I'm posting now and then to talk about movies (not reviews but reactions). For Movie Musings #1 about Milk, Frost/Nixon and Man on Wire, go here.
Warning: Thar be plot spoilers below!
In a recent post, Movies Movies Movies!, I talked about how my love for them was sparked by early experiences with 1970’s films, which with their gritty, realistic style and unresolved moral dilemmas make most current movies look like powdered doughnuts.
Well, last night, I finally saw The Wrestler1, and it felt like old home week. (Or should that be “old home wreck”?)
While the plot is so schematic and clichéd that we can see every move coming as predictably as in a wrestler’s fake routine, the pain the lead character Randy “The Ram” Robinson feels is real. Those body slams and even worse, the prop attacks with glass, razor wire and staple guns do real damage, especially when you add them up over 20 years of matches. In a small telling detail, we see Randy wear a hearing aid without ever being told why he needs it, and we don’t need to be, once we see all that his chosen work entails. It’s clear that at some point, there was damage that just couldn’t be recovered from.
And in fact, that’s true of Randy himself. He is too damaged a person to recover from not only his wounds but from his wants. He has been a star and nothing that “real life” can provide him (which isn’t very promising anyway) can equal what he has in the ring.
Much has been made of the parallels between star Mickey Rourke’s own life and that of the character he portrays, and it’s true that there are eerie factual (Rourke boxed professionally for a while) and emotional parallels (both thoroughly screwed up their personal lives and lost their early professional fame). But even if you don’t know all that, Rourke’s performance is amazing in its naked honesty and tenderness, as well as its full embrace of the culpability of the human being.
While The Wrestler indulges in just about every cliché of both the sports and personal redemption movie, Randy at least is not given that uncanny wisdom which causes movie characters to say profoundly articulate things that their real life counterparts would not. Randy knows a few things very well and many things not at all, and thankfully the screenwriter built his dialogue not for cleverness but for realism. But the credit stops there, and the rest is all in Rourke’s hands, often literally. There’s more truth in the way this man takes out his hearing aid or wraps up some deli meat than in the acting of entire ensembles in other movies.
It might seem strange to pair this movie with Doubt, a film about a seemingly power-mad nun in the early 1960’s, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who accuses a priest, Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) of improprieties with a male student. Certainly a tightly run Catholic school in that era seems a world away from the scummy trailer parks and competition rings of The Wrestler.
Yet both worlds have agreed upon rules governing them: The wrestlers choreograph their bouts ahead of time, and each one of them has a defined and unchanging persona, signaled by attire as stratified as vestments and behavior as circumscribed as that of a person who has taken holy vows.
As one of his legendary “opponents” (known as The Ayatollah, since he became a star during the Iranian hostage crisis) reminds him before a bout, Randy is the “face” and he’s the “floor”: In every match, there’s a victor and a defeated, a god and a devil, and the outcome of a contest between the two sides is never any more in doubt in wrestling than it was in the Bible or Paradise Lost.
The Catholic Church of the 1960’s was no less rigidly defined than the wrestlers’ world, with rules that no one dared violate, especially nuns, who were after all, merely women who decided as teenagers to completely abdicate control of their lives to an institution that only allows change about every 500 years, if that.
Nuns in fact were (and still are) the odd middlewomen of the church – enforcing its authority on children in Catholic schools and yet utterly subject to it outside of that sanctified space. The scene where Father Flynn casually usurps Sister Aloysius’s office chair says it all. The children (and even the priest) may call her a dragon, but she has only the most tenuous kind of power. And of course, someone like that is the most dangerous person to cross. Father Flynn threatens her limited authority, and thus her very reason for living, and for that he must be punished.
Like The Wrestler, Doubt is schematic and predictable, and yet I found it more moving than I’d expected. Its theme of moral uncertainty is compelling and it confounds easy conclusions with competing input as to who the hero and who the villain is (and isn’t it nice that we can once again embrace such uncertainty after the “for us or agin us” mentality of the past 8 years?) The movie is constructed as a psychological mystery, a “did he or didn’t he?” conundrum but soon grows more complex as it unfolds.
Streep’s been accused of chewing the scenery in Doubt, but having been raised Catholic in the 1960’s, I can tell you that plenty of nuns behaved exactly as her Sister Aloysius does. More importantly, she brings many moments of, yes, doubt to her role, when her dragon-nun persona (as carefully cultivated as The Ram’s for its effect on an audience) breaks down and we see the real and vulnerable person underneath, one who grasps at seemingly nonsensical rules (such as not receiving any man, even a priest, alone in her office) to make sense of and contain her life.
While she almost sacrifices a priest’s reputation to her need to control her small domain, the final tragedy is entirely hers. The priest goes merrily on his way, career unharmed, while she confesses that behind the seemingly monolithic certainty she projects, she is in fact, utterly full of doubt.
The Wrestler appears to end on the opposite note, one of certainty, as Randy acts defiantly on the realization that the only time he feels he is anyone is when he is in the ring surrounded by screaming fans. He is (as Marisa Tomei’s stripper character laughingly dubs him) a “sacrificial ram” who bleeds and perhaps even dies for our sins (we are left literally hanging with that question in the final shot) – “we” being the audience not just at the matches, demanding suffering and even blood for its entertainment, but we the moviegoers who demand, well, the same – to see actors suffer for sins we’re convinced we’d never commit.
Like his character, Rourke chose to actually cut himself, to shed real blood in his fake matches, in order to give the crowd what they want, what they always want, which is a glimpse of both what they know and what they fear -- the strange and the other, the acts we haven’t ever indulged in, encased in a shell of common human experience.
Few of us have ever been wrestlers or nuns, but we all know the fear of losing what we have, as well as actual loss, disappointment and defeat. We may not clothe ourselves in vestments or spandex, but we all put on costumes to create our personas out in the world, and like nuns, we all wear our habits.
And how many of us would be willing to give up those personas or habits of being? How many of us even realize how tenaciously we defend them, even when (as in both these films) that very defense threatens to destroy us?
In the end, both films leave the characters hanging – Randy in mid-air, suspended between life and death, and Sister Aloysius sitting defeated on a park bench, caught between faith and doubt.
Both have experienced realization of their true natures, but not redemption as human beings. Both are left wrestling with the tragedy of who they have become.
1(Speaking of “The Ring” – Isn't that Wrestler poster at top surprisingly similar to images from this movie? Are the marketing folks having a little pun-y fun with us or did they think that we’d be terrified by the subliminal association?)