Williams Reviews the Reviews of The Wrestler

marisa-tomei_the-wrestlerI just got home from watching The Wrestler, and if you’ve seen it, you don’t need anyone to tell you how good it is. It’s the first movie I have ever watched that had me running home to look online for reviews, just so I could see what people had said about it, and see if I agreed or disagreed. After a half an hour on Metacritic.com … I was appalled. The negative reviews of this film – and there are many, by several high-profile “critics” – are examples of the kind of stupidity that, being witnessed, can fill you with a loathing for humanity and for the planet in general. And most of the positive reviews aren’t much better … because, well, I don’t think they really get it.

If I may inveigh against movie reviewers for a moment: I think I will not call them critics. Though the word itself is derived from the Greek kritikos, which simply means “able to make judgments”, in modern English the word is invariably used to confer a cachet of authority and expertise, which, in most cases, is completely undeserved by those who review movies. What exactly makes someone an expert on movies, anyway? Mainly, it would seem, simply the sheer audacity to pretend you are one. Most professional movie reviewers are failed or would-be academics. They probably wanted to be writers or professors, but found out that being glib and knowing where the apostrophe goes does not correlate precisely with actual intelligence or the ability to really understand a text. In short, they are poseurs. I’ve heard better discussions about movies on buses, in public bathrooms, and even from Max than I’ve heard from self-important “critics” like Kenneth Turan and A.O. Scott.

It’s a basic lack of knowledge and analytical sophistication that makes most of this – and any – film’s reviews so poor. Most reviewers know very little about the history of texts and interpretative paradigms, so they watch the movie, talk only about the story, and give highly generalized observations gift-wrapped as insights. Consider one of the worst reviews of The Wrestler, by Time magazine’s Richard Corliss, who praises Rourke’s “strong, sensitive work”, but concludes that “the movie itself is pretty bad.” This is about the level of analysis you would expect from a freshman term paper. Nowhere in the review are convincing reasons given that might lead us to agree that the movie is “pretty bad”, whatever that is even supposed to mean.

But at least, unlike Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times, Corliss doesn’t make any embarrassing blunders. After reading Turan’s review, I wondered if he had actually seen the movie or simply been told about it, because if he did see it, it’s hard to understand why he would write of Rourke’s character, “as the blues lyric says, if he didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have no luck at all.” Put aside the irritatingly banal blues quote. Just pretend that didn’t really happen. But how on earth could Turan come out of the theatre thinking that Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s problems had anything to do with luck?

This is not a minor error; to think that Randy’s situation was caused in any way by fate or chance is pretty much to miss completely the point of the film. Darren Aronofsky – and writer Robert D. Siegel – go to meticulous lengths to show that, on the contrary, every single, minute aspect of the wrestler’s bleak existence is a direct consequence of his own, deliberate choices: his health is deteriorating because of years of hard living, steroids, and the brutal physical reality of wrestling; his daughter despises him because he abandoned her; he is broke and desperate because he wasted the money he made during his years of fame. Just in case all of this wasn’t clear enough – and it should be clear enough for a child to understand – Aronofsky even has “The Ram” explicitly state that his situation is his own fault: “I’m alone,” he tells his daughter in one scene, “and I deserve to be alone.” This self-awareness is the reason Randy doesn’t sing the blues. The blues is the music of Job, the underserving sufferers of whips and scorns of time. Randy is not Job: he is Cain, errant and marked, and he goes through life singing heavy metal, the music of the deservingly damned. If Turan was looking for a song that would sum Randy up, it would not be “Born Under a Bad Sign,” but something like “The Ace of Spades” or “Welcome to the Jungle”.

Why is this so important? Because it reveals how lost movie reviewers really are when confronted with a film that demands an educated, intelligent audience. By way of illustration, consider some of the other really dumb things that have been said about The Wrestler:

  • “My own anticipation sank with the opening credits: “Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood.” That list spelled out the plot: damaged veteran, middle-age girlfriend, young daughter. The Wrestler never rose above fight-movie bromides, never dispelled my gloom. The character stereotyping makes Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, by comparison, seem as swathed in moral ambiguity as Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers.” – Corliss, Time.
  • “Things start to fall apart when “The Wrestler’s” determination to wallow in the pain of Robinson’s bouts reveals itself. A certain amount of that is necessary, but this film pushes well beyond that, yearning for the excessive until it feels like Aronofsky and company are making a fetish of audience discomfort … it is hampered by one too many scenes of Cassidy’s nude dancing that once again make “The Wrestler” exploitative just when it thinks it’s being honest.” – Turan, LA Times
  • “But you also understand why Randy can’t let go of the life. With its grown men bellowing like comic book heroes and villains, pro wrestling has always been a cartoon, and that’s the appeal to performers and fans alike: It absolves life’s complexities with a turnbuckle to the skull.” – Ty Burr, Boston Globe

I don’t think I have ever liked any of Aronofsky’s other movies, but I truly feel for him, having made something as good as The Wrestler and then having to read things like that. It’s a pretty safe bet that none of these reviewers have ever read Roland Barthe’s brilliant essay “The World of Wrestling”, though they seem like the kind of people who would pretend to have. I don’t know if Aronofsky has read it – I’m thinking it’s likely – but if he didn’t, it doesn’t matter, because he could have written it. In fact, he more or less filmed it.

Like Barthes – and unlike Ty Burr, above, who has the typical, pseudo-intellectual’s snobbish contempt of the sport –   Aronofsky understands that wrestling is the oldest form of entertainment in any civilization for a reason: it is the archetypal representation of  the human condition. It addresses the existential confusion, sorrow, and anger that people everywhere and in all times feel and have felt. Listen to Barthes: “There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque … What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks.”

This is basically the point of the film. The wrestler, naked, tormented, and struggling is the simplest and oldest symbol of humanity, and Aronofsky’s genius is in capturing and conveying the universality of his plight, while cleverly elaborating upon it for a 21st century reality: the wrestler is injured not merely in the ring, but by being locked out of his trailer, shunned by his daughter, and forced to work at a menial, infuriating job. Aronofsky brocades the symbolism of the wrestler by pairing him with his female equivalent: the stripper. Like the wrestler, she is naked and alone, with  only her body to barter with the world for her survival, and like the wrestler she is a performer of an archetype. Corliss, above, somehow mistakes these archetypes for cliches, but certainly most people can appreciate the difference between a universal symbol and a mere stereotype?  Rourke beautifully captures the essence of the wrestler, and Tomei matches him with her own performance of suffering and endurance, but Corliss thinks he was watching some kind of melodrama.

Equally surprising, and in the same way, is Turan’s criticism of the film’s “fetish of audience discomfort”. The whole point of wrestling is to confront the audience with pain and suffering! Rourke’s physical agony and Tomei’s psychological pain are the film.  This is not a movie that is “exploitative just when it thinks it’s being honest”, but a movie that is simply honest, about suffering, about pain, about life, about choices, and about everything. There is nothing exploitative about it at all.

I am tempted to say that if the reviewers in question knew anything about tragedy, wrestling, or textual analysis, they would have written less pointless reviews, but it’s not even about that: they could have done better simply by paying more attention to what they were watching, as this movie surely deserves.

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2 responses to “Williams Reviews the Reviews of The Wrestler

  1. Appreciative Reader

    An well-written, thoughtful article. I haven’t seen this movie, but I can understand what you’re talking about when it comes to movie critics blowing hot air. Frankly, I think the people that clean toilets in the movie theatre do a better service to society than most of these critics.

  2. I just saw the movie… and you sum up the theme precisely. Previously, I was unaware of the depth and meaning of wrestling for people, but the movie and your elaboration brought it home. Very well written.

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