wrestling with the angle
June 16, 2009
Heidi and Spencer were on the Today Show this morning talking about I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Heidi looked well and didn’t particularly seem to be suffering from her ulcer or not ulcer or whatever it was or wasn’t or could have been — there was no discussion of illness. The interview itself was kind of confrontational, actually, with Al Roker apparently choosing today as the day to finally become a hard-hitting investigative journalist (so glib, Matt, so glib) and repeatedly hammering Heidi and Spencer about whether or not it was all an “act,” whether or not they were proud of what they’d done on television and et cetera. On his Twitter account later, he called their behavior “vacuous,” which is just so funny, as if Al Roker, jovial weatherman on the Today Show and host of the Food Network’s Diner Destinations and Roker on the Road, is some paragon of journalistic virtue and/or the creator of valuable and important intellectual touchstones which play an important role in elevating the culture. As if. In the interview’s introductory package, there was some pre-recorded footage of I’m A Celebrity… contestants Frances and Angela, who claimed that Heidi and Spencer’s performance on the show was entirely genuine, that “it’s not an act, there’s no downtime, they really do believe they are the most famous people on this planet and that that’s something that one should aspire to, yes, and that they pray to Jesus for,” and this was followed by the clip of Spencer standing in the jungle and obnoxiously screaming the name of the Lord up towards the boom mics and klieg lights and all other things man-made or natural suspended under the dome of the sky (the Frangela clip could’ve just as easily been followed by his soundbite about praying for a double date with Miley Cyrus and that prayer coming true within a month). In the interview with Al Roker, Spencer said, grinning, that he’s not an actor, that his televised river baptism was sincere and, with regard to his “true” nature, he said, “on that show, I wanted to be a villain, but in life, I want to be a hero. On a television show that has one winner, like a champion, like a competitive show, that’s a show where I would choose to be the villain or the bad guy because the bad guy’s the hardest part to understand…” This dichotomy, the idea of one person authentically embodying different characters, being both a hero and a villain, is a concept Al seemed to have trouble getting his head around, which is understandable, I guess, since reality and life are complicated things which we all have trouble dealing with sometimes. Luckily, though, there are shows which exist to teach us how to understand such things — you just have to open your eyes and watch them.
I’ve never seen anyone die in real life but I have seen someone die on television, one person, once, and the person who died was like the person Spencer described wanting to be, a villain and a hero and a winner and a champion, the person was all of those things, and, well, I didn’t actually see the person die but I was watching a live television event and the person was appearing on this live television event when he died, and I was watching his last recorded words as he spoke them to the camera and through the camera and the screen to me and then I was watching the live television event and then he died while I was still watching it so it’s kind of like I saw him die even though I didn’t really, almost but not quite, and like in my memories I actually remember seeing him die, there’s an image in my head of him falling, but verifying this against the historical record of Wikipedia and a clip of a digitized VHS tape on Youtube, I’ve realized that I didn’t see him die and I couldn’t have seen him die because his death wasn’t a thing which was aired on the live television event I watched, and anyway all of this happened or not happened or almost happened was when I was fourteen years old,
it was Sunday, the day of rest, the day of wrestling, we had ordered the monthly wrestling pay-per-view that night, God, it seems like such an archaic thing to think of now with Youtube and Youku and Hulu, to pay extra money for a couple of hours of extra television on a Sunday, to pay a premium for premium content, how historic, how outmoded, but as a teenage wrestling fan it was so important to me, it was so important not only to see the matches and the show and everything and find out who won, lost, or drew, the simple facts of the matter, but to see it on the pay-per-view on the Sunday night it aired (they were always on Sunday nights, the pay-per-views), to see it all live and unedited and authentic, the spectacle unfolding in front of my eyes like a book being written as I read it, it was so important to not have to wait until Monday night to see clips of the action and before that have kids at school spoil it by telling me what happened before I could see the images for myself, it was so important, it was so important that my brother and I would try to save our allowances to pay for it but almost all of the time we wouldn’t have enough saved by the Sunday of the pay-per-view and so on the Sunday of the pay-per-view we would end up on our knees crying and begging and pleading with our father to pay the $19.99 or $24.99 or $29.99 or whatever it cost to make the cable company flip the switch and unlock the locked channel so that we could watch the pay-per-view and this unlocking is a thing our father would do for us sometimes if our family had the money that month or if the wrestling matches on the card were exciting or star-studded or if my brother and I were being particularly “good,” which we were not a church-going family so our definition of “good” was arbitrary and secular despite all of this Sunday supplication, but regardless of this we prayed to our father and made promises about being good and what good things we would do in the near future if we could just be rewarded now with this pay-per-view, if we were allowed to watch the wrestling, and so then some nights my father would order the pay-per-view for us and some nights he wouldn’t
and on the nights that he wouldn’t, I would stay up in my room in the dark tuned into the fuzz and scramble of the locked channel, playing with the knobs on my old analog television set and pressing a combination of buttons on the cable box which I had read on some internet forum might make the images appear, flipping the channel selector up and down rapidly because every time I landed on the channel anew there would be a brief instant of clarity before the signal scrambled again, unscrewing and rescrewing the cable from the cable box ever so slightly to try to break the encryption, I did all of these things, I did them standing in front of my dresser in my pajamas, such an effort just to be able to see and hear things, images, all of this work done to be able to watch this live even as it was happening, to see through the distortion and clouds of static, to discern shapes from other shapes and trace their movements through space, to hear the faint ghost voices of the commentators through the white noise and connect their comments to images I couldn’t really see but thought I could, believed I could, and in that respect the process was kind of the same way I tried to watch pornography on cable, which was a thing I also did in my room in the dark at night, but pornography seemed to be scrambled in a more complicated and difficult way than wrestling, this was because of morality, I assumed, sex being worse than violence, and anyway there was no running color commentary on pornography to illuminate and describe the mysterious actions happening on screen, the shapes interacting with other shapes, and so it really didn’t reward the kind of almost-watching that wrestling did,
but anyway those were the times when my father did not order the pay-per-view for us, but this one live pay-per-view event when I was fourteen, a pay-per-view called Over The Edge, was a time when my father did order the pay-per-view for us and we watched it together in our living room, this live television event, and the most important thing that happened at the pay-per-view was that the person died, this wrestler, except watching at home we didn’t know that he died for almost an hour after it happened because nobody told us and after a brief intermission of fifteen minutes the show went on, the matches were fought, and for all the true things the commentators could always tell us about suplexes and somersaults, they couldn’t tell us about the person dying, this wrestler, and this was maybe because they weren’t allowed by the management to do so or maybe because the family had to be reached first or maybe because they just couldn’t find the words, I don’t know, but here is the video in which the person, this wrestler, in which he dies, it’s here if you want to watch it, of course be warned that a human being dies in the course of this 3 minutes and 41 seconds you’re going to watch, you don’t see him die or hear him die but he dies nonetheless, understand that, his death is captured in this video, it’s there, like the way people used to believe that photographs could hold souls, and so here is the video:
and one interesting thing about the video is how just before the person died, this wrestler, right before he died the segment that aired on the pay-per-view was about an injury that WWF owner Vince McMahon had suffered on camera earlier in the show, the segment was about how EMTs and an ambulance were on their way to take him to the hospital to take care of him, the people in the segment professed to be worried about him, but, of course, that injury wasn’t real and their worries weren’t real, it was just an angle, a work, and if you don’t know what those terms mean it’s okay, there are many terms in professional wrestling to describe the relative realness and fakeness of things, here are some of them: a storyline is called an “angle,” a fake or staged event is called a “work,” a real or un-staged event is called a “shoot,” an event which is fake but which is made to seem real, a “work” which is made to seem like a shoot, is called a “worked shoot,” the state of pretending for the audience that the world of wrestling is real is called “kayfabe” and to acknowledge that the world of wrestling is not real is called “breaking kayfabe,”
and all of these complicated disjunctions and overlappings of authenticity and fabrication that are created in the world of wrestling are the reason the commentator in that video of the person dying on the live television keeps saying over and over again how real this thing that’s happening is, that’s why he says, “This is not a part of the entertainment here tonight. This is as real as real can be here,” that’s why he looks directly into the camera at us and says, “This is not your typical wrestling storyline, this is a real situation,” that’s why he breaks kayfabe so clearly and resolutely, it’s to snap us out of our trance and break the illusion or meta-illusion and make us understand that that this is not a “work” and this is not a “worked shoot,” either, this is just real, this is a real thing that’s happening in front of us, a death on live television, this wrestler,
and two last wrestling terms for you to learn are “heel” and “face,” which are easy to understand: heels are bad guys, villains, and faces are good guys, heroes, and the person who died on the live television event I watched in my living room when I was fourteen years old, this wrestler, Owen Hart, had for a long time played himself as a heel, used his own identity, and then at the time he died, he was playing this masked wrestler called the Blue Blazer, a self-deluded, wannabe superhero, an old fashioned character out of touch with the crude anti-heroes of the contemporary wrestling scene, and originally the character was intended to be a heel but the audiences began to love him, this Blue Blazer, this happy fool, and as they clapped and cheered for him more and more he turned face, he went from villain to hero on the wings of the love that the crowd had for him, and so on the night that he died after playing a villain for so long he was a hero again, a face, and what happened when he died was that he was about to make a grand entrance by being lowered from the rafters of the arena in his blue mask and flowing cape, as if he was pretending to fly, this superhero, and he was up there about to be lowered and his harness broke, it released, a shoot, not a work, a broken cable breaking kayfabe, releasing the real, and he fell, he fell 78 feet down through the air and past the lights and the cameras and into the ring and that’s where he died, in the ring, and it was so sad, it was as if instead of being paralyzed by falling off a horse, Christopher Reeve had died while trying to fly like Superman, that’s how sad, this person dying in front of an audience while trying to play a hero, a role which we all sometimes dream of playing but which we on some level know is just a cartoon fantasy, however much game Al Roker and the gang talk about “real American heroes” on the Today Show, since really we know that no person can be truly and only a hero, that we’re all part hero and villain inside but that really we’re never either of those things alone, that it would be impossible to be like that since those two sides of a character, heel and face, are always wrestling with each other inside of us to create who we are, to make the roles we play in the performance of our lives. They’re always wrestling and so are we.