Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Best Movie of 2008

Let's get two things out of the way immediately. First, in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 8:9 which says "Do not cause a brother or sister with a weaker conscience to stumble," I want to warn the reader that my favorite film of the year has a lot of nudity in it. Marisa Tomei plays Cassidy, a stripper and she shows everything. If you find that offensive, or if it will cause you to sin, then don't see the film. Second, as you probably know, Bruce Springsteen has a song in this film. Aptly named, "The Wrestler" plays over the credits. I am certain some will think I like this film because Springsteen is associated with it. However, that is not the case. It is just a coincidence that Springsteen happened to write a song for the film I think is the best film of the year. To prove this I want to point out that I didn't name PHILADELPHIA (1993), DEAD MAN WALKING (1995), JERRY MAGUIRE (1996), or LIMBO (1999) my favorite film of the year even though they all featured a very good Springsteen song.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky, THE WRESTLER is my very favorite movie of 2008. I honestly like it more than any of the five films that were nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture of the Year category by the Academy. Moreover, the film contains my three favorite performances of the year: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood. Mickey Rourke is up for Best Actor for his portrayal of Randy "The Ram" Robinson. Marisa Tomei is up for Best Supporting Actress for playing Cassidy, an exotic dancer. I've often heard people say things like, "Man, Mickey Rourke is amazing, but the movie isn't." I don't get that because I feel an amazing performance is indeed the film. This is a fantastic film. It should have been up for Best Picture. Now, I'm not at all interested in the type of wrestling that is depicted in the film. However, I have to ask: When is the last time we've seen a film about wrestling like this? Probably never. That alone makes this an interesting film. At least it is not derivative.
director Darren Aronofsky crafted a film
that emotionally pinned me

I knew I would like this movie. The very first time I saw the trailer I actually teared up during the scene between Mickey Rourke's lead character and his daughter played by Evan Rachel Wood. Before seeing it I saw the trailer a few more times and I cried each time. Something struck a chord with me. I really shouldn't go into the scene's details too much in case you haven't seen the film, however they are out on the boardwalk and it's a killer. For me, there was no finer moment of acting on display in all of last year's films. The line of dialogue that laid me out is this line that Randy delivers to his daughter, Stephanie. She is played wonderfully by Evan Rachel Wood. Randy says this: "I'm an old broken down piece of meat and I'm alone. And I deserve to be alone. I just don't want you to hate me." Just think of the extent of this man's pain that he believes he deserves to be alone.
Randy "The Ram" Robinson & his daughter Stephanie
in my favorite sequence

Anyone who knows me well knows that most of my favorite movies have very broken characters in them. I find broken people compelling. This is a movie about very broken people. Cassidy, the striper played by Marisa Tomei is certainly broken. In a recent interview ("When their careers take off" L.A. Times 2/19/09) I read that Tomei talked to many exotic dancers before playing this role. The article said she discovered women who were, "disengaging intellectually and emotionally from their work." She said in part it was a mind-set "to not really know your own self really well." I think that is how she played Cassidy, as a tragic woman that doesn't want to know herself to well. I can relate to this because it has been one of the most painful things in my life to actually take the voyage of discovery to really know myself, to find out what is really wrong with me and to find out what I really truly desire in life. That journey always involves opening up to people and risking a lot. Tomei goes on to say, "It's not like they exposed themselves to me." What an ironic statement. People who are in the business of exposing themselves for a living, but actually unwilling to expose themselves emotionally for fear of the damage it would do. The actress sums up her character using the phrase, "non-exposure" and notes, "It's a painful place to be, with the mask." Indeed, wearing the mask ultimately doesn't bring us joy in life, but the mask becomes a protection that we are used to. For me this film is partially about that. Are we going to take our mask off and expose true selves to others? Will we allow ourselve to know and be know, to be loved, can we stand the pain of THAT?
Cassidy played by Marisa Tomei

It is not just Cassidy that is damaged in this film, Rourke's lead character, Randy "The Ram" Robinson, is even more dysfunctional.

A few lines from Springsteen's title song capture the essence of the lead character's brokenness:

"These things that have comforted me I drive away
This place that is my home I cannot stay
My only faith is in the broken bones and bruises I display"

I guess you either get those lyrics or you don't, but I get them because I have known people like that. I honestly feel that my own father is a little like that, pushing away, even subconsciously, the very things that would bring you the most joy. I love those lyrics more than I can explain. Those few lines sum up the entire film. This is a movie that is about people who are stuck in a rut of pushing away the very things that will ultimately bring them the most comfort and joy.

I could write a lot about this film, but actually Bruce Springsteen describes it best in a recent extended quote from a "making of" documentary (making of "Working on a Dream" VH1). In initially describing phone call that he got from Mickey Rourke, Springsteen goes on to describe his song that he wrote for the film which fit the character so well. He said this:

"It's basically a song that's sort of about being damaged and living on. Damage, what it does to somebody, the inability to get in. The inability to stand the things that nurture you. These things will give you a life, if you an stand them."

Springsteen goes on to say that he read the script and thought, "Okay, this is about somebody who doesn't have these capabilities, and instead you find your identity in the damage that's been done to you. You find your identity in your wounds, the places where you've been beat-up and you turn them into a medal and it's a very dangerous thing to do. We all wear these things we survived with some honor, but the honor is in: You wear those things, but also transcend them! This is somebody in search of that honor. He's living in search of that honor."

I agree with this assessment of the film. It is about a very sad character that ultimately doesn't find that honor which makes it a very sad film. However, it is a film that I love because it reminds me of what is important.
The amazing Mikey Rourke as Randy

The main character is tragic because he doesn't manage his life well. In the same interview, when discribing the character, Randy Robinson, Springsteen also says, "There is no part of yourself that you leave behind. You can't remove any part of yourself. You can only manage the different parts of yourself." Then he gives this metaphor for life. Here he is talking about only one person and how throughout life you never are far from your old selves, all you can do is put the healthiest self, the most wise self in the driver's seat. Springsteen says, "There's a car, it's filled with people: the 12 year old kid's in the back, so is the 22 year old, so is the 40 year old guy that likes to screw up, so is the 30 year old guy that wants to get his hands on the wheel and push the peddle to the metal and drive you into a tree, so all these people are in the car, that's okay, that's never gonna change, nobody's leaving. The doors are shut, locked, and sealed until you go into your box, but who's driving makes a really big difference!" 

You see, the problem with Randy The Ram in this film is he is never able to put the right guy in the driver's seat because he has let his brokenness define him. That is why as I watched the movie I was screaming inside, "No, no, noooooo, don't screw this up, don't let that person down, don't do this to yourself or you will be sorry." Unfortunately, if you know somebody like this character, you know what will happen, but the beauty of this film is taking the journey, watching real life unfold, reflecting upon the importance of rising above your ruts and the ability to invest in the things that will ultimately bring you the most happiness no matter how difficult they may be to obtain. When I think about THE WRESTLER, it makes me think, "Doah, are you going to manage yourself well enough to have an abundant life?" You see, Springsteen's seemingly strange "car full of people" quote makes perfect sense to me. Randy "The Ram" Robinson never allows the right guy in the drivers seat. This film reminds me that, yes, I have been hurt, I have been damaged, but all that old pain cannot define me. The hurt little boy, the drunk and numb 20 year old, the desperate 30 year old, those old Doahs need to take a back seat today because my healthy self, this self that can stand love and acceptance has now got control of the steering wheel.

For me, as is often the case, the emotional response that occurred within me is what makes THE WRESTLER my favorite film of last year.

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