Within the last few years, we have had a preponderance of sports-related dramas released. Notably, many of these films have centered not on football or baseball but on more violent sports, such as boxing or wrestling, and they seemed to serve the dual purpose of revealing certain truths about the sport and about those who engage in it.
But sports films (even violent sports films) are nothing new. Even the revelatory “insignia” of most of these films which seems to be the troubled or remarkably dysfunctional family situation was present back in the days of Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)
with John Garfield’s boxer Charley Davis, whose parental situation is compromised or Champion (Mark Robson, 1949), with Kirk Douglas’ Midge Kelly, a boxer with a crippled brother and a unique ability to step on whomever he needs to.
These days, to use this insignia as ample explanation for characters’ motivations towards sports engagement is dreadful oversimplification. Realistically, if anyone were to argue it for the older set of films, I would say that not only were they rejecting the dynamics of genre conventions that these films employ (noir, melodrama) but they are also highly representative of social conditions. These films, whether they are The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008), The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) or Requiem for a Heavyweight (Ralph Nelson, 1962) are based on more than individual protagonists’ surrounding environments. While not discounting those elements, the characters these movies focus on participate in sports such as this for a multitude of reasons, and the larger “picture” of the picture should not be shrugged off. It’s far too important.
The filmic texts of sports films become even more multi-layered as the years go on, underscoring not only individual reasoning and impetus but a variety of other sociological factors that come together to provide much richer pieces. Even a film as seemingly innocuous or “cheesy” as Over the Top (Menahem Golan, 1987) counts in that it adds an extra patch to this “quilt” in the way that it handles issues of social upheaval within the family unit as well as masculinity (even if arm-wrestling isn’t widely considered a national past-time).
It has come to my attention that the simple “he came from the wrong side of the track/bad family life” summation is trite and kindergarten analysis for the depth of these examples of cinema. There are much more fascinating treasures within these films to be unearthed, and it is our job as viewers to look a little deeper. These films work on contradiction and criticism: their narratives pivot upon the carnivalesque celebration of primal, base acts. If we take these simply at face value, then we are doing something wrong.
This year’s example of what I am speaking of is a film directed by Gavin O’ Connor called Warrior. Although at first glance, the film may seem to play off the same tired clichés of alcoholism, bad family life, economic tension and the “east coast,” Warrior is a multidimensional film that methodically examines the themes of conflict and technology all underneath the waving banners of family and sports. O’Connor manages to communicate his story within terms of familial struggle as well as within terms of media complicity. In doing so, Warrior becomes a tale that makes the audience at once aware that they, themselves, are complicated figures in the schema of the film as they are at once made active participants and passive empaths, no matter what age they might be. O’Connor’s multigenerational technological “mash-up” creates a space in which any viewer can find an avenue through which to join the narrative. It is all intentional.
Reality v. Fiction
This lay-out of the film poster exemplifies the way in which the film was intended to run: a match-up game that didn’t quite match-up. Instead, it was more of a mash-up game. From a distance, one might mistake the two posters as one singular image, one person. Up close, there was no question that it was the actors playing the two different roles, Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. This visual division of the one “pseudo-image” into two, is the reiteration of the narrative split of the characters. However, this is the first example of how conceptions of reality and fiction are played upon from the very beginning. Had you chanced upon the two posters previous to seeing the film, you might have mistaken them for one whole person (together), or, seeing them separately, each poster might’ve appeared to be half of the same person (unless you were quite familiar with the actors in the film). Either way, the message behind the poster was the enmeshing of the two different beings into one; incongruous realities coming together, not fitting, creating a fiction, a trick for the eye.
The next time this reality/fiction mash-up plays itself out is within the actual film itself. Like other recent films, Warrior placed actual sports figures into the quilted layout of its story. Darren Aronofsky’s may have hired real-live wrestler Nekro-Butcher and assorted other wrestling announcers to give The Wrestler that true-to-life flavor, but O’Connor hired the flavor, turned up the heat, and added one more element: he mixed it up.
Kurt Angle was the pride and joy of the WWE for many years. He was the one person that they could say had gotten a “real Olympic gold medal” and they played that for all that it was worth. Angle, in playing the character of Russian-MMA champion Koba, also played that part for all that it was worth. It is true that Kurt’s career has included a modicum of MMA bouts in the last few years, but his primary celebrity has always been within the world of televised wrestling. It’s what he is known for. Additionally, it is important to note that Mixed Martial Arts, as we know it, would not be what it is without the showmanship and the carnival-like atmosphere that Vince McMahon brought to the extreme sports-world. Kurt Angle’s appearance within the MMA spectrum is both shocking and also a historical “post-it-note” to the past, reminding those “in the know” where MMA came from.
While there are a variety of announcers and other real-life MMA-figures in the film, it is Kurt Angle’s appearance within the Warrior text that is one of the bigger reality/fiction matches. Like any non-fictional performer put in a fictional storyline, it hinges upon the audience’s familiarity with the real-life extreme sports world. In wrestling terminology, can O’Connor truly “put him over” as a MMA-champion and not the all-American wrestling hero that he’s been known as for years?
The use of non-fiction characters, whether they are big champs like Angle or just well-known announcers, represent the attempt to invite audience members into the front row; make them feel like they are part of the V.I.P section. Realistically, in a certain sense, they are. It’s like knowing a secret or being part of a tribe; you’re the one who gets those jokes, you get those “in” moments, you are the film’s reality. This makes a huge difference on how familiar you are with Kurt Angle. If you are familiar with who Kurt Angle is, his placement in the film relays a sense of history and gives the MMA-world a context to exist in. For people who are aware of Kurt Angle, he is history. Seeing as the Mixed Martial Art world is still a relatively new sport, and Angle himself has been wrestling with the WWE and then TNA for an inordinate amount of time (ok, maybe not Ric Flair amount, but a goodly bit of time!), recognizing him as a major wrestler and not a MMA fighter is pretty much a no-brainer in this arena, literally. The other bit of traction here is that, aside from the history, as a walking part of fan culture who has just been sewn into the filmic text, you are also well aware that everything is a little upside down, a little bit in conflict. The reality is in the fiction, the old history (wrestling) is at odds with the new (MMA), and there is nothing you can do about it but be fully aware. Because you know what only other fans know.
But I’m not an extreme sports fan, you say. I don’t know who any of those big muscle-y guys are! That makes no difference to me. It’s simply a film. I can watch it without being troubled by outside issues. Koba/Angle doesn’t matter to me! Well, my dear friend, you may be right. Unfortunately, there is the distinct possibility that you are not. If you have borne witness to film and pop culture in the ’80’s, you (very likely) have access to Koba in a different manner. If you cannot engage in the fan’s position of Angle-intimacy, you can also access him through the cinematic analogy. Within the narrative he is being used as The Russian aka the Ultimate baddie, the “anti-American” antagonist. Hrmm. Sound familiar? Well, Rocky IV (Sylvester Stallone, 1985) fans, it really should. Kurt Angle had a predecessor: Dolph Lundgren, the most Soviet Swede (if ever there was one) played the incredibly intimidating Ivan Drago, threatening America and Rocky Balboa, should he not beat him in that boxing match!
So even if you are unaware of Koba from his reality as Kurt Angle, there is bound to be the analogy between fictions, causing a similar rift between sports types as that which came up within the Angle-intimate situation. Boxing, like wrestling, played its own part in the creation of the sport of MMA, thus helping to give it a certain groundwork. Here once again we are shown another example of the clash between that which came before (boxing/Rocky IV) and that which is here now (Mixed Martial Arts/Warrior), a battle between kinds of histories and physical techniques, or, one could almost say, technologies.
Mixed Martial Arts itself is a mash-up. As has been shown through the discussions of the influencing filmic and non-fiction works, it is not a pure discipline. The very name of it states that it is Mixed Martial Arts. Warrior uses this sport as its playground for precisely this reason. Instead of using a stripped down, unadulterated athletic field through which to conduct a narrative, as David O. Russell did with boxing in The Fighter (2010), Warrior is playing in an arena that is so jam-packed with elements that it’s ready to explode. The sport is a combination of various different combat sports, all of which are brutal in and of themselves. MMA takes boxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, muay-thai, kickboxing, karate and other martial arts and lumps them all together into one vicious mass. That blend is indicative of the film itself, as it seeks to reflect its characters and their own issues with personal history, familial structuring and emotional maturity. The quickness and complexity of the various styles of martial arts play against the very basic nature of the more simple (but no less valid) boxing or wrestling. MMA as a battlefield for the inner fights of these men only underscore how much more complicated any singular fight can be, let alone the variety that are going on within the narrative of the actual film.
Instruments of Terror v. Instruments of Truth
Warrior confronts many different things, but none so interesting as the idea of technology. History is a major theme within the film and technology helps to highlight that in a variety of different ways.
One of the first technological introductions comes in the form of Paddy Conlon, the father character, played by Nick Nolte. When we first meet him, he is leaving a church and upon getting into his old, out-of-date car, he flips on a cassette tape recording of Moby Dick being read aloud. The idea that this man is still attached to various old kinds of machinery is a clear cut sign that he has been stunted on his path somehow. Throughout the film we find this to be the case. His relationship to his tape player (which includes a walkman) and book-on-tape signify his character more succinctly than almost anyone else in the film.
Paddy is an alcoholic, and he spent the majority of his life letting down his family. His wife and children left him due to his patterns of drinking and violence but that didn’t stop him from repeating them. His behavior in respect to technological instruments in the film reflect his personal history which means he will continue to do the same things over and over again. He broke himself of his pattern of drinking through AA, but he is so stuck on the great machinations of the past that he continues to use out-of-date technology to tell him the same fictional story over and over again about a man whose pride was too great and the endless pursuit of what he believed was right cost him everything he had. In a sense, Paddy is punishing himself daily for the loss of his family by showering himself in ancient history. While there are flickers of change that we see occur due to other characters appearances and catalyzing factors, they do not last for very long, and when they are there, they cause such pain and conflict that Paddy is forced out of the present-day-era. In Paddy Conlon, what we see is a broken ghost of a man who lives in the past; the ever-present cassette-player, the semi-old-fashioned clothing and the tired and resigned countenance all part and parcel of his daily equipment.
Digital technology plays a large part in this film as well. If it wasn’t for the digital technologies that are shown within the narrative of Warrior, Tommy wouldn’t have much of a story, which says quite a bit about Tommy. When we first see Tommy, he has come to meet up with Paddy, his dad, and he confronts him about a variety of issues and tries to get him to drink with him. Paddy declines, but Tommy continues to drink. As the film moves forward, it turns out that Tommy wants to be back in touch with his dad, but only to get Paddy to help him train for a big MMA match, to which the elder man happily agrees, thinking that it will be a way to “update” his history; move him out of his “dark ages” and help him bond with his son. But Tommy will have none of that. He is as cold as steel and as non-emotive as a piece of computer equipment. Even when his father reaches out to him with old “training items,” Tommy shuts him down quickly.
While at the gym one day, Tommy volunteers himself to fight one of the main fighters.
What he doesn’t know is that it’s being recorded on a cellphone. Shortly after the match, it makes its way from cellphone to YouTube, and goes viral. Due to this, Tommy gets recognized from another incredibly significant chapter in his life. The audience watches the lightning-fast progression as yet more digital machinery is utilized (a handheld HDcam) to show footage of Tommy from somewhere deep in his past. The face from the HDcam tape is compared to the one on the YouTube clip. Clearly, it’s the same guy. Tommy’s relationship to the digital world is a fascinating one. While his entire personal story within the film would have been skeletal without the meat put on it by the above incidents, technology is where he maintains a certain level of similarity with his father. Tommy would rather reject modern media than revel in it. While his reasoning is different from his father’s, it is still a maintained relationship with technology that is strongly significant within the view of being a major participant in a large sporting event. To not only decline but rebuff media and the technological bathing that comes with huge sporting events could be likened to listening to a cassette-player in the age of the iPod. It just doesn’t make sense to the majority of the world- why on earth would you want to do such a thing?
When Tommy gets accepted and goes to Sparta (the huge MMA event he has been training for) he refuses all the standard “bells and whistles” that come with being a main competitor. When all the rest of the MMA fighters have theme songs, Tommy had nothing. Where all the rest of the MMA fighters had outfits shellacked with sponsorships and loud colors, Tommy walked out onto the floor in a simple hooded sweatshirt. Even his style was “unsexy”- one hit, and the competition was out like a light. Was Tommy doing this in order to try to garner less attention (in which case he failed, as the choices he made only made the spotlight on him grow) or did he do this as part of a self-destructive plan, meaning he had more in common with his father than he thought? By negating his history, stubbornly denying the past and not participating in standard athlete’s ritual and behavior, his past caught up with his present much in the same way that Paddy’s did, and the conflict became unbearable.
Technology was the catalyst of Tommy’s evolution in the film and, more importantly, the technology associated with his character’s storyline was totally out of his hands. As a young man who had always felt like his life was beyond his control, it seems only fitting that we watch as he works out his raging pain and anguish against the technological forces and historical situations that ripped apart his plans and ruined his life in a physical manner. In a sense, the grande finale of the film has echoes of Ahab/Tommy battling the white whale/his past, only this time, he finds a way to achieve success without ultimate destruction.
A variety of other technologies are littered throughout the film, adding strength to ideas of history and the connective presence that machinations have between our past and our future. The high school kids that Paddy’s other son Brendan teaches organize a Pay-Per-View event at the local drive-in so they could watch their teacher “large and in-charge” at Sparta, Brendan’s wife refuses to turn the television on or deal with her cellphone until she finds out he’s succeeded in his first match and then she’s “in.” In a picture that is highly corporeally-bound, there sure is a lot of reference matter to old and new machinery. Perhaps what Warrior tells us then, finally, is that by shutting away our histories, our emotional responses, our familial ties, we become fragmented. We may, like the poster, look whole from far away, but we are not. We are divided and will remain so until we can physically beat ourselves into some kind of submission and finally connect to what is really good for us.