Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Wrestler

I’ve heard it said that with ‘The Wrestler’ (2008) and ‘Black Swan’ (2010), Darren Aronofsky essentially made the same film. Both are expositions on the nature of performance and the gruelling offences against the human body that make said performance possible; both measure physical punishment against psychological deterioration; both assess the adulation of the crowd in terms of dysfunctionalism in “real” life. ‘Black Swan’ rigorously addresses these themes within the middle-to-upper-class realm of ballet, embracing a quasi-surreal aesthetic that, as Bryce Wilson put it, is “as if Roman Polanski and Dario Argento teamed up to remake ‘The Red Shoes’.”

‘The Wrestler’ works out its issues of fame, falsity, failure and flamboyant performance in the ring. If ‘Black Swan’ embraces the gleaming marble façades of theatre and concert hall and the shiny mirrored surfaces of the barré, ‘The Wrestler’ inhabits a milieu of trailers, sports halls, strip clubs and shitty bars. ‘Black Swan’ is the more psychologically penetrating film, ‘The Wrestler’ the more honest. Once you’ve seen them both, it’s hard to critically intuit one without filtering your perceptions through the aesthetic of the other.

Moreover, both generated their frisson from existing cinematic touchstones. As Bryce notes, ‘Black Swan’ comes across as Powell & Pressburger’s deliciously morbid fantasia stuck in a blender with ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Suspiria’. ‘The Wrestler’ has an even more immediate precursor.

In 1988, respected cinematographer Michael Seresin made his only directorial feature with ‘Homeboy’, a boxing film from a script by its star, Mickey Rourke. A glacially paced, downbeat character study, ‘Homeboy’ starts with twenty-something boxer Johnny Walker (the naming of its protagonist after a fucking horrible brand of whisky is the movie’s only real flub) moving to a coastal town and trying to put his boxing days behind him. He’s been diagnosed with brain damage, and one wrongly placed punch could kill him or turn him into a vegetable. As he struggles to form a useful life outside the ring, the promise of romantic fulfilment with carnival performer Ruby (Debra Feuer) is threatened by the svengali-esque attentions of crooked promoter Pendergrass (Christopher Walken). The denouement, in a film that plays like ‘Raging Bull’ deconstructed by Charles Bukowski, is deeply ambiguous. Feuer was Rourke’s wife at the time; they separated the following year.

To make things even more meta, Rourke had been an amateur boxer from 1964 to 1973, winning his first match as a flyweight at the tender age of 12. In 1991, disaffected with his acting career, he returned to the ring as a professional boxer, winning six of his eight fights and drawing the other two. He suffered for it, though, and some disastrous reconstructive facial surgery turned him from the pugnaciously handsome actor of ‘Angel Heart’ to the puffy-lipped, beaten-up Mickey Rourke that we’ve known for the last couple of decades.

To make things even more meta still, ‘The Wrestler’ establishes clear parallels with ‘Homeboy’, but punctures that film’s punch-drunk seriousness of purpose. Boxing is boxing. Wrestling is, at best, white trash performance art. An early seen in ‘The Wrestler’ has antagonists pair off as their bouts are announced and discuss what moves they’re going to use and how best to pander to the crowd. They hug before and after fights. Even in the climactic scene, with Rourke’s has-been Randy the Ram seemingly on the verge of a seizure in the ring, his supposed antagonist, earlier seen punching him in the face and slamming him onto the canvas, nervously whispers “Ram, are you okay?” in an almost frightened voice.

If the parallels with ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Homeboy’ are immediately apparent, so is Aronofsky’s familiarity with the established narrative beats of the sports film: the broken down old timer who used to be someone; the inability to function effectively outside of his sphere of competition; the long-shot final bout. But in Aronofsky’s hands these standard issue tropes are deconstructed and examined, and he sure as hell doesn’t give us the inspirational speechifying or the rousing and redemptive finale. Small details, which are accreted from the outset, that establish Randy’s downward spiral from his glory days of the late 1980s. The credits sequence, all ’80s cock rock, lurid green titles, sports magazine headlines and ticket stubs, establish that our hero had it all back in the day. The montage abruptly fades to black, then fades in on the Ram, in late middle aged, slumped over a child’s desk in a school classroom (he’s reduced to bouts in a school sports hall), a bright yellow toy truck positioned so that it occupies the frame more commandingly that Rourke’s slumped figure. Aronofsky withholds the “twenty years later” credit for several seconds, and probably could have lost it altogether: the visual tells us all we need to know.

Seconds into the film and it’s abundantly clear that the director knows exactly what he wants. The next three cuts focus on swathes of yellow, enough to cast aspersions of the perceived masculinity of Randy’s milieu, after which Aronofsky is savvy enough to discard colour-specific cues rather than swamp the film with them. He focuses, instead, on casually observed details of Randy’s day-to-day life, details that exist in stark contrast to his stage image: his hearing aid; his bafflement during a Nintendo match with a neighbourhood kid that Call of Duty 4 is a cooler and more sophisticated game; his hair dyed and crimped in silver foil during a visit to a hairdresser who is less than impressed by his long-faded fame; his sheepish acceptance of a bollocking at his day job by a wimpy, short-arse supervisor; his equally sheepish attempts to win the affections of an exotic dancer at a seedy club he frequents; and his not-much-more-effective overtures to his estranged daughter.

On which note, here’s to the actresses who essay the trickiest and most thankless roles in ‘The Wrestler’. Marisa Tomei plays middle-aged stripper Pam: first seen being harangued about her age by some asshole college jocks, she’s working a horrible job in a shitty dive purely to provide a start in life for her nine-year-old son. As Randy’s daughter Stephanie, Evan Rachel Wood provides a study in bristling teenage angst erected as a barrier against all the times her father wasn’t there for her; and in what is still a career-best, Wood’s character tentatively allows the defences to come down only for the Ram to screw things up just when reconciliation is feasible.

The comparisons between the Ram’s “profession” and Pam’s are telling (the rhyming nature of their names is surely no coincidence). Her gyrations on the pole, eyes glazed and a bored expression on her face even as she tries to fake a salacious look at her beer-addled, pick-up-driving audience, are as phoney as the Ram’s performances in the ring. The falsity takes their toll on both of them, but at least Pam doesn’t self-mutilate (an early scene has Randy secrete a razor blade on his person; he uses it not to nobble an opponent but to cut his own forehead open, blood being what the punters want); nonetheless, she is unable to see Randy as anything other than a customer, and the only meaningful relationship she seems to have is with her nine-year-old son. Their relationship is in stark contrast to Randy and Stephanie’s.

Aronofsky doesn’t force any of these parallels. He utilises an almost documentarist style, establishing character and location, and lets the narrative unspool at its own pace. As noted earlier, small details carry most of the weight. A stylistic device used consistently through the movie has the camera follow Randy as he goes about his day (I’m convinced Rourke’s face has far less screen time than the back of his head), so that Randy getting in the ring comes to seem no more or less significant than Randy going to work in a warehouse, Randy going to work on a deli counter or Randy walking into a shitty bar. And mostly Randy ends up adopting a persona in each of these milieus in order to get through to the end of the fight, the end of the shift or the end of the day.

In Roeg and Cammell’s counter-culture classic ‘Performance’ rock star/dissipate Turner (Mick Jagger) states his raison d’etre as “the only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness”. What Randy the Ram’s final performance achieves is left ambiguous, but the build-up makes it achingly clear that, for him, a crowd chanting his name and some doughy fan gushingly seeking an autograph is as good as it’s ever going to get.

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