Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Rise and (Almost) Fall of ECW

Ok, we didn't quite finish it, but some thoughts on the ECW doc. I was rather surprised to hear that this one is considered to be the most "authentic" of the WWE-produced docs we've watched; I thought it seemed more didactic than the others, which made me suspect a greater-than-usual bias.

To start with, the WWE, WCW and ECW are all represented rather iconically, with McMahon, Bischoff and Heyman serving as metonyms for their respective operations. McMahon is depicted as being cool, rational, and businesslike. Bischoff is depicted as being arrogant and incompetent, as well as having questionable business ethics. (We noted in class that this last one is odd, since he arguably behaved no worse than McMahon--the difference seems to be that McMahon isn't shown to be defensive about his behavior in this particular documentary. As for "arrogant" and "incompetent," all of our readings seem to back that one up.) And Heyman...

Heyman is depicted as a larger-than-life figure, an idealist, and a magnetic personality that inspires cultish devotion in his employees. He is presented as such a dramatic figure that I was taken aback by the class' assurances that this documentary depicts his world accurately. His business skills are, at first, canny and practical: he attacks where the competition is weak, revelling in the "dark side" of wrestling that McMahon and Bischoff had to manage very carefully. The blood, the sex, the sense of plausible (as opposed to superheroic) danger, all liabilities for the other promotions, were the strengths of the ECW. While nobody in the documentary said as much, I'm not sure ECW's comparatively low production values were a weakness to be minimized, but rather part of the appeal, helping to convince the audience that they weren't really dealing with a professional operation, and that anything really could happen. As Mick Foley pointed out (with what seemed like a degree of disdain), the fans loved the wrestling, but they also loved seeing people get hurt. It's easy to see where Foley's obsession with injury, safety and reality, labored so heavily in Foley is Good, comes from.

As the film goes on, it's suggested that Heyman (representing the ECW) eventually fails because he never moves past the mom-and-pop style that put him on the map. He performed multiple jobs, as did most of his wrestlers. The film (and a few of the wrestlers in it) suggest that ECW might have survived longer had he been willing to delegate, and move to a more "professional" model. I found this a little odd, given that Vince's reputation as a control freak doesn't seem to have yet doomed the WWE. But this claim, that Heyman resisted the transition to a big-league business model, sets up the WWE as the rightful inheritor of the ECW's talent, and the rightful ruler of the pro wrestling juggernaut--in stark contrast to that prick Bischoff.

At least, that's what it looks like from what we saw: it's possible there's a twist ending I haven't seen coming, in which Sabu is actually a disguised Magneto, or Heyman has been dead the whole time. (In my world, I like to imagine that documentaries offer the same story potentialities as fiction.) But it seems to be that there's a fundamental contradiction in the idea of a large-scale, highly successful ECW competing on the same scale as WWE and WCW, because the appeal of the ECW even today seems to be its stripped-down, alternative quality--Nirvana to the WWE's Poison, to borrow Heyman's analogy. Nirvana burned out quite famously, and while the fates of contemporary early 90s alternative messiah-bands vary, none of them ever actually replaced the pop music against which they were defined as alternative. Wrestling has grown to the point that it's straddling the line between subculture and culture, and ECW seems firmly planted in subculture.


Sam Ford said...

You are right, Peter, in that the Nirvana connection might be even more applicable than Paul Heyman meant. There's a new business out there with underground credibility, similar to ECW, called Ring of Honor. The difference is that, in an age of more regulated ways to hawk DVDs, ROH has created a business model where they don't even have a TV show but put on shows and tape them for DVD distribution. The idea is to never try to get too big so that they will always stay in the black.

Heyman wanted to become a viable national promotion, but he also wanted to retain the feel of the product. It's one of those struggles, in a street act not meant to be mainstream trying to go mainstream will almost inevitably collapse. Paul went on to work for WWE, and his blowups with management and disappearance on a regular basis has been part of the WWE for the past four or five years. Heyman as a head writer doesn't like the idea that he has to answer to someone else, and he can get so passionate about even the most minute parts of the show that he and the WWE management almost always end up in conflict.

Michael Wehrman said...

The feel of the product is critical. In my comment on the other ECW post I lamented about the punk rock kids' attitude towards records. It didn't matter what you sounded like or put out: 10 years ago, if you were on "Epitaph" records, you weren't cool. It wasn't as bad as being on Warner Bros., but Epitaph had less legitimacy than a label run out of someone's apartment, with members of various bands sealing and assembling records and inserts.

Part of the new ECW fails to grasp that. They only presentation difference is the dimmed lights during a match (well, a vastly different crowd, but that was a desired change on WWE's end). Seeing commercials for Raw and Smackdown, Vince McMahon endless monologues, and half a dozen video clips advertising WWE products kills the feel of the product.

Many people who lament the current ECW complain about characters, booking decisions, or in-ring product. They fail to realize, in my opinion, that the same match, move for move, in TNA or ROH would be treated far more leniently than in WWE. The packaging around the product is far too slick for anything "extreme."

ROH, even though on DVD, has dark and wobbly camera angles, a minimalist set, no pyro, and a very gritty feel. So it had more of that "legitimacy" that the current ECW lacks (even when the matches in ROH are bad - who ever decided to give "Fast Eddie" ring time?).

Will there be another ECW? I don't know. Will there be another Nirvana? I think the answer to both is "probably," though it will take a form we can't predict.

Luis Tenorio said...

The Nirvana analogy seems so appropriate. There is no doubt that the alternative bands did not replace the longer lasting hard rock bands or the pop stars but they did have a major impact on the industry. And their influence can be heard in bands today. The same is true of ECW. TLC matches and Hell in a Cell would not be there today.
I also agree with the idea that the mom and pop model would have been more successful for ECW. It just seems that when the expansion of ECW started happening, namely to TNN, they started losing talent too fast to replace and could not compete with the money of the WWE. Why change your business model when you are not ready to?

Sam Ford said...

Mike, I think you are quite right that the biggest problem with the new ECW is aesthetic, and it's linked to the fact that WWE never did enough to make each of its brands feel differently and even less so now that there will be regular "tri-branded" PPVs.

Ismael said...

Before this documentary , I had only seen Paul Heyman when he joined Smackdown. I thought he was very over the top and annoying. Seeing the documentary gave me new respect for him. He appears very intelligent and in touch with the fans. He knows what his fans want and he is always straight forward with them. There was a lot of loyalty to Paul and he was in turn loyal to his wrestlers and his fans. All of these characteristics set up a good model for a wrestling promotion. The only thing missing was that last jump to a big time promotion that Paul never made.

Sam Ford said...

I'm sure Paul would say that just making it to PPV and a national TV deal made ECW a success, considering it was just a small local promotion. Sort of how Vince would say XFL was a success because it happened, even if it ultimately failed.

Paul has been an important part of the WWE product at times over the past several years. He was the commentator on RAW for quite a while while Jerry Lawler was gone during 2001-2002. It was a shock when he debuted on WWE after ECW's demise. Then he was moved to Smackdown where he became the head writer behind-the-scenes and the agent of Brock Lesnar on screen. I would credit Heyman with helping get Brock over more than anything else. He also did a great job as an on-screen performer during his run as general manager of Smackdown after Stephanie McMahon's tenure.

Heyman has had many blowups with WWE over the past six years or so of consistent employment. Paul is very opinionated and passionate and argumentative and close-minded and stubborn, etc., so his clashes with Stephanie McMahon as head of creative have been legendary behind-the-scenes, it seems. After one blowup, Paul went to OVW to take over for Jim Cornette after WWE let him go (the similarities between Cornette and Heyman are another story, considering how Cornette feels about Heyman, but they have so much in common). He helped set up and use some of the wrestlers who are now becoming WWE regulars.

Then Heyman was heavily involved in the two WWE-ECW versions and brought in to be a major part of the launch of the WWE ECW, but there were plenty of clashes there as well. WWE sent Paul home, especially after December to Dismember turned out so horribly due in part perhaps to the clashes between Paul and others, but my understanding is that Paul remains on WWE's payroll. Guess they'd rather pay him to stay in-house, even if he isn't doing much, than send him elsewhere...