Monday, September 15, 2014

How This Class is Ruining My Ability to Suspend My Disbelief

While watching NXT and Smackdown over the weekend in conjunction with the readings, I am noticing more and more the structure of the matches and less the emotional content. Like Mark Twain and the river, I've transitioned to the analytical way of watching a match and the poetry is starting to go out of it.
In the fifth chapter of Ole Anderson's Inside Out, he discussed a match where he and another wrestler had gotten too crazy and Vern Gagne was upset because they're supposed to save the high-flying stuff for the main event. While musing on how scientific the first couple of matches on NXT were, I realized that this still holds true today. Even though NXT has a different, almost more chaotic feel than Raw or Smackdown, they're still following these formulas.
In "Actors on the Canvas Stage: the Dramatic Conventions of Professional Wrestling," Gerald Craven and Richard Moseley ruined the illusion of wrestling forever for me by writing out all the dramatic conventions pro wrestling utilizes to engage the audience.

To recap for blog purposes:
Sport-derived conventions
1. Blind/stupid referee
2. Special finishing holds over scientific wrestling
3. Disqualification and grudge matches
4. Post-match confrontations
Theatrical conventions
1. Evil wrestler initiates illegal/unfair action
2. Use of props
3. Evil plots that backfire
4. Illegal use of the stage
5. Illegal use of the sub-stage

While the majority of these are really common sense, without ever having them spelled out so explicitly I was able to quite easily suspend my disbelief to watch the match. Upon reflection though, I realized a lot of these are present almost constantly. I cannot recall a tag team match that did not involve some sort of illegal use of the stage wherein the partner of someone in the ring breaks the rules and jumps in too, leading to an all-out brawl (uncontainable because of an inept referee). And sure enough on Smackdown, Big Show, Mark Henry and the Usos were teamed up against Gold Dust, Stardust, Luke Harper, and Eric Rowan, and the whole thing turned into a brawl.
All throughout the program scientific wrestling was downplayed, but during the Divas match, Paige  used AJ Lee's special finishing move the "Black Widow" on her opponent Summer Rae, to which AJ replied by stealing Paige's "Paige Turner" and using it on Layla, who was trying to attack Paige. This was received as extremely offensive to both wrestlers, fueling their grudge match.
During the arm-wrestling match between Mark Henry and Rusev, Rusev not only initiated unfair behavior by demanding a rematch with his left hand, he and Natalia tried to play dirty and it didn't work. Even though Natalia blew chalk into Mark Henry's eyes, Rusev didn't win the contest.
In the main event, a tag match between Chris Jericho and Roman Reigns against Seth Rollins and Randy Orton, they (of course) broke the rules and turned it into a brawl again, and Roman and Seth also made illegal use of the sub-stage as they took their fight out into the space around the ring and into the crowd.
I guess I was looking at these as if they happened only every once in a while, as opposed to each convention happening multiple times per match. Now it's all I see, and while I can still enjoy watching wrestling, I am left to wonder whether I have gained most or lost most by studying it.


Sam Ford said...

This would be a great subject of discussion in class, Mikey, particularly for those of you who were currently actively watching pro wrestling before entering this class. In any media studies/pop culture studies class that goes in depth into a particular genre, this has come up. Can you never watch a film or TV again if you start studying it? Can you develop your analytical skills but still be able to suspend disbelief? I look forward to diving into that discussion with you all! :)

Timothy S. Rich said...

Mikey, I about died reading this, but it also speaks to a greater point. It's not just a suspension of disbelief about the activity in the ring as sport or non-sport, but these other factors as well. Similarly, imagine changing one of those conventions and the performance seems fundamentally different. For example, if referees are competent, what does that leave for bad guys? Similarly, what does that say about every referee previously?

There are plenty of factors we accept as part of the drama that outside of this context make little sense. Why doesn't the camera person in backstage segments warn someone about to be jumped? Or for that matter, who's filming when wrestlers are supposed to be alone? Why aren't run-ins treated as assault and battery?

Tony Smith said...

Mikey this post made me think of three things. First, in recent years the WWE and WCW, when it was around, decided to do away with the “squash match.” In these matches a dud would wrestle one of the known stars and get, “squashed.” Elements such as cheating, incompetent refs, and disqualifications were not necessarily needed. The point was to demonstrate that the star was great and able to “squash” most men. It also made matches between a face star and heel star that much more special. The product now takes away some of the audience’s ability to see the wrestlers as real tough guys because the elements noted in Mikey’s post are needed in a non-squash match to keep feuds going or to keep one guy looking legit despite losing. Second, while no one thinks wrestling as competition is legit, devices we accept noted by Tim could still be done differently to lessen the fakeness of the presentation. For example, no one in the world talks to three other people while standing in a straight line if they can help it. Backstage at WWE events must be extremely cramped for all these superstars to be standing in such an awkward fashion. My third thought is in line with Sam’s question of whether one could still enjoy a movie or any form of art if they start analyzing devices used. I watched Wrestlemania 25 with a group of PhD students. I was the only avid wrestling fan there, as my buddy ordered the PPV since I refuse to ever pay for cable. The group I was with pointed out every element that was fake during the show and laughed about. It was fun doing this, but when Shawn Michaels wrestled the Undertaker, the group’s tone changed: jokes stopped, people cringed at points in the match, they cheered, the got upset, the were relieved when it was over, and they all seemed to be invested in the story. I don’t think that they suspended their disbelief in that moment, but their attitude about the show was different for that match. They all knew it was fake, but that did not matter, and it shouldn’t. I think the elements just need to look “real-enough” to enhance the performance.

Sam Ford said...

A lot of great points here in the continued discussion...As we discussed in class--there are just some "unrealistic" notions about wrestling that, if you accept them as logical, you can then perhaps enjoy the rest of the show. So, imagine a world where you don't get fired for assaulting people in the workplace. Imagine that referees are incompetent, and it's just impossible to ever hire people in that role who can truly and consistently uphold the rules, etc. Of course, different fans from different territories or different points in time differ on what should be those "absurdities" that you have to accept as real.

One thing I like about wrestling performance is when little details are thrown in that allow you to more completely suspend disbelief. Tony has a great point about how the squash match would do that...It gives you a chance to see anyone who is a "star" occasionally win a match handily, and largely wrestle as exhibition. Another is upholding the rule. The idea of there being a time limit makes sense to explain why matches only last so long--so perhaps occasionally have a match go to a time limit draw. Be sure to have someone get counted out sometimes. Occasionally, have a wrestler refuse to break a hold when someone puts their foot on the ropes, and have the referee disqualify them. Sometimes, have someone win a match unexpectedly with a move that's not their "finisher." All these elements actually will demonstrate why it's logical that someone would go for a pin two minutes into the match, or why there should be any drama whatsoever when the referee starts counting as a guy makes it into the ropes.

Another aspect I like is when the announcers attempt to explain the logic, even when it doesn't necessarily make sense otherwise. Similar to Ole Anderson's justification, or the justification shared in the Randall Williams "Hulk Vs. Ox Baker" piece about why matches may go 7 or 8 minutes, etc., I thought the masters at this sort of logic were Lord Alfred Hayes and Gorilla Monsoon. They would always remind you that the winner got 70% of the purse, while the loser got 30% of the purse for any given match. That's why a wrestler doesn't want to get counted out or disqualified. That's why it mattered who won or who lost. Etc. They would explain why a mask gave someone a potential advantage, and then debate the disadvantages for wearing a mask as well. When someone had a strange gimmick, they would try to explain the gimmick and why it made logical sense--It was there to distract you. It was there to get you off your game. It was there to intimidate you...

Too often, I think those subtleties get lost...but they can really deepen people's emotional investment beyond camp when they are present.