Heroes and Villains: Three Things Pro Wrestling Can’t Do

I love professional wrestling. Given the choice between bad wrestling and no wrestling at all, I will almost always pick the former. I’ve traversed the River Styx of hardcore fandom into the abode of the damned which Flea insists we call the IWC. I no longer try to rationalize my love for pro wrestling as love of camp or nostalgia. I’m hooked for life, I think.

But I have no illusions that pro wrestling is about as underdeveloped as an art form can be. Wrestlers scrape by with little more than a crude sense of craft. At best they try to attempt to tell rudimentary “stories” in the ring. Most can’t even manage that. A very few–actually, Mick Foley is the only one who comes to mind at the moment–try to go beyond the narrow confines of tradition and try to incorporate larger, even literary, themes into their work. In short, pro wrestling only appeals to two basic audiences: the absolute lowest common denominator, or the hardcore fan.

This is not necessarily the fault of wrestlers or promoters. Wrestling is an inherently limited medium of expression. As I’ve stated repeatedly in this column, any wrestling storyline absolutely, positively, has to end with a certain amount of simulated violent combat. Just like a ballet has to have dancing, wrestling has to have wrestling.* So, any story told in the medium of wrestling must be the sort of story that is resolved by a fake wrestling match.**

The nature of the performance also limits the possibilities. Wrestling happens before live crowds in large venues (ideally, at least). This does not lend itself to subtlety. Very few wrestlers are capable of subtle acting anyway. Because wrestling revolves around the spectacle of a live performance, nearly all the storytelling mechanisms must involve a wrestling match, preparation for a match, or the aftermath of a match. There are occasional vignettes that take place in the “real world,” so to speak, but these are usually intended as accents rather than the primary engine of storytelling. The audience (both live and at home) doesn’t like the action to stray too far from the ring.

Other forms of art aren’t bound by such stringent guidelines. A novel is nothing more than words on a page (or computer monitor, as the case may be). Novels don’t even have to tell stories, or even be written in prose, to be novels. Likewise, a painting is a painting so long as it’s paint on a flat surface. Anything that creates vibrations which your ear can detect can qualify as music. But wrestling’s got to be about simulated violence. As a result, wrestling is not a very versatile or subtle art form. Any attempt to evoke complex emotions through pro wrestling is like trying to paint while wearing boxing gloves.

There are some things that wrestling will never get right, because it is incapable of the necessary subtlety, or because the intended subject matter just goes against the very nature of wrestling. I’ve got three examples of this for you this week.

*Unless, of course, we’re talking about some sort of conceptualist version of wrestling, in which the very absence of wrestling is the point somehow. That’s clearly the sort of avant-garde performance that fails to interest almost everyone reading this column. Myself included, to a point: I concede that it’s fun to talk, think, or write about. But I’d rather not have to sit through an no-wrestling wrestling show. I’d probably try it once, though, if given the opportunity.

**Again, I hold out the possibility that an avant-garde wrestling storyline might intentionally set up conflicts that cannot be resolved by a wrestling match. I also concede that real pro wrestling sometimes does this as well, though this is almost always unintentional. For examples of these types of frustrating storylines, see any angle involving feuding referees, or the Al Wilson epic from Smackdown a couple of years ago.

WHAT’S THIS SHIT CALLED LOVE?

At Wrestlemania VII, Miss Elizabeth and Randy Savage reunited after an extended storyline in which the Macho Man forsook his true love in favor of Sherri Martel. It was an emotionally charged moment for the Los Angeles crowd; many people in the audience were clearly fighting back tears. Some were openly crying. Even that notorious curmudgeon Scott Keith has positive things to say about this angle: “See, sometimes it *can* be Shakespeare, kids.” (That line’s missing from the currently-available revised edition, so you’ll have to do a little sleuthing to find the original.)

I hope Scott was kidding, cause he’s wrong. He’s way, way, wrong. That ain’t Shakespeare. That ain’t even Christopher Marlowe. The whole angle revolved around the old corny idea that some love is eternal, and that there’s only one true love for everyone on the planet. Randy and Elizabeth were just meant to be together, and nothing could keep them apart. It’s so beautiful”¦

If you still feel this way, you’re probably too young and romantic to know any better. Or possibly you’re just gullible, and believe the saccharine endings dreamt up by lazy Hollywood writers, or the inane lyrics of equally lazy (and probably stupid to boot) so-called “rock and roll” balladeers like Bryan Adams. Love can’t be properly expressed in such simplistic terms. Matt Groening was much closer to the truth when he listed the “57 Varieties of Love” in Love is Hell: infatuation, obsession, what-the-hell love, puppy love, strong like, hate–they’re all real live varieties of love, man. Love can be incredibly fulfilling, but it can also be, among other things, a contest of wills, a war against oneself, a series of disheartening compromises, and a convenient way to organize one’s life. There’s no way that wrestling could ever approach the totality of love, or even a fraction of it.

But for you skeptics out there, let’s take one small smidgen of the many complex permutations of love: the beginning of a youthful love affair (or relationship, for those of you drowned in the psycho-babble of the 80s. And yes, I do owe Mike Royko a debt of gratitude here which I’ll never be able to repay, given that he’s dead). I’m going to be nice and assume most of you have had some sort of experience like this in your life. Remember what it feels like when you first recognize feelings of attraction to a certain young man or young lady? The quickening of the pulse when you’re around him/her? The nervousness when making phone calls to this person? How about that moment when you first realize that maybe your feelings are in some way reciprocated? That all-consuming euphoria? The sense of dread that maybe you’re way off in thinking that (s)he likes you? But what if you’re not? What should you do?

Wrestling will never, ever be able to accurately portray this rush of emotions. I give you two examples from the recent past: Spike Dudley-Molly Holly and Chris Jericho-Trish Stratus. Part of the problem was bad acting, but the bigger problem is that these situations (and the emotions they seek to evoke in the viewer) are just so far removed from the heart and soul of professional wrestling. It’s hard to incorporate these sorts of emotions into an actual wrestling match. And when it’s attempted, the results are usually predictable and ham-fisted. Is it any surprise that almost every “love” angle has a mixed tag match somewhere in it? Is it any surprise that the only way to convey feelings of love in such a match is for one of the lovebirds to show concern for the object of affection after (s)he has become the victim of a heinous assault (often at the unwitting hands of the lover him/herself)?

Wrestling is just not a suitable venue for love stories. It’s not that violence (or the threat of violence) doesn’t mix with love–there are plenty of movies and books in which a character’s love affair underscores the fragility of life in the face of violence. The problem is that pro wrestling is (or should be) optional. One can simply choose not to wrestle, thus picking love over career. The bigger problem is that there’s just no opportunity to sell fans on a relationship between characters. Backstage skits (presumably) only present us with a small facet of the life of a wrestler. It’s just not enough to convince us that these two people are in love.*

The only way I could see a love storyline working well within the confines of pro wrestling is a homosexual relationship. This would play to the inherent homoerotic elements of wrestling (the fabled “two sweaty, half-naked guys rubbing all over each other”). Oz had a great example of this sort of thing in the relationship between Chris Keller and Tobias Beecher. Don’t laugh–it was far more compelling and complex than almost every conventional relationship (by which I mean a relationship that doesn’t take place in a maximum security prison) I’ve ever seen depicted in any medium. Though I doubt that this is going to happen any time soon in the WWE, it may be just what TNA needs. Raven’s obviously one candidate–maybe the boyish, emotionally vulnerable AJ Styles would be a good partner for him (yes, I know about Styles’ religious beliefs–that’s the point).

* Another concession: a talented writer could depict a complex and credible relationship even with the limitation of only using backstage skits. It might actually make for a pretty interesting product, in fact. However, there has never been a pro wrestling writer anywhere near talented enough to do this.

ON A SUNDAY MORNING SIDEWALK

Ever gone in a walk in the woods, all alone? The light seeping through the tree branches, leaves crackling under your feet, the distant sound of some sort of bird all combining to put you in a trance? All right, I know my audience; most of you probably have phobias about fresh air and thus have no idea what I’m talking about (and I admit that I wouldn’t either if I hadn’t been raised out in the country). So for you city slickers, here’s an alternate scenario: ever walked through the streets of your city on a Sunday morning? You’re walking on streets you know perfectly well, only it’s like a different world. The air is lighter, relieved of the burden of growling busses and cell phone chatter. Birds walk freely along the sidewalk, emboldened by the absence of humans. The only people you see are, depending on your city, families dressed in church attire or half-conscious street people. We might feel relieved by these sights of sounds, or they may disturb us, accustomed as we are to the chaos of modern life.

Know what I’m talking about? The feeling of tranquility/despair that you feel in these situations is something that professional wrestling will never duplicate. Wrestling is a fundamentally violent form of expression, so quietude doesn’t make for a comfortable bedfellow. Yes, there are movies which juxtapose violent situations with cinematography or soundtracks which convey an incongruent sense of peacefulness (thus serving to intensify the awfulness of the scene the viewer is witnessing–see, for example, A Clockwork Orange). This is impossible for professional wrestling, however, as cinematography and sound editing are not available tools for manipulating the audience’s senses. Pro wrestling is grounded in the immediate experience, even when the viewer isn’t watching it live. This is one of the fundamental strengths of professional wrestling*, but it also builds in limitations on what it can do. And scenes of tranquility are impossible.

* This reminds me of an interview from a few years back that someone or another conducted with Kevin Nash, in which old Big Sexy suggested that WCW dispense with live audiences and go with a more cinematic approach, filming (as opposed to videotaping) with an audience comprised of extras who would cheered and booed on cue. If Nash was serious about this, I take this interview as prima facie evidence that he never understood what pro wrestling was all about. Yeah, I know, he’s actually wrestled and I never have, but I’m adamant about this. Is the best film about baseball even a fraction as good as the twentieth-best World Series? Isn’t this also true of every sport under the sun?

PEOPLE DON’T DO THINGS LIKE THAT IN THE REAL WORLD AT ALL

This one’s obvious: wrestling is horrible at dealing with politics. This criticism is widespread, and usually focuses on the moldy old struggle between patriotic faces and evil foreigners. As I’ve previously mentioned in this column, my distaste for this sort of angle keeps me from enjoying La Resistance.*

But let’s put that aside for a moment and look at some more recent examples of the WWE’s attempts to inject politics into storylines. I can think of two recent examples of this: (1) Chris Nowinski vs. Scott Steiner re: the war in Iraq, and (2) the early promos of the JBL character. Let’s dismiss (1) as doomed to failure from the start due to the participation of SS (appropriate initials?) and focus on Bradshaw instead.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the early days of JBL’s push marked the absolute nadir of his popularity, at least among the IWC (and, I suspect, among whatever casual fans are left at this point). JBL’s promos were icky. They rubbed me the wrong way, and not just cause I think Bradshaw’s a fool. They were just wrong. He was touching on issues which I felt had no place in professional wrestling (and thank God he never delved into issues like abortion or prayer in schools). It’s not that I don’t care about illegal immigration or the politics of race; hell, my PhD dissertation (a work in progress, for those who care) is grounded in the latter subject. I just don’t think that professional wrestling is equipped to deal with this issue with anything resembling the necessary sensitivity.**

The other problem with the early days of JBL, and political angles in general, was repeated frequently in the IWC back in the spring (so frequently, in fact, that I couldn’t begin to assign credit to whoever thought of it first). The problem here is that Bradshaw, as a heel, was saying things with which (alas) a portion of the viewing audience agreed. These viewers were presumably not very happy to see their beliefs portrayed as the reprehensible vitriol of some dumbass from Texas. Meanwhile, those people who were offended by Bradshaw’s beliefs just wanted him to shut up, permanent-like (i.e., he was getting X-Pac heat from these people, and I was among them). It was a lose-lose situation for the WWE. Making JBL a face wouldn’t have improved things, as this would have implied that the WWE endorsed JBL’s beliefs, which in turn would have created a media shitstorm (and the same thing would have happened if the WWE had a liberal/leftist face who espoused controversial beliefs, only Fox News and Christian “news” outlets would have been the ones stirring up the proverbial shit). Again, angles based in the politics are lose-lose situations.

* Rene Dupree I like actually, but that’s partly because there’s an element of absurdity to his ethnic stereotype that plants his character firmly in the terrain of camp. This is not the writers’ intention, I’m sure, which probably explains why Rene’s been instructed not to do his silly little dance. But come on, no one’s going to take him seriously if you make him come out with a poodle, for Chrissakes.

** To echo earlier comments yet again, I do think that wrestling’s inability to sensitively portray politics could make for an interesting product in a theater of the absurd sort of way, in which wrestling’s inability to handle sensitive topics is itself the point of the product. If a wrestling company took this approach I’d be really amused, but I suspect that most of the other viewers will be more like confused or annoyed.

STABBING ISSUES

A few quick ones this week, Larry King style:

I’m sick of hearing about the dress code. I agree with Ross Williams–is it too much for a company to ask its employees to look halfway presentable? Is it that hard to slip on a polo shirt and a pair of (ugh) Dockers after hitting the shower at the gym?

I will never get sick of seeing Ric Flair and Chris Benoit chop the living shit out of each other. Bret Hart is nuts to criticize Flair for bringing this move into pro wrestling. I’m sure that Keith will mention in his Raw recap that Benoit’s pops were the loudest of all three faces. Keith’s biased in favor of Benoit, but the cat’s more over than Orton. Just admit it.

I’ve got a bad feeling about Kurt Angle lately. He still seems to be getting a free pass from the IWC re: his political maneuvering, but I’m not so sure it’s deserved. This thing with Guerrero might not be his fault, but it doesn’t sit right with me. Hopefully Paul Heyman’s arrival will help settle the current backstage turmoil on Smackdown.

Wrestling look-alikes dept: Kane looks like Drew Carey and Christian looks like the nerdy guy from American Graffiti. Did anyone else see Alec Baldwin on the Daily Show after Raw? If so, don’t you think that he’s starting to look like HHH? Meanwhile, Chris Jericho’s hair role model has moved from Ozzy Osbourne to Sammy Hagar. Definitely a step in the wrong direction.

Add me to the chorus of approving voices ringing out in support of Gene Snitsky. He has a certain Test-like quality to him, plus he has Goldberg’s tobacco chewing abilities. What more could we want?

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

I’ve only presented three examples of things which I believe wrestling is fundamentally incapable of getting right. There are surely other examples of this, and I welcome your suggestions as to what those things might be. However, as a fan of professional wrestling, I feel obligated to provide you with a look at some emotions/experiences/etc. which wrestling usually portrays well. That will have to wait ’til next column, however.

Thanks for putting up with the footnotes. I hope they’ll disrupt the flow of the column a bit less than the extended parenthetical asides which have been the traditional hallmark of this column. Plus Eric S. said I could use them. Let me know which you prefer. And go read Gordi’s column. I can’t believe he (apparently) went all those years on the forums without getting the opportunity to write for a big-time site. What a great column. And I’m real happy to see that the Ditch has joined us here at IP. I always enjoyed reading his stuff at Zach Arnold’s site, and he’s a great addition to Inside Pulse.

This week’s headings courtesy of the Pagans, Johnny Cash, Husker Du, and the Ramones. God bless Johnny Ramone, even if he was a dirty Republican.

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