Tuesday, May 8, 2007

I spy

Near the beginning of the course, a few of my posts dealt with my relationship with wrestling texts as a non-fan. I've been thinking of how to follow up with a post about where I'm at now, but it didn't come into focus until a few days ago, when I was watching a Spanish-dubbed RAW. It was already about half over, and I had no overriding reason to watch, but I was channel surfing and there was nothing else on.

All they had done was insert a Spanish "announcer" track over the audio, but the volume and excitement level meant I could only make out the occasional word from the English track. I don't speak Spanish at all. Yet despite the language barrier I always felt I was being given a narrative. This narrative was derived from 1, the visuals and 2, the Spanish announcer's intonation, and was hampered, so far as I can tell by 3, my personal lack of knowledge and context.

Where this puts me: 1, Previously I would look at a match or a 'back stage' bit and see purposeless activity, such as yelling, violence, and bad acting. This is still what I see, but post hoc reflection superimposes motivations onto the characters. That is, I now assign the characters agency. I think this is due to greater familiarity with the physical 'language' of wrestling, which implies that I've learned the representational vocabulary of the melodrama. 2, Similarily, I find that much of the announcer's role is to keep up the energy in counterpoint to the visual, rather than purely giving me information. On the whole it felt a lot like watching the original Iron Chef, with the enthusiastic commentary mostly letting you know that SOMEONE is finding something to be excited about, though in Iron Chef I don't know enough about cooking to feel as comfortable forgoing subtitles. 3, I think if I was a regular viewer, I wouldn't have lost much by not being able to understand any of the words. If I knew more about the characters the narrative I constructed would be more accurate. I was watching Ric Flair and Carlito, and while I know a tiny bit about each, I don't know the specifics of the conflict. Last time I watched RAW Carlito was definding his honor against some old guy. In retrospect I think the old guy was actually Flair or Blassie, but at the time I presumed it was Flair, and this was part of that conflict.

Essentially, watching RAW this time around I had a contextual basis for the wrestling format and actors, but no specifics. (As opposed to if I had watched in English, when I would have had details from commentator and dialogue.) Details would have left me actively reconstructing a story line, which given my experience with clips in class, I usually have little interest in unless I know more about the characters or situation that makes the information useful for understanding something besides current short narrative. A discussion of transparency could take place here: the narratives I construct for myself are supported by my understanding of the format, and do not necessarily rely on specific knowledge.

This may be an atypical response, especially since my experience with wrestling has been explicitly analytical rather than arising from prolonged exposure. But most telling for me was a spontaneous thought I had later that evening. I've been trained to watch events around me, and imagine what would happen if different characters were put in those situations. I was stumbling down the fire escape with a cigarette in my mouth, almost inhaled it by accident and suddenly thought of a wrestler on a staircase, tackled from behind, swallowing a cigarette and belching fire. That was a more physical reinterpretation of events than is my norm, and I'll go so far as to say that is because it was drawing on a different vocabulary. I still don't think I'm a wrestling fan, but maybe I've learned something (useful) after all.

24 comments:

Sam Ford said...

Tess, I mentioned this outside class the other day, but Maya Deren once said that she presented images in her film that made no sense in herself and only for one to draw upon later in life...Perhaps that was the motivation for this class as well!

I think that you make some good points about taking wrestling somewhat "out of context." Further, I would argue that, while the physical storytelling is key to wrestling, the narrative is driven by what I would call "character-driven plot" rather than an emphasis on plot. I've tackled this a lot in my soaps research, and I think it is especially true of wrestling.

As far as the storylines matter to the viewer, detached from the physical performances (if you can do that), they mainly matter to give more insight into the characters. In that case, you are right that a regular fan could get a lot from the Spanish-language track and that the announcers add as much or more in the emotional tone of the show as they do to specific information.

I found the account fascinating bookended with that very early post, and I think you make a lot of good points re: storylines. One real issue of teaching a class about a completely serial narrative is that there is no way to really recreate the gradual development of the plot in the class...

I have often thought about teaching a class on soaps, but I am always left with the question of how you handle undersatnding soap operas, other than watching a particular soap as the viewing lab for the semester...

In wrestling's case, the most confusion is that there are multiple layers of stories simultaneously. The story of a bell-to-bell match, the story of the specific night, the story of a particular storyline or "feud," and the overall trajectory of a particular organization and/or character...

Kathe Lowney said...

For me -- I have a different experience. I find it incredibly boring without the announcers - I find that the melodramatic story just isn't there enough for me without the announcers' dualistic give and take.

I find live WWE shows to be incredibly boring -- finally I realized that I need/want/prefer the announcers to weave the story with me. Perhaps I am just more of an aural person than a visual one, so the physicality, while interesting, isn't enough. I need the words that the announcers gift me with as a viewer/scholar.

katejames said...

I think the announcing is definitely important to the feeling of the match, but only insofar as it actively builds a vocabulary of certain reactionary signals. (I largely learned japanese by watching Iron Chef when I lived in Tokyo, but as soon as I could understand it, it became much less exciting; the signal decoding was automatically put on the backburner to learning how to deep fry sea urchin).

As a (mostly) non-fan before the class, it felt a lot like learning a language to watch so much wrestling: a language of structures, storylines, their potential outcomes and boundaries. It was easily recognizable as a grammar, but the nuances only become clear over time.

I adore the physical langauage of wrestling in the same way I could listen to someone speak portuguese all day long; I can superimpose my textual references on the formal elements. It has a grammar, it's just not quite mine, and therefore it's interesting, both in its ability to connect to commonalities, and inability to communicate certain specificity.

As for the storylines, though, I have to say that I'm not so much into the details. I appreciate the development of histories and complexities, but wrestling for me was always about confronting the performance of essentialized conflict and aggression, and the way the bodies play that out within the tone set by announcers, set, music, etc.
It is, of course, about characters, but again, they are performing in terms of the taxonomy of 'types', and therefore I have always had to play associative games to remember all their names and stories.

Anyway, the vocabulary of melodrama seems like a really useful one to draw on. I'm glad to have learned some of it.

Sam Ford said...

Kate, again you draw an important point, that wrestling can be engaging on different levels, so that you can enjoy it for the physical performance without much concern for the before-and-after. In that case, Kathe's point about the importance of the announcers loses some steps, because the moment matters more than needing to know the details that came before or what will happen next...

But I was certainly very interested in viewing enough wrestling performances over a period of time so that the class would understand how an in-ring wrestling narrative is constructed and that vocabulary. I know that it's probably more instructive to your individual project than any other, but I think this emphasis on the in-ring part of pro wrestling, in addition to the stories and characters, is key, because it is that physical performance that makes pro wrestling different from other fictional television programming, live event performances, etc.

Sue Clerc said...

The announcers are essential to the storytelling. They’re the only people who see everything we see, even the things other performers apparently don’t (arrivals, some of the backstage conversations, although the 4th wall is fluid) and put everything into the broader narrative context.

They were crucial to me as a new fan in the mid90s. I had no knowledge of the verbal or physical language of the ring. I couldn’t distinguish between heels and faces because they acted the same to me; no one acted like a hero, they all seemed like villains to me (heroes in most stories don’t engage in irony-free bragging or bite their opponents). Once I figured out that Lawler was the heel announcer, I knew any guy he supported was the heel.

It was fascinating to listen to Ross struggle with the Austin dilemma, when Austin became popular as a heel and fans were cheering him. As the voice of the company, Ross pushed him as a heel and criticized fans for cheering him (“they think it’s cool to cheer this SOB”) and not performing their proper role. It took some time for them to adjust their strategy and catch up with what their audience was telling them.

Sue Clerc said...

Since I can't figure out how to edit my own post, I'm adding this addendum:
Sam! ATWT! John Dixon: Great tweener or greatest tweener?

Ismael said...

I've also watched wrestling in Spanish and had a different experience. I agree that the annnouncers are important to the storytelling and interprtation of what is going on in the match. This is ok during a match but when wrestlers do promos, I think that there is something lost in the translation and in the presentation. I mentioned that it wouldn't be the same hearing a Spanish announcer saying "Estas despedido" instead of Vince saying "You're fired". It's actually comical when I watched it because there was one translator imitating several voices including female ones. The way that wrestling is set up you don't really need the language to understand the match, but it may prove to be difficult to understand the storylines.

Omar said...

I would agree with kathe in saying that the announcing goes along way in the drama of a match. As annoying as Jerry Lawler can be, his announcing is a pretty integral part of the program.

As a relative newcomer to the sport as well, I too would have felt lost without being informed as to the details of the characters and the development/motivations for the match at hand. This is probably one of the reasons I was never interested in wrestling all that much. I simply didn't want to take the time to get to know the various storylines and characters.

Having taken this class, I still don't feel like watching a wrestling match just for entertainment's sake. But I can appreciate the craft more. As "sketchy" as they can be, I probably enjoy the documentaries of the WWE most--probably because they are both informative and entertaining.

Sam Ford said...

Sue, I can't deny that I am with you on this as far as my own personal enjoyment of wrestling. Since the verbal wit and ad-libbing involved in wrestling performance was always one of the main attractors for me, I have always felt a special bond with the commentators. Ismael is right that, though, that commentary can also detract from a good performance in the ring, and I think Omar makes the point as well as to how the performance of the announcers can be entertaining even when you do not care as much about the in-ring performance.

And to answer your Colbert-esque question, Sue, the GREATEST. But, alas, I have spent the last two years of my life dedicated to ATWT and just wrapped up 176 pages on Oakdale, so perhaps I am biased...

narwood said...

My sense of the announcers have always been decidedly "Mystery Science Theatre." They are the 'real' character, watching the melodramatic spectacle. And commentating. It's radio with a picture.

Acting without commentary is also what they do backstage, and on those cool SNL-like shows. What's the relation between these types of shots and the wrestling ones with commentators? Is it just a soap opera with (like Bollywood!) ritualized 'fights' at explicit points in the narrative? Or is that backwards and it's really that the ritual came first, and everything else built on that?

Sue Clerc said...

Sam, ITA that the announcers can spoil the match. As a brand new fan, though, they were the ones that clued me in to who was good and who was bad, since the actual actions of the wrestlers weren't clear enough for me. Now I appreciate the greater latitude in what a good guy can and can't do while maintaining his goodness, which also mirrors the growth in morally dubious heroes in the rest of entertainment. Wrestling, always on the cutting edge of the pushed envelope.

What Norwood says reminds me--
I gave a paper a couple of years ago about the use of reality in WWE storytelling (I posted a bit in another comment) and tried to illustrate the way the 4th wall is present and absent at the same time. And by that I mean that while the audience and the announcers see everything, the performers' awareness of the audience and cameras' presence is variable and unpredictable.

So: In ring, clearly aware of both audience and camera (often speak directly into camera).

Backstage with interviewer and camera, clearly aware of being on air. This includes backstage-to-ring interviews and in-ring to field locations (like hospital rooms).

Backstage conversations: ?? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Often they plot openly and yet are shocked (shocked!) to discover we're all wise to their schemes, and so are their colleagues thanks to the numerous monitors backstage.

Field locations are also variable. Shane, on camera because we're watching, asks for a table for two because he's waiting for Kane. And yet the cameraman makes 3, and Shane seems oblivious to him. And the ensuing skit actually used two camera angles. Hmm.

Sam Ford said...

Sue...J.R. is just exceptional as a commentator, which helps skew things. If you broke in on Tony Schivone and Larry Zbyszko, though, you might have a different feeling...The best announce teams add to the action while not distracting from it. WCW's glory years was not built on good commentary, which I think greatly took away from what Nitro had to offer. Mike Tenay was good at what he did, but no one else really ever appealed to me.

We have talked some about the use of camera in WWE and how the show should maintain consistency with either acknowledging the camera or not. It just takes away from the suspension of disbelief going back and forth, because sometimes people hear things that happen on the show, and sometimes they are oblivious to what was revealed on the show the week before...

As for Tess, I think that MST2K is quite appropriate. If you consider the performance for the live crowd the primary text, then the announcers are always remediating it for the television viewer, as is the case with all sporting events. But the WWE focuses on storytelling rather than play-by-play.

I think that the key is the ritual coming first. WWE can fancy themselves an entertainment company all they want, but the company cannot lose sight of the fact that it is the wrestling matches that makes their product unique, so wrestling has to be at the core of what they do.

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