Wrestling with Spectators

Here’s the movie Jen can’t stop thinking about lately:

This week I finally saw The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei.  I was prepared for good performances, and I agree with much of the critical praise.  From the opening, we as spectators are aligned with Rourke’s  Randy “the Ram’s” point of view.  Throughout the film the camera travels behind him, linking his life “on stage” in the ring to his “real” life at work and with other people.  It is an very touching film, and like another film that really impressed me this year, Frozen River, it highlights people who seem very familiar to me.

But the thing I can’t stop thinking about is the use of violence in this film and consequently, in film in general.  (This is related to the discussion Breinne and I had following my first post in this blog).  Is violence ever really permissible?  I understand the violence exists.  I understand the truth of it, and how it is a vital part of The Ram’s character and life.  I get that.  But as he is being smashed to pieces in the ring, we’re no longer aligned with him, we’re aligned with the spectators in the arena.  And that’s truthful storytelling, yes.  But even films that pointedly make use of violence, like the Bourne films, or The Untouchables, Bonny and Clyde, or even Saving Private Ryan are still exposure to violence.  Is there any good excuse to expose people to graphic violence?  Yes, we understand their pain, but is this exposure ever necessary?  Would those who lived through violence, like veterans of the Normandy invasion, choose to go through it again, or put someone else through the experience?

I agree that the horrors of war, or in The Ram’s case, the horrors of an inescapeapble life filled with violence are real, and true.  They should not be denied.  Our culture is violent, and debates rage about the effects of violence in the media.  The implimentation of the ratings system shows American culture seems to have a lower tolerance for graphic sex than graphic violence.  Undoubtedly for “blockbusters” (and I use the term loosely . . .) like Wolverine are gory spectacle.  They’re the Roman Coliseum’s fights, updated for the modern empire.   But as we watch The Ram get smashed with glass or body slammed, we’re not just exposing the spectacle, we’re participating in it.  Shouldn’t we do our best to save all people from experiencing violence?  And yet, violence is a part of our lives.  To deny the pain that some go through is to turn your back on them.

I still can’t reconcile this issue, and I’m okay with that.  The Wrestler made me wrestle with it, and I’ll wrestle still.


About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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3 Responses to Wrestling with Spectators

  1. indyted says:

    i thought the use of violence in “The Wrestler” added a visceral, so-painful-you-wince element that ultimately was necessary for telling the story. Not only are we witnessing the end of the decline and fall of The Ram both professionally and personally, we are watching him get stapled, hit with barbed wire, falling on broken glass. We watch him remove the staples from his body and see the two tiny holes each staple has made. And I winced when he removed the staples like i winced with he woke up late and realized he had stood up his daughter, a damaged relationship he had just started to work on and now was ruined again.
    One question I believe this move asks is, “Who is responsible for the pain we experience in our lives?” Throughout the movie we wrestle with whether Randy is the villain or the victim. So much of his pain at first seems to be self-inflicted, the result of bad decisions he has make. But still we are rooting for him, we want him to pull through, which means that some part of us see him as the victim, as well. He see that he can be kind and caring in his relationships with the neighborhood children and Tomei’s stripper character, and with his daughter. But life/the universe/God/gods seem to have it in for him and only let him experience snippets of pleasure to make the pain that much more painful when the pleasure is taken away.
    Another idea this movie brings up is the theater of violence that you discussed in this blog. WWF style wresting certainly has its theatrical elements, some might say it is the main element. Perhaps this movie is also a commentary on the effects our entertainment choices have on the lives of those being objectified. The movie clearly saught to draw a line between the careers of the wrestler and the stripper. Perhaps there is an ethical reason to avoid forms of entertainment that objectify people such as professional wrestling, porn, and American Idol. Perhaps by rewarding these people for being objectified we are trapping them in a life these is unavoidably doomed self-loathing and self-destruction.
    Anyway, kudos on picking this movie to review! It is rich with apt metaphors.

    • jenletherer says:

      I agree with all your comments. I think that analysis of the story and it elements is what lead me down that thought path.

      I see the victim/abuser part of the two characters, and how we both pity them and blame them. And I agree the film was a commentary on the effects of our entertainment industry.

      But in doing so, I’m not sure it really escapes being a part of it as well. Yes we see that WWF style wrestling is a lot of theatricality–but we are set up to “enjoy the spectacle” a well as see that it is spectacle.

      I don’t know, maybe it’s necessary in order for viewers to relate–to get into the spectacle in order to see the commentary on the spectacle.

      See that’s the thing. It was gripping, it was real, it was raw. But was my appreciation of that gripping reality just another form of spectatorship? Is my wincing because I am facing the truth of the story or because I am compelled to watch by baser instincts, like looking at a car wreck? Do I look for the gore? I think sometimes we need art and stories that are at least on some level, painful to watch because of the truth they tell, but I also think there’s a reason the Greeks put all violence off stage.

      Thanks for commenting, Ted. Your comments are the part I left out of my post:)

  2. Jason Vates says:

    Perhaps it’s enough to be unsettled.

    These “Coliseum fights of the modern empire,” desensitize us, desensitize me, to actions that should be nothing less than horrifying. Like a drug, we need greater and greater amounts and greater and greater degrees for us to be affected. Like unhealthy food, our souls become accustomed. I used to eat McDonald’s and deep-fried onion rings and mozzarella sticks enjoyably. Now? I cannot eat deep fried anything without getting indigestion. During the year I was 80% raw, and cornsyrup-, caffeine-,& junkfood- free, the first time I had TacoBell felt like I had eaten a stick of butter and drank 5 shots of espresso.

    I completely agree with your thought that to ignore or gloss over darkness is a shallow betrayal.
    But I ask myself: Do I need to witness a child getting raped to know it is wrong? Why is it that “a child getting raped” is more unsettling to even read than “a man was shot and died?”

    I recently read an article on the crucifixion: the gospel writers don’t ignore the suffering, but they don’t describe it in graphic detail. Why is it that our sermons focus so much on the death of Christ? His suffering redeemed us, for sure, but do I wince at the thought of him on the cross? Not like I do compared to thinking about a child being raped, or an infant burned alive and eaten. And so, I have to wonder, how far has this overindulgence of violence affected me?

    A Test:
    Does it still affect me?

    *)I just watched Earthlings, Part 1: Pets: ending with wet cheeks as a stray dog was flung into a garbage truck, panting, as the metal jaws closed.

    *)I just watched the final battle scene in Equilibrium: rooting and smiling as “faceless badguys” were killed by the hero.

    *)I just watched a Virginia Tech Shooting montage: mournful of the pain; dry cheeks.

    The first time I watched Earthlings, (narrated by Joaquin Phoenix,) it was in parts: I couldn’t sit through it all at once. After the handful of tear-filled vignettes I stepped on the path toward veganism. Why doesn’t watching violence, then, cause me to purge this consumption from my entertainment?

    It’s unsettling.

    I think a balance must be reached, and I think it can be reached. Brothers Karamazov contains some of the most graphic descriptions I’ve ever read, as well as the most beautiful, and yet brings me closer to God than a book about sunshine and rainbows and unicorns ever did. . .

    Perhaps violence has its place. Perhaps we can view the abyss without surrounding ourselves with it. Perhaps we can acknowledge violence without glorifying it.

    I like movies, even movies like Equilibrium, but this is really unsettling.

    We’re a creative people: I’m sure that the stories that need to be told can still be told without glorifying the abyss. Perhaps in a better and more edifying way.

    I don’t know, I ask myself these questions, and I’m left journeying along a unsettling dialectic, wrestling, as well with these thoughts. And like you said, I think it’s ok to be in such a place.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking and heart-stirring topic. I hope others join in.


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