Saturday, February 21, 2009

"The Wrestler": Adrian, and Hope, Have Left the Building

Having seen (and being an admirer of) director Darren Arenofsky's harrowing, jittery tales of obsession "Pi" (1998) and "Requiem for a Dream" (2000), I expected the style of "The Wrestler" to be similarly frenetic. And at first was a bit disappointed that it wasn't. I came out of the theater this afternoon feeling a bit subdued and flat, rather offhandedly chalking the movie up to, "OK, I got another Oscar-nominated film out of the way before tomorrow's ceremony."

Its subtlety fooled me, though; just now I woke up from a nap unable to keep from thinking about various philosophical aspects of the movie...The choices that the two main characters made, for instance, and why they made them. And could their fates have been avoided, and why they weren't. And whether or not the choices were actually spiritually valid ones, despite all evidence to the contrary.

After seeing "The Wrestler," and sleeping on it, a lot of other characters and works keep coming to mind. The Devil in the Bible, for one. Captain Ahab in "Moby-Dick." The main character in Mike Leigh's movie "Naked." Rocky Balboa. Barbara Ehrenreich's nonfiction book "Nickel and Dimed: Undercover in Low-Wage America."

And I keep picturing, also, uber-wrestler-success Hulk Hogan watching this movie; surely the thought crosses his mind: "There but for the grace of god go I." Just as I, when watching Karen Black's character in the tale of the underside of 1930s Hollywood "Day of the Locust" think, "There but for the grace of god goes Joan Crawford."

Randy "The Ram" Robinson in "The Wrestler" is the much more realistic flip-side of Rocky Balboa in "Rocky II." Remember Rocky's humiliations at the hands of the sarcastic TV ad-director? Or his humbleness at going back to work at the meat-packing plant after being told that any further boxing matches could possibly blind him? When Rocky decides to go back in the ring, though, you get a bit giddy, knowing that things are going to turn out OK in the end and you, the viewer, will get a big uplifting emotional payoff and feel good about yourself in the process: "I'm just like that scrappy underdog!" When "The Ram" decides to go back in the wrestling ring, you don't get any such panacea. More a sense of, "Oh shit. What's going to happen to this loser? What would I do? Am I like that?" And who, really, wants to be forced to question themselves like that?

But IS "The Ram" a loser? Well, yeah, of course, on the surface, by society's standards. But you've also got to hand it to him for being true to himself. He may be self-destructive both physically and emotionally, but isn't going out with a bang in your own realm really preferable to being nitpicked to death day-in and day-out by petty customers and managers in a soul-deadening job behind a deli counter? The vast majority of us, of course, pick some variation of the safe deli-counter route. And barely stop to question why that route is the only one available to us.

Which is why fictional and/or real-life characters like the Devil and Charles Manson and Captain Ahab are so fascinating: Things might have come to horrific ends (not necessarily planned to be such but always a possibility), but there's also some shocked sense of awe/admiration that these guys just said "Fuck it" and threw all caution to the wind in their very different quests for self-respect. What was it the Devil said? "I'd rather be the ruler of hell than a servant in heaven." Most of us wouldn't make that egotistical leap, but you've got to acknowledge the courage in doing so in the face of the almost-assured negative consequences.

"The Ram" is certainly no devil or Ahab or Manson; his life is lived on a much smaller, pettier, more realistic scale. But his sense of self is similar. And thus admirable in its own way, however lone or sad. There's no Adrian waiting to comfort him at the end of his trek. She'd already left the building. But there IS, nonetheless, one last "Ram Jam," one last leap of glory.

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