Monday, August 25, 2014

PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING: WHAT IT IS AND WHAT TO DO WITH IT

 

Professional wrestling is often compared to film or soap opera.

John Cena, the stalwart face of the WWE has even stated, rather eloquently, that the WWE produces "mini-movies each week".

While that assessment of the WWE's product rings true in many ways, likening professional wrestling to film or other long-form television shows ultimately does the medium a disservice.

One would not suggest that a Picasso painting is a movie or that a novel is a song. To do so could result in a kind of artistic identity crisis that permits the audience, and the artists working within a particular artistic form to misunderstand that medium.

It's good for the arts to influence and inspire one another, but to do so in a potentially all-consuming fashion, for art to be monopolized by one particular winning formula is detrimental to artistic expression and the culture.


While artistic and entertainment mediums are inherently linked in fundamental ways (providing enlightenment, escape, community), it is important that artists and viewers remain ever-aware of what makes their preferred medium distinct. To liken everything to a movie, or to attempt to inject a medium that is not film with film-like qualities is not always a recipe for success and may actually lead to the dissolution of a particular form of art.

To provide an example of this destructive trend beyond wrestling, it's most apparent in video games. Particularly within the past fifteen-years that which makes video games unique, exciting, and incredibly valuable to society has been diluted in the name of creating more "cinematic experiences". Where gamers were once engaged in an interactive narrative or a mentally stimulating puzzle, many games (particularly a popular series like Call of Duty) hold a gamer's hand through a series of action movie "set-pieces" and dialogue-heavy cut-scenes.


Video games are distinct from film and literature because they are interactive (in the literal sense of the person experiencing that art is manipulating the experience with their fingers). That kind of direct input sets the video game medium apart and one would think that the creators of video games would want to emphasize that invaluable uniqueness, expanding upon it to create artistic experiences the likes of which a movie or a book or a song simply cannot approximate.

Strides have been made by the more intelligent video game design artists, but there is still work to be done in fully comprehending what it is the medium has to offer society.

The same is especially true of professional wrestling, more specifically the WWE.


That which makes a particular medium distinct is the strength of that medium, the quality of that medium that should act as a guide, perhaps even a dictate, for the actual content created by the artists working in that form.

In thinking of wrestling as a mini-movie or a soap opera one loses sight of what the medium actually is and how it tells a good story.

This is why so many backstage segments and some of the more suspension-of-disbelief-breaking acts of destruction in the ring typically play out in awkward or hackneyed fashion.

Segments such as John Cena seeing visions of The Wyatts over his shoulder while he washes his face in the bathroom or Kane attacking Brie Bella and Daniel Bryan from the back of a car or Adam Rose looking into a haunted mirror or Stephanie McMahon revealing that Daniel Bryan "cheated" on his wife or, more recently, Seth Rollins "curb-stomping" Dean Ambrose's head through a stack of cinderblocks represent a breakdown in the medium.


These scenes are indicative of the writers or artists or creative decision-makers losing sight of the most effective, logical form of wrestling-storytelling. Such is not unlike a painter attempting to physically transform their painting into a song - it's just not possible and would result in a kind of artistic hybrid that diminished the merit of both forms. If an artist wants to make a movie, they should make a movie, not a pro-wrestling show.

These failed scenes represent the medium exceeding its grasp, and in so doing failing to become what it seemingly wants to become in these moments while negating what's actually good and unique about itself.

The WWE occasionally doesn't seem to know if it's a circus, an SNL-like variety show, or athletic theater. Vince McMahon would most likely say that it's "all of those things", that there's room for each of these disparate components in the WWE brand.

The result is a product that lacks cohesion, however, and occasionally misjudges the strengths and weaknesses of the medium itself.

Professional wrestling is closer to theater than any other form of art. It is a live, staged, simulation of combat that, by its very construction, excels on its natural canvas: the squared circle.


Consider for a moment what professional wrestling actually is for a moment.

Consider what Monday Night RAW actually is and how it might best tell the story it clearly wants to tell.

The wrestlers, the referees, the commentators, and even the live audience are all "players" contributing to the staging of a live sporting event.

Monday Night RAW is not Monday Night Football but the story it tells is that it is, indeed, a real, live sporting event as legitimate as Monday Night Football. Because the medium focuses upon wrestling, everything about the show, from the narratives to the way the event is filmed, is derived from that basic conceit.

So there are matches, there are interviews (promos), there are commentators, there are general managers, and there are championships.


These championships provide each wrestler with a goal, a motive.

With almost every wrestler (player) sharing the same motive (become the WWE World Heavyweight Champion and the best in the world) there is inherent conflict in the medium. These conflicts quickly become personal as they are literally realized in theatrical combat in the squared circle (and occasionally in other areas of the arena for dramatic effect).

These are the basics of the professional wrestling medium. What it is and what it's about. Conflict. Honor. Superiority. Athletic skill. Good and evil. And convincingly portraying a live sporting event and athletes competing for the top prize in a sports-entertainment company.

All of this is incredibly interesting and entirely unique. There is no other artistic medium in history that actually endeavors to create what professional wrestling creates. It is sports theater.


Consider then what a "backstage segment" should look like given what pro-wrestling actually is. Consider what acts of violence should actually play out on-screen given the fact that these professional wrestlers are aware that they're being filmed in the same way that a football player knows their game is being filmed.

Does it make sense to have a scene where Stephanie McMahon cartoonishly vomits on Vickie Guerrero? Does it make sense for Kane to electrocute Shane McMahon's testicles? Does it make sense for The Undertaker to hang Big Boss Man? Does it make sense for Seth Rollins to attempt murder on Dean Ambrose by curb-stomping his head through a cinderblock and for there to be no legal ramifications after the fact?


Being that pro-wrestling is attempting to recreate the live-sporting-event experience (and not a torture scene from a horror movie), backstage segments would involve showing wrestlers prepare for their matches, giving pep talks to one another, warming up, seeing the doctor, and perhaps getting into altercations, all the while aware that they are being filmed.

If they aren't aware that they're being filmed, then it would follow that the cinematography would demonstrate as much, that the shot would suggest the camera-person was hiding, trying to get a good shot so as to gain insight into the athletes' lives in a probing, documentary-style.


Currently, it's entirely unclear if the wrestling characters are conscious of the camera during backstage segments, demonstrating a complete lack of thought with regard to this aspect of the medium on the part of those creating these scenes. The established paradigms have not been questioned nor reimagined over the years, resulting in often terrible, occasionally reprehensible scenes that have nothing to do with wrestling.

While this criticism might seem inconsequential (and might not actually make sense to some), the apparent lack of consideration in creating coherent reality-rules for backstage segments reveals incompetence and immaturity on the part of those who write them.

For the players (wrestlers, managers, The Authority) to transport from one realm where they're staging a live sporting event (very aware that they're on television) to another backstage-realm where they suddenly have no idea they're on camera (where they're safe to chat in secret and plot and plan) all on the same show, is a complete, nonsensical break in the fiction.

Such creates a disconnect in continuity, in credibility, and in the quality of a performance - as even the likes of good performers like Triple H suddenly seem hokey and cheap during their backstage skits.

This is an anachronistic aspect of the WWE paradigm that should be reconsidered, especially if the corporation insists on calling this "The Reality Era".


In terms of what plays out in the actual arena, professional wrestling stories should never sacrifice logic in the name of shock-value gratuitousness.

Seth Rollins shoving Dean's head through a concrete block disrupts the ability to suspend disbelief. This scene plays out like the WWE trying to portray a dramatic act of violence that only a film or a novel or a photo could convincingly portray. The result is something awkward and unfortunate. If those who wrote this scene stopped for a moment and considered what's the best way to tell a wrestling story (apart from what's the best way to earn heat for Seth Rollins and sympathy for Dean Ambrose), then we would have seen Seth curb-stomp Dean on the already-provided concrete in the surrounding arena without any assistance from Kane. Seth Rollins would have become caught in the madness of battle, gotten carried away, and unleashed his furry in an act of improvised violence.

Instead, viewers were treated to an odd, morbid scene that contradicts the basic, unavoidable conceit of the medium.


If the approach to professional wrestling was reevaluated by those who create it, particularly the fundamentals of a backstage segment, then the WWE could open up an entirely new, more appropriate form of pro-wrestling storytelling.

These are just a couple of key areas where the medium sorely needs to innovate, to shrug off the misguided notions of the past, and forge ahead into a more honest, effective, and intelligent era of professional wrestling storytelling.

Always be mindful, especially if you are an artist, of what makes your preferred medium of expression unique, valuable, and engaging. In understanding the basics of that essential distinction you will find a potentially infinite well of expression, and you will find innovative ways to bring your medium into the future.


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