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FILM / The Boys, The Wrestler, His Daughter & Her Sad Poet / Donald Zirilli

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

In my senior year of college, my parents took me and my younger siblings to an Off Broadway play called The Boys Next Door, by Tom Griffin.  I was watching a scene with two mentally disabled people at a dance, shuffling clumsily together. Suddenly, without warning, they straightened up into perfect ballroom posture and danced beautifully across the stage. This was how they ended the first act. Curtains closed, lights up.

And there I was, next to my family, crying in my seat. If this was merely a trick, this break from realism, it worked on me. I was so entrenched in the illusion of two convincing performances that their transformation into ballroom dancers was utterly shocking to me. My body responded with tears.

Is that art? Is art about creating emotion? Is art about shock?

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

Just the other day, I was watching The Wrestler, a 2008 film written by Robert D. Siegel and directed by Darren Aronofsky. When I watch a movie, I tend to analyze it as I watch it. But The Wrestler was thwarting me. One of the first things my analytical brain noticed was the camera tracking the wrestler, played by Mickey Rourke, from behind, in many different scenarios. The most obvious effect is to evoke the TV wrestler walking into the arena. But it did something else as well. Long tracking shots like this were deadening my analytical brain, changing the mental to physical. There’s nothing to think about. The wrestler’s body, often in silhouette, is blocking much of the shot. There’s no music (that I remember) or talking. He is alone. He is only making the sounds of moving and breathing. We are trapped with him in the tunnel of his life.

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

The word “art” comes from a word meaning “skill.” Arti/fice is the skill of making. Later, artificial comes to mean “fake,” because it is “made” by us, and for some reason we, our motivations, are not “real.” 

Wrestling is fake. Right? The wrestler, who always wants to put on a good show, sets up an elaborate match with construction materials used as weapons. The combatants even staplegun each other. It looks like unskilled unmaking. It looks like a parody of “making,” an exposé of artifice.

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

But the staples are real. Medical personnel have to pull them out. The trauma of this “fake” wrestling gives the wrestler a real heart attack. Later, at the hospital, he asks the doctor if he can still exercise. The doctor says moderate exercise would be great. The wrestler says that’s not enough, because he is a wrestler, but the doctor says no, you can’t be that.

Wrestling is real. There are other words besides “artificial” that come from “making.” “Perfect” means “made through.” So “to perfect” is to take artifice all the way, as if by committing fully to making, we can break through to the other side, and be real again.

To “wrestle” is to turn or twist something. So the artists make something, they keep making something until it feels true, and then they twist it. That’s what happened in The Boys Next Door, and I was down for the count.

But I was talking about a movie. A movie is an “art.” But acting is also an “art.” A movie “moves,” but this one moved slowly. Not just the “behind the wrestler” shots, but many of the other shots were also long and slow. The movie allowed the actors to act. And the actors acted all the way through, to something convincing. So I believe it when the wrestler tries to date a stripper, played by Marisa Tomei, and the stripper says no. She’s a mother of a young boy. She says that he wants to date a stripper, and that’s not what she is, not really.

Unlike The Boys Next Door, there was no gimmick, no breaking the suspension of disbelief, there were just moments when the movie reminded me it was a movie, like when the camera suddenly starts following the stripper instead of the wrestler, and we see that she is experiencing the same issue as the wrestler, getting too old for a job which depends completely on her body, but also a very different issue, because she isn’t really a stripper and he really is a wrestler.

The movie’s combination of realism (“perfect” illusion) and poetry (literary “artifice”) was having a cumulative effect on me. Especially since the wrestler is about my age, and I, too, have had doctors looking at my heart and telling me to change my life.

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

The wrestler, when he’s told not to be a wrestler, remembers that he is a father . . . and tries to reconnect with his daughter, played by Even Rachel Wood, and for one perfect afternoon in Asbury Park, he succeeds. They even do a little ballroom dancing, but music never swells up from nowhere, they never forget who they are. In his own artless way, he gets his daughter to agree to a dinner date. But when the stripper rejects him, he and his wrestler buddies go partying. He misses the dinner.

They don’t show the daughter sitting alone at a restaurant. They don’t have to. We know how she feels. A father who has neglected her for her entire life is absent one more time, after getting her to trust him again. 

Instead, the camera stays with the wrestler, waking up to realize that he missed his date, rushing to her house, begging for forgiveness. And I know that she is right to be angry. I know she is right. But I also know that she is wrong. That she is more wrong than anyone else in the movie, because she is hurting herself. She is depriving herself of the only father she will ever have, forever.

And now instead of being the wrestler, I’m the daughter, and I’m yelling at myself, by which I mean I’m talking to the screen, because this is all real to me. And I really don’t want her to blow this. But she does.

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

Image © Fox Searchlight Pictures

The movie was wrestling me to the ground, making moves on me over and over, wearing me out, right up until the most artificial and realest thing of all: The End, blackness and credits. This is after he ascends to the top rope in the wrestling ring, even though he is having another heart attack, and he leaps forward to do his most famous, his *defining* move. And that’s when the movie ends, mid-leap, simultaneously making me realize that he’s done for, but also creating a visual illusion that he is ascending into the sky. And that’s when I had my Boys Next Door moment. In the darkness of the credits, I wept. I sobbed, actually.

Which brings me back to the question, is art for sobbing? Is that why we make it? Is that what makes it art?

Image © Miramax

Image © Miramax

Not long after The Boys Next Door, I saw a movie called The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, a 1989 Peter Greenaway film. I didn’t cry during this movie, but its impact was every bit as profound as the impact of The Boys Next Door. Does that make it art? The movie made me uncomfortable, miserable. I was horrified, traumatized. I was afraid of each new scene.

This emotional impact doesn’t seem at all artistic to me. The art of the movie, which did impress me, consisted in such things as the color scheme of different rooms. It was completely separate from the distress, which seemed utterly gratuitous and excessive. I was forced, in a clumsy and obvious way, to feel miserable.

You could argue that The Boys Next Door also forced feelings onto me, by surprising me so abruptly, but I don’t regret it for a moment, even the embarrassment in front of my family. I appreciated the swift, artful flourish of that quick move. 

But my misery watching The Wrestler was in no way forced. It was completely consensual. It was a bargain I made a few minutes into the movie. And as the movie continued, I agreed to go further and further into it.

Is art a bargain? Is art a negotiation between the work and the audience? Maybe this differentiates art from other products. It is not merely consumed. It is interacted with.

Let’s face it, the reason I’m trying to hash over these old questions and tired answers about art is because I make art, I write poetry, and I want to know how I can make the kind of impact that The Wrestler made on me, without making the kind of impact of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Because those of us who read lots of poems forget most of them. We might nod a little here and there, think how clever something is, but then we turn the page. I was starting to think that’s all we could do, just make butterflies to flit across passing fancies.

But then I saw The Wrestler, and I remembered there’s something more we could be doing, as poets.

And it’s true, I don’t know how to get there yet, but I’ve seen it. And it’s true there are many ways to get there, but somehow that just makes it harder instead of easier.

How do we, as poets, make the poem physical? How do we make them feel our breathing?

I think about the daughter’s decision to protect herself, how rational it was, how smart it was, while still being so wrong. And I compare it to the wrestler’s decision to wrestle again, how stupid it was while still feeling right, or inevitable, or at least understandable . . . because his decision was to be himself. And I compare it to the poet’s decisions while writing a poem, how poets are allowed to be so smart when making decisions, and I appreciate that. I really do. Someone has to appeal to the intellect! But do we have to sacrifice the catharsis, the sobbing through the credits?

Early R.E.8 with initial small tailfin. Source: Imperial War Museum (Public Domain)

Early R.E.8 with initial small tailfin. Source: Imperial War Museum (Public Domain)

I can read An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, a poem by William Butler Yeats from 1919, without sobbing. But that’s only because a poem is easier to step back from than a movie. If I really immerse myself in it, the poem will send me to the mat every time. And more than a movie, it stays with me, always in the background of my memory, where it can reappear at any time.

That’s all I want for my poems. Not to force everyone to cry (anyone who has attended a poetry reading has heard poems that merely traumatize you by retelling terrible events), but to write the perfect artifice, something that negotiates a reader into feeling something, and later, when the reader starts to think she’s safe again, quietly climbs to the top rope . . . and gets ready to make its signature move.


Donald Zirilli is a Healthcare IT manager with an English Literature BA from Drew University. He was the editor of Now Culture, the art editor of The Shit Creek Review, and remains a Rutherford Red Wheelbarrow Gang Member. He’s had essays published in BigCityLit and Triggerfish Critical Review. His poetry has been published in many periodicals and anthologies. His chapbook, Heaven’s Not For You, was published in September, 2018, by Kelsay Books.