GAINING PERSPECTIVE ON RAW: OR THE ANATOMY OF BACKSTAGE SEGMENTS
I haven't watched a full episode of RAW in over three months.
I catch up by way of clips on Twitter and I skim through Hulu's already abridged version. I spend most of my time perusing the promos, the skits, and whatever vignettes there may be, cramming the broad strokes of the larger narratives so that I might be able to pass whatever WWE-quiz comes my way. Altogether, after also checking up on SmackDown, I've condensed my WWE-viewership into about thirty minutes a week (unless there's a pay-per-view and then that duration naturally increases).
The result is that I'm a much happier human being, and I'm probably a lot easier to be around. I don't obsess about booking decisions. I don't bicker with anyone online. I don't care about anyone's criticism of my criticisms. The imagined judgements of some phantom "real pro-wrestling fan" have vacated my mind, replaced with a sense of peace and the ability to interact with pro-wrestling in a healthier way on my own terms.
My entertainment & media diet has become more well-rounded. For years I gorged on the pizza of pro-wrestling, where now I consume the fruits, vegetables, and proteins of science, politics, and film.
WWE represents my "cheat day".
I've learned that this may be the best way to approach WWE-viewership (at least for me). The angst - borderline madness - that pervades the pro-wrestling community stems, in part, from the way members of this community glut on all things wrestling at every waking moment.
Being immersed in the pro-wrestling community content-loop can make you as crazy as being immersed in the twenty-four-hour news cycle. I know this because I've done both, and both resulted in my inability to properly process information or even enjoy daily life. No single forum is properly suited to be the one-stop-shop for all media & entertainment consumption, just as pizza isn't meant to be the only food we eat.
Don't mistake this for an argument that everyone who intently watches pro-wrestling should become what we commonly identify (and dismiss) as a "casual wrestling fan". Being immersed in pro-wrestling 24/7 worked tremendously for me from 2014 to midway through 2016. For some, that degree of immersion will always work and the fact that they simply can do that regardless of whether or not they should is a part of pro-wrestling's appeal. I understand and respect that devotion, even if it simultaneously gives me pause. Extremes just aren't very useful in the long term.
That degree of constant engagement naturally weighs on all human minds and affects one's ability to calmly, coherently evaluate what they're experiencing. In any "diehard" or extreme environment, criticism becomes incredibly unreliable because critical thinking becomes nonexistent. This is why I've found stepping away from constantly watching and critiquing RAW so useful.
When I turned RAW on last night just before bed, I saw aspects of the show that I'd always criticized in a new light. My perspective hadn't completely changed, of course. I didn't magically enjoy segments I used to hate and hate segments I used to enjoy. I was simply able to process the information in a more coherent way.
In the past, I've been absolutely relentless in my disdain for backstage segments. I've been lamenting their existence long before this blog and my podcast even existed. I've likened them to the visual equivalent of "cheap porn" and screamed that they "simply have no place on television".
Not a very useful or insightful approach. You will either agree or disagree with such statements rather than consider a more thoughtful, genuine critique.
Last night, when I watched Stephanie McMahon belittle Mick Foley in a standard two-shot backstage segment, located in that nondescript "office" that appears every week, I paid close attention to the twisty-turny cadence of Stephanie's malevolent monologue. I also paid close attention to Mick's reaction to it, Mick's delivery of his lines, and the way the camera framed their faces, wobbling from side and side and forward and backward before finally settling on the image of Mick's forlorn face.
WATCH THE SEGMENT BELOW:
It occurred to me that there was a lot of good in this scene.
Firstly, if we get back to basics, Stephanie didn't flub a line.
It didn't seem like her dialogue was strictly scripted, though. It's easier to not flub a line when you don't really have a lot of lines to memorize in the first place. Having observed the patterns of RAW the past several years, it appears as though Stephanie, Triple H, and other "tenured" members of the roster are permitted to cut bullet-point promos "in their own words", and that's why such promos tend to be memorable. Her words poured out effortlessly and convincingly, and her demonic affect suited the tone of those words and the overall intent of the scene.
Secondly, Mick's reaction was appropriate. He quietly held Stephanie's gaze, genuinely absorbing what she was saying, as if she was really saying it to him. This is what good actors call being "in the moment". It's a tool for recreating the reality of an exchange between two people. Mick is listening and internalizing her words, and the result is a peculiar, pained quiver in his eyes. He's attempting to allow this fabricated moment to produce a genuine emotion in him. This merging of the real and the unreal is one of the fundamental tenets of all good art.
And Mick was successful. This is one of his strengths as a performer - living behind his eyes, communicating a lot to the audience without doing too much.
In terms of the story, this scene helped widen the gap between the two characters, setting them down the path toward an inevitable split. The story also incorporates the history of both characters, which is always useful when attempting to build tension. Mick and Stephanie have explored their friendship in previous segments, imbuing their interactions with deeper emotional context.
Mick Foley's characters have always been defined by their emotional vulnerability, and how that makes him susceptible to manipulation. Stephanie is manipulating Mick not unlike her father did during The Attitude Era. The tragedy of Mick's personas, even this latest incarnation, is that he seeks the authoritative approval of the McMahons. The triumph of Mick usually comes after he's experienced some sort of emotional or physical loss, disillusioned for having placed his faith in the wrong people. After hitting rock bottom, Mick comes back unexpectedly, usually in a way that uses the McMahon's own villainy against them.
All of that is present in this latest scene, and all of that is incredibly good.
But there is a fatal flaw in the presentation of this scene that threatens to negate anything worthwhile or memorable about it. It is the same fatal flaw that affects every backstage segment just like this one.
The camera-angle and the blocking of the characters is so static that it fails to capture the emotional tone of the story.
The backstage camera-angle, often pushing in during one character's dialogue and then falling back during another character's dialogue (in an effort to compensate for the lack of the characters' literal motion) does not properly show what the characters are thinking and feeling.
The characters are often framed so that their faces are in profile or near-profile, and that visual boundary limits their expressiveness. They are required to stand slightly askew, their chests facing forward, their heads partially bent toward each other and partially toward the camera. This is done so that they can still feasibly interact with each other while also continuing to present just enough of their faces to the camera.
But nearly half of their heads are invisible to the viewer. The tools of the human face (eyes, mouths, etc), that film and television rely upon to express human emotion and inform story, have been exiled from this amorphous backstage universe.
The performers are always awkwardly blocked closer to each other than they would ever be in real-life. As new characters cycle in and out of these scenes, the camera jerks backward into a three-shot, a four-shot, and sometimes even a five-shot. The participants are forced to rub elbows and shoulders and lean over each other as they recite their dialogue, competing for real-estate on the screen.
Peppered throughout these dialogues are pauses. These pauses are meant to account for the assumed pop from the crowd or the viewer at home; hence why the dialogue often feels so stilted. Such a scene is filmed and blocked in this way to accommodate the tiny space in which the Superstars are performing.
Why do the spaces in which these scenes take place need to be so small, and why does the shot need to be a single, unbroken take that fails to capture, let alone accentuate, the emotions of the performers?
Consider also that the lighting is as bright as can be, tinted with reds and blues in service of brand-identity. The flimsily constructed background is used as advertising space for pay-per-views, various shows, and videogames.
All of that serves to distract from the characters who are supposed to be the subjects of the camera. It is difficult for the viewer to intuit exactly where their eyes should land. The visual information contained in the frame itself becomes literally and ideologically paradoxical. The colors do not reflect the emotionality of the story, the camera does not direct the viewer's eye to a particular point of interest, and the viewer receives competing subliminal signals about whether they should pay attention to the Superstars or purchase more WWE content. So the subliminal signals don't even work.
On the most basic of technical levels, the cinematography just doesn't do what cinematography is supposed to do. It is filmed and lit in such a way that we only receive a tiny fraction of the narrative information that visual storytelling is capable of delivering to audiences. These are the same incongruous creative decisions that appear in nearly every first year student film. When creative people have pressing deadlines they don't have time to think about these things, or they don't have an objective third party making the flaws in their creations apparent in a palatable way.
It's important to remember that Mick Foley is being emotionally decimated by a woman he respects and admires in this scene. In many ways, she's family. His entire purpose in the company is being called into question. Stephanie is delivering a truly despicable, complex monologue designed to rip Mick Foley's soul to shreds and push him to the brink of despair.
Does the visual language of the scene actually achieve or enhance that purpose? Does the visual language of the scene fit the tone of that story and provide focus to the psychological tumult of Mick Foley's character? Are the composition of the image and the narrative of what's happening inside the image connected at all?
The scene naturally demands darker lighting and multiple angles so as to create a space that's as three-dimensional as the characters who inhabit it. As is, we have three-dimensional characters in a one-dimensional space. There is no depth to their world (in the literal sense of the word "depth"). The components of the image and the meanings of those components are muddled together on-screen so that it has the apperence of flatness.
And this analysis of the cinematography doesn't even addresses the conceit of what the backstage-world is, how it fits into the rest of the show, and how & why audiences are capable of seeing it.
What role does the forth-wall play in these segments, if any?
Are the Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley characters aware of the fact that they are being filmed?
If not, why?
That question becomes particularly important at the conclusion of the scene when the camera pushes in closer on Mick's face (as it always does when such scenes end and a lone character remains).
Is the Mick character having a private moment to himself, is he posing for the close-up, or is he doing something in-between?
The character reacts as if he is not aware of the camera's presence, the way any actor in a scripted drama would. Yet the construction and execution of the scene prior to Mick's lone stare suggests that the characters were "playing to the camera", and that this entire segment was purposefully staged so that the audience in the arena and the viewers at home would be able to see it.
Given that this is the case, the characters must know that they are, in fact, being filmed. Despite that, they still perform as if they are not aware of the fact that they are being filmed. This unavoidable contradiction is present in every backstage segment, creating an unnecessary conceptual paradox. It's like a black hole - there's no good explanation for it and nothing can escape it.
This is not to suggest that all backstage segments are inherently "bad". Some of them have been incredibly entertaining. This is to point out that they share a common structural flaw that impedes their effectiveness.
It's also important to note that the specific way that the Superstars simulate being unaware of the cameras is not the same as the way a person consciously ignores a camera being shoved in their face. The Superstars in these segments are acting (the same way actors do) as if they reside in a backstage world where cameras just don't exist at all.
If the characters definitively aren't aware of the cameras filming them (as they always appear to be), then that means backstage segments are like movies, existing in their own abstract world disconnected from what takes place inside the wrestling ring. This would mean that the characters in backstage segments do not know they're on television and that a massive arena is watching everything they say and do whenever they're interacting backstage. If that's the case, then it's completely unclear exactly how and why the audience is able to see what they're seeing.
If the Superstars don't see the cameras, then that suggests the cameras don't exist in these scenes. If the cameras don't exist, then how do we, the audience, see backstage segments?
These same Superstars appear entirely aware of the cameras when they're wrestling or conducting interviews, and we are certainly aware of them while they're wrestling or conducting interviews. What is it about the particular set of circumstances that leads to the existence of a backstage segment that also results in Superstars being unaware of the cameras in backstage segments?
And why would that alternate reality where cameras don't exist for them still exist for us? The only space in which the viewer, the wrestler, and the camera crew seem to be in agreement of each other's mutual existence is during a wrestling match or during an interview.
If the characters in a backstage segment are unaware of the camera filming them, what do those characters think when they inevitably discover that RAW is, in fact, a television show and that WWE fans have access to a portal that allows them to see a Superstar's lockeroom shenanigans? Do those Superstars go to Vince McMahon and ask, "What was that?! How is that possible?! There was no camera in that room when I did that!"
Did the Sami Zayn character have an existential crises when he saw the memes of his backstage segment with Rollins & Reigns?
This is not a conceptual problem during backstage interviews and sit-down interviews where a wrestler is asked questions by a RAW-anchor. In interviews, wrestlers are free to occasionally look into the camera and directly address the audience or their rival. Such backstage interviews make it clear that the wrestler knows they're on camera in the same way any interview-subject would know they're on-camera.
If Mick Foley was definitively aware of the camera moving closer to his face in his scene, wouldn't he get agitated due to his vulnerable emotional state, and then scream at the camera crew to leave him alone and "Get out!"? And wouldn't that be a more interesting, visceral conclusion to the scene?
I suspect the rationale behind these backstage segments being filmed, lit, blocked, and written in this counter-intuitive way is that it's easier to execute and RAW is on a tight schedule. A single, unbroken take (the argument probably goes) and the simplistic blocking requires less effort than staging, shooting, lighting, and editing these exchanges in more appropriate, sense-making ways.
It's also hard to break creative habits, and the WWE has been doing backstage segments this way for a very long time.
Surely, the problems with the scene that I have detailed have not entered the consciousness of most WWE-fans. For most people, these issues do not represent much of a problem at all. And perhaps the creative team isn't even aware of the glaring conceptual flaws I've pointed out.
That doesn't mean the flaws aren't there, though. The fact remains that these segments just aren't being done in a way that capitalizes on the tools of television. These segments don't even adhere to the logic of the art they're using to tell their stories; and not in a David Lynchian way that's innovating visual narrative. They are all just making a very basic mistake.
Put as simply as possible, these segments are not effective at doing their job.
And regardless of whether or not a viewer cares about these issues and the Pandora's Box they open, the flaws are internalized, unconsciously or consciously. These segments operate in a murky conceptual Twilight Zone that makes it harder on the Superstars to deliver a good performance and harder on the audience to really comprehend the value of what they're witnessing. The simplistic visuals also do a disservice to the emotional complexities of the characters, the stories, and the themes.
Imagine if Christopher Nolan chose to film his upcoming WWII epic Dunkirk with the same cameras and the same visual language as the soap opera Days of Our Lives. That would feel a tad off wouldn't it?
There's a massive disparity between the overall quality of the WWE-product and the specific way the product chooses to visually represent itself. All of this gets chalked up to "wrestling being wrestling", but that's not good enough.
That's the same low standard that lets people think this is all just fake. The backstage area of a WWE-event, in real life, is probably one of the most fascinating places on earth, overflowing with all kinds of colorful characters, serving up its own unique visual language with ease. No other sport and no other television show could compete with the experience of seeing what it's actually like to journey behind the curtain of Monday Night Raw while watching Monday Night Raw.
Viewers still don't have access to a narrative version of that world behind the curtain. Backstage segments on the flagship shows continue to reduce that fascinating space to a single dimension populated by subjects who may or may not be aware of their surroundings.
To re-imagine and present the scene between Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon in a more effective manner, the WWE would need to fundamentally re-think its visual and narrative style. But that's not as difficult, nor as drastic a creative overhaul as it sounds.
The company has already demonstrated in docu-series on the WWE Network and exclusive behind the scenes kayfabe videos on WWE.com that it's capable of making the appropriate adjustments with little interruption to its workflow.
What if the Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley characters, as well as every other wrestler, knew that RAW camera crews were always roaming around backstage attempting to capture significant exchanges, break stories, or get good interviews (the same way camera crews roam around lockerooms before and after traditional sporting events in real-life). What if viewers, along with the camera crew, unexpectedly "discover" Mick & Stephanie chatting in the hallways or tunnels of the arena?
After spotting Mick and Stephanie, we settle into their "private" dialogue, observing from afar so as to not interrupt them. At the moment, the characters do not realize they're being filmed because they're focused on their conversation. We're no longer centralized in that nondescript general manager's office. The world suddenly becomes distinct, a reflection of the three-dimensional space the Superstars legitimately work in, and that space changes week to week depending upon the layout of the particular arena.
The shot could even be a single take if the WWE really wanted to save time, and move from one side of the space to the other the way we've seen these WWE-cameras follow backstage brawls. The edge of a crate could rest in the foreground, out of focus, and there could even be WWE promotional materials laying about, but they wouldn't distract from the subjects. The camera could also zoom in to capture Mick Foley or Stephanie's reaction at the appropriate times. No more gingerly wobbling forward and backward in time with the dialogue. The camera would become its own character, a key element to the function and drama of the show, not a disembodied eye that just happens to be at the right place at the right time.
If a second camera was added, then the shot could swap back and forth between Mick and Stephanie as they spoke to each other, and that would allow us to fully absorb the details of their emotional responses.
This style is no different, in principle, from the way matches are filmed and edited; it's simply about capturing the action. In this intimate backstage setting, the emotional responses of the characters would represent "the action".
In this re-imagined space, after Mick has been thoroughly dressed down, we see Stephanie walk away, down the opposite end of the hallway and out of frame. The camera zooms in and we see Mick is devastated, leaning against the wall, maybe even on the verge of tears. He looks up and finally notices the camera filming him from a distance.
This adds yet another layer to his emotional devastation; he is embarrassed, realizing that the whole world has witnessed what just took place. He gathers himself and continues down the hallway, or he ducks into a locker-room for some privacy. He could also walk up to the camera and interact with the crew in an attempt to save face. The crew would then ask him questions about the exchange. Or a fellow wrestler or manager could see that Mick is distraught, and then go over to him and ask about what happened.
In such instances, the scene would transform, expanding and contracting in such a way that the characters would become even more alive. Their world would finally come into focus and serve as a solid narrative foundation for their adventures.
SEE VIDEO BELOW FOR AN EXAMPLE OF HOW THIS CAN WORK
This approach to blocking and filming scenes doesn't necessitate that the tone always be deep, dark, and serious. Imagine the comedic and absurdist potential that stems from the concept of Superstars always being on camera and knowing the cameras are just around the bend. Mockumentaries like The Office used this same style perfectly, allowing just a glance into the camera to work to great comedic effect. The possibilities are virtually endless with the docu-style I've described, and all of it can be just as heavily scripted, micromanaged, and controlled as the WWE would like it to be; the visuals would just finally fit the purpose and tone of the scenes, helping the WWE accomplish its narrative goals more effectively.
I remain unconvinced that the current visual-system is so much easier and so much more practical that it's genuinely worth sacrificing the vast ocean of creative potential lingering beneath the surface of these broadcasts.
This is the kind of criticism professional wrestling needs.
In the past, I may have just rolled my eyes at this scene, labeled it "just another terrible backstage skit", and bemoaned how Stephanie McMahon appears to be the only "protected" character on RAW, constantly neutering everyone in her immediate vicinity. That's the type of criticism the pro-wrestling community absorbs and then regurgitates without much push-back. The critical component of our community remains as one-dimensional as these backstage segments. That makes the community's gripes really easy to dismiss, just as it's easy to forget most backstage segments. No matter how well-thought out an argument against Stephanie's very existence on RAW may be, it just doesn't go deep enough.
Perspective, afforded by emotional distance, is invaluable when attempting to offer useful criticism. I remain fascinated by this scene because I was able to see its strengths and its weaknesses simultaneously.
It is my hope that those reading this will find it useful (whether you're a WWE producer or a diehard fan of professional wrestling) . I also hope that you are willing to do what it takes to make these shows (and the way we criticize them) better.
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