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The Body of the Worker

Mickey Rourke’s body bursts and bulges onto the screen in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, and it doesn’t let go for the duration of the 110-minute movie. This is not just Mickey Rourke’s body, however; it’s the body of Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a washed up pro-wrestler doing gigs in gymnasiums and union halls trying to make a comeback or at least pay the rent.  Everyone is talking about how much they love Mickey Rourke in this movie. They love his body. They love his performance. They love his energy. They love him. What is it about this beaten, bruised, scarred, muscle-laden body that makes people love it and identify with it? I’ll tell you what it is. This is not just the body of Mickey Rourke or Randy “The Ram” Robinson. It is the face and body of working class America. It is the body of every single person who has spent his/her life performing labor for shit wages. It is the body of everyone who has drunk too much to dull the pain of life; who has fucked up their homes and families; who has brutalized his/her body just to sustain existence. Randy The Ram is the beaten body of labor, but it is also a victorious body. By making his body the very product of his labor, Randy The Ram actually liberates himself from the fetters of the system where he sells his body to others, and he gives his audience, both on the screen and in the movie theater, a source of identification, victory, and release.

Randy The Ram puts a face and body on the pounding the laboring class takes everyday. He articulates it for us.  He goes to work and gets beaten, punched, cut open, scarred, and brutalized in the performance of his labor. Yes, pro wrestling is a performance, but the movie is also reminding us that all labor is a performance.  The movie clearly shows how the fights are staged. Yet even within the staged boundaries, the body is still battered and used, just like it is in any other physically demanding job, like acting. The camera drills in on The Ram’s body, so there is no doubt in our mind about the toll it has taken in its work. Utilizing intense close-ups, it shows us how Randy prepares for his physical labor just like any other job. He tans and dies the hair of his body for his performance. He wraps tape on his ankles and elbows, and he stashes razors inside his wrist wraps. When he’s done with his work, the camera brings us even closer to the body as it gets stitched up and bandaged.

But Randy isn’t just the brutalized worker. By making his very body the product of his labor, he becomes an icon of the defeated and the victorious all in one. Rather than leaving the workday in silence with nothing but an empty lunchbox to show for his efforts, Randy exits the arena to the crescendo of his fans and to the greetings and support of his fellow wrestlers. Randy articulates an existential class despair while also providing a kind of gritty utopia where, even when you can’t escape being defeated by your class, you can take control by exploiting your labor by making your body your own product. This is why everyone loves Mickey Rourke’s body.

The way in which the movie is filmed grounds us in the class reality of The Ram and the world he inhabits. This is not the glamorous world of Madison Square Gardens. This is hardcore working-class New Jersey. The movie is filmed entirely on location, and The Ram is real for us largely because the places and people are real. The only constructed set in the whole movie is the wrestling ring in the final scene. The wrestling matches in the movie were filmed during actual wrestling matches in high school gymnasiums and union halls. The audiences we see in the film are real working class people dumping their anxieties, their dismay, their anger, and their emotions onto men beating the shit out of each other in a ring. We feel the rawness of The Ram’s performances and his connection with real people because the scenes were filmed at actual wrestling matches with a “real” audience. During one completely impromptu scene, one of the audience members removes his prosthetic leg and offers it to The Ram as a weapon against his opponent. “Use his leg! Use his leg!” the audience screams. This improvised, unscripted scene becomes the brilliant literalization of audience members connecting the pain and rage of their laboring bodies with the body of the wrestler. As The Ram grabs the man’s leg and uses it to beat his opponent, the audience and the wrestler become a joined body.

The film’s meshing of documentary with fiction not only gives us the grounding in reality that we need to identify with Randy but also elevates the film just enough to give the sheen of an icon to The Ram’s very real beaten body.  When the camera does pull back from the close-up and provides long shots of the Ram in his environment, we see him mapped within the geographic class context of his existence. In the many overhead shots of him walking across supermarket parking lots or waiting outside medical buildings or putting change in a phone booth, we see him as a man walking through the grim emptiness of his patched-together life. The pieces of duct tape holding his jacket together are always visible and mark his class and the shambles that his body and his life are. The details in this setting clearly bring Randy down to the level playing field of his class. He shops at the 99 cent store for his wrestling “props.” His trailer is full of outdated technology – audio cassette tapes and out-of-date Nintendo games. It is through the details in the mise-en-scene that we are drawn intimately into the Ram as a real person living in this lower working class environment. Something as simple as a folding metal chair becomes the ultimate symbol of the place he occupies on the class scale, or the sound of a bar of soap hitting the shower floor becomes the sound of every fucking obstacle and let down of The Ram’s life and, in turn, our own.

One of those set details is Randy’s trailer home, where he returns after a night’s work to find that he is locked out for not paying his rent. In other words, part of The Wrestler is a “foreclosure narrative” that is so relevant to the here and now of the working class. It is important to note that the only way that Randy is able to regain access to his home is by literally almost killing his body through his physical labor in the film’s central, incredibly brutal wrestling match. In this hardcore wrestling scene, Randy and his opponent adopt the very tools of the working class to fight each other and ultimately to destroy Randy’s body beyond repair. Ladders, staple guns, garbage cans, window frames, and a variety of construction tools are wielded not to build things but to bring bodies down. The scene is a literal battlefield of hard labor. At one point, Randy’s opponent staple guns a five dollar bill to his head, showing literally that his body is exploited for access to capital and cash.

At the end of the scene, Randy’s body drips with blood and open wounds. He is reduced to the beaten remains of an overworked farm animal. Staples and glass are embedded in his flesh. We feel a sickening in our gut like we just witnessed a dog fight and are watching the whimpering remains of an animal. Except that Randy doesn’t whimper. He swallows down his pain, but then drops to the floor with a heart attack. How can an audience not identify with this brutal victorious defeat played out with the very tools of hard labor? Yes, Randy won the wrestling match, but he lost so much in the process. Sure, he is now able to pay his rent and get his home back, but he also lost his ability to fight and has to resign himself to a regular “day job” at a deli counter in a supermarket.

It is important that Randy The Ram is stripped of his wrestling persona and placed in the everyday work environment to make the full identification and cathartic effect on the audience work. When Randy works at the deli, he is given a name tag with the name “Robin” on it, a girl’s name, which is his badge of emasculation. No longer is he in control of his own body. He is selling it for the products of others like the majority of working class people. At first he seems happy enough with his resignation to a “normal” life. The movie even throws in some clichéd tropes that threaten to sentimentalize the movie and therefore sentimentalize the working class. He develops a relationship with a “sympathetic stripper” (who also happens to literally turn her body into the product of her labor) and attempts to mend his relationship with his estranged daughter. We are given the elements for a classic reconciliation/redemption narrative in which Randy happily works at a deli, falls in love with a stripper, and develops a meaningful relationship with the daughter he abandoned.

Certainly, there is no shortage of this kind of egregious rainbow veneer applied to the working class in movies. Thankfully, The Wrestler doesn’t buy into that kind of sugar-coated, sentimental narrative. We’re given the elements for a classic reconciliation/redemption story, but the movie fails (thankfully) to deliver the goods. In one scene, Randy buys a gift for his daughter — a used green satin jacket with the letter S for Stephanie on it. We expect her to learn to love her father and the jacket (even though she visibly thinks it’s hideous) because that’s how redemption narratives work. Daughter accepts jacket, and father and daughter live happily ever after. Except this isn’t a happily-ever-after story, so the daughter rejects the jacket and rejects Randy because he is a “fuck up” and always will be.

The movie sets up the redemption narrative but then tears it apart with a strong toxic dose of reality when Randy ends up snorting crank in a bar bathroom and fucking a strange woman in her kid’s bed instead of meeting his daughter for dinner. The movie sets us up, only to let us down, just like real life does. As the members of the audience who identify with The Ram are probably all too aware, life for the working class doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, especially these days. The movie does a great job of not subscribing to the sentimentalization of the working class but also allowing The Ram to go out with integrity. It allows the audience to feel liberation in the ultimate destruction of Ram’s body. When Ram leaps to his inevitable death at the end of the movie, our final view is of him flying in his wrestling tights, the audience cheering, and a smile on his face. He has reclaimed his integrity by driving his body to its very end, in the ring, in his costume, in his final victorious performance of hard labor. This iconic image of Randy the Ram is an image for our times – the beaten body of labor that can be victorious even in its defeat. No wonder everyone loves Mickey Rourke’s body.

Any doubts I had about the power this body has over the audience were dispelled by the group of young men who were sitting behind me at the movies. There were about seven guys in their early twenties, just regular guys from working-class families. I could hear them responding to every single scene in the movie. They laughed at the funny, raunchy parts. They grimaced at the brutal staple gun wrestling match, and, most surprising of all, they cried during a scene with Randy’s daughter and at the end of the movie. I could hear a whole row of sniffles behind me as the guys let their tears flow. I was profoundly moved, not just by their crying during the “sad” scenes, but by the fact that this movie grabbed these young men and made them feel things together as a group. At the end of the movie, they all talked about how great it was and how they wanted to see it again. Listening to these young men reminded me of the collective power of cinema, how seeing a movie in a theater with other people is a community experience where people connect through their shared experience of what’s playing on screen. In the case of a movie like The Wrestler people are able to bond over their shared experience of class, labor, and a sense of despair and disenfranchisement (especially in today’s economy) and somehow feel less alone.

I think the fact that The Wrestler was made on such a small budget ($6 million as opposed to $167 million for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) makes the movie so much more accessible for identification and release. Due to its economic limitations, the film had to ground itself in reality (filming on location, relying on available lighting, shooting 16 mm documentary film stock). Though the audience may not know this on a conscious level, the economic limits of the film’s production actually bring the movie closer to home, literally. In fact, it brings it even closer to home to the people in the movie since the audience members in the film are “real” people from actual wrestling matches. In that regard, The Wrestler, through the deployment of Mickey Rourke’s body, provides a cinematic meeting room for the people in the audience and the people on the screen to come together, and for a moment we feel like we have the ability to beat the system that is strangling the life out of us.

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her partner, daughter, and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. Her work has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Bullhorn and Berkeley Review. She can be reached at: knicolini@gmail.com.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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