Marks & Smarks: No Holds Barred (1989) & The Wrestler (2008)

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Definitions pulled from Wikipedia’s glossary of professional wrestling terms:
-“Mark”: a wrestling fan who enthusiastically believes that professional wrestling is not staged.
-“Smark”: a fan who is aware of and interested in the backstage and non-scripted aspects of wrestling; a portmanteau of “smart” and “mark.”

Last night I attended my first live pro wrestling event, a months-long goal fulfilled. Despite the distinctly tame vibe of the crowd, I decided to misbehave. Couldn’t help myself. I got drunk, cheered for heels like a jerk, and shouted things that disturbed the 10 year old boy sitting in the row ahead of me. A few rows behind me, another ten year old was also yelling ridiculous taunts, but his were much funnier & more insightful than mine. I was thoroughly upstaged. Around a third my age, this kid had a preternatural comprehension of the sport that he thankfully shared with the neighboring crowd in short, high-pitched bursts. The kid ahead of me would be genuinely upset if he were in earshot. I know I upset him myself. I was sandwiched between a young mark and a smark, two different wrestling worlds clashing on either side of me.

I think it helps to appreciate both sides of the coin to experience the full potential of pro wrestling. Losing yourself in the characters & the soap opera drama is just as important as the in-the-ring athleticism. The violence wouldn’t mean as much without the camp. On the other hand, the context of the practical, behind-the-scenes operations of the sport gives deeper meaning to the in-the-ring storylines. It’s a scripted sport, but scripted in the style of reality television: the reality & the fiction are inseparable. One feeds off the other. A well-rounded fan needs a solid admiration of both.

Searching for this balance in pro wrestling cinema leads me to the bookends of the modern wrestling movie. 1989’s Hulk Hogan vehicle No Holds Barred perfectly captures the nature of mark mentality in the infancy of the current Vince McMahon era. 2008’s The Wrestler, by comparison, is a smark’s dream: an authentic look at the brutal truths of pro wrestling as a career. Together, help paint a complete picture, the fiction & the reality, one feeding off the other.

No Holds Barred (1989)
Although No Holds Barred was far from the world’s first pro wrestling picture, it was the first film produced by the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE). It would take over a decade after its release for Vince McMahon’s juggernaut wrestling promotion to form its own movie studio, so in this way No Holds Barred was ahead of its time. This was the only way it was ahead of its time. Miming the late-80s Schwarzenegger action movie format as much as the budget would allow, No Holds Barred was a blatant attempt to launch the movie career of Hulk Hogan, who had already dominated the “sports entertainment” world and was looking for his next conquest. The first sounds you hear in the film are the voices of Jesse “The Body” Ventura & “Mean” Gene Okerlund, who had come to define the era’s ringside announcing. The film’s head villain is character actor Kurt Fuller testing an almost exact prototype of his career-defining role as a television network scumbag in Wayne’s World. No Holds Barred is in every way a product of its time.

Keeping in line with the 1989 perspective of pro wrestling, before the internet’s obsessive nitpicking of the sport, No Holds Barred is firmly on the mark side of the mark/smark divide. Hulk Hogan’s character Rip Thomas is a superhuman beast in the ring and out. He leaps to incredible heights, destroys cars with his bare hands, and dismantles “bad guys” to an 80s “rock music” soundtrack, all while wearing a costume befitting of a superhero biker. In a world devoid of subtext he is a hero without flaw, an incredibly smart brute who’s dedicated to his charity work, the kind of guy who inspires lines like “Rip’s word is his bond” even when he’s not in the room. The entire movie exists to make Hulk Hogan look impossibly good. He’s a saint, a “good guy”.

Objectively, the movie is not very good. In fact, it’s awful. There’s some guilty pleasure to be found in its campy action movie spectacle, like when Rip force-feeds a rejected bribe to Kurt Fuller’s television executive and quips “I won’t be around when this check clears.” It’s also funny to think that Vince McMahon produced a film that indicts the evil nature of megalomaniac network executives, because, well, he’s a megalomaniac network executive. For the most part, though, the movie is shoddily made of generic kids’ stuff: jokes about “dookie” and slobbering hillbillies, world-class mean-mugging from immense muscle men, “good guys” beating up “bad guys”. It’s a movie you have to love for its savage idiocy, not in spite of it.

More importantly, it’s a document of a different time, a swan song for the era of the mark.

The Wrestler (2008)
A drastically different approach, Daren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is an objectively good movie. I’d even go as far as to call it a masterpiece. Applying the modern online smark mentality to pro wrestling, Aronofsky turns the backstage repercussions of sports entertainment into a Greek tragedy. Unlike Hogan’s Rip Thomas, Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a real human being outside the ring. Well past his glory days, Randy struggles with health, finances, and personal relationships badly damaged from years spent on the road. In-the-ring injuries have increasingly severe real life consequences. In one particularly gruesome scene medics remove staples, glass, etc. from Randy’s skin as the camera cuts back to show how they got buried there in a horrific hardcore match, a bloodthirsty crowd chanting “You sick fuck!” in the background. As the pain periodically hits him throughout the film, the intense sound design cues you in with high-pitched noises to match his wincing. Referring to himself, Randy “The Ram” says “I’m a broken down piece of meat. And I’m alone. And I deserve to be alone.” Time proves him right. This is far from the marked-out world of Rip Thomas.

Aronofsky’s attention to authenticity is a remarkable achievement here. As I said before in my list of top pro wrestling documentaries, Randy “The Ram” feels like wrestlers we know, wrestlers like Scott Hall & Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Smarks would take particular interest in the way the movie depicts wrestlers planning spots before matches, laying out a basic framework within which they can improvise. The movie also addresses blading/juicing, steroid abuse, boozy bouts of self-medication after matches, shady promoters and minuscule pay. Randy directly refutes claims that wrestling is “fake” and shows off his scars as proof. Part of why it hurts to watch him despair over the old action figures, Nintendo games, and 80s monster ballads that serve as relics of his former fame is that it feels all too real. There are people who live like this.

Of course, an accurate portrayal of pro wrestling is seated somewhere between these two extremes, just as I was seated between two wildly different children last night. Without the glam showmanship, juvenile humor or outrageous superheroics of Rip Thomas, Aronofsky’s version of wrestling is a grim, lethal ordeal. The wrestling of No Holds Barred is an idealistic child’s macho fantasy. From The Wrestler’s viewpoint, it’s more like assisted suicide. To take in the full scope of the bizarre, idiosyncratic, self-contradicting superhero spectacle of the brutal sport, you have to appreciate both perspectives. You have to look through the eyes of the mark and the smark. Drunken yelling also helps.

-Brandon Ledet

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