For his final film before he heads off into the great unknown we call “the real world”, Josh wanted to give us a solid sendoff at Cinema 1544. I think he did it. He presented Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler, a movie that is largely known as Mickey Rourke’s comeback.
It’s also a really good movie, though it’s pretty easy to overlook it when, like me, you have basically zero interest in professional wrestling.
It’s not terribly surprising that the above is one of the images that pops up on a Google search for the film. I’ve heard it said that The Wrestler is essentially Black Swan for teenaged boys. And there’s quite a bit to that. Of course, the first similarity is that both were directed by Aronofsky. The second is that both films are about tortured performers who die for their art – while performing. Now, The Wrestler doesn’t have an imaginary “friend” in it like Black Swan does, but in all honesty it has something better: it is a Classical Tragedy in almost all respects. I can’t think of a much better way to review the film than to step through the fundamental elements of a tragedy and line them up with the corresponding elements in The Wrestler.
As an introduction, some of the clearest thinking on what makes a Classical Tragedy comes from Aristotle, who spends a good portion of his Poetics discussing the genre. Unfortunately, he doesn’t lay out a bullet-point list of the fundamental elements of a tragedy but I can try to approximate one here (but I’ll leave out elements that are unimportant [e.g. details about prosody] or taken for granted [e.g. that such an art form is acted out rather than recited] in modern film).
The hallmark of the tragedy is the journey of the virtuous Man (capitalized to emphasize the genderless connotation) from happiness to misfortune. Now, anybody who has seen a few Aronofsky movies, and let’s be honest, I’m really talking about Requiem for a Dream here, knows that Aronofsky likes to start his characters in a position that’s about as miserable as you think they can possibly get just so they can spiral down further. As such, a lot of the happiness that we need to imagine for our hero, Randy “The Ram” Robinson, has come in the past. The Ram was once a top-billed professional wrestler, who now, 20 years after his peak is working warehouse duty in a supermarket and playing small-time wrestling shows on the weekends in venues that pale next to the local YMCA. He has an estranged college-aged daughter and he lives check to check in a trailer park with basically no friends. One would suspect that he has not made the best of decisions throughout his life, yet there’s something noble to the character, not in his mien and not necessarily in his actions – yet the brilliance of Aronofsky and Rourke here is to get you to sympathize with him somehow, some way.
Early in the film we learn that his promoter is putting together a 20th anniversary rematch of one of Randy The Ram’s famous bouts against The Ayatollah (who is now a used car salesman in Arizona). We get to see a bit of the behind-the-scenes workings of professional wrestling; the matches are staged but the blood is real, deriving anywhere from wrestlers cutting themselves with hidden razorblades to matches that use (real) barbed wire and staple guns.
Following a match, Randy suffers a heart attack resulting in emergency bypass surgery, and this is where the story really begins (even if we are 40 minutes into the film at this point). Randy’s condition forces him to retire from wrestling, and as such to search for other meaning in his life.
A fundamental element of the Classical Tragedy is Hamartia, which is sometimes known as the tragic flaw, and sometimes as the tragic error. This is perhaps more of a distinction than simply a matter of translation, with the flaw being more along the lines of an ongoing character trait and the error being more along the lines of a particular action. The events of the tragedy are to be driven by a logical sequence of events following off of the Hamartia – in other words, the hero of the tragedy brings their own downfall upon themselves (they are not struck down by vengeful gods, for instance) in a way that could totally be foreseen. In the case of The Wrestler, I think we have both a tragic flaw and a tragic error, so we get two for the price of one! For Randy The Ram’s tragic flaw, we need to look no further than the fact that he has fallen in love with a stripper. Sure, it’s Marisa Tomei, and she’s the Stripper with a Heart of Gold ™, but nothing good can ever come of falling in love with a stripper, especially when your world is crumbling down around you and you think that stripper might just break the stripper/customer wall to bring some stability into your life. Bad call. (As an aside, Marisa Tomei was 44 years old when this film was released. She…took good care of herself.)
At the same time that The Ram is trying to insinuate himself into the stripper’s life, he is also trying to rekindle his relationship with his daughter. She is reluctant to do so, but after a few visits he convinces her to go with him to an abandoned boardwalk they frequented when she was a child, and the beginnings of a reconciliation are clearly there. They make a dinner date for the weekend.
But, of course, the night before their date, the stripper finally explains in no uncertain terms that she just cannot even think about entering into a relationship with Randy – and this despite the fact that she’s going to night school and soon to be giving up stripping for a more mainstream career. This rejection pushes Randy into his tragic error. He meets some wrestling buddies, they go out for drinks, and before you know it Randy has been recognized by a much younger fan, he’s snorting lines of coke and performing a bit of “The Ram” in the women’s bathroom, ultimately leading to Randy doing the early-morning walk of shame from a bedroom plastered with beefcake posters of firefighters to go home and sleep the whole thing off.
And wouldn’t you know it, Randy slept right through the dinner date with his daughter. This corresponds to the Classical Tragedy element of Peripeteia, or the reversal of fortune. Given his irresponsible past (presumably largely responsible for the original rift between them) Randy’s daughter was always reluctant to let him back into her life. His missing their dinner plans is the proverbial straw. She decides that he hasn’t changed, that he’s just as irresponsible as ever, and that his audition as Randy “The Dad” Robinson is over. “I don’t even hate you,” she says, and it cuts deep. She never wants to see him again, and from the hopes of finding both love and a reunion with a child he’s now faced with a life spent truly alone. His fortune has completely reversed.
Another element of Classical Tragedy is Anagnorisis, or the recognition. Here the hero suddenly understands a fundamental truth about themselves. Classically, this is very often a revelation of the sort experienced by Oedipus, where the hero realizes that heretofore unrecognized characters that they are interacting with are actually people that they know. In The Wrestler, this would be sloppy and trite, and it’s not the way the Anagnorisis goes down. Instead, Randy comes to a realization not about who others are, but about who he is. Randy, asking for extra hours at the supermarket, has gotten the opportunity to work the deli counter. It goes all right, until that one customer. And it’s not that one customer who is ridiculously trying to get exactly a half a pound of potato salad that I’m talking about. It’s that customer who slowly recognizes him. “Don’t I know you from somewhere” is easy enough to deflect, but eventually it turns into “I knew it, you’re Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson”, and all hell breaks loose. We can dismiss Randy’s impetuous and deliberate (and perhaps gratuitous) cutting of his thumb in the meat slicer. What’s important is this: the whole thing causes Randy to realize what he truly is. He’s a professional wrestler. A professional wrestler with a bad heart desperately hanging onto the glory days at small and tawdry venues, but a professional wrestler nonetheless. Randy calls up his agent. The 20th anniversary rematch with The Ayatollah is back on.
The Classical Tragedy ends in Catharsis – an emotional cleansing at the logical endpoint of the story. Randy, bad ticker and all, has decided to wrestle The Ayatollah. In the morning, as he is leaving for the match, none other than the stripper shows up at his trailer park. She is offering a reconciliation, she is offering a way out, and this time it is Randy who is having none of it. He hands her a flyer for the match and leaves. Naturally, she shows up at the match and confronts him backstage. “I’m here. I’m actually here,” she says as she begs him not to risk his life by going through with the match, but Randy won’t listen. He knows who he is, and he tells the audience exactly this before the match starts. And of course, during the match, he begins to show signs of having another heart attack. The Ayatollah (scripted to lose) sees that Randy is struggling and offers Randy to pin him early, to end the match. Randy refuses, and with great effort he climbs up onto the top ropes, his ears ringing from lack of blood as he launches a final body slam. Cut to black, midair.
To be fair, I don’t really know how many modern films can truly shoehorn themselves into the conventions of Classical Tragedy. I suspect it isn’t many, but oftentimes I feel like I need several viewings of a film to really grasp the overall structure. So maybe those films are out there, and I just haven’t grokked them properly. The Wrestler, on the other hand, slides into those conventions so effortlessly, so nonchalantly, but so precisely that it’s hard not to see it as such – even well before the movie ends. As a viewer, do you want Randy to live happily ever after? Of course you do. And you know perfectly well it cannot happen. The only real question is not how the movie is going to end, but how it is going to get there, and from the moment the coked-up groupie scene starts the rest of the film writes itself. In a lot of ways I think this may be a better movie than Black Swan – not so much in the presentation, because the world of Black Swan is a safe and septic one compared to the uncomfortable grit and grime of The Wrestler, which leans much closer to Requiem than it does the other way, but more in the structure. Black Swan wanders, it has mysteries and psychoses, and I think it leaves open questions – it is a fundamentally modern film. The Wrestler unabashedly embraces the structure of an art form 2500 years old and makes it relevant today.