Sunday, January 25, 2015

Michael Keaton Battles Obession in Birdman

I awoke feeling my heart beating from my gums. My wisdom teeth. I really should have them removed. But I wouldn't have been able to stay asleep regardless. I was only a few hours removed from seeing Birdman starring Michael Keaton in the role that has been labeled a "comeback."

Birdman like fellow 2015 Oscar darling Boyhood I had followed via IMDB for years. The Michael Keaton watch began shortly after the 2009 Oscars which brought to a close the Cinderella-esque journey of Mickey Rourke from the bowels of Hollywood tragedy to resurrected dramatic actor. My friend and I had said in the wake of Rourke's resurgence that it would be great to see Michael Keaton do the same.

That's how my following of Birdman began because as you first read the plot summary, it sounded meant for the Batman of the now 30 year old generation. Like that little exchange between Seth Rogen and Zach Efron. Yeah, Michael Keaton was our Batman. He was our guy.

That was the two-fold punch that I expected from Birdman all of these years. Funny thing now seeing it, it couldn't be further. It's more like a gut punch that really bruises on the inside. You feel it the next day. That's where I'm at with my sudden awaking on a Sunday morning.

Birdman, put simply, is every bit as emotionally moving as any film this year. It just happens to be buried beneath heavy Hollywood satire and the tongue in cheek tug of war between film actors and thespians of the stage; not to mention scenes and moments that seem cultivated from Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.

I could get into the filming of Birdman, and how it embodies the stage aspect in its filming framed around it's Broadway setting. I could expound on the comparisons to Hitchcock's underrated vehicle Rope. Undoubetly, it's a true exercise in ambitious, patient filmmaking, and laser-focused acting that leaves little room for error.

There's a beautiful raw lesson coated underneath all of that, though, that deserves the real attention. Birdman is not just about an actor making a comeback. It's about a man coming to grips with the fact that ego is fleeting and his own laser focus on what he considered art is in actuality infantile compared to the real moments that count in life. Keaton weeps in the third act about missing his child's birth and the attention he gave his career non-stop over the years; the obsession he's dealing with now in this comeback to the stage his character is making after years of being a blockbuster superhero.

That's the heart of this movie. The realization that a lot of what we might think really matters actually means half as much as the things we may be ignoring around us. Whether it's art, sports, or pure, raw capitalism on the battle grounds of entrepreneurship, we're easily strayed to push ourselves so hard for the brass ring, while we neglect our family around us sometimes.

When we went to the theater tonight, our intention was to see American Sniper. Surprisingly, every showing was sold out the rest of the night. Every one of them. My wife and I found ourselves stuck with having to pick an alternative on the fly. Birdman might not have been her cup of tea, but then again, maybe it didn't need to be. I found myself almost disappointed or let down at first that she didn't have the same zeal I did when we got in the car. But maybe that's because it didn't need to be poignant for her because she has her priorities in line consistently.

I, on the other hand, am an obsessive, relentless, damn near psychotic artist, and that's not meant to be pretentious. I am obsessed with creating, whether its in acting, writing, editing, even just in wrestling and film in general. The tunnel vision forms, and I get dialed in, and it won't go away until the job is done or the piece is done or the podcast is edited. Art really is an obsession. But that's why Birdman was so poignant for me. The wake Michael Keaton's character has left on his thematic journey is one that has negated the truly beautiful moments of life.

Where this film ultimately succeeds, and I know this is reaching and it won't land on everyone, but it's a film that doesn't make you cry in the moment. It doesn't land right then and there in your chair. It comes along afterwards, and that to me is the mark of what makes a film really special nowadays. It lands and stays because it's deep down something very universal that we can't merely cast to the side.

Now the final irony sinks in. My wife is sleeping right now. We're seven weeks into our pregnancy. Ours, it's really hers, but its our journey together. I just told you Birdman was a movie about letting go of obsession. What am I doing now but mingling once again with my obsession on the keyboard. It's time to close up shop. Res Ispa Loquitur. The Thing Speaks For Itself.

- Critical Bill, @williamrenken83

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

When Bob Holly Ruled the Hardcore World, A Going Broadway Reminiscence

Al Snow lumbers around the ring, microphone in hand; a frustrated man caught in an elusive quest for the WWF Hardcore Championship. He's at Monday Night Raw (run on Saturday night, so technically Saturday Night Raw) wanting to have a hardcore match. No one appears, the scene for Snow getting desperate.

February 1999.

Snow, caught in a limbo of disappointment, reacts with an Attitude Era first: he has a hardcore match with himself to give the fans their money's worth and to satiate his own masochistic. He opens with a couple of microphone blasts to his head but quickly graduates to broken brooms over his cranium and exhausting a fire extinguisher in his own face. The coup de grace comes when he moonsaults himself through a table to a confused audience delight. The limitations of in-ring insanity have reached a new high.

The camera cuts to the ramp way. One of Snow's fellow JOB squad cohorts walks toward the ring simultaneously concerned and irritated. Bob Holly, far removed from the days of Thurman and Sparky Plugg, not too far removed from being the Bombastic half of the New Midnight Express. He enters the ring as a friend trying to halt the unusual and self destructive behavior of Snow, but actually catalyzes a brawl that instantly annuls the alliance they had in the JOB Squad.

As only wrestling can, this becomes the instant build to a match at the next pay-per-view, St. Valentine's Day Massacre for the vacant WWF Hardcore Championship.


"I didn't think anything other than I was there as a body to put Al over, but I was happy to hear I would be on a pay-per-view and hopefully get a decent payday out of it.  I din't know it at the time, but this was the birth of Hardcore Holly." - Bob Holly, The Hardcore Truth

The Attitude Era podcast is bar-none the best wrestling podcast in the world of on-demand wrestling audio, especially during a time in the current WWE climate when it's sadly cliched to utter over and over "When is the Attitude Era coming back?"

The genius of the podcast lies not exclusively in the spot-on humor that creates clever and lasting memes but also in its analysis that removes the rose-colored glasses that many in the internet wrestling
community wear in regards to the Attitude Era. In one of their episodes in particular, hosts Kefin Mahon, Adam Bibilo, and Billy Keable perfectly sum up the misconception of this golden era of the business.

"Many people think the Attitude Era was just three years of Steve Austin riding a beer truck or a zamboni." - Attitude Era podcast

And if it's not Steve Austin on a beer truck, it's about The Rock liking pie, DX telling everyone to "suck it," or Jerry Lawler's obsession with "puppies." The TV-14 era of wrestling television.

But there in lies the misconception. There was a lot more going on in the Attitude Era, and there was a considerable amount at times that wasn't very good. But that's not for this piece. When you follow the pay-per-views of 1998-2001 and re-examine the matches and storylines years removed from being a kid or even a teenager, there are some gems that emerge; diamonds in the rough that really weren't in any rough. We just became blind to them in the midst of Austin vs. McMahon.

And there all along right in front of all of us was one of the Attitude Era's most unsung heroes.

When Hardcore Holly ruled the world.


The St. Valentine's Day Massacre pay-per-view was centered around the match everyone had been wanting for almost a year: Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon in a steel cage. Fans were salivating to see the Texas Rattlesnake finally get his hands on McMahon in not just a one-on-one match but a steel cage on top of it. The co-main event had Mankind and The Rock in the final pay-per-view match of their feud spanning from the end of 1998 with the WWF title on the line; fittingly stipulated as a Last Man Standing match.

It wasn't the first match of the night, but the battle for the vacated Hardcore title wasn't very high up on the card. (The title was vacant due to Road Dogg being injured and unable to compete.) The hardcore division was still relatively new in WWF but was gaining momentum in the wake of ECW's exploding cult popularity. Mankind had been crowned the first Hardcore champion, which was fitting based on the work he had done not just throughout his career but at the onset of the Attitude Era, not to mention in the presence of that ominous cage in Pittsburgh. But with Mankind in a main event WWF title feud, the division was beginning to be built around Al Snow, who himself, was coming off a memorable match with Road Dogg that ended in the snow; one of the most memorable finishes in WWF history.

Although the match between Snow and Holly was microwaved within the last week before the pay-per-vew, there was enough backstory to give the match a little weight. It's an easy story. Two former friends, two former stable-mates from the JOB Squad, the group of sure losers, layered on top of the quest of Snow to win his first single's title.

"People can talk all they want to about how certain wrestlers are too rough or don't work soft enough, but last time I checked, wrestling was a contact sport. I don't know what some people who get in that ring are expecting, but we sure as hell aren't going to go ballroom dancing." - Bob Holly, The Hardcore Truth


Snow's entrance is layered with pops. Massively over. Arguably as over as anyone outside of the main event echelon.

Holly's music hits, but it's not quite the badass entrance theme he would have later. In fact, he's still coming out to the JOB Squad theme and still clad in his JOB Squad trunks. There's a confusion with the audience. They don't know how to take Holly in this role. He's not a heel. He was the one trying to help his friend by stopping him from beating the hell out of himself. No, he can't be booed. But he's not getting much of an ovation either. And its understandable. There's not much of a character there yet, and for the most part Holly was used as well, a jobber, an enhancement guy. How often did the crowd pop for Barry Horrowitz or Brooklyn Brawler? You can even see the look on Holly's face as a down the middle character. Could go either way. Hands on his hips as he walks to the ring. No pandering to the crowd. Eyes on the ring. As Howard Finkle announces him, he's representing the JOB Squad. He's Bob Holly. Pure and simple.

No lock-ups, no arm drag take-downs or hip tosses. In fact, it takes less than 30 seconds for this match to go to the outside. Holly sells on the go, Snow quickly pillages for weapons to use. I'm not sure I appreciated Holly's toughness as much as I did revisiting this and seeing him take an unprotected chair shot to the head and be on to the next spot within 30 seconds; fitting foreshadowing to the handle he will bestow in the coming weeks.

The battle heads to the crowd and not long after heads to the backstage area. WWF make no economy of falls count anywhere. Can you blame them? Road Dogg and Al Snow fought in the snow. The bar was set pretty high. It might not have been snowing in Memphis, but it's still a freezing 30 degrees as Snow and Holly destroy as much as they can in the area on the way out the door.

Michael Cole on commentary finds pockets of space to plug, no pun intended, the fact that Holly is by trade a welder as he tries to build his toughness through biography for the fans at home. He lays down the fact that Holly has been the Intercontinental Champion and a Tag Team Champion "for a cup of coffee." He builds Snow as a man searching for that first singles title. It's admirable work to build the finish that one of them will have gold by the end of the match.

Poor Tim White. He looks gassed as they get deeper into the Memphis night outside the ridiculous pyramid arena. The Blair Witch WWF camera crew in tow. It becomes a brawling Bruce Springsteen song as they head down to the river. Why not beat the shit out of each other with the mighty Mississip as a backdrop?

Branches, barbwire, and finally a hip toss...into the river. They finish on the bank, Holly with the clever tactic of rolling Snow in a chain-link fence and getting the win. Bob Holly, new Hardcore Champion.

Holly runs back through the downtown Memphis area to return to the arena and claim his new belt. He celebrates like the haunting image of Platoon, on his knees exhausted from the battle.


"The seed that been planted in thee Brawl for All about me being tough had come through and now they thought I would be a good fit for the hardcore division, so Vince said that if I was going to be hardcore, I'd better be called Hardcore Holly. I was more than happy with that." - Bob Holly, The Hardcore Truth

The Valentine's Day Massacre launched the new Hardcore Holly. The fans in the arena didn't explode with his win of the Hardcore Title, but in beating Al Snow clean with no dus-tup in the manner he did, a new persona was born.

The finish of the match down on the river bank obviously gets the most attention in conjunction with the wintry finish Snow had with Road Dogg. However, as a hardcore match, it builds beautifully to that conclusion through a methodical sell on the run. If you listen to the Steve Austin Show on Podcast One, he loves to say that about Undertaker as how he sells as a big man. This entire match is a sell on the run as they work throughout the arena and beyond. Broken brooms, floor tiles, trash cans, and branches outside. It's not out of control and hardcore for the sake of hardcore, but more so it gave both men some build on the way to WrestleMania. Snow still eluded by the championship; Holly now a viable tough guy in a division gaining momentum in WWF.


"I started to get over with the crowd. They started reacting to me in a way they never had before. That's because my character finally felt right. It worked because I was comfortable. I was comfortable because Hardcore Holly was me, through and through." - Bob Holly, The Hardcore Truth

February 15, 1999. Monday Night Raw. The night following the Massacre pay-per-view, Holly defends his recently won Hardcore Championship against Steve Blackman.

Holly walks out first with arms and belt raised. He slaps hands with some fans, still appearing to lean toward being a face at the moment but the reaction is still mostly ambivalence from the crowd. Holly still looks like he's still trying to find this new character. Can you blame him? You go from being a part of the JOB Squad to being a champion. The usual enhancement talent entrance just won't do.

Blackman comes out next, but he doesn't have to travel far. Holly is immediately headed up the ramp to meet him, and soon after they are fighting in the backstage area. Well, that didn't take long...

This is a short and sweet affair, but it's effectively brutal. Metal beer signs, whatever can be grabbed. It's all fair game and open season. Whatever they can't grab they throw each other at each other.

You almost wish Holly and Blackman had more than five minutes to really let this brawl fester because they beat the hell out of each other. Blackman belly-to-belly suplexes Holly into the side of the equipment truck, as they head toward their finish in the loading dock area. Holly has an object in hand but Blackman executes one of his patented martial arts kicks that sends Holly into a dumpster.

Blackman's in the driver's seat. What the plan was next with Holly in the dumpster we will never know because Droz appears with a giant lead pipe and ambushes Blackman. A retaliatory shot from an incident the previous week. Holly crawls out of the dumpster to pick up the pin on the loading dock.

Holly runs back to the ring, but there's something different about this entrance to claim his title belt. He angrily snatches the microphone. "I'll make this short and sweet..."

He's not kidding. He gets right to the point about having lame gimmicks and weak tag team partners over the years but pronounces that this is Bob Holly's time, and he his hardcore. He ends with an open challenge to anyone who wants to come down and take his title away from him.

Where there might have been marked ambivalence between the pay-per-view and his entrance on Raw, Holly instantly draws heat for being disgruntled. In 2011, that would get you a t-shirt and a three year contract. Just ribbing. Holly didn't drop the pipe bomb CM Punk would drop 12 years later, but it's a truly honest promo that comes from a place of verisimilitude.

Yes, being Thurman or Sparky Plugg was a lame gimmick from a time when characters were more cartoonish. Weak tag team partners? Eh, maybe, maybe not, but it gets good heat. It's a damn fine promo that is as short and sweet as he said it would be and accomplishes the goal of getting a reaction from the crowd.

The Brawl For All music hits, and it's Bart Gunn who comes out to answer Holly's challenge. Being a former tag team partner of Holly's in the failed rejuvenation of the Midnight Express, he takes umbrage with Holly's comment of "weak tag team partners."

Gunn's run through the Brawl For All tournament was an unexpected win, as it has been maintained numerously that the tournament was a planned launching pad for Dr. Death Steve Williams, who Gunn knocked out in one of the early rounds. In fact, Gunn's knock out ability became his staple en route to beating Bradshaw to win in the finals.

But Holly is quick to point out that he was the only one Gunn could not knock out, and it is an accurate statement. Gunn beat Holly by decision to win that first round they competed in.

But this is 1999. That wasn't Hardcore Holly that Gunn was in the ring against. Nevertheless, the challenge is accepted for the following week on Raw. Holly's Hardcore Championship on the line against Ben Roethlisberger. I mean, Bart Gunn.  


"Because Bart and I were riding together, we had a chance to talk before the fight. We agreed that whatever happened, happened. I knew that Bart used to do tough-man contests too, so I had my work cut out for me. Even though he'd never wrestled a bear...We went out there and laid into each other. It was brutal. He hit me so fucking hard, I ended up on the other side of the ring...but he didn't knock me out....He told me 'I hit you with some good shots - it shocked me when you didn't go down.' I had a black eye for a solid week after that fight, but he never knocked me down." - Bob Holly on his match with Bart Gunn during the 1998 Brawl For All tournament, The Hardcore Truth

That being said, you know what you were about to get when these two clashed almost a year later with the Hardcore Championship on the line.

As opposed to his first title defense that never made it to the ring, Holly and Gunn do the jaw jacking and the shoves in the center of the squared circle before they start swinging away. By 15 seconds in, the match is on the outside. So much for those take-downs the purists were hoping for...

Gunn's left hook which has been hyped since his performance in the Brawl For All unfortunately runs into the same troubled water that present day Big Show's WMD knockout punch runs into. Any other time it connects, it does only the usual amount of damage a wrestling punch can. It loses its zeal.

Then again, the left hook wasn't billed as Gunn's finisher by any means, just a signature. But he throws it early, and Holly sells it with a minimal stagger before he throws a right of his own. Within the next minute, he's got a glass pitcher and steel chair smashed against his former tag partner's head. The crowd starts to get into it because it looks unbelievably brutal.

By the time they circle back around to the ramp, it's Bart that has the upper hand and delivers a perfect suplex square on the metal, followed up with a DDT. The bumps look great. As the battle moves towards the Titantron area, Gunn smashes a watermelon and a connected pipe over the fallen Holly, who responds with a crate of bananas to the head. The bag of flour is the real sight. A cloud of white, covering Holly and the poor referee.

Michael Cole never ceases to build Gunn and his Brawl For All win while adding that Gunn is a man "with a giant chip on his shoulder." And it looks like at this point that he can add Hardcore Champion on top of those other chestnuts. And then, suddenly, a masked martial artist, who is obviously not a fan of Bart Gunn, attacks and sends him off the stage area to a table below. Massive bump. Massive pop.

Holly wastes no time getting to the floor to cover Gunn for the pin. Winner and still champion: Hardcore Holly.


The masked fellow was easily Dr. Death Steve Williams, a fitting person to interfere against Bart Gunn due to losing in the Brawl For All to him the previous year when Williams was so heavily favored to win the thing.

Regardless, Holly and Gunn put on a hell of match, which easily could have been a feud that continued for a few more shows, even a pay-per-view. Having Holly go over via interference for the second week in a row, combined with his new brazen attitude, further sold him as a credible heel champion. And what makes a heel even better is when he's damn good at what he does. Holly's toughness and ability to navigate a hardcore match and tell a compelling story showed that this was definitely his niche in the Attitude Era of "fuck it, whatever gets people excited."

There has always been something about a heel who talks tough, acts tough, fights tough, and then wins via the help of someone else that can really get a response from the crowd. And it didn't hurt Gunn to lose via the interference especially with a match to be made between him and Butterbean at WrestleMania that would effectively end his WWF career.


The build to WrestleMania XV takes an interesting turn the following week when unexpectedly, Billy Gunn is thrown into the mix against Hardcore Holly with the Hardcore Championship on the line. This begins a package that doesn't really make that much sense.

First off, Billy Gunn, who at this point of 1999 is being built to be a main event talent, is not a hardcore wrestler, nor does he belong in a hardcore match.

Second, why not have Road Dogg in this position? A logical, fantastic build. "Hardcore Holly, you didn't beat me to get that belt, and the only reason you got that belt was because I was injured." Of course, choose a few of those words to spell out and add a "shizzle" to the end of one of them for the full Road Dogg effect, but you get the idea.

Holly and Billy Gunn do put on a great wrestling match, but it's a very stripped down, light, almost negligible hardcore match, which isn't a bad thing at all. But as a company, you're building a guy named Hardcore Holly, and you've done it well over the course of only two weeks by having him beat the hell out of everyone and take a hell of a beating himself.

It wouldn't be so bad, but Gunn drops Holly with the Fameasser and wins the Hardcore Championship.

Luckily, the program for the Hardcore Championship brought together new champion Billy Gunn, Hardcore Holly, and the lovable underdog Al Snow. What could have been with Road Dogg...God dammit.

Triple threats on the whole are lousy affairs. Invariably, someone has to take a bump and sell it as something incapacitating for five minutes while the other two wrestlers continue the action.

This triple threat is honestly not too bad and not too cliched. The hardcore element provides a little more justification for staying away from the action a little longer. This match carries tremendous energy and is a perfect WrestleMania opener.

Holly's entrance finally has the classic Hardcore Holly theme that is most likely being played on Spike TV at this moment previewing another new show. He has that "fuck you" look on his face as he walks to the ring. It's all come together finally. What a transition from the Bob Holly that was just another member of the JOB Squad just a few weeks ago.

This is the perfect set-up for a WrestleMania moment for Al Snow, who is still being built by commentary as the one looking to accomplish his dream by getting the title.

I love this finish because anyone who has played WWF No Mercy on the Nintendo 64 did this. Billy Gunn hits the Fameasser on Al Snow with a chair beneath him. Holly breaks the pin with a chair shot of his own and then covers Snow himself to get the win and the title. The air in the crowd instantly vanishes in shock. They were counting on Snow or even the massively over Gunn to get the win. No, sir. This is Hardcore Holly's time.


"Wrestling is a tough business. Some people talked about me being a bully - those people don't know a thing. Because I played the gimmick of being a no-nonsense, grumpy bastard, my critics just assumed I beat people up. If I'd been given the Doink gimmick, nobody would have accused me of being a bully. I still would have gone out there and done my job so well you couldn't have slid a piece of paper between my fist and the other guy's forehead." - Bob Holly, The Hardcore Truth

Hardcore Holly lost the Hardcore Championship to Al Snow the next month at the Backlash pay-per-view, which capped off Snow's journey from getting pinned in the snow in early January to his title moment.

This was only the beginning for the Hardcore Holly character. Not long after, he would be launched into a summer program of being "The Big Shot" who believed he was a super heavyweight above the ranks of Big Show and Kane. It gave more promo time to Holly and further seasoned his character of being a cocky, arrogant asshole who also happens to be one of the toughest guys on the roster.



I will never say that Bob "Hardcore" Holly was the greatest unsung hero of the Attitude Era. I won't become a hindsight, arm chair booker as to how Holly could have been a bigger star. Things just didn't turn out that way. But it's not to say that what he did put out there wasn't, by and large, underrated.

This brief timeline we have explored is at the genesis of a very popular part of the Attitude Era, the hardcore division.

Mick Foley was given the belt, but there were going to have to be others to keep that energy and momentum going. Al Snow was a perfect undercard Mick Foley-esque character seeking and challenging and coming so close to being the Hardcore Champion like Foley, himself was with the WWF Title. To balance out a babyface's quest, a new heel was needed.

Bob Holly in the span of a month went from being "Oh I remember that guy..." to "That's Hardcore Holly. He'll fuck ya up." This era for him, beginning in February of 1999 and running to the fall was a damn good run.

I had mentioned this last time when I went on ad nauseum about how amazing the Attitude Era podcast is. Those guys are probably over it by now, but above everything else, including the humor and the satirical take on the wrestling times of long ago, it allows us who only focused on Steve Austin riding a beer truck for three years to remember and re-examine those hidden gems of talent that could work well in the ring and deliver a compelling character.

This first sent me down the rabbit hole of Hardcore Holly. But where I find myself in the greatest of appreciation for his work comes from his book The Hardcore Truth. I won't launch into a book review, but in the company of wrestling books, it's brash honesty and unwillingness to ride the line of apolitical diction puts it in a conversation with Mick Foley's Have a Nice Day. Obviously, Foley's book is a jersey hanging in the rafters, it's untouchable. But The Hardcore Truth is a wonderful examination of a man behind a character. The wrestling business is a "never say never" kind of world. I hope the present day WWE has a place for Hardcore Holly in the near future. I really do. Until then, thank god for the WWE Network to revisit that which we might have missed so long ago.