On Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling

Max Landis took the Internet Wrestling Community by storm this week with his brilliant short film Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling. I can’t imagine anybody who reads this blog hasn’t seen it, but I’ll link it here in case you want to have a second or third or fifteenth watch.

Wrestling is about narrative and story on quite a few levels: there are skits, promos, contract signings and assorted skirmishes that make up the storyline that leads to a main match, and that match itself tells a physical narrative in its moves, holds, poses and expressions and dramatic arc. Above that is the layer of narrative that strings together matches and their rising action narratives to form feuds and rivalries. In Wrestling isn’t Wrestling, Max Landis points out another sort of wrestling narrative for us to think and write about – the story of a wrestler’s career, which is a hero story composed of half career biography and half kayfabe folklore (meaning, it’s nether fiction nor nonfiction, but a sort of storytelling somewhere in between). I have written a little about the idea of wrestling’s continuous narrative (I want to write more but it blows my mind whenever I try), and this career story seems to be one of the lengthy, hulking stories that roam wrestling’s neverending grand narrative landscape for years and even decades at a time. We know that there are generational tales of companies, territories, promotions, and eras, but what I learned from Max is that a wrestler’s career is also its own sort of large-scale epic. This is a great idea I’ve never really considered in the way he presents it.

There were a few rumblings in my Twitter timeline in concern over historical inaccuracies in Max’s version of Triple H’s career. It’s certainly a topic worthy of discussion. Max knew it — he included the goofy disclaimer at the end to let us know he knew it would be controversial in this era of rabid knee-jerk internet fact-checking, especially in a fandom as fervent and obsessed as that of professional wrestling. But really, why not take a wrestler’s story and make it your own? People who treat wrestling as a sport — not because they’re naive to the fact that it’s scripted, but because the details that interest them most are things like statistics, records, stats and results — are going to have a hard time appreciating a story that misses or mangles key events in a wrestler’s history. But for those of us who pay more attention to wrestling’s artistry, spectacle, and intangible energy, this idea is liberating. Max places wrestling in the realm of art, where willful misinterpretation is tolerated and even encouraged because it can bring about profound new ways of seeing and understanding.

On a practical level, it is sometimes necessary in good storytelling to condense the story. Max points this out in his disclaimer — he wanted to make a short film, so he had to tell an abridged version of Triple H’s career and all the elements that contributed to it. But Max also wanted to tell a good story, and like he said, much of wrestling sucks, including a lot the nonsense Triple H was involved with over the years. The film needed to depict the wonderful absurdity of the Attitude Era, so poetic license was necessary to steer the story carefully past many of the stupid and gross stunts the company pulled during those years that didn’t pay off at all.

But really, the selective retelling of a wrestling story is not just practical, it is a bold and important move — it firmly anchors wrestling in the literary realms where many of us claim it belongs, such as mythology, theater, melodrama, and morality play. This is what Max means when he says “wrestling isn’t wrestling.” His film takes the company’s official story and rewrites it to highlight new meaning beyond the athletic event. We do this with mythology, the Bible, even Shakespeare — we always look to read these great things from a new perspective, through a new filter, with a new interpretation. In Max’s retelling, we can see that wrestling is rich in metaphor and has potential for timelessness. It also represents an awesome new genre, the drunk oral history! Do take note that Max is drinking a beer as he tells us the story. Drunk history allows for wild inaccuracies because the results are a fucking hilarious form of folklore. The point is not accuracy but resonance. And Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling totally resonates.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between writing about wrestling from memory and researching it thoroughly to give a historical perspective. When I write about a wrestling memory, I am capturing something unique and precious because I offer you that memory through the filter of who I was when I had that now bygone experience. For example, I met DDP at an autograph signing at the WWF New York restaurant when I spent a grad school spring break visiting friends in NYC just a few months after 9/11. It was the first time I really noticed him and liked him. DDP seemed pleasantly surprised to see a bookish young woman come through the line, and drew a little heart when he autographed my picture. I was also that same MFA student and on a serious semiotics kick when WWF became WWE, and I was taken with the clever, late Attitude Era wordplay in their campaign to train us out of saying “WWF”. “Get the F out!” they hollered at us all wink wink nudge nudge. Ah, the genius of their signs and signifiers in those days. They stuck it to that pesky World Wildlife Federation because all our WWF did was add one line to one letter in their name, and then they went around wielding that new line like a kendo stick or a 2×4. Even though they lost in court, WWE totally won the moral victory.

But I also went to a bunch of WWF house shows with my dad during junior high, and those memories are meaningful to me in powerful ways that aren’t much filtered by critical judgement. I remember being utterly repulsed when Ravishing Rick Rude would make out with some lady until she swooned right there in the ring. I remember how much I loved the way The Rockers, Shawn Michaels and Marty Janetty, used to do perfectly synchronized moves like mule kicks and skinning the cat. I remember being baffled by an enormous glob of snot hanging out of the Ultimate Warrior’s nose during a match one time on TV. I kept thinking to myself, is that really, seriously a great big booger hanging off the side of his face? It can’t be, can it? The announcers even commented on it. Early on I only vaguely understood metaphor, and I certainly hadn’t heard of archetype. And even though I read whatever wrestling magazines I could get my hands on, I had no idea what heels and faces were or what kayfabe meant. In my heart I still believed wrestling was real, to be quite honest with you. I was absolutely devastated when Hulk Hogan wrestled the Ultimate Warrior at Wrestlemania VI. Intellectually I knew it wasn’t real, but emotionally I got deeply involved in that story. How heavy my heart was when my elementary school hero lost his belt to my junior high hero! It was kind of a rite of passage; I stepped into my next level of wrestling fan maturity with that match, and that’s what made it meaningful.

This is why Max Landis’ retelling of the Triple H story is important, even in its historical inaccuracies. I suspect Max was one of those kids who started going around saying “suck it!” and annoying the hell out of everybody with incessant DX Crotch Chops, just like Macaulay Culkin and Seth Green in his film. This is why he conveyed that part of the story with such exuberant detail. (“Titty dick suck a vagina!” will now live in infamy, will it not?) He also put way more stock in Triple H’s early blue blood gimmick than people usually do — for most of us that Triple H was nothing more than a failed early gimmick, but for some reason that character seems to have resonated with Max when he was little. When Triple H dressed like an aristocrat, maybe young Max was at a time in life when he was beginning to understand the concepts of class and wealth. Or maybe a tough guy wearing such poofy shirts just blew his mind. Who knows.

Unless I missed it, Max omitted Triple H’s devastating knee injury in 2001, and Trips’ triumphal return the next year in such an aesthetically beautiful entrance to U2’s “Beautiful Day”. Surely those are important points in Triple H’s biography, but for some reason they don’t play a role in Max’s story. Who knows why — maybe that year Max had a busy college semester or a hot girlfriend and lost track of wrestling for a while, or maybe he was feeling jaded and was over Triple H by then because dude just couldn’t get his shit together. It’s a little unsettling to realize that we gloss over our heroes’ excruciating pain like this, but some injuries simply don’t find their place in our personal versions of the stories.

Ultimately, memory allows us to see wrestling from a position of naivete. Memory preserves our visceral reaction to witnessing the spectacle, to the moments that surprised us, shocked us, baffled us, undermined our innocence or filled us with intense emotion. Even as we grow smarter about wrestling, we still long for those moments of pop or swerve, moments in which we lose ourselves in something great, something unexpected, or something we’ve desperately longed for. In the end, a wrestling narrative told from memory allows the story to be as much about the teller as it is about the wrestler, which allows for infinite variations on a wrestler’s tale. In this way, Max Landis has laid the groundwork for a whole new way to talk about wrestling.

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