Monday, May 23, 2011

Lessons from Pro Wrestling

Professional wrestling is a bit of an odd duck. It's a combination of athletics and storytelling, but done in a way that "purer" fans of both elements tend to look down their nose at it; the scripted nature of the matches brings scorn from those who prefer competitive sports and believe that the "unnaturalness" of the exercise makes it less legitimate, and the simplicity of the storytelling generally means that the creative community at large thinks of it as a joke at best and stereotypical ham-headed posturing at worst. While it is true that wrestling is generally "entertainment", and that its content is meant to be emotionally evocative or humorous rather than deep, developed, and serious, there are a few elements of Professional Wrestling that need to be taken into consideration, and that can be applied (in one manner or another) to more traditional forms of storytelling. So let's apply pro wrestling to some older topics.

Authorial Fiat
As mentioned, one of the perceived issues with wrestling is that it's "fake", which is to say that the things that happen - the moves that are used, the events that occur, and so on - are scripted. The wrestlers are not fighting to win, they're fighting to look good and, hopefully, avoid injuring each other. When it comes down to it, though, one wrestler isn't going to "wrestle harder" than the other; if they were meant to win in the storyline, they win. Obviously I've talked a lot about emergent stories and so on, and in pro wrestling "emergent stuff" is generally limited to mistakes, accidents, or unexpected fan reactions. The storyline, or "kayfabe", is closer to that of a traditional authorial setup: what the script says happens, happens.

However, I believe it's important to note a major distinction between pro wrestling and a book, movie, or other form of uninteractive media. In a book, the words exist by themselves: once they're written down, that's the end of it. In a movie, there are elements in play to reduce the danger to, and strain on, the actors, and thus the rare individual like Jackie Chan who performs their own dangerous stuntwork is respected. In wrestling, every competitor or participant has to make the script happen. It's one thing to say that a wrestler does something, it's another to actually have a real person do that thing. While there are a lot of pulled punches and the wrestlers obviously aren't trying to hurt each other, there's still a lot of elements that are simply painful or dangerous to pull off.

One need look no further than the career of Mick Foley to see that, even in its softened version, wrestling is still a very painful and dangerous profession. The fact that wrestlers pull punches and there's mats and padding doesn't mean that it doesn't, or can't, hurt. In the third Hell in a Cell match, Mick Foley suffered several major injuries, including being thrown 16 feet from the top of a cage onto a table, being chokeslammed through the top of the cage down onto the ring, and throwing out thumbtacks onto the mat that he was later slammed into. While this is possibly the most extreme example in wrestling, and led to a much more safety-oriented company following the affair, the fact remains that this isn't just empty gymnastics and athletics, it's a very physically demanding and potentially dangerous affair. Therefore, even if things cannot be appreciated on an emergent level, they can be appreciated on a technical level.

The thing to remember is that, essentially, while wrestlers can reduce the danger to themselves and their fellows, they aren't wizards. They can't undo gravity, they can't soften metal or wood. They can hit each other in a way that makes things less hazardous, but pain is pain. In addition, they still have to be able to perform these moves, meaning that they have to be in top physical shape to pull off highly coordinated (remember, everything's scripted) throws and grapples. Even if it's all planned out beforehand, it's still a major feat of athleticism to pull it off.

Impact and Damage
One of the most important parts of wrestling, in terms of actual in-ring maneuvers, is "selling" a hit. Selling is defined as responding to an attack in a convincing manner; for example, physically responding to a pulled punch as though it was a real punch, or exhibiting pain and disorientation after an attack. This can be botched in two ways: "no-selling" and "overselling", both of which involve inappropriate reactions to the attack; the former involves no reaction, and the latter involves a comically overplayed one. In some cases, what would be considered a no-sell or an oversell can be appropriate for the scenario, to indicate a powerful defense or offense as appropriate.

A lot of the necessity of "selling" comes from the aforementioned pulled punches; that is, to create a scenario where the audience is not taken out of the moment by obvious falsity. The concepts of safety precaution prevent wrestlers from using actual pain reactions (as in, legitimate injury that would cause them to respond "realistically"), so they need to make up for that by acting like a pulled punch is a real one. The hit must be believable to some extent, because if it's not then it's calling attention to the fakeness of the exercise.

In a video game, by comparison, there's actually no real impact, and so "selling" a hit is even more important. Models are swinging weapons at each other and triggering animations, and if that animation isn't convincingly forceful, it's going to seem like a joke. Everything relies upon selling, because there isn't even a basic pain response to rely upon in a video game. It's all an illusion, and if it's not convincing the audience won't be drawn in. "Selling" draws upon the most basic principles of invoking a believable reaction.

Professional Wrestling is, at best, only partially about the wrestling itself. What tends to be more important is the overall context - not just the storylines, but also the characters and their distinct styles. A person who watches a random wrestling match without having any understanding of the people involved isn't going to have the same experience as someone who knows who's wrestling. The characters that distinguish themselves create emotional attachment through a combination of aesthetic style (costumes, wrestling techniques) and expression of personality (backstage interviews, promo videos).

Wrestlers need to set themselves apart through gimmicks, through distinct personalities, and through any concept that makes people go "oh, right, it's that guy". Whether it's a distinctive voice, moveset, theme, or costume, there's got to be something to make the wrestler recognizable. It creates a niche - something that the character brings to the table that you can't get with someone else. It's an entertainment business, after all, not a setting - it's not about "getting things done", it's about being entertaining to watch, and that's a difference we'll talk about in the next section.

There are two major kinds of wrestlers: "faces" and "heels". Faces are good guys, and are meant to evoke sympathy; they play fair, they work hard, and the audience cheers for them. Heels are bad guys, and are meant to evoke disgust or hatred; they use dirty tricks and have repellent personalities, and the audience boos them. Both of these, if done well, are meant to be entertaining, in the same way that a good comic book villain can be repugnant but still fun to watch. Heels get booed, but it's in a "the guy you love to hate" way. There is a special kind of jeer called "go-away heat" that refers to booing for the sake of hating the wrestler themselves, not because of their role in the show.

One of the important aspects of this dualist identity, though, is that characters will switch between the two concepts while still maintaining the fundamental aspects of their identity. Here's some examples:

Steve Austin: As a "face", Austin is a classic good-ol'-boy, who likes beer and trucks and hates authority. As a "heel", Austin is a bit more corrupt and corporate, acting as more of a greedy prima donna who doesn't really "believe" in wrestling. This is sort of a recurring theme for big-name wrestlers, as The Rock and Hulk Hogan had similar concepts in their heel turn: the idea of wrestling being about the money, not about the wrestling.
Kurt Angle: Based around classic athletic virtues (working hard to reach one's dreams); as a heel, however, he does this in an overbearingly aggressive manner and looks down upon the fans.
CM Punk: Based around the "Straight Edge" lifestyle (no drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, etc). Laid back and tolerant as a face, but arrogant and judgmental as a heel.

One of the things I've talked about in the past a few times is the issue of mortality: how the need for protagonists to survive things interferes with the idea that they're involved in a life or death struggle. The measures that characters take in terms of self-indulgence and in terms of getting away with stupid stuff because of their protagonist status influences the believability of a work if the audience is meant to believe that they're in danger. If the protagonist dies, the story's over, so bad things don't happen to them out of necessity. In some cases a character can be convincingly wounded or maimed, but even those things permanently affect the character if we're meant to believe that this is a serious combat situation.

However, wrestling doesn't have that problem. Wrestling is wrestling, and that's it. It's not a zero-sum game. Nobody involved dies, except as an extremely unusual storyline concept. The only thing that's at stake is personal pride, and that's usually enough to keep people drawn in. The difference between this and "life or death" is that it changes the mechanics of the situation. In wrestling, the characters are fighting to win. In combat, characters are fighting to survive. It's not a huge deal to lose, because you can try again later. If you're dead, you're dead, and that's it. A character can lose and keep existing in the universe, so it's possible to have a character lose a match and come back later. However, it's not possible for a character to die and return (in a believable manner) without cheapening the threat of death to begin with.

Think about how this changes the dynamic. Even though wrestling is scripted, it's a lot more unpredictable than a lot of media, because the potential for a popular character losing always exists. It's a perpetual storyline, and it's meant to be. The "in-universe" reason for the perpetual combat is the same as the real reason for it: it's a competition, not a war. In games like World of Warcraft, that are actually meant to be real combat with real swords between combatants who actually die, the whole "respawn" thing is weird and jarring because it's not how the universe works in the storyline. However, in this, there's no suspension of disbelief. It's just wrestling. It's wrestling that's taken super-seriously by the characters, but it's still wrestling.

While Pro Wrestling is a silly, indulgent form of entertainment, it's by far better, for multiple reasons, than the standard "rule of cool" material. It involves actual athletic performances that can be appreciated on a technical level. There's actual pain and suffering involved on the part of the competitors, which lends weight to their performance. There's justified in-universe understandings of the mechanics of the scenario. In short, while wrestling is basically defined by doing stuff that's cool or entertaining, it does so in a way that's appreciably more believable, on multiple levels, than many other forms of media.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog, I loved reading this, coming from a wrestler my self I think it's 100% fair enough aha, keep up good work!

    Mike Epic! ;)