Pro Wrestlers Talk About The Wrestler, on slashfilm

The Wrestler isn’t really about wrestling per se, it’s about Randy “the Ram” as a man and his inability to change… but you can’t really separate the two. Now some famous wrestlers chip in their thoughts about the film, in a series of interviews on slashfilm. The link to the full article with the interviews is at the bottom, here is a short clip of this excellent article.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog than you know my love for Fox Searchlight movies. But the love goes beyond their films — these guys know how to market an indie film (something I can’t say for Sony Pictures Classics). A couple weeks back we brought you some clips from Darren Aronofsky’s interview with Danny Boyle, which was a brilliant idea if I’ve ever heard one.

Now Searchlight has returned with a five part roundtable interview with professional wrestlers Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake, Lex Luger, Diamond Dallas Page, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine talking about Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. What a great idea. You can watch all five of the videos after the jump. I hope they include these on the DVD. The Wrestler is now playing in a city near you.

5 Interview videos and more at the original article at slashfilm.

The Wrestler for real – Beyond the Mat

Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Anyone who watched wrestling remembers him- he didn’t just have a bag with a snake in it, he had charisma. If you loved The Wrestler, you owe it to yourself to dig up Beyond the Mat and watch Jake the Snake, with his crack addiction and estranged relationship with his daughter, which obviously was some inspiration for Rourke’s excellent performance.
Roberts is shown working smalltown gigs, getting high, getting confronted by his wounded daughter and continually fucking up, yet beneath it he’s sharp enough to be introspective, and eloquently discuss his own problems. About crack: “Speeds me up so fast I forget about my past. I don’t have to be responsible.” About his children: “I said I’d never treat my kids like my father treated me, and I look back 20 years and I did the exact same thing.” He was known for being one of the most psychologically sharp performers with the crowd, and then he disappeared into obscurity.
Counterpoint to Jake is Mick Foley, aka “Mankind,” a sort of circus geek hero in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre costume who takes falls and beatings that look deadly, yet seems to have a normal family relationship. Though I think it was insane if his kids were really watching him wrestle when The Rock was bashing his head in with a chair. Kids can’t understand that shit. But maybe it was clever editing- while it’s a solid documentary, you do wonder if everything is what it seems sometimes. After all, it’s wrestling- it’s a dangerous, strenuous performance, but it is a performance.

While it doesn’t delve too deep into wrestling’s inner secrets about heels, faces, and “kayfabe” carnie chicanery, and some of it is a definite puff piece, you get a look at what these performers endure, and how shabbily they are often treated. So what’s kayfabe? Well, it’s carnie talk, probably fractured pig latin for fake, ake-fay, the theater part of the performance. The long feuds, wrestlers who turn from good guys (faces) to bad guys (heels) and turn on their friends, bringing the “cheap heat” or angering the crowd by trash talking to them.
You actually get a bit more background in The Wrestler, when you see the Ram and his opponents laying out a thin plot before they go into the ring. For example, The Rock appears but never breaks character. He’s the heel against Mankind, who does some stunts that are pretty damn impressive. There’s a cage fight where he ends up on top of the cage, what looks like 15 feet above the ring, and falls through, onto his back. There’s only so much you can do to break your fall, and this wasn’t a mattress he landed on. Even if it was planned, it was risky. Barbed wire around the ring, and other extreme props- much like the staple gun from The Wrestler– make you wonder how far they go to entertain the crowd.
Vince McMahon himself not only appears as the CEO, interviewing a young wrestler who can vomit on cue and wants to perform as Puke, but ends up in the ring himself. Since he angered a lot of the fans with his decisions, why not make them pay to see him get beat up? It was a brilliant bit of showmanship, the ultimate con. But he was really getting stomped, even if it was pulled. You’ve got to give him credit for that. That’s the heart of professional wrestling, playing to the crowd, putting on an acrobatic show of battle, and making it look good. And it takes a terrible physical toll, as you can imagine.

There’s a lot more to this documentary- director Barry Blaustein, who writes a lot of Eddie Murphy movies like The Nutty Professor- begins with his love of pro wrestling, and we get many small interviews and profiles of people from Jesse Ventura to Chyna, who they mention got her chin shaved to look more feminine. If you read Something Awful’s review of her porn debut, the chin is just the beginning. You also get to see some young wrestlers trying to get a break, but the only older one you see is Jake the Snake- which is telling. Either they got out, and want to be remembered in their prime, or they’re just not around anymore.
Someday they’ll be treated like running backs, but for now they’ll suffer for our entertainment until like Randy the Ram, they’re just broken down pieces of meat. Some can retire, or move to acting- where doing your own stunts is much less risky- but not everyone is so lucky. For every Mick Foley and Dwayne Johnson, there’s a half-dozen Jake the Snakes, working the ring until they can’t anymore.

The Wrestler

After Slumdog Millionaire, I didn’t think I’d see a more emotionally engaging film this year. But The Wrestler tops it, slams it, and does the Ram Jam on its face in that regard. Mickey Rourke is back, Darren Aronofsky has made another classic, and this is the one time where I saw a big man cry, and I could not be the bigger man who laughs at that man. Because I was touched. I’d forgotten it was Mickey Rourke, and thought I was seeing Randy “The Ram” Robinson.

The Ram was a wrestling superstar in the ’80s, when it was at its biggest. I was never a fan, but I watched anyway. It was inescapable. I remember Sergeant Slaughter, The Iron Sheik, guys dressed as ninjas, Jake the Snake, Andre the Giant, Rowdy Roddy Piper in his kilt, and of course Hulk Hogan. At the time there was great controversy over whether it was “real” or not, which seems quaint now. We were so naive about what happens off camera. Wrestling is theater- it’s not so much a competition. It’s a Face vs. a Heel, bashing their faces on turnbuckles and body slamming each other for our entertainment. That’s real enough- they don’t have to really hate each other, or really try to kill each other. Find a copy of Beyond the Mat and you’ll realize it’s as dangerous and “real” as being a linebacker. They aren’t trying to kill you, but you’re doing something that the human body was not meant to tolerate as often as you’re doing it.

With that out of the way, it’s 20 years later and Randy the Ram now wrestles at Rec centers, goes home to his trailer, and plays with the neighborhood kids. He goes to a strip bar where he’s friendly with a dancer named Cassidy. She’s played by Marisa Tomei- looking more worn but just as sexy as she was in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and once again embodying a role so perfectly that you think she’s just another Jersey girl swinging from poles to make a buck. She wants to keep their relationship strictly business, but sees a sweetness under Ram’s grizzled exterior, and he’s not like the others; he uses his body as a piece of meat, so he doesn’t treat her like one. Let me say this, I think Tomei gets an unfair shake- it’s a meme that her Oscar for My Cousin Vinny is the “least deserved” one awarded, and I disagree completely. Comedy is hard. And not once in that movie do you look at her and say “ha, Marisa Tomei trying to be a foomatza broad.” It wasn’t until In the Bedroom that she got taken seriously again, and it’s good to see her getting good roles like this again.

They’re both performers- he works a crowd in the ring, she works the stage, the floor, the champagne room. But he sees in her the parent he never was. She has a 9 year old son, and her work is for him, her life revolves around him; while Randy has an estranged daughter named Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood, Across the Universe). After an injury in the ring, he seeks her out, and this is where the film builds its deepest emotional power. Randy has made a lot of mistakes in his life, and like Rourke himself, he wears the scars on his face. When he does track his daughter down, the film doesn’t play us for suckers. As anyone abandoned by a parent will know, there are wounds that won’t heal. But they make contact, fittingly at the ruins of Asbury Park, silhouetted against the sea in a shot similar to the dream sequences in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. Some things are beyond forgiveness, and as in Gran Torino, not everyone can be redeemed; but Randy and his daughter come to an understanding that rings true.

Randy’s promoter wants him to do a 20-year anniversary rematch with The Ayatollah; the idea of playing to a real crowd, and capturing the glory of the old days is at the front of Randy’s mind, but he’s not sure his body can take it. He’s trying to put his life together, to have something more than playing Nintendo with neighborhood kids in his trailer, and paying Cassidy for her time. But the plot is not what makes the film engaging. Aronofsky films it with an almost documentarian feel, as we follow Randy through his life. Backstage, preparing with his fellow wrestlers, and even working at the local deli counter when money is thin. It never feels like a mere veneer of reality. Much has been made of Mickey Rourke actually performing his own stunts, and that certainly helped make the ring footage look as real as it does, but the director’s camera and choices had a lot to do with it as well. Mickey made The Ram, but Darren Aronofsky told the story like a master- by letting its characters speak for themselves.

There are a lot of choices that he made that helped the movie. Fighting for Mickey to get the part was only one of them. The movie is set in New Jersey, in Rahway, Elizabeth, Garfield. Industrial and blue collar neighborhoods. The classic Jersey decrepit railroad bridges are everywhere. There’s a scene at a payphone with an abandoned railroad tunnel behind it that sets the tone perfectly. Falling apart, like Randy. Asbury Park’s lost former glory. The soundtrack is all ’80s hair metal like Accept’s “Balls to the Wall” and the perfect choice of Guns ‘N Roses “Sweet Child O’ Mine” for Randy’s big bout. He and Cassidy talk about the music of the late ’80s and how it got swept away by grunge, and that G’nR song was hair metal going down in one last blaze of glory. The end title is by Springsteen and is one of his better recent ballads. There are other little touches; Randy drives Ram van, of course, has an action figure, and they even made a Nintendo wrestling game with him in it. It’s exactly the sort of relic one would have if you were a pro wrestler in the ’80s.

The wrestler cast is mostly, if not all, former and active pro wrestlers. You can’t fake that kind of body, and Rourke’s late-in-life boxing career helped make him perfect for the part. He’s been in the ring, and knows that unlike acting there are no second takes. He’s done the walk from backstage, knowing thousands of bloodthirsty fans are out there wanting to see you get punched in the face.

“The Man in the Arena”

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
–Teddy Roosevelt

The Wrestler is one of the year’s best films, and the best drama I have seen this year. If anything, Mickey Rourke’s performance is the most natural, courageous, and one where emotions are laid most bare. Let’s hope the Academy does the right thing, it would be great to have Mickey back. At the least, whether you like wrestling or not, go see this as one of the best movies of the year. A small story, of a has-been, finding out what he’s made for. I guarantee it won’t leave you unaffected.

5 Ram Jams out of 5

80’s Trash of the Week – Vision Quest

In which we wrestle and discover the clitoris, to songs by Madonna and Journey!

Vision Quest is probably better known as the first movie with Madonna, and in some countries it is known as “Crazy For You,” because she sings that song in a bar during a dance scene. Everyone knows him as Private Joker, but Matthew Modine got his start in quirky coming of age movies like this one, and Birdy. He had a good little thing going there before Cutthroat Island, which is in the Guinness book of World Records as the Biggest Flop of All Time. I own that movie, and I object, because I thought The Adventures of Pluto Nash topped it. Plus hey, Geena Davis in a pirate outfit is worth ten bucks on a lonely evening.

Carla, Louden, and his Dad

In Vision Quest, Modine plays a high school wrestler named Louden Swain, who has just turned 18 and realized he hasn’t done much with his life. He feels like he’s been coasting. So he decides to drop 2 weight classes to 168 and take on the 3-time state champion, Brian Shute. While this makes it seem like a Rocky or Breaking Training movie, there’s a lot more to it. And by a lot more, I mean a young, hot, Linda Fiorentino in her first role.

Let’s take a closer look at Ms. Fiorentino.

Linda Fiorentino is one of the most underrated Hollywood actresses, and if you haven’t seen The Last Seduction, you haven’t seen one of the best modern film noir since Body Heat. She embodies the femme fatale, and always plays strong women. She even played the descendant of Christ in Dogma, and dispatched some demons. Here, she plays Carla, who’s trying to return a lemon she bought on a car lot where Louden’s father (Ronny Cox) is a mechanic. Louden’s Dad takes her side and loses his job, she loses her car, and she needs a place to stay, so… why not shack up with my horny teenage son?

Louden and Kuch (Cooch) ogling Carla.

Louden is also friends with Kuch, a mohawked chopper-driving punk also on the wrestling team, who tells him that his decision to take on the big champ is a vision quest, giving us the title of the movie, and thankfully no hokey Hollywood pseudo-spiritualism. They sneak over to Shute’s high school to see how he trains, and we find him walking up and down the bleachers with a huge log over his shoulders, like Arnie in Commando.

Shute, the champ. I dare you to call him poop-chute.

Shute will be a formidable opponent, and Louden is distracted by the 21-year old siren in his house. She’s not only sexy but mature and unapproachable, a foul-mouthed Jersey girl who says stuff like “you’ll have an asshole as wide as the Lincoln Tunnel.” But that doesn’t stop Louden. He’s also studying biology because he wants to be some sort of doctor or astronaut or both, and his paper on the clitoris doesn’t go over well with the school faculty. The nerdy high school girl who he hangs around with, Margie Epstein, says “What a blast to the First Amendment! The first thing they do is shut down the press and imprison the intellectuals. I LOVED YOUR PIECE ON THE CLITORIS! I SHOWED IT TO MY MOTHER!”

Teach, I have a swelling that won’t go down.

The movie has a wry sense of humor when it’s not making clit jokes, and Louden’s flighty interests are reminiscent of high school musings. He’s friendly with his teacher Gene Tanneran, an ex-basketball player teaching him English and poetry. He confides in him about the problem of living under the same roof as Carla while trying to cut weight, which is giving him nosebleeds while blood is rushing elsewhere.

Tanneran: I think you’re dehydrated.
Louden Swain: No, I’m just the victim of a screwed-up nitrogen imbalance. Plus, I think I’ve contracted priapism.
Tanneran: What’s priapism?
Louden: It’s a disease of a constant erection. It’s not funny, believe me! The girl of my dreams lives under my own roof, but she thinks I’m just a kid, a dumb jock, all of which is more or less true. I’m dying, Mr. Tanneran, just like that girl in the poem… only quicker, and with a hard-on.

I was just making sure you used fabric softener…

Carla begins to soften to Louden, also giving him some valuable lessons about what it means to be a man, like don’t let a girl catch you sniffing her panties. Eventually they go out to a bar and dance to Madonna, who sings “Crazy for You” and “Gambler,” back when she was a singer and not a product.

I think she was trying to out-Lauper Cyndi at this point.

Of course they get it on, but Carla knows she is interfering with Louden’s goals and skips town to force him to concentrate on wrestling. This bothers him but he doesn’t go into the usual funk, he hunts her down and confronts her, and makes it to the match just in time.

I envy Mr. Modine even if he only got it on in movie-land.

Based on a book by Terry Davis, the emphasis on wrestling is what makes an enduring fanbase for this movie. I can’t think of another movie with high school wrestling in it except maybe The World According to Garp and it’s a minor subplot there. The wrestling scenes are decent. I myself go to a mixed-martial arts class to get beaten up twice a week at AFS, and we get a lot of wrestlers in there. The matches here look good, but Modine definitely does not look like he’s in the same class as Shute.

You need a montage!

Being a “Rocky” story we know how it will end, but the movie shines in how it gets us there, with its characters. Louden works in a kitchen with an old cook named Elmo, who could be played by Tony “Paulie Walnuts” Sirico in a remake. The script gives us real people and no cardboard cut-outs, except maybe for another wrestler who doesn’t think Louden is a “team player,” but he only shows up once or twice.

Louden is wiser than his years, without it being too obvious; he’s still immature and learning who he is, and he learns not to settle for anything less than his dreams in this movie. I like the quote he leaves us with before “Only the Young” plays over the credits:

But all I ever settled for is that we’re born to live and then to die, and… we got to do it alone, each in his own way. And I guess that’s why we got to love those people who deserve it like there’s no tomorrow. ‘Cause when you get right down to it – there isn’t.

Louden Swain, sweaty American hero in a leotard.

Quotability Rating: Very Low
Cheese Factor: Low
Could it be made today? That ultimate fighter movie, kind of
Gratuitous Boobs: Awesome nippleage through a white tank top.
High Points: Soundtrack, good script, good actors, early Madonna
Low Points: Ends abruptly; Madonna pre-plastic surgery/dental work

Vision Quest slams us with a lateral drop and puts us in a crucifix, giving us a noogie of 80’s nostalgia and makes us tap out to its fine script and acting by two rising stars.

If you still are waffling about The Last Seduction…