Puroresu Love

May 9, 2010

I don’t believe anyone is naïve enough to count professional wrestling as a sport anymore—sports entertainment is the word for it in the U.S. these days, as if the purpose of every sport isn’t already to entertain—but things have definitely gotten to the point where pro wrestling has taken the next step beyond “sports entertainment” and now features wrestlers and matches that play with the very conventions of the medium. Of course, I can’t pinpoint exactly when this began, but I can define when it reached its pinnacle. Well, I can’t define it precisely because I don’t have the specifics of where or when the match took place, but I can tell you it was a best of three falls title match between Ebessan and Kuishinbo Kamen of Osaka Pro Wrestling.

There are a number of story elements to this match, but I will only be looking at elements contained in the match itself, not necessarily the backstory leading up to the bout. The match begins with a flash finish as Kuishinbo reverses Ebessan’s bodyslam and covers him with a lateral press. Ebessan sits up in disbelief immediately after the three count, and even though he wears a mask that entirely covers his face he is able to convey the emotion through his posture and his body language. At the start of the second fall, Kuishinbo reverses Ebessan’s bodyslam again but Ebessan manages to kick out. This is not really a running gag because the result is different, but it’s still part of the story. This kick-out builds off the first fall and shows that Ebessan has learned from his mistake and the same trick won’t work again.

This is an immediate payoff as far as the story is concerned, but sometimes you have to pay attention and remember prior events in the match to appreciate what is happening. Near the end of the match, the referee counts slowly when Ebessan covers Kuishinbo, and Ebessan is upset. This is actually payback from a prior moment when the referee stole some thunder from the wrestlers and Ebessan kicked and berated him, and it is further paid off when Kuishinbo covers Ebessan and the referee counts quickly.

After this gag the action builds to the finish and the wrestlers show off their amazing athleticism. Even though they’re comedy wrestlers, they are as competent and technically sound as any straight wrestler. Kuishinbo showcases his aerial repertoire with a quebrada to the outside and a couple top-rope hurricanranas and then scores a good near-fall with a Cancun tornado, which involves leaping backwards off the top rope and spinning twice in the air before landing on your opponent. Because Kuishinbo is the champion and this is his finishing move, the crowd expects him to win—but Ebessan survives. Ebessan doesn’t look like he’s athletically built, but he still executes a beautiful moonsault and actually wins with a Cancun tornado of his own. To defeat Kuishinbo with his own finishing move is an impressive feat on Ebessan’s part, and it provides a poetic ending to the match.

Despite the poetic ending, however, the match as a whole is more like farcical satire. Ebessan and Kuishinbo are masters of playing with and making fun of the conventions of pro wrestling. Conventionally, when a wrestler whips his opponent to the ropes and then drops to his stomach, his opponent will leap over him and bounce off the opposite ropes. However, when Ebessan whips Kuishinbo to the ropes and drops to his stomach, Kuishinbo drops a headbutt on him instead of leaping over. Honestly, it doesn’t make much sense why the wrestler who was whipped to the ropes would leap over his prone opponent instead of attacking him, but it takes a comedy match to actually get the viewer to think about this nonsensical convention.

Kuishinbo and Ebessan even draw attention to the fictionality of their match by refusing to participate in it at various points. The most famous example of this comes when they try to leave the ring because they don’t want to wrestle anymore and the referee forces them to fight. The wrestlers begrudgingly go through the motions in slow motion with half-hearted strikes and slow shuffling rather than running against the ropes. The sequence culminates in a slow motion Shining Wizard by Ebessan, complete with Mutoh-kissing-Wolfpac-sign performance at the end. Such a move is completely out of character for Ebessan, but it draws attention to just how silly and contrived a move the Shining Wizard is, even though it is the finishing move of an immensely popular “serious” wrestler in Keiji Mutoh. Pro wrestling absolutely depends on contrivance, but contrivance can be comedy gold in the hands of two masters like Kuishinbo and Ebessan.

The story, the gags, and the athleticism of the wrestlers all combine to make this match one of the funniest and most entertaining of all time. Being able to tell a story solely through actions is an art that is lost on ninety-nine percent of the pro wrestlers of today, but that ability is alive and well in the ranks of Osaka Pro Wrestling. Calling Ebessan and Kuishinbo Kamen competitors is not entirely correct, and even calling them athletes is not enough—they are indeed nothing less than artists.

Music is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all the arts. It stands on its own perfectly well, but it also supplements the works of film, television, video games, theater, and any other multimedia format. People identify with music perhaps even more strongly than with works of any other media, which isn’t surprising given the ease of access to endless amounts of music on the internet and radio and also the endless variety to be found. It’s nearly impossible not to find a musical artist to whom you can relate, or perhaps a single song which seems to have been written especially for you or about you. That’s not to say that other media can’t produce similar effects, but music is simply the most common media for people to connect to—you’ll often hear people say “This is MY song” much more often than they’ll say “This is MY book” or “MY video game” (in the context of relating to the work, anyway).

Music is also one of the more difficult media to analyze. For whatever reason, it seems our vocabulary for describing what we see is greater than our vocabulary for describing what we hear, or at the very least the former vocabulary is more accessible than the latter. Interestingly, I think it’s easy to describe things we see—we can describe shapes and colors and lighting and shadows and textures, etc.—but when it comes to things we hear, the discussion often ends up being about how we feel, or how the music makes us feel. Although I’ve been touting the notion that all art is quite useless, taken from Wilde’s manifesto, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to introduce the concept of catharsis, taken from the Aristotelian school of thought. Basically, catharsis is the purgation of excessive emotions through art, and Aristotle more or less viewed it as the purpose of drama. Rather than contradict myself and present catharsis as the purpose of all art, I will simply include it as a product of great art, with music being the type of art most conducive to producing catharsis.

In my mind, the first illustration of music as art always comes by way of Steely Dan, otherwise known as The Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band of All Time, despite the fact that the band is in fact really only a duo (Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) and the term “rock n’ roll” usually only applies to their music in the loosest of definitions. Nevertheless, Steely Dan has been producing stellar art for the past forty years, almost, with the perfect example coming off their debut album, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill.

Though Can’t Buy a Thrill was not their highest ranking album on the Billboard charts, and other songs off the album climbed higher in the Billboard singles charts, “Reelin’ in the Years” is the song I count as nothing less than the definitive rock masterpiece. The lyrics are surprisingly biting for such an up-tempo number, which provides a sort of conflict within the song that gets easily overlooked until you catch on to gist of the vocals. The pacing of the song contributes to the discord, as the nearly breathless verses give way to the happy sing-along chorus, leaving the listener with little time to process exactly what is being said. The rhyming couplets of the verses say a lot with a little, and the consistent structure of the final line to every verse produces a perfect tag to conclude each thought and mark the differences between the narrator and his addressee, though it’s hard not to take the extra step and read each final line as being addressed to the audience in general, as a sort of statement to the differences between this new, innovative group and the average popular music consumer. As the lyrics go, the singer can’t understand the things you think are precious, the things that pass for knowledge, and the things you think are useless, which challenges the audience to rethink their values and broaden their horizons to this new wave of music.

Perhaps even more masterful than the lyrics, however, are the instrumentals of the piece and the way they build throughout the song. The opening riff sets the tone and gives you a taste of what is to come, but it’s over all too soon as the first verse begins. The audience is lulled into a sense of comfort with the first verse giving way to the chorus and then the second verse followed once again by the chorus, but then the sing-along gives way to the jam session, and Elliot Randall takes over with a performance on the guitar solo too dirty to be called virtuoso but too precisely masterful to be called anything less. It is in this solo that the song reaches its climax, with the bass, keyboard, and drums providing the driving groundwork that Randall barely treads as he soars overhead with his guitar. The solo and backgrounds occasionally meet on the kicks, thus lifting the entire track off the earth, and then the guitar strikes its zenith, holding by itself for a few blissful seconds until the third verse kicks back in.

The third verse gives way to the final round of choruses, and then the instrumentals pick up once more, giving the listener hope that they are in for even more guitar-driven ecstasy, but the opportunity is cut short just as the guitar takes over and the song fades away, with the riffs just barely audible though the oncoming silence. Normally, I hate when songs fade out rather than have a “proper” ending, but I can also see the benefits of such a conclusion, because it isn’t one. It leaves you with the feeling that somewhere up there in the ether, those glorious fiends are still jamming away on that solo, with no ending in sight. They tease you with the prospect of another experience like the first one, but even if they were to provide it, chances are you’d still only be wanting more anyway.

Ideally, it is the climax of the work that produces the cathartic effect, and I believe this holds especially true for “Reelin’ in the Years.” I wouldn’t necessarily say that Randall’s guitar work is speaking to the listener, but it is providing him with pure feeling in musical form, which I feel in this instance never fails to provide an actual physical experience. Naturally, much of this analysis centered on my own personal experience of this work (as do pretty much any of my analyses, really), and therefore not everyone is likely to be affected by this work in the same way. So much of art depends on taste, and I by no means mean to assert my taste over anyone else’s. As always, this is but a brief examination of a beautiful work. That is all.

For Art’s Sake

January 4, 2010

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as

long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for

making a useless thing is that one admires it in-

tensely.

All art is quite useless.

The above passage is the end of the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The preface itself is a sort of manifesto on art, regarding both its creation and its interpretation. Wilde was a firm believer in the notion of art for art’s sake and is generally placed at the forefront of the Aesthetic Movement, and I believe the preface to Dorian Gray serves as the best indicator of what that movement was all about. There is an elitist tone to his ideas, and one may even claim that what I call a manifesto others may call an indignant defense of his controversial book, but I don’t think any of that detracts from the work itself or the ideas it espouses.

Of course, it makes sense that I wouldn’t. Anyone who is a proponent of Wildean thought would naturally focus on the work as a self-contained entity and ignore the outside influences such as the historical context and the author’s personal life and attitudes. I do not mean to say there is no value in such criticism—one would be ignorant to discount all other methods of interpretation in stubborn support of one’s own preferred method. For one reason or another, though, I feel that the ideas of the Aesthetic Movement have been largely forgotten or disregarded by critics and consumers (not that there’s any way to separate those two groups), and while I do not intend on subscribing to those ideas as if I were a living relic from the end of the nineteenth century, I do find that my own method of interpretation derives most heavily from the Wildean school.

To bill myself as an art critic, however, would be somewhat misleading. There are many different ways one can define art, and there are many different media in which art can be produced. There is also no definite delineation between art and life; indeed there are many aspects of one’s life that can be considered art. Maybe I do maintain a rather broad definition of art, but that is only because I do not want to eliminate the possibility of something being art before it is given its due attention. Also, I’m a fan of liminality—I like to explore the spaces between life and art and try to determine where a particular work or event might fall, or if it is somehow capable of existing somewhere in between.

My main area of interest, however, is pointlessness. My mission is not to convince the world that useless art is useful because it’s useless—that’s the sort of notion that goes without saying for me. I think it’s pretty easy for anyone to revel in something pointless simply because he enjoys it, but I’m not really out to justify guilty pleasures, either. I like the thought that all art is useless or pointless, but that does not mean that all pointless things are art. This is what I plan on exploring: what is it that makes something pointless a work of art? Does a work’s pointlessness somehow make it more artistic? What about works that people consider to be not so pointless—are they still art? I’m certainly not above challenging my own beliefs, either: I’m willing to explore the dangers of art for art’s sake, of seemingly harmless works with insidious undertones and harmful messages. This is exactly the kind of morality that Wilde was seeking to eliminate from art, but there’s no denying that the debate surrounding art and morality still rages today.

Employing a broad definition of art also allows me to maintain a wide field of study in my examination of pointlessness. I’m open to pretty much any form of media—literature, film, paintings, theatre, music, video games, web videos, etc.—and even aspects of life outside of media (life being a form of art and all). I’m also new to this whole realm of blogging, so, who knows? Maybe even other blogs will find their way into my study of pointlessness…

And in case anyone is wondering how pointless it is to have a blog about pointlessness…well, that’s the point, now isn’t it?