Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fixed and real injuries/tragedies

It's in the nature of pro wrestling to overexaggerate everything. From the moves to the promos to the facial expressions, everything is over the top. But there seems to be a line of sorts that when crossed, is hard to return from. This is particularly true when it comes to injury angles. From Matt Hardy and Edge knocking each other clear off the stage, to Kurt Angle "breaking his leg" and being in a wheelchair for a while, to Shawn Michaels collapsing in the ring, the business thrives on working over the fans emotionally by playing up these injury angles all the time.

But then something like Bret Hart breaking his sternum in a match happens. I still remember in Wrestling With Shadows I think it was, where Bret said that the fans in the front row were yelling at him to get up while he was injured on the floor. Or Mick Foley's story about the guy in ECW who busted his head open on the ground only to be greeted with "You F***ed Up" chants." The fans have been groomed to expect these things to be fixed, to look at a guy writhing in pain and say "hey, he's really good at selling that move/making it look real." So it's only natural then that when Owen died, the jaded fans still thought it was a work.

I will say here that, being caught between a rock and a hard place, I believe the WWE made the right decision to continue with the show. However, as many have already said, the mistake was with not letting the fans in the audience know that Owen had died due to his accident earlier that night. JR's infamous line that "this was as real as real could be," however, made me remember all of the fixed injury angles I've seen, and I've seen quite a few. It's no wonder that there were fans who refused to believe what they had seen. This line between distinguishing when a real injury happens and when it's fixed has become so blurred, that when a legitimate injury does come up in a match, it's hard for WWE to share that with the fans. Not because they can't, but because it's so hard to believe when you know that they like pulling one over you all the time.

In particular, this was sadly more evident in 2005 when Eddie Guerrero died. Believe it or not, there were fans who thought his death was a fix. Yes, there were fans who thought that the emotional tribute show to him a day after he passed (he was found dead in his hotel room the day he was scheduled to win the WWE Championship) was all a work. Now, I know that pro wrestlers are performers and essentially athletic actors, bringing about the overexaggeration that I was talking about earlier. But to say that a man like Chris Benoit breaking down in tears on television in front of millions was an act on his part was and still is an absurd statement to me. Pro wrestlers aren't that good of actors to fake that intense emotion, and I'd like to think they're not that malicious to do it in the first place over someone's death. There was actually a website, and I'm sad that I don't have the link anymore, but there was actually a site that went into details of why Eddie Guerrero was still alive, and how they were going to "bring him back" for a huge return.

As sad and perhaps as malicious as that might sound, the really sad part is that the WWE gave him legitimate reason to think that Eddie Guerrero really hadn't passed. Now, I wasn't watching wrestling when Owen passed, but I was watching in November of 2005 when Eddie died. I was never more sickened to be a wrestling fan than I was in the next few months, when the WWE blatantly exploited a man's death. After a heartfelt tribute along the same vein as Owen's, and some wrestlers sporting "EG" bands on their arms, I thought they'd let his name and memory rest in the minds of the fans who remembered and loved him. Instead, they bring in Eddie's wife to partake in a storyline, they have Rey Misterio dedicating every other match "to Eddie" instead of letting it lie, and then they actually had Randy Orton say that Eddie was in hell. Is it any wonder that there were fans who thought Eddie might've been alive and well and just waiting to exact his revenge on Randy by helping Rey defeat him and Kurt Angle at Wrestlemania 22 in April?

I think in a wrestling business with the landscape of the WWE, the tribute shows are fitting. Yes, it's strange and ironic that they have up their stage names while the men behind the wrestler images are talking about a friend who's tragically passed. But Owen's show was the first, and I do think that Eddie's tribute show might've been a little classier, not because the emotion was anymore real, but after having gone through a show like that before, the WWE knew what to do the second time around. What's not fitting is the aftermath. I don't disagree with including Eddie in the Hall of Fame, but I did stop watching SmackDown when every show seemed to revolve around Eddie. It passed from keeping his memory alive to flat-out exploitation, leading to idiotic sites like the one I read where fans are lead to think that maybe he's still alive.

In the end, I know that they won't ever stop using serious injury storylines. But I would like to see them scale back on using them, just so the next time something "very real" happens to someone in the ring (hopefully a long, long, long time from now), the fans won't be so jaded and can respond accordingly, instead of just thinking some guys are good actors...


Luis Tenorio said...

In this day and age, it is still so disappointing that wrestling will not allow something that happens outside the ring to stay out. Death is not even sacred so anything is game. Why bring in Eddie's wife? She had gone through so much and then put her in the middle of a story where Eddie's death is central just seems to be a story that no one will enjoy. I think a good example to look at today is Triple H. I will admit, I didn't give much thought to what he was going through with his injury. But hearing about it made my heart sink because the first thought I had was, "What will happen to DX?" And then of course even worse thoughts about the end of his career being a possible outcome. There is no doubt that they will use this injury to really build up Triple H's return but I doubt that story lines using injuries will ever be used. Having someone be responsible for an injury is just too easy to use for emotional build up. But I don't think they will ever use a death story line outright where someone is dead. I think the only one person that could do something like that is the Undertaker.

katejames said...

While I totally agree, Carolina, that it seems at times exploitive and unnecessary to engage with the serious injury story lines, and that some strange and disturbing things have happened in the aftermath of real tragedies, I think any version of wrestling in which you could immediately determine a real injury from the show wouldn't be worth watching.
This is, after all, a theater of violence. It is the performance of physical injury and pain, in melodramtized form. Inevitably, when a wrestler is hurt while working, it is a real impact that interrupts the performance of the real impact.

What's been really interesting to me has been watching the matches where wrestlers did endure serious injuries (Foley, a few times, for example), and might have altered the match or shortened it as a result, but didn't break character or stray far from the reaction their character would have to the acted version of the same injury. It all comes down to wrestling's position on that real/fake line again; it's potency is in the slip between.

Sam Ford said...

Carolina, you raise some interesting points, and thanks for giving some background information to your classmates about Eddie Guerrero's death and the parallels to Owen.

When Brian Pillman died, some people thought it was a work. That's not surprising now that we have all discussed just exactly WTF was up with Brian Pillman, as Peter would ask. Brian strived to blur the lines between reality and fiction, and his death in the midst of all this seemed to fit all too well with his character for some. Again, that people would think the Owen Hart fall was somehow staged at first may not be surprising since WWE had done similar things in the past. And that leads us up to the Eddie Guerrero conspiracy theorists of today that you mentioned.

Andy Kaufman is probably an even more useful parallel here because there were people, are STILL people, who think Andy is alive, and that this is all part of his continued ruse. A few years ago, there was even a gathering for his return, and his alter ego Tony Clifton has made some appearances now and then. It's that Elvis Presley phenomenon, only pro wrestling plays with that line so closely that it is even more understandable.

As for Eddie, it raises this significant question. What happens when a man dies tragically but is also one of the primary characters on your show. WWE chose to employ his wife as a way to support the family, which could be viewed as noble, but they also exploited his name to a degree that fans themselves got sick of it. Rey Misterio winning the title was actually dampened by the fact that WWE did it all "in Eddie's memory," and the heel Randy Orton saying Eddie was in hell was definitely over the line. Hopefully, WWE regrets that now.

Conversely, on the soap opera I watch, a popular actor committed suicide. There was many questions of how to handle the character's death, and they finally had him killed in action (he was a cop) off-screen, but it was still easier to deal with becuase there was a clear line between Benjamin Hendrickson the actor and Hal Munson the character. There's not such a clear line between Eddie Guerrero and Eduardo Gory Guerrero Llanes.

Luis, do you remember the Al Wilson storyline a few years ago where Tory Wilson's father had a heart attack after marrying a much younger diva and "died"? Of course, the real Al Wilson (and that really is his name) is alive and well, but the character did indeed die, and a storyline developed from it.

And, Kate, I think it's quite true that what gives power to pro wrestling--that liminal nature between "real" and "fake"--is what is most problematic about it as well.

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

While I'd agree that it's fairly tasteless to exploit death for storylines so crassly, it might be good to play devil's advocate for a minute and consider that, business aside, building authentic tragedy into fantastic narratives is a fairly common way of coping with death. In "The Body," the short story that would be adapted to film in the form of "Stand by Me," Stephen King devotes a good chunk of the book to exactly this principle. Hell, I generated a hefty wordcount in fiction and non-fiction writing about the Columbine shootings, and it wasn't strictly for my own consumption, either. It shouldn't surprise us if once in a while it comes up in a plotline in which in seems inappropriate, because people in the organization are closer than we are.

On a similar tack, while the carefully maintained fiction of pro wrestling does make it problematic to assert authenticity, as J.R. did, there's at least one other factor that must be considered in fans' hesitance to accept wrestling deaths as real: celebrity culture. Elvis has been dead for thirty years, and it's become a pop-culture punchline. Conspiracy theories tend to follow figures who are either very powerful (which, really, wrestlers are not) or highly beloved, especially where entertainers are concerned. How many gangsta rappers are now rumored to have faked their own deaths?

And Andy Kaufman...well, that one's just too easy.

Rob said...

For the most part, I agree with most of what people have said in response here that injuries are simply a part of wrestling, both real and fake, and are inevitably going to remain a part of the storyline.

However, to address the issue of what happens when something goes very wrong, such as in the Owen Hart incident, I think there has to exist a way to pull the audience out of the fantasy and let them know the truth.

I think WWE did that well, for the most part, in this case.

First, in his announcing, JR uses a number of "trigger words" that seem very out of character for him (such as "this is not an angle"), which I think clearly indicate that this is something that falls in the realm of realtiy for most of the audience.

Second, I think the video clips during the tribute performance did an excellent job of this as well -- with atypical backgrounds, street clothes, etc., etc.

Of course, that line still remains blurry, such as their unwillingness to bring The Undertaker in for the tribute match, and The Rock's bizarre speech, and perhaps could be improved upon, but for the most part I think the WWE did a fine job in this particular situation (with the big exception being the failure to announce the situation to the audience).

Sam Ford said...

Rob, I think you are right that WWE did most of what they could to try and break from character while still continue on with teh show, which is hard to do siultaneously. As you point out, words like "angle" are never said on TV, so he was able to immediately pull fans out of the suspension of disbelief by using words you would normally call upon to analyze wrestling, not which would actually appear in the performance itself.