Tuesday, April 3, 2007

McMahon and kayfabe.

I believe you guys watched the McMahon documentary last night, and since I'd opted not to talk much about it before it was officially part of class discussion, another belated post...

I began watching McMahon expecting something primarily historical in nature, likely heavy-handed in tone and generally uncritical of all things WWE (like the AWA doc we watched earlier). What I was really hoping for, though, was something in which the speakers would avoid the tendency to fall back into character at inappropriate times. I was hoping the McMahon doc would kind of lay things out to give a better look at how the business and the performance work, both separately and together.

It certainly starts strong. Several commentators give their own opinions as to when "Mr. McMahon," as opposed to Vince, is born. They vary, but they're all centered around the rise of Steve Austin, as we've discussed in class, and damn if they didn't sell Austin v. McMahon. It was great fun to watch, especially with some understanding of the context--it made me wonder once again how cool it would have been if, midway through Iron Chef, Chairman Kaga had gone nuts and conspiring to ruin contestants' lives. (He may have, in fact, done this; I didn't pay a lot of attention, beyond the architecture's creepy allusions to Enter the Dragon.) At any rate, the beginning of McMahon suggested to me that this was going to be one of the most direct and forthright depictions of the business we'd seen. Sure, severely biased, but at least everyone involved seemed to be treating it like a show.

But as it went on, the distinction went murky again. The introduction of Stephanie into the storylines was a complicating factor, as archival footage and interviews described at least two, possibly three relationships between Stephanie and Triple H, as characters and as people, and the ever-shifting feelings of both McMahons about these relationships. This did not get any simpler as the film rapidly descended into creepy Oedipal nightmare, though Linda, Stephanie and Shane did still manage to talk coherently about their real lives and their roles.

J.R., unsurprisingly, sets the tone for the conclusion, which brings us back where we started: it's not always easy to tell which McMahon is in charge on a given day. Which is likely why the film begins in such an approachable, easy-to-distinguish manner, to set up the audience for having that certainty taken away again. So, entertaining, if not particularly as insightful as I'd hoped...but then, Sex, Lies & Headlocks manages a pretty good job with all of it, and there are some pretty clear reasons why McMahon would want a different approach for his own company's "historical" productions.

8 comments:

Carolina said...

I too thought the same thing while watching the documentary. If you didn't already know how to distinguish Vince from his on-screen character before watching the DVD, you'd be left even more confused afterwards. In the beginning, it seemed clear and logical, but as it went on, it became more and more vague. You would also think that having his family give their own personal perspectives on his character and on the man behind the scenes would make it easier to distinguish between them. But ironically, it just made it more confusing.

I personally don't feel as though I learned more about Vince by watching this DVD than I did with reading "Sex, Lies, and Headlocks." I would've loved to have seen much more of the history Vince has, like how he broke in and some more on his father as well. It really is curious that he doesn't acknowledge in the DVD that he didn't meet his father until he was around 12 years old. You would think that he would harp on that in his character to show that nothing was really handed over to him and he did have to put up a fight to get where he is today...

Luis Tenorio said...

The way that they were able to run away with the incident at Montreal was very surprising. I mean, it could have turned out pretty bad and it is funny when they reference the incident. On year later, he did the same thing but this time it was with the Rock and then later on he did it to Shawn Michaels. Mr McMahon is an interesting character because in all the time I have seen him, it doesn't seem like there is a possibility for him to turn face. I mean, we have lots of superstars who rose to the top by being heels and are remembered for it and can turn face because the people still love them. Triple H, The Rock, Shawn Michaels, Ric Flair, all guys whose heel status and popularity allowed them to become crowd favorites and later turn face. But Mr McMahon is a different story. During his feud with Triple H, it seemed like Mr McMahon was trying to be the face but people did not respond well to it and so he was still a heel. During the Invasion story line, he was I guess a face but people still didn't like him and only cheered for the WWF to survive, not Vince McMahon. He is perhaps the strongest heel character ever, someone who should be studied. He is praised for being a heel but will never be a crowd favorite in the ring.

Deirdre said...

I too felt that I learned more about Vince from Sex Lies & Headlocks than this documentary, but I was glad for the input from his family members, because in all our other resources, we have heard very little about Linda , Shane and Stephanie. It was basically a comfort to know that they objected more often than not to their father's crazy ideas, and had very difficult times pulling off the crazy on-screen stunts he convinced them to do. While that family is still very special indeed, it was good to know that all that crazy stuff we see sometimes on WWE is really from Vince, and not his supposedly more level-headed children and wife.
Carolina also made a good point about how they never mentioned his practically impoverished childhood. I too almost expected them to make a big deal out of how Vince 'came from nothing, used his big ideas and balls the size of grapefruits to build an empire' or something to that effect. But perhaps they didn't want to let on that Vince may be a mere mortal after all.

Omar said...

The beginning of McMahon really was misleading. They begin with the technical citing of the day Mr. McMahon came into being but thereafter provide no real distinction between this persona and the real McMahon. A lot of what the video does is simply rehash some of the storylines and plots over the years. At time it seems that it was intended solely to stir up some of the old feelings about matches and feuds (yeah, particularly Austin vs. McMahon).

It was almost like one of those clip shows you'd watch on tv--the ones where nothing new really goes on, they simply rerun highlights of older episodes. I wasn't aware of many of the the storylines that had been used over the years. So it was all really just entertaining to me. But I get the feeling that for those who have kept up with wrestling, they were just watching reruns and getting some supplementary commentary along the way--nothing really definitive that spoke about the distinction between Vince and Mr. McMahon.

Sam Ford said...

Peter, I think you are right that McMahon makes any distinctions about who Vince was more cloudy than ever, and we'll have to talk about that today and tomorrow in class. And, Omar, you're also right that the DVD was particularly unenlightening for those of us who know the Mr. McMahon character as well and have seen all these clips.

But just because it wasn't enlightening doesn't mean it wasn't interesting, and its purpose obviously wasn't to tell the backstage story. It's P.R. moments about Vince's patriotism and genorisity were purposefully overdone, juxtaposed with a series of interviews in which one person says Vince was a great guy in real life, followed by someone saying Vince was much worse than Mr. McMahon. In the end, it just leaves you scratching your head.

We have talked before about how Vince has an odd way of wanting to be remembered, but it is seems that it is an enigma instead of a respected legacy that he seems to want to leave as his memory...

David O'Hara said...

deirdre's comments:

"I too almost expected them to make a big deal out of how Vince 'came from nothing, used his big ideas and balls the size of grapefruits to build an empire' or something to that effect. But perhaps they didn't want to let on that Vince may be a mere mortal after all."

You nailed it at the end. Vince seems extraordinairly ashamed of the fact that he grew up in South Carolina in a trailer park and that he was abandoned by his father at a young age. This has manifested itself in myriad WWE storylines since he took over the company from his father. It can be seen primairly in on-air storylines, but also in his hiring practices.

A few examples that spring to mind would be Hillybilly Jim's stable of his hick family members in the mid-80s, as well as Vince's many beratements of Jim Ross over the years in part because he is from Oklahoma. (Vince would give anything to be able to fire Ross and have the shows still run as smoothly as they typically do, but as we've seen, Ross is hard to replace.)

One thing worth looking deeper into is Vince's apparent Oedipal hangup. As I mentioned above, his father left he and his mother when he was a child and as we've seen over the years Vince McMahon can really hold a grudge against people who "abandon" him on bad terms.

By the way, I am a longtime wrestling fan who follows the business very closely. Are most of you wrestling fans as well or did the course just sound interesting? Any readers of the Pro Wrestling Torch or Wrestling Observer Newsletter?

Sam Ford said...

David, I'm the class instructor. The students were asked to either get an Observer subscription or to follow it through the MIT Libraries' new subscription to the Observer. As for me, I've read it for several years now. The class is made up both of some longtime wrestling fans and some folks who've hardly ever watched wrestling, which makes for a great discussion. Hope you'll stick around!

Ismael said...

I just wanted to add that when I sat down to watch the documentary I wasn't expecting it to be that serious. Having watched Vince over the years and all of his antics, I was expecting it to be entertaining more than anything. It didn't make sense that he would make a documentary to set his character on and off screen in stone. I don't think that there would've been enough time to completely discuss just one of the two personalities anyways. It seems like Vince can pretty much shape his rise to the top in whatever way he wants. Because of this, I think that resources like "Sex, Lies and Headlocks" are important tools that shed light on a lot of Vince's undiscussed past.