Dec 17, 2008

On The Wrestler

By Evan Louison

The camera pans slowly across a woman as she bends over, leant against a pole for our enjoyment. It does not look away. She does not move.

The camera views the form of a man battered, cut and bruised and exhausted, slime rubbed off him by gloved hands and congratulators everywhere. He winces and almost smiles.

In the face of an actor such as Mickey Rourke, there is life's wear and tear as much as there is still some frantic, extreme beauty, that bursts through scar and misshape, and is self-evident when the man is asked just one thing: to tell the truth.

Rourke spends most of Darren Aronofsky's new film The Wrestler doing just that --- and nothing but. It would appear that the director of such distorted truths in the past as his cable-TV'd Selby (Requiem for a Dream) of his not so-epic epic (The Fountain) finally came across something that he could touch and feel and manoeuvre (see, direct) and still leave unsullied. That is only testament to the power and purity of Rourke's gift in the face of all opposition, in the face of his greatest obstacle (which many harpers would have you believe is his own face).

But this is not the same person as who we remember. This must be said here because it is unbearable to read the comparisons so easily tossed out into the common critical dialogue for film when his name comes up. This is not that person. He just bares the same name. One must view his films now as a testament to the change that can occur and live in a person's life, and not view him as a constant reminder of what might have been in comparison. No, instead we must look at this face as one of a stranger. I believe if we can do that we will still see the same promises and benevolent talents at play, if not more, if not better with time.

At the screening I was present for, the writer Robert Siegel said something very telling about his view of the film: "You put any other actor in there [besides Mickey], and all of a sudden its a pretty shitty movie." I couldn't agree more. Siegel's script, as gentle a touch it has in spite of all the brutality and hokey comic bravado of these men parading as ballerinas and turning themselves into chopping blocks in the process, for all its somewhat misguided reverence for the awful masculine extravagance of the 1980s, still bares as a text an unavoidable absence in its dialogue and its situations. There is no inherent truth in much of what we hear Rourke's The Ram come to say, but it is there all the same, undeniably so, once Rourke says it. Because he says it.

And so, there is nothing interesting left to say about this man who was and then wasn't and now might be again. Rourke never lost the power to excite every pore of someone's consciousness with the way he speaks and holds the intensity of the entire story in his hands when he does command our attention. He just lost interest. We bored him as audiences and so he proceeded to bore us back. He is still boring us. Only now he is boring a small hole straight into the backs of our skulls so our feelings seep out and we ask ourselves the question that this film begs we ask, that is really the only connection with his other work;

"If all this can be survived, what is there that cannot be survived?"

This is a story about meat. It is a story about the flesh of all of us that comes down. It is a story about man and woman and faces that have seen so much woe. Quite simply, Aronofsky's The Wrestler is a tale of many men, many women, who sell themselves and their bodies for the sight of the thrill there exists in seeing these bodies destroyed, desecrated, and put on display in the various arenas that such meat lives and thrives in, be they a fighter's ring, or a strip-club stage. It is all a coliseum. We are made into lions and must learn something of our tastes when the credits roll.

The film carried a great deal of weight before it arrived on a screen before me finally --- Rourke's presence and truly visceral, pleading urgency never faded despite even the most callous of drones that have emitted from him in recent years, and then upon recovery, from the media that surrounded his rise and fall, like vultures (I mean, have you read or seen anything Mickey Rourke has said in the last 8 years that hasn't been yet another form of repentance for him? It seems older than him --- and it should cease to be his reason to speak). And of course, as with all of Aronofsky's work, the story does seem as silly as anything one might by chance end up liking against their better judgement, a guilty pleasure that exhumes the toll of abuse and negligence and even the hurt of self inflicted exile and a rage misplaced, rebellion directed within, no longer against the outside world, the rebel body becomes the subject of the denial and uprising that occurs when someone is abused, or prone to such an action to deal with the world as abuse. This is the quality of these two characters as they dance before us, unwanted because the sign of age is upon them, and put through every wringer their cloth could bear. Still they manage to stand enough for a last dance.

From those first invitations, and with all the misgivings that the film may leave us with on the way out, we can never deny how sucked into these lives we become naturally, willingly, and happily so. This a film that other films should look to, for in all its flaws, warts and all, it tells the truth.