February 21st 2009

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Articles from this issue:

CULTURE: The other side of the ledger

OBITUARY: Fred Schwarz, Cold Warrior, friend of Ronald Reagan

UNITED STATES: Supreme Court contributed to global financial crisis

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Parenting not something to outsource / Diversity fanatics threaten charities

Anti-rural campaign (letter)

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Coalition differences over Rudd stimulus

Deregulation of wheat (letter)

LABOUR AND JUSTICE: The worker in Catholic social teaching, by Gavan Duffy

NATIONAL SECURITY: Secret Saudi funding of Australian institutions

ENERGY: How Australia can become fuel self-sufficient

TERRORISM: The two faces of Eve - nature, nurture or Islam?

EDUCATION: Non-government schools give parents better value

GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: Obstacles on the road to economic recovery

Bushfires blamed on global warming (letter)


Valuable contributions (letter)

CINEMA: The Wrestler grapples with life's big problems

CHINA: Chinese unrest in face of massive job losses

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Can Rudd save Australia from the global slump?

EDITORIAL: Bushfires: when will we ever learn?

Books promotion page

The Wrestler grapples with life's big problems

by Bill James

News Weekly, February 21, 2009
Bill James reviews Mickey Rourke's latest movie.

Professional wrestling is still alive in America, and provides the milieu of this current triumph for Mickey Rourke.

Rourke has not only won a Best Actor Golden Globe award for The Wrestler, but has been extensively interviewed, and has had his career endlessly analysed.

Inevitable parallels have been drawn between his comeback after the years of drugs, violence and forgettable performances that followed the acclaimed films of his youth, and the attempted comeback by his screen character, the ageing mat man Randy the Ram.

The Ram is a man who suffers for his art. Once he was a legend, but now his best wrestling days are behind him. He is over 40, having chalked up more that 20 years of combat in the ring, and he looks it. His face and body are scarred, and his joints are stiff.

But The Ram is still addicted to the roar of the crowd and the adulation of his remaining loyal fans, and besides, wrestling is all he knows.

Damage control

He has a part-time job at a supermarket, but it barely pays the rent for his caravan at the trailer park. So he continues to punish his body, dosing and injecting himself with a variety of chemicals in an attempt at damage control.

Some of the more lurid ring violence is faked, and is shown being choreographed by the participants before the match; but even the routine rough and tumble still makes enormous demands in terms of energy, agility, collisions, falls and bruises.

On top of that are the gimmicks - barbed wire, staples shot into bodies, hidden fragments of razor blade - which are all too real, and produce all too genuine blood.

Then Randy has a heart attack, undergoes a triple bypass, and is told to give up wrestling.

Some people in a similar situation would turn to religion, and the story gives the occasional nod toward Christianity. There is a head of Christ tattooed on Randy's back; he crosses himself in the dressing room before bouts.

In Randy's case, however, the crisis of mortality induced by his stay in hospital drives him not to seek God, but to deepen his casual relationship with one woman, and re-establish a lapsed relationship with another.

At this point, the film implicitly declares that it is only superficially about wrestling, and is really about identity and connection.

Almost the only people Randy mixes with are other wrestlers, and while there is a degree of unspoken understanding and affection among them, of a type common to all in-groups, they remain lonely and self-absorbed freaks.

They can respond to an adoring, screaming audience of fans, but not to ordinary people in the context of ordinary relationships.

There is a telling moment when Randy looks around a roomful of retired wrestlers, each one silent, spaced out, shabby, physically broken and financially broke, and sees his future.

Randy enjoys a friendship of sorts with Cassidy, who works in a girlie bar. She is happy to talk to him, but maintains strong boundaries.

This is ostensibly because the establishment's prohibition of non-commercial interaction between the female staff and customers, but it goes further than that.

Cassidy, like Randy (both names are assumed), works in a showbiz world of glittering unreality. She is selling imitation sexual intimacy, just as he is peddling fake murderous mayhem.

The difference is that she is aware of the false and illusory nature of her work, and is determined to separate it from her domestic life, in which she is striving, as a respectable and responsible mother, to raise a nine-year-old son.

Randy's attempt to reconnect with his daughter is even more challenging. She is in her late teens, and very angry at her father for the years in which he has neglected her.

He succeeds in overcoming her prickly suspicion to the extent that she accompanies him to an abandoned beachfront amusement park that they used to visit when she was a toddler.

The outing produces the most poignant scene in the film. When he drops his daughter off at her house and she turns to go inside, Randy has a palpable split-second of yearning and indecision, when he would clearly love to kiss her, or be kissed by her. The moment passes, and never returns.

Does he make a successful comeback? Does he get the girl? What is the message of the film? Is it Randy's blind, flawed and tragic heroism? Or is it a warning that shallow and futile illusions of glory get in the way of real and lasting happiness, which is based on the hard work of loyal, committed relationships? Or both?

You will have to watch this magnificently crafted film to find out.

But be warned. The film contains bad language, occasional nudity and a brief sex scene. Recommended with reservations.

- The Wrestler (rated MA 15+) reviewed by Bill James

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