Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The art of wrestling

Eddie was supposed to be the bad guy, Edge the good guy. That's the way it works in professional wrestling: there is almost always a goodie and a baddie, a face and a heel. The themes are pretty ancient, though we rarely diverge from them in any other art form. It is basic storytelling, the stuff they explain to you in literature courses when you are 11 years old: there is a protagonist, an antagonist, a building of action, a climax and resolution.

The tradition of pitting two individuals against each other and paying to watch them beat the tar out of each other is ancient, of course. As is the tradition of staging such a thing. In Shakespeare's As You Like It, the plot turns on Orlando's success in the ring. There is no real reason to have the scene but to amuse the crowd, in the same way there is no other reason for the five minutes of fart jokes in Macbeth. Some theatre companies see the connection between the modern and what Shakespeare was doing. Many moons ago, when I was a member of the Guthrie Theater company, I taught the actor playing Charles the wrestler how to strut like Ric Flair.

Professional wrestling as an art form in and of itself, however, is generally attributed as having developed in the carnival sideshows of the early 20th century. And yes, it is an art form. Think of how you would define art -- especially any art that involves movement, such as dance -- and professional wrestling will fall into that definition. It is a violent art; its themes are often simplistic; it still possesses a great deal of its old sideshow feel; but it is an art.

There is beauty and skill: the wrestlers arc and turn and twist their bodies to create forms of action and power and grace. Before and within the match they tell a story of conflict, struggle, triumph and defeat. The easiest comparisons are those to dance or bullfighting, but wrestling is also very much like poetry in that there is quite a lot of it that is awful.

Just about every moody teenager has at one point or another attempted to apply to him- or herself the label of "poet" because he or she has the ability to string together a handful of melodramatic and heavy-handed phrases. I am quite confident in stating that the overwhelming majority of all poetry is shit -- in the way the majority of the planet's surface is water. Similarly, yes, the majority of professional wrestling is embarrassing to watch (for example: anything involving Christopher Daniels). But we live our lives on the land; we pick out the poetry that has beauty and worth. 

This match is the one I often use to support my argument that wrestling is an art. It is a match between Eddie Guerrero and a man known simply as Edge, which took place in November 2002 in San Diego. In a way, it is a strange example to use because its internal story forced a change in the external narrative. It is an example of wrestling's beauty in part because it breaks with wrestling's norm.

In the WWE -- easily the most-recognisable of the literally hundreds of wrestling companies around the world -- the matches are often part of a greater narrative. This is done to build the emotion of the in-ring stories. If you spend weeks learning that Person A dislikes Person B because A used to be B's best friend but became jealous of his success and felt, too, that B had spoiled his chances of finding true love with the woman B now so poorly treats (even though, said woman doesn't see it this way), and so that is why he sabotaged B in front of his family, it adds to the in-ring story. B isn't just fighting to win, as he and every other wrestler does almost nightly, he is fighting for pride and revenge. And on and on. The themes, as I say, are pretty ancient.

Frequently, though, the narrative isn't so complex. In the old days, it was as simple as a good guy fighting a bad guy. In some companies the bad guys all wore black boots, the good guys white boots, so the fans knew whom to boo and whom to cheer. In the match between Eddie Guerrero and Edge things were somewhere in between. Eddie was a bad guy because, well, that's what he was. Edge was a good guy because, well, that's what he was. 

Watching the video, you see that as soon as he steps out from behind the technicolor wall, Eddie is insulting the crowd, lurking toward the ring with his shoulders hunched, occasionally stopping to snarl and insult people. He had been doing this for a while. This is what he did. 

Edge runs out as the good guy. He excitedly cheers the crowd as they cheer him. He climbs all over the ring posts and ropes and poses and encourages the crowd to be a part of the noise and excitement. He had been doing this for a while. This is what he did.

There was no real explanation of why Eddie was bad and Edge good. They just were and had been that way for a while. And as such, they had fought each other a handful of times in the weeks previous. Because bad guys fight good guys. The commentary on the video is misleading, though. It reflects knowledge of the result. Listen with headphones and you can hear clipped audio that was put in after the fact. The announcers try to make more of the animosity between the two than had actually been displayed before the match, because they know it is rare and beautiful and are trying to fulfil their roles of heightening the emotional pull.

I was in the arena that night, sitting roughly 20 feet from the ring. We were all there to see Rey Mysterio Jr. and Kurt Angle and Undertaker and Brock Lesnar. This match between Eddie and Edge we knew was just TV filler. We knew this, in part, because there had been no build-up. There had been no segments showing them speaking to or about each other, no video montage reminding us of their rivalry. It was just a good guy and a bad guy. When Edge came out we all cheered. When Eddie came out, most people booed (I didn't boo because Eddie Guerrero was from El Paso, Texas).

The video clip shows a somewhat altered version of what actually happened. As I say, a certain amount of the commentary was clearly put in after the fact. That reflects the reality of the in-ring story: no one knows how the story is going to go. The end is predetermined, of course, but a great deal of what happens in the wrestling ring is made up in the moment. This is some of the art of it. The wresters read the crowd and piece together sequences and steps along the way. Watch them in headlocks, or when Edge swings his hair down into his face -- the two are communicating, giving quick instructions to one another. Throughout the match there is a hidden conversation about what comes next.

Early in the match, the story goes according to the usual script. We cheered the good guy and chanted, "Eddie sucks," at the bad guy. Eddie tries to cheat on a pin, in Spanish he tells the San Diego crowd (where roughly 40 percent of the population speaks Spanish) that they are a bunch of "goddamn wetbacks;" Edge gets out of a headlock by encouraging the moral support of the crowd.

But somewhere along the way, things shifted. The in-ring story stepped beyond the narrative and you saw instead the flow and movement and line and beauty and story. It became something amazing rather than just a cliché battle between good guy and bad guy. For those of us in the crowd, I think the shift came after a ladder was introduced and then seemingly abandoned as a weapon.

A ladder as a weapon. It's art, but certainly not in the classic sense.

The wrestling fan gets used to looking for a "high spot," a particularly impressive sequence that is often a wrestler's signature. Usually that move leads to the match's end. And in WWE, usually that end comes in about seven to eight minutes. And, indeed, at about seven minutes into the match Eddie sprints up the top ropes and flips Edge over his shoulders and back down to the ring. But no pin. Edge "hotshots" Eddie out of the ring and charges at him with a ladder. But no pin. The match moved back into the ring and Edge delivered his signature move, a "spear." But no pin. The match kept going.

Watch the crowd at about 12:30, after Eddie has again flipped Edge off the top rope. Eddie goes for the pin and many jump up thinking he has won. The metanarrative is being played with; people are cheering the bad guy. A few minutes later, you can hear people chanting his name. I was one of them, though, by that point, you likely would not have heard me. I screamed so much during that match that I actually lost my voice for two days after.

The "sunset flip" is what sealed my voice's doom. With both men atop a ladder, Eddie dives over Edge, grabs him at the waist and brings him into the ground. When Edge kicked out from the inevitable pin you can see that we all went nuts. Not because we cared about the good guy anymore but because we couldn't believe the match was still going on.

"What more can they do?" I remember shouting. "What more can they do?!"

When the match was aired, I found that several minutes had been edited out of the match. Watch it from about 16 minutes and you see the crowd is jumping at everything. This actually carried on for a long time. The two spent a great deal of time soaring through the air at each other -- flipping, turning, twisting. A strange dance to the rhythm of crowd cheers. After each "spot" we would cheer the wrestler's names.

Then, at the end of the match, after Edge has secured the good-guy win, the good guy/bad guy narrative struggles to hold together. The commentators, of course, praise Eddie's effort but the scene you are supposed to see and hear is one of celebration for Edge's hard-fought victory. But that's not actually what happened.

We cheered the match, of course. But as Edge is celebrating you can see that most people have, by now, actually stopped making noise. They are standing and staring not at Edge but at the immobile Eddie, hoping he is OK. They are pointing to the blood coming from his forehead, looking at him in concern. As Edge is limping up the ramp, notice that the cheering stops abruptly. It's an audio flub; we weren't cheering. We were all looking at Eddie.

Eddie sat up but stayed pretty still for a long while, far longer than is implied by the video. Indeed, the video becomes incredibly misleading at that point. In real life, Edge's music faded out and all the cameras shifted back to their spots to prep for the next segment. Only then did Eddie finally roll to his feet, which got all of us up and cheering, chanting his name. Clearly the cameras were still rolling and some of that footage was captured and aired. The video makes it seem that Eddie's music played in the arena. It didn't.

There was no music. It was just an exhausted man and thousands of people standing and knowing we had witnessed that rare poetry that can come in something so ridiculous. Edge came back down the ramp and the two hugged and we cheered and chanted both their names. I lost my voice.

I had long been a wrestling fan before then, and long argued that it is some kind of art. But that match is when I felt there truly was something strangely wonderful to be found. There is beauty to be found there.

Eddie died almost exactly three years later, his heart giving out after years of drug and steroid abuse. He was 38 years old.

In April 2011, Edge retired after suffering a number of neck injuries, which have left him suffering numbness and occasional loss of feeling in his limbs. He is 38 years old. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Dydd Gŵyl Dewi yng Nglyn Ebwy

It is St. David's Day in Ebbw Vale. The feeling of life, though, comes more from the sun -- far rarer on this island than the days of its myriad patron saints.

Along the row of houses opposite the train station there is a church I had thought abandoned. Today a man stands precariously at the end of a ladder, stretching to scrub clean one of its windows.

"What's the best way to Tredegar," a girl asks me. 
"Not sure," I say. "I usually walk into town. From there, I guess I'd look for a bus."
"Oh. Close, is it?" she asks.
"About two miles."

She communicates inaudibly that two miles is not close. I point toward a bus stand and let her know a service will be along in about 40 minutes that can take her up the hill. Probably to Tredegar, too.

The sun is shining as I walk along Festival Drive. Behind me the last of the morning fog blends with blinding sunshine so the valley is radiant in soft white, as if a Glamour Shots photo. As I near town, the once-beautiful buildings have a new feel to them. Each defect is clearer. It is hard to say when Ebbw Vale looks most sad: in the rain, when misery soaks into the stone; or in the sunshine, when there is no greater misery to disappear into.

On Church Street I can hear the call of a rag-and-bone man, singing out over a megaphone as he drives along. You might have to look up what a rag-and-bone man is. They are things of the past, but they exist still in this valley where many other jobs don't. Atop one of the buildings a group of men sit on scaffolding, listening to the radio and hammering at something. I suspect they do not really know what they are doing. I suspect it does not really matter. It is one of a whole row of abandoned buildings. 

Further up, a county worker, in shining high-vis jacket, swings into a handrail with a large, splintered chunk of wood. A car has run into it and he is trying to put it back into place.

There are more people to be seen as I near the Seven Arches. Phlegmy smoker's coughs echo down the street. All around is the hollow clink of cheap NHS crutches -- fashion accessories of the South Wales Valleys, worn to assist in the pursuit of state benefits. The sun shines as I reach the wide stretches of pavement along Bethcar Street and I am struck by the colour-drained, well-worn nature of the coats and jackets shuffling here and there. Faded brown, weary black and the occasional dirty pink.

"For fuck's sake, mun, no," shouts a girl down a phone. "I don' fuckin' wan' tha' does I? Jus' pu'my fuckin' 'hings whe' I cahn fuckin' fin' 'em an' fuckin' go, like."

No one notices her. An old woman with tree-trunk legs stands at the edge of the road and darts her head around like a bird before crossing. 

A wide group of wild-eyed skinny men flank each other and stretch across the whole of the space before me. They walk with that mad drunk-drugged strut. I wonder when they last spent 48 hours sober. Three are walking down the middle of the actual road and as a car pulls up behind them, one looks over his shoulder and seems to taunt the driver before slowly drifting to the pavement. He ends up being right in front of me. In an instant, he sees me then pretends he doesn't -- because these guys are tough only when they don't look you in the eye. I stop walking, stand and let the group part around me. As they do, I breathe in the cider and cigarette smoke so strong I can taste it.

Large women stand in groups chatting, smoking, scolding their children. Simply shouting, "Rhys, fuckin' stop it!" causes four different boys to snap to attention. When there are just two women, they stand face to face, their meaty arms folded across their wide chests. Outside the Wetherspoons, two bent-over old men hold to each others' shoulders and gesture with cigarettes as they talk.

My classroom sits on the second floor of the LAC, or the first floor, depending on which country you're from. From its window I look out past town to the soft, old hills that rise up on either side of the town. Old stone walls divide it up like a children's drawing. Sheep and horses graze. Jackdaws circle and dive and soar across both worlds, seemingly the only connection between the two.

"Sorry I wasn' here las' week, Chris," says one of my students. "But I finally had a chance at gettin' a flat, you see. I been waitin' almos' a year, I have."

My head processes that she has been on a waiting list for a council flat. Some part of me tries to form an opinion about welfare housing. It seems that's the sort of issue on which a person should have an opinion. But I don't really.

"Canolfan means centre, don't it Chris?" she says.
"Yes. Da iawn," I say.
"Yeah, I saw it the other day when I was signin' on," she says. "Always learnin' I am."

Another student shows up with Welsh cakes for the class. They all get lost in a discussion of how awful the English are. Wisps of cloud stretch across the low blue sky. Arrow-straigt contrails seem to stretch the horizon. Two horses chase each other on the hill in the distance. Along Market Street a tall transvestite walks with a dirty, wooly dog strapped to his waist.