Saturday, September 28, 2019

WWE in El Paso: Some Thoughts

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Yesterday, I went to the WWE Live event in El Paso and found it most entertaining even if I had no idea who anyone was apart from Sin Cara. The 'women's division' was nice, though I believe that technically they are not 'divas'. What differences lie between Natalya, Lacey Evans and Sasha Banks are things I could not fathom a guess.

Shows how much I know about the goings-on in World Wrestling Entertainment.

I have vague memories of Sgt. Slaughter, the Iron Sheik, Hulk Hogan and for some reason The Great Kabuki, but as to who all the people in the ring last night were, I wouldn't know a King Corbin from a Ricochet or AJ Styles. I'm someone who thinks The OC is a television show, so a lot of the theatrics was lost on me.

Nevertheless, I loved it all: the spectacle, the matches, the rivalries, the wild over-the-top nature of it all. I had an awesome time: thrilling whenever a wrestler got flung out of the ring, exhorting others to get back in when they scurried off. It was wild hijinks and I had a blast. I cheered the heroes and booed the villains, though I declined to join in the "O-C/ A-J Sucks" chants going around.

Part of me was surprised at how in particular children were into this gaudy show, but I shouldn't. I too as a child found the intricacies of wrestling fascinating, and I figure way back then I knew whom 'hated' whom. Granted, in time I moved away from all that to grow into the somewhat more snobbish fellow we all know and love, but I can understand why kids and their parents thrill on seeing these figures live in person.

I give WWE credit for this: they are perfectly aware of their audience, particularly children. The 'evil' OC (and I'm figuring this trio is meant to be hated) never used one profanity while spouting their taunts. The matches might be staged in that the outcomes are predetermined. They may even follow a routine: my BFF Gabe accurately predicted when The Viking Raiders would storm in to confront their nemesis, but I'm reminded of something I have long referred to as 'The Agreement'.

'The Agreement' is the unwritten acknowledgment that everything you see and hear is purely for entertainment, not to be taken literally or seriously. There is an 'Agreement' between the audience and the performer that the latter will put on some kind of shtick and the former will suspend disbelief long enough to go along with it. In short, a good time will be had by all (or at least as much a good a time as one can get after landing on one's back with force).

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This 'Agreement' goes with every kind of performance: WWE, film, television, the stage. I suspect that outside the ring, A.J. Styles and Lacey Evans (IF those are their real names) are probably very nice people; from what little I know many WWE stars are very respectful, even fond of their fans and do various charity work along with USO tours.

Watching all the spins and drops, I was reminded of what the character of Bill Sampson said in All About Eve.

Yes: while watching WWE I was reminded of All About Eve. That's just how I roll.

When the title character shows disdain at Bill going to Hollywood to make a film and leave 'The THEATER', he gives a brilliant and impassioned speech against her snobbery (courtesy of IMDB):

The THEATER! THE THEATER! What book of rules says THE THEATER exists only withing some ugly buildings crowded into one square mile of New York City? Or London, Paris or Vienna?...Want to know what THE THEATER is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man-band: ALL 'Theater'. Wherever there's magic and make-believe and an audience there's 'THEATER'!...You don't understand them all, you don't like them all, why should you? THE THEATER's for everyone, you included, but not exclusively, so don't approve or disapprove. It may not be your "THEATER", but it's theater of someone, somewhere.

Bill Sampson, or more accurately Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is absolutely correct. WWE IS 'theater': the lights, the entrance music, the rivalries and storylines. It's openly and unapologetically 'theater'. The performers know it. The audience knows it. It's 'The Agreement' in bold print.

No one is fooled. No one is deceived. Everyone knows up-front that this is, as my cousin George would say in Spanish "Puro Show" (Pure Show). Some may take it a bit overboard but what I saw last night was a lot of people, myself included, having a great deal of fun, entertained and leaving joyful.

Perhaps children are fooled, but we should cut them some slack. Innocence is a beautiful quality, and once wisdom comes, it makes all those memories much warmer.

I'm someone who can enjoy both a WWE Live event and an Itzhak Perlman concert and recognize both as 'theater'. I see little difference between them. Yes, they are not the same and may cater to different audiences, but both work to delight their audiences with their specific and unique skills. In short, their goals are to create something wonderful for those who come to see them.

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Unfortunately, many of my fellow film reviewers and some performers come from the Eve Harrington School of Artistic Theology. Meryl Streep immediately comes to mind. Her impassioned Golden Globes speech denouncing President Donald Trump also included a snide jab at the hoi polloi. She bemoaned that without her or Dev Patel or Amy Adams or Ryan Gosling or Natalie Portman, people would be condemned to watch nothing but football and mixed martial arts, which she helpfully reminded us are not 'the arts'.

I don't know anyone who would confuse the Octagon with the Louvre, but there it is.

Far be it for me to once again remind one of our great actresses that I figure many people would find a world where there was nothing but football or MMA to be nirvana and not a vast wasteland. I imagine more people would rather watch an AFC championship game than they would Florence Foster Jenkins, The Shape of Water or Nocturnal Animals.

They are not 'stupid' or 'uneducated' for enjoying the various matches and grandiose nature of professional wrestling, or football or MMA. They are not morally or intellectually inferior for preferring the styling of AJ Styles over the musings of Meryl. Streep and her cohorts forget 'The Agreement'. Far from being hicks or rubes, WWE fans are shrewd in their awareness of the illusion. They willingly suspend disbelief but unlike what their 'betters' believe WWE fans do not take things at face value.

Madame Streep and those who think like her have a wild misreading of their audience and perhaps of people in general. Streep and those who think like her do believe 'THE THEATER' is something specific. Perhaps not those ugly buildings within one square mile of New York City but something grand, elevated and elegant, reserved for those with refined tastes and far above those who enjoy seeing three women in sparkling costumes fling each other about.

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The same disdain for certain elements in film also, sadly in my view, colors the opinions of my cinematic brethren. I believe a film should be judged by what the filmmakers aim for, some some grand 'statement' on art. This is why I can with a perfectly straight face laud both Seven Samurai and The Hangover. They are nowhere equal in terms of cinema, but both did what they aimed to do and did it exceptionally well.

Why my fellow critics hold some idea that "CINEMA" must be "THEATER" in the Eve Harrington mode I do not understand.

I am always amazed at why despite the harsh, almost enraged reviews from critics and the cinematic intelligentsia Bohemian Rhapsody is generally loved by audiences while the critically and Film Twitter-adored Rocketman flopped. My colleague Christian Toto insists it has to do with lip-synching: that because Bo-Rhap used Freddy Mercury's voice while Rocketman used Taron Egerton's voice audiences embraced the former and rejected the latter.

I don't quite fully agree. I think for all its flaws (of which it has quite a few) Bohemian Rhapsody was a more conventional (read: accessible) film with a more upbeat ending than the more artistic (read: eccentric to bizarre) Rocketman.

Seeing an HIV-positive Mercury rise to give a breathtaking performance at Live Aid is something people will embrace easier than seeing a child dressed as Sandy Cheeks belt out Rocketman to a drowning Elton John before the Esther Williams Revue comes to his rescue.

In conclusion, I do not look upon with contempt those who love WWE, and I think it's a mistake to do so. Professional wrestling and mixed martial arts are most certainly not 'the arts', but they are 'theater'. Maybe not Meryl Streep's 'theater', but it's theater for someone, somewhere, which does not require Madame Streep or her ilk's approval or condescension.

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