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04.28.09

hair metal


MORE THAN MOST OTHER MEDIA PROFESSIONS, movie critics fall victm to groupthink, a failing that's only partly excusable as an inevitable reaction to seeing far too many bad films in any given year than anyone should have to endure in a lifetime.

As I had to keep reminding people who'd express envy when I told them that I made most of my living watching films and television, back when I made a living watching films and television (the tip jar is on the right, dear reader,) what was pleasure turns in
to duty, then hateful chore, when you have to do it week in and week out for many years. There aren't enough good films made to fill a year's constant viewing, so it's inevitable that you're going to watch a lot of films that are really very bad, and as a survival tactic, you'd best find something interesting about the ones that are at least endurable.

For movie critics, survival strategies can take on many forms. You can take a detached view of everything you see, which ultimately means downplaying
artistic merit in favour of examining every film as a cultural by-product, to be anatomized the way you'd pick apart a political campaign, or some pop culture trend. Or you can, like Roger Ebert, develop an almost Manichean approach, where the vast middle ground of okay films - probably the most grinding to sit through, in the long run - are parsed off as either "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," with the result that you angrily denounce films whose failings aren't nearly so grievous, and passionately celebrate what's probably only the best of that week's bad lot.

I quickly fell into the former camp, which wasn't exactly surprising, since I've never been nearly as passionate about movies as I've been about music. (It might also explain why I stopped writing about music years ago, desperate to salvage my enthusiasm before it turned into peevishness and the ranting of a bitter fogey.) This dispassionate perspective has meant two things, the first that I'm a lousy source for the quotes or "blurbs" ("Astounding," "Excellent" and "Film Of The Year" are examples that accompanied The Wrestler into movie theatres) that publicists so love to harvest for movie posters and ads.

The second is my inability to join the party when a film achieves the sort of critical consensus that greeted Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, which earned only two Oscar nominations, but has a 97 percent favorable rating at the Rotten Tomatoes website. When you have to suffer through so many endless hours of bad movies, you should be eager to see something good, but it never really works out that way.

The big budget feature's love affair with documentaries gets a further reprieve with Aronofsky's film, which is told mainly in dim, available light with a hand held camera that follows Mickey Rourke's has-been pro wrestler from just behind his shoulder for most of the film, from the church basements and legion halls where he's playing out the end of his career, to the trailer that he's been locked out of, to his job as a supermarket stockboy to the strip club where he pays for lap dances from Cassidy (Maris Tomei,) who's also nearing the end of her working life.



A long shot over a wall of clippings during the credits has let us know that Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson had his heyday in the '80s, and a fame that peaked with a Madison Square Garden bout with someone called The Ayatollah. Randy's done his pitiful best to maintain his image since then, juicing himself up on steroids, highlighting his hair metal locks and using a tanning bed, all of which are probably well beyond his means as he's reduced to sleeping in his van when a small-time promoter on the wrestling circuit suggests a 20th anniversary rematch with his old nemesis.

Like any meathead boxer in a '50s B film, Randy is revived by this chance at a comeback, and his optimism makes him take the emotional risk of trying to go beyond most favoured client status with Cassidy, who encourages him to try and make amends with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood.) The stripper and the wrestler bond over their shared love of '80s arena rock, and Randy manages to keep it together long enough to have a decent afternoon with his daughter at a derelict seaside amusement park that, rather heavy-handedly, presents itself as a metaphor for a shared past that, one presumes, perished with his neglect.

The pivot upon which this transformation occurs is a "hardcore" wrestling match with Necro Butcher, aka Dylan Keith Summers, and it involves tables and chairs, broken glass, a staple gun and a crutch wrapped in barbed wire, among other props. Summers, like most of the shirtless, burly men in the dingy dressing rooms and holding pens where Randy spends his weekends, is a real wrestler, and the scenes around and inside the ring have an authenticity that makes the rest of the film, by comparison, seem lacking.



Hardcore matches are real, but seeing one played out for the cameras is a grisly revelation. Presented as the brutal underbelly of the cartoonish, pay-per-view spectacles put on by the WWE, it's as shocking as learning that the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show runs an underground pitbull fighting circuit on the side. Bloodied and exhausted, Randy has a heart attack in the dressing room afterward, and leaves the hospital with a huge scar down the middle of his sternum and his doctor's stern insistence that going back to wrestling will kill him.

The immutable laws of movie logic dictate that Randy is as sure to return to wrestling as the film is bound to end with some sort of bittersweet triumph in the ring, and we're reminded once again that nearly every innovation made in movies for the last generation or more has been technical or stylistic, and that almost nobody even bothers to find some new place to take a story anymore - except on television.

Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times, one of the few dissenting voices in the chorus of praise for the film, begins his review with by wondering aloud why it "doesn't add up. It's constructed with great care around a lead performance that is everything it could possibly be, but the picture itself is off-putting and disappointing. How can this be?"

The film's great flaw, Turan writes, is Aronofsky's insistence on rubbing our noses in the agony Randy endures in the ring, which peaks with the hardcore match. "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 becomes clear that these scenes are not about realism, they are about making us squirm for squirming's sake."

"Full of self-inflicted lacerations and injections, Ram Jam is his own voodoo doll," writes Armond White of the New York Press in another unimpressed review. "Everything he does is an act of masochistic penance—very strange in an anti-spiritual movie ... The message that life is hell is a pseudo-intellectual’s version of professional wrestling bunkum."



White calls Randy "a distorted white working-class stereotype," and it's hard not to agree. In most movies, working class life is usually desperate or messy, and inevitably depicted as the ragged edge of society, the class closest to the abyss, in a constant state of harrowing and disintegration; the factory is always closing, the fridge is always broken, the kids are always pregnant or on drugs, and the rent is always six months overdue. For anyone who genuinely grew up working class, it can make you wonder if your parents were right when, contrary to all evidence, they'd insist that you were "lower middle class."

The only hint at a revelation is the scene where Randy and Cassidy revel in a jukebox stocked with their favorite music - the hair metal and glammy stadium rock of Randy's '80s heyday, and bands like Cinderella, Ratt and Quiet Riot. The deadpan shooting style Aronofsky adopts for the film means that irony is kept tamped down; it's possible to imagine that their enthusiasm is genuine, and for a moment you're forced to acknowledge that people can derive joy, and even solace, from these trashy, bombastic anthems to defiance and escape.

Those were great times, Randy reflects; it's a shame "that Cobain pussy had to come around and ruin it all." I'll have to admit that I always regarded '80s hair metal as a joke only slightly less risible than professional wrestling, but it's worth remembering that Kurt Cobain came from a place as dire as the world where Randy lives. It's unlikely that critics will ever regard "Round And Round" or "Girls Girls Girls" as remotely equivalent to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," but in the end, Cobain's music didn't do much to help him endure either his past or his present.


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© 2009 rick mcginnis all rights reserved
WHO

i'm a dad in my forties with two daughters. i've worked as a photographer, journalist and, recently, tv columnist. currently a member of the growing workforce awaiting new employment opportunities. church-going catholic.

punk rock was my crucible, lodestone and avalon.

i look nothing like william powell.

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