Beyond Barthes: Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker, Wrestlemania XXV

Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker, Wrestlemania XXV, 5 April 2009

I guess it’s never easy to explain to someone unfamiliar with the sport how watching a wrestling match can be an emotional experience. I can’t help but remember writer Barton Fink (in the Coen Brothers’ 1991 Barton Fink, natch) being assigned a Wallace Beery wrestling picture and trying to craft his screenplay into something real and beautiful, only to have it thrown out in disgust by the producer:

“These are big movies, Fink. About big men. In tights! Both physically and mentally. But mostly physically.”

Yeah, mostly physically. Still sometimes, once in a while, I still like to turn down the lights, make sure nobody’s around, and strap on the mental tights. After all, stripped-down dramatised physical combat has been a potent metaphor for all kinds of human struggle for just about forever, and I don’t see why modern professional wrestling can’t be a part of that cultural expression, at least sometimes.

Jeez, Jacob even has a wrestling match with God in Genesis 32:23, and doesn’t even tap out to God’s pelvis-dislocating submission hold. Llike modern pro wrestling, it’s pretty clear that gig was rigged; I’m fairly certain that God was set to retain the belt from the outset. (God, incidentally, made a long-awaited return appearance in WWE’s Backlash 2006.)

Wrestling, in a sense, presents a primal dramatic conflict at its purest: two guys, confined, naked (more or less), belting the living heck out of each other for some reason (check out Goya’s great ‘Black Painting’, Fight with Clubs c1820, for a weirdly eternal evocation of primal combat), while somehow still acknowledging (even if only in its breaking) a set of rules and moral standards. Since it’s generally pretty dopey stuff as far as content and storylines go, it’s easy enough to see it as nothing more than a dimwitted outlet for cultural violence and aggression; and, in some ways, it sure is, but at least it’s a restrained form.

We’re hardly in declining-civilization territory; unlike gladiators warring to the death, it’s communally understood that nobody gets seriously hurt in a wrestling match (or, at least, they shouldn’t): a dangerous wrestler is a bad wrestler. If it’s an outlet for aggression, then it’s one that recognises its own performative, and surely therefore cathartic, aspect (unlike increasingly-popular brutal and bloody MMA, which, to my mind, has no connection to the dominant qualities of professional wrestling whatsoever). It’s easy to judge these kind of things as ‘cultural products’, to discuss what makes them tick and why they exist among a land of dunces; but this kind of cultural studies approach always remains fundamentally safe, letting us remain secure in the mind-numbing realm of ‘good taste’ with no need to actually immerse ourselves unguarded and see if this ‘social product’ does actually hold any emotional power over us.

If any match has crossed over to that emotional realm in wrestling circles lately, it’s undoubtedly the epic bout between Shawn Michaels (aka the Heart Break Kid, aka HBK, aka Mr Wrestlemania, aka plenty of other things) and The Undertaker (aka The Legendary Deadman, aka the Phenom, aka Mark Calaway aka etc. etc.) at 2009’s Wrestlemania XXV. While Wrestlemania XXV was a truly woeful event, dragging out the same plodding thug-like dullards to bang into each other for the main titles in uninspired storylines, and providing perhaps the single most degrading moment in the history of women’s wrestling (no mean feat for the misogynistic WWE), it was saved almost solely by this performance from two certified legends of the art.

In fact, you’ll find fans who’ll admit to having tears lurking behind their eyes watching these two iconic, often considered over-the-hill, performers steal the show with an amazing mix of careful suspense, emotional storytelling and extraordinary feats of athletic ability. The actual blow-by-blow details of the match have been documented endlessly online: what’s more interesting for the less-familiar wrestling observer is the way that the match highlights so many of the deficiencies in the commonly accepted understanding of what a wrestling bout actually is.

Most mainstream wrestling ‘insight’ doesn’t move too far from Roland Barthes’ 1950s analysis from Mythologies (if it even gets that far), which is a great start at examining exactly what it is that keeps wrestling alive with such ongoing and intercultural vitality, but nevertheless, hardly launches into exploring the nuances of the storytelling, performance language, and artform.

Wrestling was to Barthes about the evocative and skillful theatrical construction of the villain, the spectacle of his transgression, and the looming inevitability (or not) of his downfall, in the same tradition of all the revered ancient theatrical spectacles (see an earlier Retro Remote article on the legendary ‘Nature Boy’, the ‘dirtiest player in the game’, Ric Flair): these spectacles were not defined by their subtlety and hidden meaning, rather they were defined precisely by their almost impossibly superficial display — emotion via intense almost-tangible spectacle rather than restrained interpretative ‘depth’.

Wrestling’s position as ‘theatre’ is no mere label of convenience: professional wrestling is no sport and, precisely because it is not a sport (and does not find its purpose in numbers, scores and statistics) can revel in all those qualities that actual sport only claims to present. In other words, in bypassing the relevance of actual outcomes, wrestling can be the arena of character that in sport becomes irrelevant the moment it achieves a ‘result’. Defeat in wrestling, says Barthes, is not an ‘outcome’ but a ‘duration’ — an experience, rather than a statistic.

Barthes’ analysis is hardly exhaustive of the emotional possibilities that professional wrestling provides, however, just as it is hardly exhaustive of the emotional possibilities of the ancient spectacles he compares it to. Like any art, especially one so primal, nuance defines an otherwise repetitive spectacle: the great spectacles of deviation and restoration, whether Aeschylus or Commedia dell’Arte, are of course not limited to a single reading or resonance, but open up a potentially unlimited supply of responses. Even if one recognises a mechanical format, the responses may nevertheless be simultaneously emotional and uniquely personal.

The epic battle between Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker took very little of its impetus from the standard construction of a transgressive villain faced by a wronged hero, nor did it rely on many of the usual ‘I hate you because…’ or ‘destroy what’s different’ motivations that apparently propel most wrestling heroes to whack each other on the bonce with chairs. Instead it presented a battle between two legends, each performing at main-event level for decades, battling injuries and outlasting many of their peers, and who were forced to, in a sense, step up to prove that, not only were they worthy of staying main-event attractions, they were also completely worthy of their legendary status. Thrown head-to-head, nothing more than a first-rate showing would be enough.

From a narrative perspective, the fight could be seen as an increasing drama of desperation and a realisation of a kind of iconic mortality: Shawn was (and remains) one of the greatest performers in Wrestlemania history, The Undertaker had an unbroken streak of Wrestlemania victories, then 16-0. If anyone was worthy of breaking the streak, it was Shawn Michaels. If anyone was worthy of keeping it intact, it was the iconic Undertaker. With such a pedigree, the match wasn’t merely about heroes and villains and ethical transgression. Instead, it was, quite simply, about quality: something that has to be evaluated from within the language of the wrestling ring and its history, and not by uninvolved values conveniently transferred from some other medium.

In fact, the WWE wisely (a rare phrase!) underplayed all the usual motivations for a match. Shawn and Taker squabbled a bit leading up to the match, but it was an oddly abstract affair. Though the WWE has embraced blandness over extravagance for years now, this match was wrapped up in grandiose displays of light, sound and colour: Undertaker’s usual entrance is through fire and smoke, a blackened arena and tolling bell; Shawn countered with heavenly white lights, quasi-religious auras and god-like entrances from above. Thankfully, this wasn’t presented as anything but a pure spectacle of superficial visual contrast: HBK may have appeared god-like, but still ended up walking to the ring with his wonderfully ridiculous theme ‘Sexy Boy’. Similarly, the Undertaker’s demonic image may have been accentuated, but nothing was done to turn this into some narrative element of ‘evil’. The match didn’t need story: it had history.

This is, of course, another area where Barthes’ analysis of wrestling needs serious updating. Barthes suggests that there is no more reality to wrestling than in there is in the theatre. His intention is to elevate wrestling to a dramatic and narrative art rather than a sporting event, but thanks to wrestling’s long-established home on television, it no longer covers one of wrestling’s most unique aspects: precisely that the never-ending soap opera thrives on the reality of its performers rather than disguising them. On a simple level, this amounts to personal elements being tied into storylines. On a more formal level, the wrestler’s character is entirely defined and limited by their own ever-changing physical capacity: a feeble actor can play a great sportsman, an adequate actor can play the part of a great actor, but only a great wrestler can be a great wrestler.

Cinematic Possibilities

Cinematic Possibilities

The wrestling word adding some more range to its emotions, perhaps crafting some characters with a slightly more cerebral and sensitive appeal, might not be such a bad thing.

Bluffing only lasts so long — their body is their canvas and they deliver it live. HBK and The Undertaker are characters decades in the making, the ridiculous fiction tied up inextricably with the athletic and personal reality of the performers behind them. HBK and Undertaker can fight for fictional prestige in a way that other can’t, precisely because, in real life, they already have it.

The lack of the usual motivation also allowed the performers to expand the emotional variety of the wrestling narrative somewhat. Freed from the thuggish always-win obligations of the WWE’s regular cast of lunkheads, Shawn and Taker were able to present some new passions writ-large in the realm of overt spectacle. The initial display of respect for the veteran and long-lived Undertaker from Shawn was later backed up by a truly absorbing display of desperation, as HBK left a prone Undertaker outside of the ring, revived a knocked-out referee and pressed him into starting a count-out, dropping to his knees and desperately pleading that the Undertaker not make it back into the ring by the ten count and thus lose by disqualification.

It’s an oddly jarring and authentic moment in a realm dominated by endless and inexhaustible bravado: there’s no less-decisive win than a count-out, and such desperation for one would be inexcusable, if not outright heelish, from any of the usual lunkheads. Michaels plays desperation like it matters, in the process adding sincerity and even authentic fear of personal loss and defeat to the limited repertoire of wrestling emotions.

It’s a shift in texture also facilitated by an increased focus on the cinematic possibilities: Michaels and Taker play it large, but they play it to the cameras. Wrestling may be about making it clear for the back row, but one of the most dominant images of the match was clearly and skillfully executed for the screen: it looks like it’s just about over for HBK, as he’s caught by a Tombstone Piledriver, driven head-first into the mat, then pinned — a sure finisher, except that Michaels manages to twist his body free at the count of two.

The image that follows is spectacular in its simplicity, undoubtedly worthy of praise in any other medium, as these two icons lie for a moment, unmoving, almost nestled together, Michaels barely able to move, Undertaker’s head resting on his hip, an arm curled over his body. The camera zaps in to this ‘hug’, Undertaker’s face seems overcome with an expression of vulnerable uncertainty that seems entirely new (a brilliant performance from Taker in a single moment, filmed live, that took the narrative to an entirely new resonance). Neither man knows how much he’ll have to give to hold on to a victory: at this point, winning seems to mean something — not as part of some villainous feud, but for all those reasons that can’t be articulated, only portrayed.

This kind of emotional display may not mean much to some, but its worth remembering that emotional spectacle isn’t necessarily about depth or subtlety. In any case, the wrestling word adding some more range to its emotions, perhaps crafting some characters with a slightly more cerebral and sensitive appeal, might not be such a bad thing. So, any chance then that the success of this match could usher in a more sensitive side to professional wrestling on television?

Nah, probably not. I don’t really anticipate too many of the other wrestling stars spooning each other in weirdly personal, slightly-homoerotic moments of emotional anxiety.

Still, though, after some time off (both are pretty beat up) Shawn and the Undertaker are now gearing up for a rematch at this year’s Wrestlemania XXVI. Undertaker’s character is more or less rigid (as it has been for decades), but HBK’s narrative trajectory to the rematch has been (to an extent) particularly well designed, once again bypassing the wrestling’s usual aggressive thug and/or dangerous psychopath route.

In many ways it’s a direct narrative recognition of the undercurrents of the Wrestlemania XXV match: HBK has been carefully crafting a story — in many ways his own story — of a performer facing the end of his performing days and needing to demonstrate one final time that he’s still at the top of his game. Obviously the way to do this is to face The Undertaker again, and win.

The build up has been particularly exciting since Shawn (almost-certainly very much in control of his character behind-the-scenes) is willing to appear weak and fumble along the way in order to up the stakes of his desperately-needed victory (a potentially dangerous move given that parts of the wrestling fanbase still, inexplicably, often value victory and dull displays of strength over performance). Undertaker refuses the rematch request, forcing Shawn to aim to win the 2010 Royal Rumble and gain a guaranteed title shot.

Shawn’s monomania is costing him, though, and he starts racking up losses, creating tensions in his formerly unstoppable tag-team DX and losing the tag team titles (good riddance, DX). Shawn gives a blistering performance in the Royal Rumble — he’s won it twice in the ’90s, and it looks like he’ll rack up a third, until he’s eliminated by perennially-useless lunkhead Batista (I was there in Atlanta in the back row and admit I yelped when Shawn hit the floor).

Shawn has a meltdown in the ring, seeming almost a bewildered senior citizen at the turn of events; the following night he vows to qualify for the next big chance at a title, which will also lead to a Wrestlemania rematch — and loses. Defeated, Shawn disappears from the title scene and the screen. Eventually, Shawn gets his rematch, but not without cost — if he wins, he breaks the Undertaker’s streak; if he loses, he has to retire.

Sure, it’s ridiculous, but Shawn’s defeat and retirement (if it sticks) would be a serious loss to the wrestling world, which is struggling to create new talents of his caliber. It’ll also be dramatically interesting as Shawn will go out on a losing streak, as a monomaniacally obsessed veteran who bet it all on a match he couldn’t win. If that’s how HBK wants to end his career and define his legacy, then it shows a commitment to narrative storytelling and personal exploration (on some level) that is rare in the WWE.

In fact, Shawn’s narrative arc has already allowed them to adopt a somewhat different tone, recapping the narrative with montage videos set to Placebo’s cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ and Johnny Cash’s ‘Ain’t No Grave’ (far from the usual testosterone filled generic metal that usually dominates – the Placebo clip layers on more solid doses of homoeroticism and Johnny Cash almost gives the proceedings some serious class!) and creating a story with a more drawn-out and planned narrative structure, dominated by carefully constructed images rather than general wrestler-ranting.

The narrative may not be subtle, but it doesn’t deserve to be overlooked, dismissed for its wonderfully personal ridiculousness, or lost in a cultural analysis of wrestling that is happy to look at it from afar but not learn its unique language.In fact, the narrative that stems from Wrestlemania XXV has the potential to be a kind of intensely personal coda like John Wayne’s The Shootist, which, like the wrestling world, combined the reality of its star with the narrative storyline of its hero: John Wayne was dying of cancer and making one last stab at a serious and personal film, just as his character was also dying of cancer and setting up a final doomed gunfight that would tie up his loose ends once and for all.

Shawn may not go out with such dramatic credibility (in fact, the latest progressions to the narrative have been OK, but typically unadventurous), but perhaps his legacy, and the legacy of one of his greatest matches, will be a wrestling world with a greater capacity to exploit its emotional resources and to mix its overt spectacle with occasional hints of human sincerity and sensitivity.