Saturday, January 25, 2014

HULK SMASHED: Addictions, Anger Management & the Avengers

His name is Bruce and he’s a Hulkaholic.
If we were going to label any of the characters in the movie The Avengers as candidates for addiction, most people would pick Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Iron Man's alter ego Tony Stark is the Marvel super-hero most associated with alcoholism from the comic book story 'Demon in a Bottle.' But  Marc Ruffalo’s  Bruce Banner/Hulk that is the closest thing to a man battling with addictions we see on screen .
And in The Avengers—unlike most film and TV versions of the Hulk--Banner is winning.
Most TV and film versions of the Hulk story show Banner white-knuckling his way through life. He fears the Hulk. He is ashamed of being the Hulk. Like Johnny Blaze does with the Ghost Rider, Banner is constantly struggling to control, repress, or eliminate his alter-ego.

Banner's solution? Since the Hulk emerges in response to anger, he’ll simply stop becoming angry.
Most times, it doesn’t work so well.
One of the characteristics of an addict is the inability or unwillingness to face certain feelings. It’s not anger that brings out the Hulk. It’s the attempt to suppress that anger.
Banner is ashamed of his anger. He feels guilty for the destruction it causes. He wants it to never happen again.
You won’t like me when I’m angry,” is the classic line from the original show. But a more accurate version would be Banner saying, “I don’t like me when I’m angry.”
The Hulk is Banner’s way of avoiding the consequences of his own rage: I didn’t do it. The Hulk did it.
Bruce Banner will do anything to avoid his own anger. He runs. He hides. At one point in the Avengers, he alludes to a suicide attempt. He is afraid of the Hulk’s potential for destruction and he feels guilt and shame for the Hulk’s uncontrollability.
All of these are normal feelings for addicts. Unfortunately, they are often also the feelings an addict is most trying to avoid.  The result is a cycle of self-destruction as the thing the addict uses to cope with unwanted feelings are the very things causing those unwanted feelings in the first place.
The alcoholic is ashamed of being an alcoholic. He drinks to get away from the shame. The more he drinks, the more shame he feels. The more shame he feels, the more he drinks.
To paraphrase Homer Simpson, alcohol becomes the cause and the solution to the alcoholic’s problems.
Alcohol is not the only addiction out there, though. There are drugs. Gambling. Shopping. Sex. The internet…any process or substance can turn into an addiction. Because the addiction is never about the addictive substance or behaviour.
It’s about the addict. Or more specifically, the addict’s relationship with the addiction. An addiction can be anything from crystal meth to ultrarunning. Any process, any substance, any behaviour over which we have no control can be an addiction.
Banner has no control over the Hulk. The Hulk is unmanageable. And so is Bruce Banner’s life.
At least it was.
Yet somewhere along the way, he starts to understand. At some point between the events of the Incredible Hulk and the Avengers, Banner has changed. Not only does he no longer look like Edward Norton (or even Eric Bana), he has made an uneasy peace with his resentment.
Like many recovering addicts, Banner is still a work in progress. He still hasn’t completely come to terms with the Hulk as a part of himself, referring to his Hulk-self as ‘The Other Guy.’
He is also prone to slips. Midway through the movie, a stressed out Banner transforms into the Hulk, chases a Russian spy around a flying battleship and gets into a fistfight with a Norse God. That sort of misadventure is all well and good in college, but for a respectable grown-up scientist who is one of the greatest scientific minds of his time in the fields of biology, chemistry, engineering, physiology, and nuclear physics…a little immature. He’s supposed to be setting an example.
A slip is a dangerous time for a recovering addict. During the beginnings of recovery an addict might feel invincible, like he’s got this thing licked. Being reawakened by a slip can bring all those thoughts back again. The feelings come back.

The fear returns. The shame comes a-knockin’.
This is where the recovering addict needs to make a choice.
One way to get rid of that shame and fear is to go back to the old addictive behavior. The slip is proof that they can’t do it. They are worthless, powerless to beat this thing so they might as well give in to it and go back to their old ways.  The pain will come back no matter what they do, so perhaps its best to just numb it the best way they know how.
There is also another way.

That way is to go through the pain, to experience the feelings completely and come out the other side. To do that the addict must trust. He needs to trust that he can handle this setback and survive, that he has become stronger, that this is a slip, not a fall.
What’s the difference between a slip and a full-blown withdrawal?

In the case of Bruce Banner, the realization comes when a security guard played by Harry Dean Stanton remarks on the way Hulk made sure not to kill or injure anyone when he fell from the HeliCarrier. Banner realizes that things could have been a lot worse.
More than that, he is starting to learn that Hulk is part of his him and may even share his values. Instead of being a mindless slave to his anger, it might be possible to direct it and use it effectively.

 I’m angry all the time,” Banner says later, and in that moment, he has made peace with his resentment. Acknowledging his anger does not make him more out of control. Instead, it gives him the ability to accept and remain calm. It allows him to channel the Hulk into the pursuit of something bigger than himself.
He doesn’t need to be afraid of the Hulk anymore. The Hulk is part of who he is. He always has been.
In twelve step programs, the addict’s first job is to admit that he or she is an addict. It seems strange to ask someone to admit to being the thing they want to be free of, but maybe that’s the strange paradox. Only by embracing what we are can we ever hope to let go of it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Robert McCammon’s “The Five”…

…is an amazing novel by one of my favorite authors. It reminds me a lot of “Gone South,” my previous favorite novel by him.  Along with King, and the twosome of John Skipp & Craig Spector, McCammon is one of the three eighties/early 90s horror writers that most influenced my own fiction. “The Five” is a beautiful meditation on compassion, loss, music and the people who pursue music as a living long after the chances of them making a living at it have passed them by.

I could say a lot about it, even if the book says most of those things itself, only better.

Unfortunately, all those good things are overshadowed in my mind by one burning question.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Moulin Rougeau

You don’t hear the Fabulous Rougeau Brothers names much these days except as “the guys who sucker-punched Dynamite Kid.” What you don’t hear about is how good they were.

I didn‘t realize this when they were active, of course. In fact, I HATED the Rougeau Brothers.

I should have liked them. They were Canadian, for one thing, and we denizens of the Great White North tend to cheer for fellow Canucks regardless of alignment (often to the WWE‘s dismay). Les Freres Rougeaus were also the type of wrestler I most enjoyed watching: a tag team of smaller guys who defeated larger foes with quickness, athleticism, and teamwork (*). Nonetheless, I hated them.

I hated Jacques smug expression and Raymond’s stupid moustache. I hated the tiny little American flags they waved when they came to the ring (They called themselves the All-American Boys even though they were clearly French-Canadian). I hated the way they cheated, even against enhancement teams--using the fake handshake-then-boot-him-in-the-gut or Raymond screaming “Look at me! Look at me! Hit me!” and turning his back to his opponent while Jacques crept up from behind and nailed him in the lower back with a forearm.

The Rougeaus were insufferable front-runners when winning, bragging and showing off, but when they were behind they tended to run away and provide comfort for one another in an unmanly embrace.

Most of all, I despised the way they had embroiled my favorite tag-team of all time, the Rockers, in an endless feud. Worse still, in many of the matches I saw, the Rougeaus, who were clearly the inferior team, WON the match via some underhanded chicanery.

This happened to the Rockers a lot, now that I think about it. They may have been my favorite team, but Sweet Daddy Singh did they lose a lot of matches. In addition to the Rougeaus, the Rockers padded the resumes of Demolition, the Brain Busters, the Orient Express, Power and Glory, and countless others…always in the most frustrating way imaginable.

No team was better than the Rockers at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, mostly because they were forever getting distracted by a manager or being baited into the ring at the wrong time.

I loved the Rockers. I had their poster on my wall and was awe of their ring skills and popularity with the chicks. But in my quietest, most private moments, even I had to admit the truth: For all their wonderful qualities, my heroes were really fucking dumb.

I digress.

The point is, I hated the Rougeau Brothers. Which was exactly what they wanted.

But the real reason my flame for the Rougeaus has been rekindled is the opening sequence of a match in London between them and the Rockers. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it Best Opening Ever, but I think it’s absolutely, well, fabuleux, and I’ll tell you why in a second.

First, I’ll tell you what happens.

After a quick opening brawl in which the Rockers clear the ring, things settle down with Jacques Rougeau squaring off against a fired-up Marty Janetty. Marty moves in, but instead of locking up, Jacques waves off the Rocker, drops on his back to the mat, and does a kip up. He then challenges Marty to do the same.

Marty wants to Jacques to quit stalling and wrestle, but Jacques will have none of it. When Marty refuses to try the kip-up, he accuses the Rocker of cowardice, first trying to start a chant with the non-plussed crowd and then walking around the ring flapping his arms like a chicken.

Finally, Marty repeats the move. The fans are delighted. Jacques, not so much. He exits the ring and uses the ropes to somersault back inside. After several exasperated moments, Marty duplicates it. Again, the fans go crazy.

Now Jacques is ready to go, but this time Marty waves HIM off. Jannetty then tags in Shawn, who does a back flip off the top turnbuckle and land on his feet. Now it’s the Rockers doing the chicken dance while the crowd roars appreciatively.

After a confab with a dubious Raymond, Jacques decides to attempt the back flip. He climbs gingerly to the top rope, balances himself precariously….and immediately climbs back down.

Jacques is not done though. He just needs quiet. He holds his fingers to his lips, trying to shush the crowd, the Rockers, and in one inspired moment, the camera as though the noise from the folks back home are interfering with his focus.

Finally, he dusts off his hands, wipes his feet on the mat, and with an exuberant “Here we go!” he springs to the top turnbuckle wear he wobbles unsteadily for several moments…until finally the Rockers shake the ropes, crotching the younger Rougeau on the top turnbuckle.

At that point, the match begins in earnest, with the Rockers taking things up to a breakneck pace with some speedy double-teams (not to mention illegal switches-**). The match is good, possibly even great. Would it have worked without the extended opening. which actually takes up a third of the match? Possibly. Maybe even probably.

In his autobiography, Michaels credits the Rougeaus with coming up with the sequence out of laziness to fill time without actually wrestling. If so, they wouldn’t be the first.

Most veteran workers I’ve seen have tricks like this in their arsenal. I’ve seen robe-removal stalling and cowboy hat stealing. I’ve seen posedowns and threats to “walk out of here right now if you people don’t quiet down and show some respect!” and extended foreign object hide and seek games involving a hapless referee and a Popsicle stick wrapped in tape.





Good wrestling?

That’s a matter of taste, I guess. If you ask me, the Rougeau/Rockers was an example of this sort of business done right. It fulfills the three greatest qualities of an opening spot a) it tells the audience about the wrestlers’ personalities b) It entertains the crowd and c) no one gets hurt.

Too bad things didn‘t go the same way with the Dynamite Kid. A lot of things might be remembered differently if they had (***).

(*) A lot of people say heels shouldn’t use flashy holds and double-teams, but the Rougeaus made it work for them. Part of it was the nature of the moves; most of their tandem offence was variations on the cowardly theme of “You hold him and I’ll hit him,” but I think most of it was because they were just so damn obnoxious.

(**) When talking about this particular match, wrestling connoisseurs (hey, connoisseurs sounds better than internet geeks with nothing better to do) cite this match’s weird psychology. The good-guy Rockers were the first to cheat, starting off by bushwhacking Jacques and then following up with some illegal switches. The crowd loved the Rockers shenanigans though, and I think critics mystified by that audience reaction are missing the forest for the trees. Remember, the first portion of the match is to show the baby faces outwrestling, outsmarting or outpowering the heels. The Rougeaus whole gimmick was based on their being treacherous, opportunistic cheap-shot artists without peer. The crowd wasn’t digging the cheating so much as the Rockers beating the Rougeaus at their own game.

(***) Where are they now department: Jacques became the Mountie and later one half of the Quebers/Amazing French Canadians, scored a clean win over Hulk Hogan, and currently works in suicide prevention. Raymond retired to a broadcast position before leaving wrestling and being elected to city council(You would think being part of a pre-meditated violent assault on an Englishman would make people think twice about voting you to public office…in Quebec it may have actually helped.).