Monday night, WWE Chief Operating Officer Triple H — with his arm in a brace due to a recent "fracture" — defended WWE (and the wrestling industry at large) from the smears of Brock Lesnar, who returned to WWE last month after a largely successful detour to the UFC. Not incidentally, Lesnar is also the man who broke Triple H's arm two weeks ago. Triple H wasn't particularly mad that he'd been maimed, but rather that Lesnar presented himself as a flag-bearer of WWE's return to legitimacy. Lesnar, see, was a real fighter, and wrestling is fake.
"The night before he came back here, I was standing in the middle of the ring, at the most-watched WrestleMania in history, toe-to-toe with The Undertaker," Triple H said, "and the whole time all I was thinking was, 'Gee, I wish someone would come along and make this legitimate.' Your arrogance and stupidity offend me, Brock Lesnar. They offend The Undertaker; it offends Shawn Michaels, John Cena, Randy Savage, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Bob Backlund, Sammartino, every single person that's ever walked down that aisle to come down here and do what we do."
Triple H's insistence on pro wrestling's legitimacy may seem like a bizarre form of denial about the product he represents (and governs behind the scenes). It seems to me, however, that Lesnar's challenge — and Triple H's response — is WWE's way of exploring the tensions that have undergirded the company's steadily mounting "Reality Era" movement. Consider the way Triple H juxtaposed his grueling match with The Undertaker — a stunning athletic showcase by any definition — with WrestleMania XXVIII's commercial success: Audience response (and perceived customer satisfaction) goes hand in hand with wrestling's real physical exhibition. Triple H was defending the very nature of the pro wrestling enterprise — its odd reality, you might say. The point of wrestling is not real violence; it's the expression and conveyance of violence to a willing fan base. A movement toward "reality" in WWE cannot be a movement toward staged mixed martial arts exhibitions — that would be even more blinkered than the current product. No, WWE's shift to "reality" should mean progress toward a more full-bodied acknowledgment of wrestling's interactive role with its audience.
It's not a new idea. Despite the insinuations of a certain sort of high-minded person who sees wrestling as an embarrassment and its fans as mere mugs, this interaction — and the fans' implicit acknowledgement of it — has been intertwined in the sport since at least the 1950s. And (with semi-serious apologies to the wrestling fans out there) for any of those high-mined folks who have accidentally wandered into this webspace and would like some high-minded evidence, I give you Roland Barthes. In his seminal essay on wrestling, Barthes said, "Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is not more ignoble to attend a wrestling performance than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque." WWE should not be more "legitimate," more like the UFC, because that is not the point of pro wrestling. Barthes spoke of boxing and judo, but his words apply just as well to MMA: "The ending of a boxing match or a judo contest is abrupt, like the full stop which closes a demonstration. The rhythm of wrestling is quite different, for its natural meaning is that of rhetorical amplification: the emotional magniloquence, the repeated paroxysms, the exasperation of the retorts can only find their natural outcome in the most baroque confusion."
Lesnar, despite being cast by WWE as a returning hero who conquered the MMA world of actual fighting, is not evidence of wrestling's legitimacy. WWE violence only matters for what it represents and how it entertains. Lesnar can say he's bringing back real fighting, and his match with John Cena at Extreme Rules was certainly the most physical encounter in recent memory, but what establishes Lesnar as a power player isn't his kimura technique; it's his frenzied intensity and the bombastic way Lesnar applies those arm-snapping holds. The reality of pro wrestling lies in the experience.
In 1960, Quebecois filmmakers Michel Brault and Claude Jutra set out to make a documentary about Canada's burgeoning professional wrestling scene. Their subject was the fakery inherent in wrestling. They would show that the punches were pulled, that the falls were staged, that the outcomes were fixed. Serendipitously, they met one Roland Barthes at a party, and although he was initially intrigued by the idea of a wrestling documentary, he was appalled by their objective. "Are you crazy?" Barthes said, according to Brault. "It's as if you want to expose theater. The people's theater, popular theater. It exists because people go see it, that's the reason it exists. And that's the beauty of wrestling. It's an outlet for the crowd and it demonstrates how hard it is for right to overcome wrong. The good versus the bad. And don't tamper with that. You mustn't destroy that!"
The filmmakers followed Barthes's advice, and the result was La Lutte, a stark and stunning documentary that is as preoccupied with crowd reactions to wrestling as with the actual combat. There is no overt authorial voice: A long shot of Edouard Carpentier1 in the ring is followed by a shot of a fan's face, then another, the emotional reactions to the performance unfolding in real time on-screen. For 28 minutes, the camera toggles between the wrestlers' staged moves and the crowd's genuine response, capturing the interplay between pro wrestling's two forms of realism. In the absence of narration, the film can feel like a meandering head-scratcher, but as an exploration of the "truth" of pro wrestling, it's hard to imagine a tribute more pure than La Lutte.
Brault and Jutra's short is but one of the great odes to wrestling in the documentary world.
The upsurge in nonfiction wrestling films began in the late 1990s, with three touchstone productions: Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows in 1997, which chronicled "The Montreal Screwjob" and gave the most incisive look into wrestling's backstage dealings that's ever been made; Barry Blaustein's Beyond the Mat, an examination of the wrestling industry during its time of greatest depravity from the point of view of a lifelong (but slightly despondent) wrestling fan; and The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling, a 1997 A&E doc narrated by Steve Allen, which is probably the best primer on the sport's history.
On their heels came a sea of wrestling documentaries and biopics. These films went in two separate directions, for the most part: into the indie scene and into the past. Lipstick & Dynamite — a chronicle of women's wrestling in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s — is one of the best films of the genre, but there are other ones — Forever Hardcore, Legends of World Class, the recent Memphis Heat — that serve more to chronicle the past for a straightforward wrestling audience.
As WWE started buying up the tape libraries (and employing many of the old stars) from the territories, the company started churning out its own documentary chronicles: The Spectacular Legacy of the AWA, The Triumph & Tragedy of World Class Championship Wrestling, The Rise & Fall of WCW, and others. There's a pro-WWE bias in all of them — history is written by the victors, after all — but the historical footage is often incredible. (The biopics of guys like Dusty Rhodes certainly have their charms too.)
For those that explored the independent wrestling scene, the results have been mixed — The Backyard, Card Subject to Change, and Wrestling Road Diaries are the best of the bunch.2 They are most successful when they focus on the humanity of the indie wrestlers (and the characters they play) in contrast to the enormity of their goal — to inspire outrage or fury or amazement in the fans. These films are meta-journeys: the wrestlers' interactions with the crowds and the emotions they produce.
I saw Fake It So Real in a huge, gravel-bottomed yard behind a bar in north Brooklyn. It was part of an outdoor indie film series, so the crowd was much more cinéaste than sadist. More than a few viewers were visibly confused by the existence of a wrestling ring, set up in front of the movie screen. I, for one, was physically nervous. I had no idea what the documentary would bring, but I felt protective of wrestling in general and worried about the reception the film would get — not so much whether the audience would like it, but whether they'd get it.
Fake It So Real came out on iTunes this week, which is why it's fresh in my mind. It chronicles a week in the life of a very small-time indie wrestling operation out of Lincolnton, North Carolina,3 and it is one of the best of the pro wrestling documentaries to be released since La Lutte pioneered the form. It's the story of a motley crew of southern boys who have found meaning through what many people might see as the most meaningless enterprise imaginable. At first, viewers are tempted to say, "Look at these rubes!" But by the end credits, those rubes have experienced the same discontent and frustration that most members of the audience have also felt, and suddenly, without the overt turning of screws, the viewers realize that these boys' silly hobby — wrestling — isn't so empty.
"It's not really fake," says Chris Solar, perhaps the most sympathetic of the Millennium Wrestling Federation's platoon of everymen, at one point in the film. "I mean, it's predetermined, yes, we pull our punches, yes. But would you go to a play and say 'Booo! That play's fake!'?4 No, you wouldn't," Solar, who was born with his intestines on the outside of his body, plays a flamboyant bad guy modeled after Chris Jericho and The Rock, while the crowd — 50 or so locals sitting on folding chairs in a public auditorium that MWF rents out for $275 — chants mercilessly (and joyfully) "Solar is gay! Solar is gay!" I sat on my hands and bit my tongue to keep from chanting along. As a wrestling fan, that felt like the natural thing to do, but such behavior would presumably have been beyond the pale for politically correct hipster New York.
Despite the initial reluctance that Brooklyn crowd may have felt, however, the audience caught the fervor. Much of this has to do with the way director Robert Greene combines the put-on majesty of the wrestling performances with the unglamorous realities of his subjects' everyday lives. One shot has a wrestler being brutalized in a chin-lock by his opponent; the next has the most mundane of interactions, like Solar and his girlfriend paying rent (late) as their landlord reminds them that mowing the lawn is their responsibility and Gabe (a.k.a. The Angel Gabriel), a presumably illegal squatter in Solar's home, hides behind the door eating a bowl of noodles. Gabe is MWF's rookie, a hapless dreamer whose passion and innocence is the soul the film. When he and Solar get in the ring, there's a definite sense of family — the group's human foibles allow us to appreciate the power of their small-scale myth-making in the squared circle. ("There is a tenderness in the way they punish one another," wrote Roger Ebert in his review.)
Gabe is the fan favorite, not just in Lincolnton but also that night in Brooklyn,5 so it's a little disappointing when, after the screening, a bunch of the wrestlers from the film climb into the ring for an exhibition match and Gabe is not among them.
Regardless, seeing those guys live was revelatory, not just for their skill and charisma, but also for the way the crowd embraced them. At stake that night wasn't any semblance of "legitimacy" — after all, we had just seen their enterprise laid bare — but instead the full seduction of highbrow Brooklyn to their charms. When Chris Solar pranced to the ring and posed defiantly, a funny thing happened. The whole crowd started chanting: "Solar is gay! Solar is gay!"
What's at stake in pro wrestling — what the directors of La Lutte got, and what Greene gets — is the very question of narrative art. Wrestling documentaries work so well because they — like wrestling itself — are edited and assembled to create certain emotional reactions. And when we, as fans, react to these films, we're playing our part in the show. That Fake It and today's best wrestling documentaries expose the "reality" of wrestlers' lives doesn't diminish the power of the craft that Barthes longed to protect. It shows us how much we're all like those wrestlers we're watching, and how much wrestling is like everything else we watch.
The world's a stage and all that. So here's my advice to you wrestling fans: The next time you have the ill-begotten impulse to turn a friend onto pro wrestling, show them Beyond the Mat or Lipstick and Dynamite or Fake It So Real, and see if their eyes light up. For somebody who didn't grow up a wrestling fan, I can't imagine a better entry point.
On Sunday, at WWE's Over the Limit pay-per-view, neither Triple H nor Brock Lesnar is scheduled to appear in a match. Instead, WWE seems to have embraced its audience's desires to a rather incredible degree by assenting to the demands of the die-hard segment of fans who increasingly characterize all of fandom in today's wrestling scene. WWE champion CM Punk will defend his title against Daniel Bryan in a match between two undersize, former indie wrestling darlings who, until recently, nobody thought would get a chance to shine in the big leagues. After Punk's unlikely nine-month run as WWE's anti-Cena standard-bearer and the pro-Bryan "Yes!" revolution following WrestleMania XXVIII, the fact that they're headlining a major event is a testament to how much crowd response actually matters to WWE. The heavyweight championship match, which was widely assumed to feature Sheamus versus Alberto Del Rio — a fine but unspectacular rivalry that drew a suitably lukewarm audience reaction — now has Randy Orton and Chris Jericho thrown in to liven the proceedings.6 John Cena will be taking on the powerhouse of anti-charisma, general manager John Laurinaitis.7
That last match puts Laurinaitis in the awkward position of following Brock Lesnar as Cena's foil (Laurinaitis is a former wrestler, but still). It also gives Cena a chance to satisfy the crowd even more loudly than he could against Brock. True, the superstar-versus-management angle isn't a new angle (see Austin, "Stone Cold" Steve), but it's a poignant one, and it's potentially even more affecting in this realty era than it was a decade ago. Now, with so much of wrestling's reality laid bare, we know that the only real bad guys are the backstage honchos who hold back our favorite wrestlers and keep them from the spotlight. Cena's not fighting for himself against Laurinaitis. He's fighting for every deserving wrestler to whom Laurinaitis didn't give a shot.
The role of pro wrestling isn't to be real — it's to convey narrative reality, the way a documentary shapes a week of reality into two hours of greater reality. "Wrestling is a stage managed sport (which ought, by the way, to mitigate its ignominy)," said Barthes. "The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle." The point is to give us what we want — what we need. This Sunday, while millions of people will be watching Game of Thrones or Mad Men — and not snidely calling either one "fake" — WWE will be putting on a three-hour fracas in an effort to give us wrestling fans what we crave.
One of the wrestlers in Fake It So Real said, "I like to think of wrestling as the great American art form." Call me biased, but the man's got an argument.