Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Owen Hart: Funerals and Wakes

The Wright piece on Owen Hart got me thinking, on a number of levels, and grieving. A lot of people are talking about grieving right now, of course; Dennis Prager wrote an interesting article about appropriate and inappropriate methods. The article is here. I'm not posting it because I agree with it per se--Prager is a fascinating case study for the art of rhetoric, but he's also, in my opinion, consistently wrong about everything--but because it correctly asserts that people express grief in many ways, some of which are mutually exclusive.

Sometimes, seemingly contradictory rituals go together. The funeral and the wake come to mind: the first, a solemn recognition of sadness and loss, the second a celebration of not only the life lost, but often life itself, in all its undignified glory. In everything we've read about Hart's death, the question is raised about what Hart would have wanted. Specifically, would he have wanted the show to go on?

I think it's this tension that causes the semiotic schizophrenia Wright describes. It makes sense, on a general level, to not break completely from character, from business, or from revelry in a tribute to a dead wrestler. It makes sense, that is, if the wrestler identifies himself with the sport, and with the organization: if celebrating the life necessarily entails celebrating wrestling. It seems to me that an "authentic" tribute, in which there was no gratuitous sex or violence, and in which all performers appeared under their real names, would seem out of place for certain wrestlers, in the same way that I think a eulogy for George Carlin would be incomplete without a healthy dose of profanity. If Steve Austin were to have died while working for the WWE, I can't imagine the tribute wouldn't involve beer drinking or middle fingers. The wake model seems most appropriate.

For Owen Hart, though, who was lionized for his integrity and his recognition that his family was more important than his job, it seems out of place to celebrate the job alongside the man. I see no fundamental problem with the "strong hyperreality" described by Wright in a tribute to an archetypal dead wrestler, but it presents a rather difficult problem when applied to Owen Hart.


Sam Ford said...

WWE has had three tragic deaths in company history, two of whom died in the hotel room prior to an evening's match and the other was Owen. In the case of Brian Pillman, which you already read about, they found him hours before the PPV, and Vince McMahon made the announcement on the live PPV pre-show. Brian was supposed to have wrestled that night. With Owen, the Wright piece covers what happened, and we'll watch clips today and discuss this in detail. We'll be talking about Eddie later this term.

I think Owen's is set aside because the other two, while tragic, were health-related, while Owen's was a complete accident, and yet an accident that didn't have anything to do with wrestling. No one has ever died in a WWE ring from wrestling, and Owen's was a stunt gone wrong. My understanding has always been that Owen, playing "The Blue Blazer" as a comedic takeoff on the superhero wrestler from the 80s, was set to win the Intercontinental Title the night he was killed.

While Eddie's death was similar to Brian's in the way he was found and his life story, it was like Owen, in that the heavy rumor was that Eddie was set to regain the World Heavyweight Title on the night they found him dead.

WWE has created this type of show that allows wrestlers to grieve on the air with fans, but it does raise some fascinating questions. I hope we are able to address them in further detail in class today.

narwood said...

The situation brings to mind whatever gladiator movie it was, where during the chariot race, a stuntman fell under a chariot (which he was meant to do) and died (which he was not meant to do). This shot is in the movie because his family wanted his death not to be pointless.

I have this feeling in my gut that giving Owen a wrestling send off is not the best for him, but on the other hand, the fact that he existed within a context of pro-wrestling, which is in itself an institution, forces the possibility of looking at him only from this perspective. The part of wrestling that is reality is the only place in which other send off's would be natural, and here it does come down to audience perception and attitude.

katejames said...

Watching portions of the pay-per-view and the tribute in class, I found that the material was extremely compelling precisely because of its chaos and the strange, confused nature of the reaction afterwards. While Wright argues that the mixed messages and lack of clarity (the departure from normal format and character, but without complete abandonment of the guise of wrestling medium) diminshed impact of the tribute, I found it totally appropriate.

The moment of Owen Hart's death was a launch out of the performance of reality into reality itself. As mentioned in class, the volume and tone of the language required to define the event as 'really real' shows how successful the profession is at maintaining the 'fake real'. If the aftermath and tribute to Owen Hart had been polished or scripted, if it was produced to steadfastly hold the wrestlers in character, or on the other hand to completely release that performative aspect, it would have seemed force.

I agree that it comes down to audience perception and attitude. If the fans weren't engaged with the chaos created by the event, if they weren't privy to this 'backstage' moment in all its ambiguities (as they have been with other backstage dramas), then I would definitely feel the tribute had failed.

Sam Ford said...

During that tribute, the undertone of wrestling performance of a communal traveling group really comes to the fore, whereas during the usual wrestling text it remains in the background. The key is that these moments emphasize the "wrestling community" even as the text is about these characters constantly being at each others' throats.

Ismael said...

I think that Sam brings up a good point about the wrestling community. We were able to see the types of relationships that go on behind the scenes. We see wrestlers openly weeping and sharing their fondest memories of their friend. It's sad that we are only able to see this gentle side of wrestling only after a tragedy occurred. I think that even the fans might've been caught off guard by how real the wrestlers were being.

Sam Ford said...

It is interesting to compare your thoughts, Ismael, to Deirdre's recent comment on another thread, in which she talks about how much it was about the "performance of being real" rather than any true sense of being real...