Sunday, April 17, 2016

In Real Life

Dan in Real Life is one of my favorite films. Note--I don’t have any illusions about it being a great film. The overarching story is predictable, the logistical details unrealistic, and the acting uneven (John Mahoney—a delightful surprise and completely believable as Steve Carrell’s father; Dane Cook--funny at moments, but standup comedy and acting in a remotely serious film demark two fundamentally separate skillsets). It’s not an ambitious film by most measures, in that it doesn’t try to change the world, take on original questions, or diverge too far from traditional values within the cultural context it was created (the fundamental conflict is an average Joe widow choosing between the family he loves and the woman he’s grown infatuated with, who just happens to be sleeping with his brother).

Just the same, I’ve rewatched Dan in Real Life. A lot. I saw it in the movie theater. I bought and rewatched it within the first month it was available on DVD. And thus, since 2007, it has been one of a but a handful of films I’ve watched at least once a year ever since.

Moreover, the film has becoming something of a cultural touchstone for me. When I saw Emily Blunt in the 2012 relaunch movie The Muppets, I recognized her as Dan’s Ruthie “Pigface” Draper. When Heather showed me Private School… For Girls from 1983, with a montage set to Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl,” I associated it with the awkwardly delightful dance scene from Dan in Real Life. And when I’m flipping pancakes, it’s the exception if I don’t think of Marie’s flapjacks and purposeful burning of just one set.

And so, perhaps it was telling when Heather and I were in our beginning stages of coupledom, compared favorite films, and mutually came upon Dan in Real Life. She lumped it alongside The Family Stone and a handful of others that she categorized as “family movies.” And though I’d never thought to categorize Dan in Real Life so explicitly as such, there’s a little question that that’s the heart of why I love the film. I love the idea of large family reunions and staying under one roof; of competitive crosswording and family talent shows, even if I struggle to imagine any of this really working with my own family.

My own biological family is made up of fewer than a dozen people, half of whom don’t talk to the other half in a mix of factions and people content to be loners. Fewer still would be up for large family bonding activities that stretched beyond a dinner.

But I hope.

My glorification of Dan in Real Life isn’t so unlike a single hopeless romantic adoring Sleepless in Seattle, or a kid playing Pop Warner football feeling drawn to Rudy. We watch for what we not-so-secretly desire and envy. In the same breath, we concede that we probably won’t meet the destined loves of our lives atop of The Empire State Building, make a tackle for the Notre Dame football team, or, yes, have an expansive family that I love expansively (much less that one of us will own an expansive oceanfront house to host the lot of us). But that doesn’t mean that we stop celebrating what we see on the screen, much less stop hoping for these actualized moments of what we have romanticized, in real life.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

WrestleMania at Hooters

Being a pro wrestling fan has its challenges.

You know it’s fake, right? uncertain friends inquire.

I always thought you’d outgrow this, my mother says.

I’ve lived through two golden ages of wrestling--one in my childhood when Hulk Hogan ran wild across a nation. Another during the “Attitude Era”--a period when declining business and a surge of popularity from an upstart little company called Extreme Championship Wrestling prompted the World Wrestling Federation to move away from cartoon characters and occupationally based gimmicks to reality oriented storylines that alternately treated wrestling more like a legitimate sport or more like a mainstream soap opera (including far more sex-based angles and shocking plot turns).

I didn’t watch much wrestling during my college years, but it was during that time that I met my friend David. David studied communications and served as the Arts & Entertainment Editor when I was leading the school’s weekly newspaper. His hallmarks as a critic were his expansive vocabulary that was at times brilliantly incisive and times nearly impossible for a mere mortal to hack through to understand his meaning, and his proclivity for writing seriously about art forms including indie music, cult TV, video games, and film.

And one day I learned he was a wrestling fan.

I played my fanship close to the chest those days, but when David talked openly about going to an off-campus Wrestlemania party, it stirred a conversation that not only drew me in, but any number of other men of our age bracket who had spent hours each Monday night in high school consuming the WWF and WCW product.

This gave way to a conversation outside the office between me and my girlfriend at the time, when I tried to educate her about the lineage of the WWF Championship, and historic bouts. I told her about the most iconic match I knew of--the Wrestlemania 3 showdown between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant. This conversation carried until we were back in the office, and I asked David to expound on “the greatest wrestling match of all time.”

“Flair-Steamboat?” he asked.

The conversation took a turn, from casual fans, keeping a lid on their wrestling nerddom to a debate over workrate (the in-ring action, independent of storyline and theatrics) versus sports entertainment (all the drama and frills that accessorize a performance). In this conversation, I both left behind the shackles of a closeted wrestling fan and, to my surprise, began an informal education in smarkdom (smart fans pride themselves on knowing the behind-the-scenes workings of wrestling; marks believe whatever they see on TV; “smarks” are wise backstage news, history, and the many of the mechanics of how wrestling works but willingly suspend disbelief to enjoy the show). He introduced me to 411mania.com, the website I’d spend the next decade-plus relying upon for pro wrestling news.

I think it was my ongoing wrestling talk with David that facilitated the next step in my fandom, as I left college, became largely re-closeted as a wrestling fan, but without the rigors and unpredictability of an undergrad schedule, began watching wrestling on Monday nights again and began accruing what would become an unwieldy collection of wrestling DVDs and memoirs. David and I lived in the same town of Syracuse at that point, but between my res life schedule and his commitments to a graduate program in journalism we scarcely saw one another.

That spring, when WrestleMania rolled around again, one of my buddies from back home decided to throw a WrestleMania party for old time’s sake. I invited David to make the hour journey home, fairly certain he’d pass, but figuring it was only fair to make the offer to the sensei of my second wave of wrestling fandom.

And that’s one of the funny things about wrestling fans and the friendships between them. Regardless of time spent apart and the potential discomfort of walking into an unfamiliar social situation, by and large, we long to be part of a community.

David joined me for the drive. And between travel, the show itself, and chit-chat before and after, we were as tight as ever--maybe closer, even.

The following year, there was no such get together. I forget who reached out to whom, but David and I ended up meeting up again, this time just the two of us for WrestleMania 23 at a Hooters. We weren't the only ones there for the big show, though I suspect we were in the minority who paid so little attention to the waitresses in favor of it. We shot the shit leading up to the show, recalling the best ‘Mania matches of years past and debating our most sought over “dream matches” between opponents who hadn’t crossed paths yet, or better yet those historical figures who were never under contract to the same promotion at the same time. I called for some form of falls count anywhere between a “best of” assemblage of DX and NWO guys. David called for The Undertaker vs. Sting.

To the best of my recollection, I haven’t seen David since that night, now nine years ago. I watched WrestleMania 24 alone in my new apartment in Baltimore, just a few months after moving to Maryland. The following year, I made a pilgrimage to Houston to catch the show live. For the five years to follow I hosted parties at my apartment, drawing in co-workers who hadn’t watched wrestling before and probably wouldn’t watch it again to at least get lost in the spectacle of it all for one night out of the year. I caught the show live again last year, and will watch it more quietly at home in Oregon this year.

In between, I published a countdown of all the (then) 287 Wrestlemania matches and became a columnist for 411mania.com. David incorporated his fandom into his gig as an editor for a newspaper in Auburn, for which he’s very literally paid to blog, podcast, and Tweet about pro wrestling happenings (among other things).

I moved across the country to Oregon. And though a return back east seems likely, I don’t know if or when David and I will ever meet up again. But I do know we’ll probably exchange Tweets, Facebook messages, or text messages each year around this time, when ‘Mania rolls around again. And I know that the memory of sitting on opposite sides of a table in Hooters, an oversized flat screen TV in front of me, a platter of 50 buffalo wings between us will survive as one of my fondest memories from that period in my life.