Thursday, May 28, 2009

Revisiting 1999: The Forgotten Films --- Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Blaustein)

Finally the DVD...has arrived (I was doing The Rock while typing that...a little wrestling humor to start this much belated post).

I might as well get this out right away: I love wrestling. I love it. I have an unabashed love for it. It's what I watch to decompress when I come home from work, or if I have time on a weekend night -- instead of watching bad sitcoms or reality TV, I watch professional wrestling. It's sport, it's spectacle, it's theater in its purest form. I've followed it since I was a kid, taking a brief hiatus from it during 2002-2005, but I came back to it one night in 2006 and I was immediately hooked again. Wrestling isn't the same now compared to when I was a kid, and it's definitely not the same as it was when Hollywood screenwriter Barry Blaustein (Boomerang and The Nutty Professor Movies) made the documentary Beyond the Mat.

Wrestling was experiencing an all time high in viewers during the 1997-2000 years, thanks to what is known as The Monday Night Wars between the WWE and WCW. Well, the WWE wont he battle because they bought out WCW and created what has become a pretty watered-down, kid friendly product where Vince McMahon (the head honcho) employs Hollywood and television writers to turn the product into kid friendly comedy.

So why do I still watch? Because I love the performance of it all. There are still a few wrestlers who are allowed to shape their characters, instead of having them be written for them, and this creates great face (good guys) versus heel (bad guys) dynamics. It's so damn entertaining. This is what comes across in Beyond the Mat: the love of wrestling filtered through the lens of someone who is not being condescending to those who do it for a living. It makes for an enthralling doc that is better than anything about the subject of wrestling I've seen.

Nothing in the documentary really surprised me. See, I'm what is called a smark (smart mark) because I know the inside workings of the business, therefore the product isn't really catered towards someone like me. The term comes from the carnival days of wrestling when they would tour different cities across America. Just like ant good carnival sideshow, the promoters would look for "marks", easy targets they could sucker into believing it was real so they would pay their money to see the show. Well, once word started getting around about the fact that is was fake, the promoters would begin to notice these marks were more privy to what was really going on, so they called them "smart marks", which evolved into "smark".

So knowing what I know it doesn't surprise me when the film opens with Blaustein talking about how wrestling is scripted, practiced, and sometimes meticulously story boarded...because I already knew that. I already knew that sure the wrestlers are doing something that's "fake" the pain, however, is all too real. But that doesn't damper my love for the spectacle or my love of this film; it just makes it less shocking than it might for most (I had the same feelings towards Arronofsky's The Wrestler).

Blaustein follows three subjects throughout the film: Mick Foley (better known as Cactus Jack and Mankind), Terry Funk (53 and preparing for his retirement match), and Jake "the Snake" Roberts (who tours small towns in the Midwest, demanding he get pais in crack). Blaustein interweaves these stories perfectly, using some of film techniques not always used in documentary filmmaking.

Without going into to much detail about these three stories I will say that it's amazing that Blaustein was granted so much permission to film backstage at WWE events. We get access to their board meetings, a meeting with Vince and his creative team who talk with a hopeful new talent (which they want to call Puke, because he can regurgitate on command...oh Vince), we get the frantic workings of backstage before a big time Pay-Per-View; it's all pretty amazing footage that you won't see anywhere else, especially now, because Vince is too sensitive about that kind of stuff.

What's most interesting about the film is how all three subjects share something in common, yet are leading totally different lives. Funk is wrestling for independent start up ECW (also bought out by Vince and the WWE in 2000) on their first ever PPV, he's 53 and has chronic arthritis in both of his knees; he doesn't care, he has to wrestle. Roberts was once one of the premiere wrestling minds until his personal demons became too much for him to control. Jake is not innocent in all of this, but he's definitely a product of the vigorous road schedule (360 days a year) these wrestlers partake in. There's a tragic interview with Jake where talks about how his life just began to devolve into something he couldn't recognize anymore because of the simple fact that he could get anything he wanted on the road as a top WWE performer. He mentions how sex is probably the biggest problem and how there's just no way you can go home and make love to your wife after all of the crazy sexual things you do on the road. It's a powerful scene. Then there's Mick Foley. One of the nicest wrestlers in the business. But he's not off the hook, either. He's WWE World Champion and he's about to drop the belt to The Rock (now Disney film staple Dwayne Johnson) at a major PPV and has invited his wife and two small children to watch in the front row. However, he's not aware of how affected they are by it, and that they can't decipher and rationalize the line between reality and fiction.

They all share one thing: addiction. Sure, there's different kinds of addiction, but for these three, and most wrestlers, it's addiction to the spectacle. The crowd is their needle, the wrestling is their drug, and it destroys lives just as quickly as drugs do. Terry Funk sets up a retirement match in his hometown, bringing together all sorts of people from different wrestling companies to participate. He un-retired three weeks later. He was 53 then, seven years later, at the age of 60 he was wrestling in a WWE Hardcore Match, still blading (if you've seen The Wrestler who know that entails) and still falling off ladders through tables. At 60.

Foley continued to wrestle until retiring in the early 2000's (I wasn't watching it then) only to come back a year later and wrestle again -- then be retired again in another match -- then he came back again. Foley may be the nicest guy according to this documentary, and when Blaustein shows him footage of his kids crying as they watched his match with The Rock from the front row (a match where The Rock handcuffs Foley and hits him in the head with a chair about eight times in a row), Foley calls himself a bad father. It's a telling interview about the affects that the vocation these people have chosen has on their young children. However, despite the fact that Foley may have been sincere in his interview in the film, the truth speaks louder and he was back doing those same things years later. For wrestlers, money (and the crowd reaction, I could imagine it's pretty good on the ego to have 20,000 fans screaming your name) trumps everything else. As of today, Foley is still wrestling for the smaller company TNA...he's their champion.

The funniest thing about the film is that Roberts may be the most honest out of all three of them. He has an un-sexy view of wrestling and how it destroys lives. There's a scene where Blaustein takes Roberts to see his estranged daughter. There's a lot of hurt in the room as they sit together, and even though Robert's avows to keep in touch with her, he goes back to his hotel room and gets high. It's a sad scene, one that I think was an obvious influence on Arronfsky's The Wrestler. The relationship between Randy and his daughter felt a lot like what was going on here with Robert's and his daughter. Wrestling is a business that makes it almost impossible to raise a family. You're on the road too much to be with them, and if you invite them along on the road, you end up getting scenes like Foley's kids crying because of the violence being inflicted upon their dad.

I've always been fascinated with the pain in wrestling. Yeah the blading and blood-soaked faces is sometimes awe-inspiring, but really, the pain is just as real when they leave the arena, and I think that's what Blaustein's documentary does so well. Here's a film that's not afraid to show the not-so-glamorous side of the business, but yet, people still give their life to it. It's an amazing entity. Knowing what I know I still watch it. I hate Vince McMahon and the way he manipulates people, but whatever, I'm sure if filmmakers or producers were as open to the public in their product as Vince is in his then I would probably hate a lot of filmmakers, too. You have to be able to disassociate the performance, the spectacle, with the real life stuff. That's the only way you can survive in the business and as a fan of the business. Knowing what the wrestler's probably go through, it's tough sometimes to watch, but they are entertainers, and the really good ones make me forget about the bad stuff that is inevitable when one talks about wrestling.

I've made allusions to The Wrestler throughout, and if you've seen that film then I highly recommend you watch Beyond the Mat. It's a better film, showing you why Randy "The Ram" does what he does in Arronofsky's film. It gives insight into that film, which I thought was great, but couldn't compare to the real thing (although it came pretty close). In that film Randy sacrifices happiness with the woman he loves because there is now way, in his mind, that she can compare to a building full of people screaming your name. Despite the health risks his character faces, and the fact that Cassidy gives him an easy way out, he throws it all away for the "glory" of the spotlight. It's frustrating, not doubt, but makes so much more sense if you're a fan of wrestling or if you've seen this documentary. My mind keeps going back to that scene with Funk and his doctor, and his doctor is telling him he needs two new knees, but all Funk can ask him is if he can wrestler this weekend. This is a passion that is so deep that not even the pleading of wife and daughters can convince the man to quit. It's a passion that blind and ultimately leads to stupid decision after stupid decision until fans no longer think of you as the great wrestler you once were, but as the sorry, money-loving has been you've become. It constantly happens in the business, and despite people like Foley talking about the integrity of going out on top (which is funny considering the man is still wrestling despite "retiring" multiple times), it's almost impossible for these guys to do that (The Rock did it, though.) because the allure, the pull is too strong.

There's a lot of sad truths in Beyond the Mat: the older Funk waiting by the phone hoping to get another call; Foley feeling the pain of steel chair shots to the head while his kids are in a much greater pain watching it all happen; and Jake Roberts, the least glamorous of them all, speaks the truth on why they business will kill you, and how he's okay with it. There are also some other tremendous insights into the business: a small part of the film follows the ECW brand and its owner Paul E. Dangerously as they run their promotion out of his moms basement (in a funny scene they are filming a promo and his mom is behind the camera ironing). Paul is a man of great passion, he may be an idiot (and I think he is), a low rent Vince McMahon, but he instills passion in his wrestlers. In one great scene he is giving the entire crew a pep talk before their first ever PPV, and it's amazing how all of these grown men look up at him, and are completely enraptured, getting even more pumped up because of what Paul is saying. It's a Jim Jones type of moment, and all of these people are freely drinking Paul E's kool-aid.

This is a great, forgotten film from 1999, and if you enjoy the spectacle that is wrestling, or if you've seen The Wrestler and want to see some of the real people that Aronofsky drew inspiration from, then you should definitely check out Beyond the Mat. It's just a fascinating viewing experience.

Note: Despite how hard I am on Vince McMahon the man has done two things to make his wrestlers safer: When Stone Cold Steve Austin was almost paralyzed by a botched pile driver he outlawed the move; and when Chris Benoit tragically killed his wife and son, then himself, he outlawed chair shots to the head, as many believe that was one of the contributing factors to Benoit losing his mind and committing the horrible act.



    (Useful comment forthcoming)

  2. Haha. Yeah, I thought about putting that clip up...

    Also, I knew you would love that still of Vince.

  3. Great review, as always.

    As you mention, Blaustein does an incredible job of showing just how crazy a profession wrestling is, but without making fun of the people involved or looking at them as lesser people. He simply shows the world for what it is.

    As for some conversation starters:

    -- One thing I'm curious about -- how many non-children watching today do you believe actually think it's real? I'd wager to guess that even throughout the last 20-30 years, 95% of the audience knew it was fake. In a lot of ways, it's similar to when you watch a TV show with a really good villain or hero and you find yourself rooting for/against that person. You KNOW it's fake, but you are swept up in the storyline and the theatrics of it. Good wrestling can accomplish that and always has been able to.

    I think that in general "smart marks" just want to believe that they have some sort of superiority over the rubes who cheer for John Cena and HHH :) (and no, I'm not accusing you of that).

    -- Looking at your retrospective of the film has made me crystallize something I've always known about wrestling -- it's full of con-men.

    It's just part of the business and always has been -- as you note, you are in essence trying to "con" the people into giving you their money, so to speak. But people like Foley and Funk and Heyman and Vince take that to another level.

    Vince and Heyman's cons are pretty legendary -- they've ripped a lot of people off and gotten ahead because of it. Funk's is more subtle -- retiring and unretiring to gain some sort of sympathy/increased relevance in the independent wrestling world (a minor con, to be sure).

    As for Foley -- I think back to that moment in the film where his wife and kids are watching him get brutalized by The Rock. Here's the thing -- Mick KNEW that would happen. His wife surely couldn't have been surprised knowing Mick's history in the business, so really, Mick was willing to potentially traumatize his children (who probably didn't have a clue this was "fake") in order to advance his career. And his wife was complicit in it. It's always left a bad taste in my mouth.

    All of which makes me wonder how complicit Blaustein is in this part of the film. Was he simply conned by the conmen or was he along for the ride?

  4. Troy:

    The con aspect of it is something I only hinted at, so thanks for bringing it to the forefront. There's so much to talk about in regards to wrestling and all that surrounds it that I left that part out (especially the parts of the film where Blaustein follows around an independent promoter who doesn't pay his wrestlers, but when asked says he's the best indie promoter in terms of pay outs...hmmm...)because I didn't want my piece to get too long.

    The con game is deeply rooted in wrestling. This film does as good a job as possible in showing how the promoters think of themselves, and then countering that with how the wrestlers feel about the promoters. In fact, it's amazing that Blaustein even got the footage he did considering wrestling is such a secretive business where only the people who really love it, and spill their blood for it (or pay a lot of money into it) are privy to the inner most workings of various promotions. It's a very exclusive club. Which is why Bret Hart's book is so appealing. He really pulls no punches in talking about the business he loved so much...but then it's Bret Hart, so...if there's one truth to wrestler's it's this: I love watching them, but I don't believe a word they say.

    As for how much the audience actually believes today...well I would say the kids believe, and the adults know it's "fake"; however, I think the amount of smarks compared to those who just go for the show is still steep. Smarks want good wrestling, storytelling, etc. -- where I think the people who just lap it up no matter what are the those that don't care about the politics of wrestling, Vince's ego, or alternative options like TNA or ROH; these are the complacent wrestling fans, those that still buy the merchandise and so...granted, not all are like that, but I think there's still a large gap.

    But hey...I would buy a Santino shirt if the opportunity presented itself, hehe.

    Great points and thanks for commenting.