WrestleMania 36, the collective fever dream of a world hungry for live entertainment and yet somehow sick to death of the WWE’s signature brand of live entertainment, took place last week, forever altering many fans’ perception of what wrestling is—what wrestling is capable of being—through its presentation of the Undertaker/AJ Styles Boneyard Match and the John Cena/Bray Wyatt Firefly Fun House Match. Both matches, blocked out and plotted differently from your standard WWE wrestling match, were filmed in “different locations” than the WWE Performance Center the rest of WWE’s recent programming has hailed from during this pandemic, respectively someone’s backyard and the WWE’s archival warehouse.
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The matches caused a stir and have largely been praised as a consequence of their difference from the rest of the show. On a week to week basis, WWE gives us eight hours of programming from the PC, its silent lifelessness a deadening reminder that what we’re watching should not be. Put those things that shouldn’t be in a boneyard and a netherrealm where John Cena is simultaneously himself and Hulk Hogan, and it’s easier to let go and allow what’s happening to happen under the rules those spaces created for themselves.
The distance between the presentation of the Boneyard and Firefly Fun House matches and normal WWE programming has led to a massive expenditure of critical brainpower on the concept of “cinematic wrestling,” a path of inquiry that tends to lead the people doing this kind of thinking down one of these three roads:
- How has cinematic wrestling changed wrestling?
- What will future cinematic wrestling matches look like?
- What about the influence of this specific instance (Final Deletion, Goldust/Roddy Piper, Hogan/Giant) where a wrestling match was presented “cinematically?”
I can see how it’s fun to ask these questions, but unless you’re in the business of getting clicks on 20-minute long YouTube videos the answers are unfortunately simple: It hasn’t, a lot like this, and the existence of cinematic wrestling in the past suggests that maybe it’s not such a big deal that two matches which otherwise would have been regular-ass matches instead featured a John Deere tractor, the SmackDown fist, and a liberal interpretation of how wrestling “works.” Cinematic wrestling is not new—it’s just what happens when you apply the filmmaking standards of an action movie to professional wrestling.
I don’t want to kinkshame anybody who is into that paradigm, but what made Cena/Wyatt and Styles/Undertaker different wasn’t that they were doing something new—it’s that what they did was actually fun, and under circumstances where practically everything else has died a death for its author’s refusal to figure out how to make his circus fun. So what I’d like to do instead of debating the merits of cinematic wrestling is to make a broad claim about professional wrestling and see where it goes. Ready? Okay.
Professional wrestling has always been cinematic.
Well, not “always.” Movie cameras came into use in the mid-1890s. Discounting the few decades or so of wrestling that resembles what we’ve got that happened before the invention of the movie camera, there’s about a decade and a half between that invention and the 1913 match between Gustav Fristensky and Josef Smejkal, which is the earliest footage I’ve been able to find.
What’s incredible about this 1913 match is how little the cinematic language of wrestling has changed in over a century. Shot as a documentary, we’re given a look at the audience, the venue, the wrestlers, and the referee before the camera is placed behind a section of spectators and remains more or less static as long as both competitors are grappling. With as much of the ring in frame as possible and all of the action as legible as what you’re likely to see on any broadcast today, what you’re watching is the accidental birth of the hard camera.
What’s changed since 1913? Well, plenty. The ring has ropes and turnbuckles. The crowd is proudly less fancy than the one here. Wrestlers know to play directly to the static camera, and there’s a crew of mobile camera operators at ringside. The biggest jump between then and now is the emphasis wrestling places on live broadcast, which means that the editing choices being made (somewhat clumsily) in the editing bay here are being done live in a truck now by an editor who is not himself a camera operator, his job being to stitch together a coherent means of “seeing” a match from a half-dozen or more perspectives. And all of that is before one begins to consider gimmicks, booking, pyro, elaborate sets, and music.
But at its simplest, the action of filming wrestling with the intent to show it to an audience is what makes wrestling cinema. The conscious decision to make meaning out of a fiction crafted in the image of legitimate competition makes wrestling a specific kind of cinema. What you do with that is up to you. You can say that the Firefly Fun House match was a Lynchian affair. You can claim that any number of angles that take place away from the ring, studio, or arena are an attempt at cinéma vérité, from the Four Horsemen breaking Dusty Rhodes’ arm to Steve Austin breaking into Brian Pillman’s house. One of my favorite wrestling angles, Jimmy Hart’s debut of the New Fabulous Ones, segues from a traditional studio segment to documentary, goes back to the studio, then becomes a music video that is itself a parody of a previous music video.
This whole time, wrestling has been content to call itself wrestling. Sure, there’s the occasional bit of insecurity—Vince McMahon’s commentary during the early portion of the Rock/Mankind empty arena match really goes into detail about how wrestling is a soap opera—and you can point out cinema’s influence on wrestling from characters like Razor Ramon, Crow/Joker Sting, and Bray Wyatt to its questionable impulse to shoot mini-movies to promote matches. Wrestling, having contained all of this weirdness for over a century, is still wrestling. It cannot escape itself, even at its most absurd, and wrestling has often been far, far stranger than the Firefly Fun House match.
Cinema as influenced by professional wrestling.
Wrestling’s relationship with cinema is a two-way street. For every cinematic wrestling match, there’s a wrestler making the transition—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to movies. Dwayne Johnson has hit Vin Diesel with the Rock Bottom. Clotheslines and German suplexes are common in hand-to-hand fight sequences. In the third John Wick movie, there’s liberal use of the Von Erich Iron Claw. And wrestling’s influence on the filming techniques and presentation of live sports and other events are vast and largely uncredited.
I say uncredited because to acknowledge this influence would mean acknowledging that professional wrestling has a broader reach than the stereotypes ascribed to it, that wrestling is more than a soap opera for men or cheap entertainment for rednecks, but something just as important and textured as “serious” cinema, a culture capable of informing other cultures. Maybe I feel this way because I’ve been writing about wrestling as an artistic endeavor for years, but the rush to embrace “cinematic wrestling” feels less like heralding the medium’s evolution and more like relief that it resembles something worthy of respect. But wrestling deserves respect, and it deserves critical and cultural attention on its own terms. Yes, that includes the ways in which its rules can be broken, but I’ve yet to see that happen to the extent that it stopped being itself.
In his 2008 review of 300, Roger Ebert said that the film was “full of one-dimensional caricatures who talk like professional wrestlers plugging their next feud.” The professional wrestlers in question were Edge and The Undertaker, one of whom is now an actor, the other often heralded with cinematic spectacle meant to distract from the ravages of time. In 2008, WWE was deep into its much derided scripted promo era, which explains the knock on their one-dimensionality, but that’s not what I was struck by. What catches my attention in this review is the specificity of detail, down to the wrestlers involved and what they were doing, just randomly cropping up in a film review. Roger Ebert, America’s most read film critic, had time for wrestling in 2008, specifically the main event feud of the WWE’s B-show. I don’t know how much wrestling he watched, or if he saw any promos from a better time, but what I do know is that he was asked to pay attention to wrestling by Werner Herzog.
Saying that a poet “must not avert his eyes” to the broader culture beyond his own medium, Ebert isn’t the only person Herzog has encouraged to watch wrestling. It’s been a common theme in lectures and Q&As, the same as his belief that the worst thing a filmmaker can do is go to film school. His study of professional wrestling at least goes as far back as 2001’s WrestleMania X7. His description of Vince McMahon as “the owner of the franchise stepping into the ring with four blondes with breast implants,” while factually untrue, is probably the most accurate description of Vince McMahon ever entered into the public record.
Herzog’s description of wrestling as a “crude new form of drama” is wrong, wrestling being older than cinema, but he was ultimately ahead of the curve so far as advocating for media like wrestling as an alternate means of viewing the fantasies, traumas, and vulgarities of human existence, as a sometimes plastic recontextualization of an often-plasticized society. From the opulence of Ric Flair to the red baiting and war mongering of Hulk Hogan to the abusiveness of Vince McMahon to the miserable egotism of Donald Trump, wrestling has been and will continue to be a mirror of the conditions under which it was produced.
That includes the WWE’s current experimentation with different modes of telling the same stories it’s always told, that death comes for us all and that good and evil cannot exist simultaneously. They reflect those conditions not in their content, but their manner of production, the way the unwanted emptiness of the WWE Performance Center gave way to the intentional emptiness of the Undertaker’s graveyard and Bray Wyatt’s Fun House. These are things one can do in the absence of a live crowd, but it’s still wrestling, and wrestling is good enough to stand without adjectives, on its own. If it’s good enough for the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, it’s good enough for me.