Wednesday, February 11, 2009

White male masochism and The Wrestler

Over on his blog, Geoff Klock is reading David Savran's Taking It Like a Man and pulled the following quote from the book: "[film] heroes remonstrate against a culture made uneasy by traditional machismo by proclaiming themselves victims, by turning violence upon themselves and so demonstrating their implacable toughness, their ability to savor their self inflicted wounds". Geoff illustrated Savran's point with reference to the Crank movies, which prompted Scott McDarmont to suggest that the same can be said of The Wrestler. Which got me thinking that The Wrestler is actually a much better example of the white male masochism that Savran describes.

Like Crank and Crank 2, The Wrestler celebrates a lead character whose defining trait is his ability to endure, and find pleasure in, absurd amounts of physical pain. But Savran isn't actually talking about literal physical pain - if he were, we would have to consider that these characters don't so much "proclaim themselves victims" since they actually are victims: their suffering is objectively marked by the savage beatings and physical trauma they endure, to say nothing of the always imminent threat of death as a direct result of these wounds. It's one thing to chastise someone for proclaiming himself the victim when it is otherwise unobvious, but something else entirely when he has one hour to live (as in the Crank films) or could have a fatal heart-attack at any moment (as in The Wrestler). They are, in a sense, beyond criticism - and employing that sympathy-generating strategy is itself deserving of critique.

Rather, Savran asks us to read these characters and their physical wounds and masochism allegorically. That's something of a stretch for the Crank movies, which are banal and superficial productions - the more interesting reading of these films would involve asking how and why this plays so well to the white male audience, who arguably find some catharsis in watching Jason Statham proposely get the shit kicked out of him and come out on top as a direct result.

But we don't even need to infer an allegorical level to the lead's physical pain in The Wrestler - Randy "The Ram" Robinson's entire life is a catalogue of emotional and existential pains. All three of the film's major plotlines lend themselves to Savran's critique.
  1. The washed-up wrestler plot, which features his failure to recapture the fame, glory, and money he once enjoyed as a wrestler and the realization that he doesn't know how to do anything else
  2. The absent father plot, where we learned that he abandoned his daughter as a child and that he continues to be unabile to put her first
  3. The romantic plot, which shows us his difficulty in forming lasting relationships with women and his preference for the easy high (whether that be a one-night stand, drugs, or wrestling) instead of something harder and less certain
Conveniently, from the perspective of the masochistic white male victim, each of these can be figured as either/both the result of Randy's own failings or the fault of a society that doesn't understand him and has no place for him. He's too old to be a pro wrestler and unqualified for the world outside of it, a world that requires he talk to people; his daughter just doesn't understand how hard he's trying and is too much of a hard ass to give him a chance, a personality trait that is not-so-subtly reinforced by Randy's realization that she's a lesbian (and so, naturally, must be averse to masculine men); Randy's only on-screen sexual relationship is with a woman he picks up at a bar and smokes coke with, and he finds himself rejected by the woman he actually likes for no obvious reason - until the very end of the film, when it's too late.

Randy's moment of triumph, such as it is, comes at the end of the film, when he comes out of retirement in order to wrestle one last time - a match that he's been assured will probably mean his death. Not that we actually get to see that happen. Randy stumbles, gets light-headed, and climbs to the top of the ropes to perform his finishing move - against the advice of his opponent - as the crowd cheers him on. The film ends as he leaps into the air, poised to win the match on his own terms and according to the code of honor by which he's always performed. And that final image allows him to figuratively transcend his pain, to shout a silent 'fuck you' to everyone that wronged him, even as we realize that he would fall to the ground in a heap and die if the film were to continue. It's the sort of victory that's only possible in a film, and one which can only seem sincerely proud or empowering if we refuse to acknowledge its stupidity and our ostensible hero's culpability in his own death - a recognition that, while delayed by the sudden ending of the film, ultimately cannot be denied.

If the pleasure in white-male masochism exist where it allows us to "savor [our] self inflicted wounds", then I think it makes sense that the dead bodies need to be hidden from view. They're not exactly in a position to be savoring much of anything.


Chris Redmond said...

Excellent article, man. I'm currently doing my MA thesis on representations of tortured masculinity in recent Hollywood film, and The Wrestler is going to be one of the films analysed in detail.

neilshyminsky said...

Thanks, Chris. What other films are you looking at? And do you mind if I ask what the larger argument will be? I'm interested. :)

Chris Redmond said...

I'm also looking at Frost/Nixon and Casino Royale, while The Dark Knight and maybe even There Will Be Blood will come in to it. I've only just started it really, so the argument is a little hazy at the minute, but my supervisor likes the idea so I'm just going to knuckle down and see what angle I can take. Finding a topic has not been easy - far from it, in fact - but I quite like this one, given the relative lack of academic material on these films so far! I wanted to do something on Kubrick, but there's just been so much written that it is difficult to come up with something fresh! What are you doing your PhD on, may I ask? :)

neilshyminsky said...

I'm looking at Canadian film and TV representations of soldiers and peacekeepers, and positing that the soldier - his masculinity and whiteness - has become a defining trope of Canadian nationalism (internally, among Canadians, as opposed to what is presented for consumption by non-Canadians) but an ambivalent one that signals shifting priorities with respect to militarism and securitization. It involves watching some decidedly unsexy material - no Kubrick, here. :)

Chris Redmond said...

That sounds really interesting, even though my knowledge of Canadian film doesn't really extend beyond Cronenberg! I'm doing my MA in University College Cork in Ireland, it's a lovely campus, I did my BA in English and History here, as well. I'm considering doing the PhD next year if finances allow it! Funding isn't easy to come by over here these days; the recession really knocked us for six. I have a friend who gave a presentation in University of Toronto a couple of years ago, actually. I think it was on Gender Transgression in the Work of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.