Theses on the Philosophy of Joey Janela (by Guest Contributor Tom Breen)

I am thrilled and honored to present this guest post by Tom Breen, from whom I very much hope we will see more in the future. It was Tom who just a couple months ago turned me onto Joey Janela, the indie talent whose brilliant carny antics have reinvigorated my love of professional wrestling in a major way. Tom articulated so much here about a wrestler whose work I’m just scratching the surface of how to read. So please enjoy! —AG

 

“A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.” – Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

To begin, two images from this past March in Orlando, Fla., during the week-long pageantry around Wrestlemania 33:

First, the beefy Canadian wrestler Ethan Page, standing in a wrestling ring a few hours before dawn, expertly imitating the jerky, unnatural movements of characters in the 1990s video game “Mortal Kombat,” whose theme is playing through the public address system. Standing across from Page in the ring is 52-year-old Raymond M. Lloyd. More than 20 years ago, Lloyd was brought out by World Championship Wrestling in a series of campy vignettes as “Glacier,” a masked, armored combatant who was plainly a live-action imitation of Sub-Zero, one of the characters in the Mortal Kombat game. Lloyd, in the remnants of the Glacier ring gear, stands completely still, his eyes glassy, seemingly mesmerized by the spectacle in front of him, his own past flaring up in a moment of danger, to borrow an image from Benjamin. At last, he decides to fight, but it’s too late: distracted by another wrestler, Glacier is easily rolled up and pinned by Page.

Second, a few nights later, Matt and Jeff Hardy – who began their careers with the then-World Wrestling Federation around the same time that Lloyd’s Glacier gimmick was washing up – standing triumphant at the Citrus Bowl in front of an announced crowd of 75,000 (although the total will almost definitely be thousands fewer), holding the Raw Tag Team Championship belts after their surprise return to the company after nearly a decade in the wrestling wilderness.

On the surface, these two scenes have very little in common, but at a closer examination both prove to have the same engine powering them, which is nostalgia. One of these scenes was scripted by Vince McMahon, the chapped megamillionaire at the helm of the WWE, while the other was brought to the world courtesy of one Joey Janela, a 27-year-old independent wrestler who still lives at home in New Jersey with his mother, in the wrestling memorabilia-bedecked bedroom he’s occupied since childhood. Of the two, Vince McMahon unquestionably knows more about selling tickets to wrestling matches, but I will argue that Janela – in his persona, in his booking, in the ingenuous vignettes he crafts, and in the unacceptably reckless stunts he engages in during matches – is by far the superior philosopher of nostalgia.

One of the consequences of the Internet has been that there is no longer a past, at least not as our grandparents thought of it: nothing is packed away forever anymore, the cultural detritus of all subsequent ages continues forever in a kind of eternal simultaneity that expresses itself as the culture of the present. If a thing can be uploaded – a television commercial from 1981; a Rolling Stones performance from 1965; a photograph of Irish rural life from the end of the 1890s; an illustration in an illuminated manuscript from the 12th century – it can be turned into grist for memes, listicles, social media posts, and whatever other digital expressions the contemporary mind happens to take. It can, in other words, be removed from its original context and repurposed, a piece of intellectual furniture, like the Colonial tombstones that get stolen from graveyards in New England and converted into ghoulish coffee tables.

Such a present should in theory render nostalgia extinct, since if nothing is really gone, there’s no reason to pine for what’s been lost. In reality, this is merely another way in which capitalism fails by attempting to address an emotional need with a material product: nostalgia has become one of the dominant emotions of our age, an age in which people have ceased to even dream about the prospect of a utopian future.

But it’s not only the future – which now seems a gloomy, apocalyptic stew of climate change, unpredictable acts of nihilist terror, and pandemic poverty wrought by out-of-control automation of industry – that seems bleak. The prospect that human events can be submitted to rational direction seems remote, and in coming to despair of the future, people have also ceased to believe in the present’s ability to deliver on promises of social improvement or species-wide achievement. That leaves only the past to dream about, but the promise lurking in fantasies of the past can never be fulfilled – we literally, of course, cannot travel back in time – and so nostalgia produces deformed, brutish offspring: the crypto-fascism of our political moment, the absurdist gibberish of our public sphere, the fetid, joyless spectacles of our entertainment industry. This is where Joey Janela steps into the light.

Janela, who so far has wrestled primarily for East Coast outfits like Combat Zone Wrestling and Beyond Wrestling, belongs to the largest demographic cohort in U.S. history, the Millennials, born between about 1982 and about 2000. The previous largest generation, the Baby Boomers, came of age at a time of wealth and promise unprecedented in human history; as a result, they had no use for nostalgia, at least early on, straining to break the tape on the finish line of history, reaching toward the future of even more wealth and greater promise.

The Millennials, by contrast, inherit a world of shrinking horizons and uncertain prospects. Economic precarity, in the form of debt, benefit-free contract work, unpaid internships, and zero prospect of comfortable retirement, is their fate. Consequently, they are full of nostalgic yearning, as any spin through the 1990s tag on Tumblr, or any given Buzzfeed listicle, will attest.

Janela is the Millennial-as-wrestler: he lives with his mother and drives for Uber on the side, because he doesn’t make nearly enough from wrestling to support himself, despite the astonishingly dangerous stunts he routinely performs. And his vision of wrestling – one of the most compelling visions of anyone currently in the industry – is one characterized by nostalgia: for the campy spectacle of the pre-Attitude Era, mixed with the blood-soaked brutality of the ECW-influenced hardcore style that flourished in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But nothing from the past can be transferred whole to the present: to render history “as it really was” is not the point, Walter Benjamin wrote. The point is to seize a moment of the past that can serve the present, which is in a perpetual state of emergency.

For Janela, this is accomplished by viewing the past through a cracked lens composed of the ironic detachment which is another aspect of the Internet’s default psychology. He does not yearn, in the manner of Baby Boomer wrestling nostalgists like Jim Cornette, for a return of the past, whole and unsullied: Janela, as a Millennial, instinctively knows the promises it makes are empty in wrestling just as they are elsewhere in American life. And so his methodology is to reach into the past and pull out an isolated image, a la Benjamin, and bring it into the present, covered in a glaze that’s equal parts comedy and horror. Janela’s reverence for the past is inseparable from his understanding that it was often absurd, and his horror that it continues to work beneath the surface of contemporary life, mutating grotesque travesties rather than fulfilling its Utopian claims.

This aspect of Janela’s work can be best glimpsed in the vignette called “VHS91016,” the remarkable documentary “Please Don’t Die,” directed by Kenny Johnson, both of which are easily available on YouTube, and in “Joey Janela’s Spring Break,” the show he booked for Game Changer Wrestling on March 31/April 1 this year, which is on FloSlam.

“VHS91016,” as its name indicates, is an exercise in subverted nostalgia, presenting itself as a grainy clip from an old videocassette, mirroring the contemporary passion among Millennials for outdated, obsolete media like audio cassettes and photocopied zines. It starts with grainy footage of a genuinely insane bump Janela and death match veteran John Zandig took off a rooftop, landing in the back of a pickup truck that was strewn with fluorescent light tubes and burning planks.

Janela, in the vignette, walks to the spot where the bump took place, and sees a body beneath a sheet. He lifts the sheet and sees himself, lying dead, and then immediately awakens in his bedroom, surrounded by wrestling memorabilia. From there, as an 80s-referencing synthpop soundtrack plays, he strolls the boardwalk in Asbury Park and locates, buried in the sand, his ring jacket, with a golden scorpion stitched on the back (a sequel, called “Six Months Later,” is even more over the top, with Janela discovering a magic lamp and releasing the genie bottled inside it, who turns out to be Scott Hall).

The whole thing functions as a perfect precis of Janela’s style: it’s at once an hilarious parody of the aesthetic of 1980s action movies and television shows, a sincere desire to locate in that aesthetic something of genuine merit, and a reminder of the spectre of physical destruction that lurks beneath Janela’s work.

Johnson’s documentary fleshes this out significantly, with animated title cards and music seemingly borrowed from old video games, the Zandig bump examined in gruesome detail, and Janela expounding on his life and philosophy, at one point even mockingly acting out a scene from the seminal 1990s wrestling documentary “Beyond the Mat.”

But it’s the GCW show from Wrestlemania week that best encapsulates Janela’s view of wrestling, of nostalgia, and of the futility of trying to live up to the demands the past places on the present.

From the beginning, the show was billed as a mix of contemporary indie stars and names from the past: Matt Riddle! Dan Severn! Lio Rush! Marty Jannetty! Was the show going to be a joke? Jervis Cottonbelly was booked, so maybe yes, but also Matt Tremont was booked, so maybe it was going to be serious?

The show is the pure product of Janela’s imagination, so it turned out to be all those things and more. There was a burlesque on the antique wrestling trope of ref bumps, with a brigade of officials being felled until finally Earl Hebner – there’s that ‘90s nostalgia – ran in. Hebner, incidentally, had been advertised as appearing for a run-in after a ref bump because “we couldn’t afford him for a full match.”

On the other hand, there was also an astonishingly brutal match between Tremont and Eddie Kingston, with Kingston spiking Tremont so hard and so repeatedly – an homage to Abdullah the Butcher vs. Bruiser Brody, perhaps, or the Original Sheik vs. anyone – that it prompted a horrified outcry on Twitter by fans watching along.

But most of all, there was the Clusterfuck. Billed under that name, it was the perfect distillation of the Janela aesthetic, and the perfect antidote to the lubricated version of nostalgia peddled a few nights later at Wrestlemania. Ostensibly a scramble match, with new competitors announced every few minutes and the last wrestler standing the winner, it was a chaotic stew of conflicting symbols and differing styles, the Internet-spawned eternal-present made flesh in the form of Dink the Clown biting Veda Scott on the ass, prompting Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s Excalibur, on commentary, to remark, “Just as capitalism makes criminals of us all, wrestling makes misogynists of us all,” a line that could perhaps only happen at this particular show.

This is the match where Page faced down Glacier in a sudden flash to a past that Page and Janela can only dimly recall, but which Glacier experienced fully. He should have won: Glacier, the embodiment of the pre-Attitude Era in wrestling, when a company could do something like unironically present a video game ninja as a credible competitor, the nostalgic past in blue ring gear, returned at last to redeem the present.

But he lost. And so did, one by one, the other representatives of those ostensibly better days: Jannetty superkicked by Janela, Severn tapping out to Riddle, Dink wandering off into the humid night.

Nostalgia brings us, not helpers, but monsters. Joey Janela, a 27-year-old wrestler from New Jersey who lives with his mother, seeks not to return to the past, but to overcome it.

 

Tom Breen is a former newspaper and wire service journalist who lives in New England, where he attends far more independent wrestling shows than is reasonable. In his spare time, he writes short fiction, including a story published in the wrestling-themed “Three Moves of Doom” (Orford Parish Books). He’s on Twitter @TJBreen and maintains a wrestling-themed blog at closetofanxiety.tumblr.com

 

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2 Comments

  1. John Dvorak
    April 12, 2017

    Tom–what a wonderful articulation of the postmodern pastiche that is today’s professional wrestling product. Your piece certainly calls into question whether the consensus understanding of wrestling eras (e.g. “Rock N Wrestling, “Attitude,” “Reality” etc) has lost its explanatory power in this postmodern moment in which wrestling threads and tropes of the past are constantly recycled, re-appropriated, and recombined into something superficially familiar and comforting yet ultimately bankrupt of authentic meaning. It’s as if Benjamin’s Angel of History has narrowed his gaze to professional wrestling’s past, and the “pile of debris” [that] grows before him” consists of discarded gimmicks, storylines, costumes, and ring gear—all of which may be mined and reformed at any moment in service of the next pay per view.

  2. Jay Ferguson
    April 12, 2017

    Excellent piece. I do have one major critique, that being your acknowledgement of what happened to the Hardyz that weekend, without also mentioning their recent Broken work in TNA. It was a large part if not all of the reason they were put in that position. There are many storylines that engage with nostalgia in the way that Janela does, from indies like AIW and Chikara to the WWE. The work that Matt and Jeff did over the past year, especially Total Nonstop Deletion, is very much in the same vein as Janela”s work, and was probably an influence on him.

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