but lost all his earnings through mismanagement and partying. Aronofsky only implies this but any research into the history of pro-wrestling reveals Randy’s situation to be the norm and not the exception. Any skeptics are encouraged to look up the rise and fall of Jake “The Snake” Roberts for further validation. “The Wrestler” begins with a small house show at a school gym where Randy “The Ram” is the headliner to entertain a crowd of hundreds, far removed from the big arenas of his prime. Aronofsky shows the backstage comradery before the performance, which is similar to prepping for a play or dance. The performers discuss the choreography, shake hands and wish each other well. After the event, we see Randy hunched over in a corner, alone and in pain, collecting his thoughts in an elementary school classroom.

Occasionally, we are taken into the remnants of Randy’s “80’s” world as he plays with local children in the trailer park where he lives. He wrestles with them and invites a boy to play an old 8-bit Nintendo-esque game where Randy himself is one of the fighters. He chooses to play himself, in a sad juxtaposition of what his life has become. In my review of “Revolutionary Road”, I described the Wheelers as people who are unwilling to accept a potential mundane existence. Conversely, Randy “The Ram” was a star and chooses to hold on to that fading reality even if that means having nothing else in his life at all.

Randy’s life, like the Wheelers’, takes an unexpected turn and he his forced to confront a reality different from the one he has been living most of his life. We root for him as he befriends and woos a local stripper (Oscar-nominee Marisa Tomei). Their most affecting scene occurs when the two are having drinks, longing for the glory days of 80’s party music before “that Cobain guy” ruined everything. This could be taken as a throwaway line but I know way too many people who believe this with the fervor of Southern Baptists on a Sunday. Aronsofsky inserts several classic “hair-band” songs into the film, most of which by bands who have coincidentally squandered their fame and fortune, winding up performing in places similar to Randy. A few years ago, I noticed a sign advertising the band Warrant, headlining a bar in a strip mall. I did not make that up (how could I). A mediocre strip mall in Columbia Heights, Minnesota once witnessed the decades-old glory of the mighty Warrant.

Randy also attempts to get a “real” job, working at a deli counter. His bleached blond tresses scrunched beneath a hairnet, he looks ordinary. Several close-ups of Rourke during this scene show how battered he his; a minimum wage, almost-homeless 50 year old just trying to make a living. Randy makes the most of his situation and becomes “The Ram”, gracefully gliding behind the counter, flipping containers in the air and entertaining customers with his decades-hewn charm. Aronofsky gets us rooting for him in a way directly similar to Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky”. A good guy with a few bad breaks, how can you not cheer for the underdog, hoping he wins the love of a girl and gets one more shot at the big time?

Yet, Randy “The Ram” is not Rocky Balboa. Although Rocky had several family issues throughout the six “Rocky” films, there was never any doubt of the love he had for them (even old, drunk Uncle Paulie). Randy Robinson, the man, has a daughter, Stephanie, he has barely talked to and has consistently disappointed for possibly twenty years. Randy attempts to reconcile with her, although she is reluctant to accept his affection. She is obviously bitter, but her love (and desire to be loved) by her father overcomes her skepticism along with Randy’s trademark good-guy charm. Everyone wants the friendship, company and laughter of someone they lost. Even if it’s just for a second, it’s nice to know they care. Stephanie is no exception as she accepts her father’s presents like a child who never had one perfect Christmas.

Just as we are thinking our wrestling “Rocky” has won the day and will continue his triumphant return to the big time, he fails in a way that makes us question his integrity and our perception of him. Aronofsky pulls our veil off, making us wonder who exactly we went on this journey with and make us question our sympathy for Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Now that we’ve followed him back into the ring, do we really want him to win? As he “high-fives” his adoring fans, do we extend ours or leave the arena in disappointment? Aronofsky masterfully gives the audience both options, depending on the level of empathy.

Maybe sometimes we aren’t meant to know the future, only glimpses and snap-shots in dreamscape seconds. We see what we want to see and leave the rest up to gut instinct. A victory can be a defeat, or vice versa, depending on your point of view. Randy “The Ram’s” life is filled with both anomalies. Unlike pro-wrestling, his fate is not determined by bookers in the backstage but in our guts. Our experiences in life change us, shape our thoughts, beliefs and sympathies as we grow. How we’ve lived our life and the people whose lives we’ve affected or been affected by guides our interpretation of Randy’s fate. Is there a hero, a loser, a rock star, a clerk, a dancer, a stripper, a child, a parent in all of us? How do we assemble the puzzle? Do we leave anything out? Should we remember the good times or the bad? Is there solace in the future or fear of the past? As we leap off the top rope with Randy, we may not know if we succeed or fail, only that we did the best we could, fate be damned.

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