28 September 2009

Death and funny costumes in the afternoon

So I went to a bullfight.

PETA, hold your complaints. Arthur insisted that I go, so I did.

And really: it's kind of obligatory for the Madrid tourist, no?

No. It shouldn't be. Don't go. I'm a stereotypical tourist so that you don't have to be one, so that you can experience kitsch or, in this case, pageantry-filled brutality vicariously. And then skip it when you actually travel to Europe.

Technically, what I attended was a Novillada con picadores rather than a proper corrida--this featured younger matadors and bulls under four years old; think of it as a minor league bullfight.

Let us first note that you can buy tickets online through a Ticketmaster subsidiary. That's right: Ticketmaster sells bullfight tickets. There's no escape.

The plaza outside the stadium is a teeming mass of bullfight fans, scalpers, and stands selling an impressive variety of souvenirs and food. It's pretty much just like the scene at any professional sporting competition in the US, except that the Red Bull umbrellas at the food stands seem particularly out of place.

Your taste for irony sated, you enter the stadium and find your seat on the granite benches that make up the bleachers of the perfectly-round stadium.

Eventually, the action begins. There's a lot of pomp and circumstance and pageantry. Trumpets blare. Drums beat.

Two guys ride out wearing Pilgrim costumes, with doilies on their necks and towering yellow feather dusters on their hats. Their job is to look ridiculous. They do it well. They are followed by twelve guys in costumes that find the common ground between speed skating outfit and Liberace--uncomfortably tight, impossibly ornate, like Baroque Spandex. Then come six men on horses wearing blinders and padding that looks like a dust ruffle for a bed, only with fewer ruffles and more horse. Bringing up the rear are 15 newspaper vendors from the 1920s (knickers, funny hats). Their outfits have accidentally been washed with other colors, which have run; seven are off-red; eight are off-green. These are the groundskeepers.

Everyone disperses and the guys in the Baroque Spandex take up spots behind walls around the dirt ring, as though they're playing hide-and-go-seek. Which, in a way, they are.

A bull enters. A couple of the Baroque Spandex guys run out into the dirt circle and waves their capes, which are pink one side and yellow on the other. Very 1980s. The crowd cheers. They loved the '80s. Duran Duran was rad. When the bull gets within 50 feet of a Baroque Spandex guy, he squeals and sprints for cover. Scratch the hide-and-go-seek analogy: it's like a game of tag--except that the final "tag" is, of course, fatal.

After a while, a few of the Baroque Spandex guys arm themselves with nightclubs with skewers on the end. The men go to the center of the dirt ring and do the Chicken Dance with their nightclubs to attract the bull's attention. When it charges, they jab the nightclubs into bull's shoulders while in the same instant jumping the hell out of the way. This is actually fairly impressive. If the skewers fall out, though, the crowd boos.

Once six skewers are in the bull and it is good and tired and panting in the exact pathetic, exhausted manner of a cartoon critter--tongue out, posture lowered--another Baroque Spandex guy comes out. His cape is red. He is the matador. His job is to wave his cape dramatically (sometimes behind his back) and try to get the bull to charge lethargically. This works up the crowd, which cheers enthusiastically and sometimes jeers in the exact same tone as an American baseball fan yelling "C'mon, ump, get some glasses--he was safe by a mile!" The difference between actions that merit cheers and jeers is essentially imperceptible.

Eventually, the matador stabs the bull on the top of the neck, just above the head. At this point, it's an act of mercy--it's clearly suffering, it really seems to want to die. The bull falls to the ground. The crowd goes wild. Three horses come out and drag out the carcass, creating a trail of blood in the dirt.

I don't have any jokes to make at this point. It's pretty brutal, pretty grotesque.

It's also just not that interesting. It's not a fair fight; the outcome is never in doubt. And it's not manly, not a convincing expression of power or strength or primal energy. Sorry, Papa Hemingway--it's not. It has all the drama and intrigue of a playground bully shaking down a scrawny kid for milk money. Arm the bulls with lasers on their horns or make the matadors wrestle them with their bare hands, and then we can talk.

Until then, I don't understand the appeal. Again: predetermined outcome, not a fair fight. Even with all the ritual and funny costumes, it's just not compelling or entertaining. And they do it over and over--each night features several "fights," several bulls killed in the name of tradition and contrived Man vs. Beast competition.

Skip it. If you're interested, watch a bullfight on YouTube. But give it a pass when you're in Madrid. Spend the afternoon in Retiro Park instead, or eating paella.

Remember: I'm a tourist so that you don't have to be one. You're welcome.

3 comments:

  1. "It has all the drama and intrigue of a playground bully shaking down a scrawny kid for milk money."- I've got a feeling that Papa H. probably found that kind of thing pretty manly as well. - EO

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