Beyond the Mat

With Mick "Mankind" Foley, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Terry Funk, and the whole stinkin' WWF
By Barry Blaustein

My Rating:

A startling, fascinating look behind pro-wrestling's veneer.

Bitable Bytes:
"About as extreme as show biz gets!"
"Salient yet non-obvious!"
"The blood is real!"
"Traumatizing ... children!"
"Well-made and engrossing!"

What to do while watching:
Pay attention.

What to eat while watching:
Popcorn with a little oregano and a little Parmesan cheese.

This caught my eye on the video shelf, and I seem to recall Filthy telling me it was worth seeing a while back. Not that I had any time to watch videos this week. Every night there was something doing: rehearsals for projects I'm in, seeing shows that friends are in, going to the wild parties that are part and parcel of the video reviewer's life....

But I rented it anyway. I'm still not sure why. When I came home last night late from a Poetry Slam (but not as late as I'd expected), I popped the tape in thinking that watching a few minutes of it--even just getting past the previews--would make it easier to squeeze the rest into the dwindling days remaining of my rental. I'll be darned if I didn't watch the whole thing. I didn't sleep until 1 a.m. on a work night, an action for me both atypical and unwise.

Barry Blaustein, a screenwriter with many Eddie-Murphy movie co-credits under his belt, is so clear-eyed and tender towards wrestling that he instantly grabbed that boy in me who always loved the high-flying, heavy-handed scripting of the pro ring. When I say "clear-eyed," I mean he sees the entertainment sport for what it is: spectacle. He's neither annoyed at being patronized by the good-versus-bad struggles in the script, nor is he blind to the clear physical prowess of the men and women who pretend to fight one another.

With Barry as our able narrator, we are confronted with a few salient yet non-obvious facts about pro wrestling. Although it is, of course, choreographed fighting, the blood is real and people really do hurt one another in the ring. Moreover, sport is a tiny fraction of what pro-wrestling entertainment is about: mainly, it's spectacle including characterization, costuming, music, attitude, and archetype. With all of this in mind, Barry asks: who are the people that take the stage and take the beatings in this branch of show biz?

Barry's curiosity becomes our own as he seeks out and talks to various promoters and wrestlers, including three of the greatest wrestlers of all time. Terry Funk's thirty-odd year career in the ring revealed him to be as insane as they come. He could take a great deal of pain, like being slammed into barbed wire, and the blood he shed was his own blood. (Although you should know that many wrestlers will cut themselves for the effect, using a slim razor blade to incise above the eyebrow. This type of cut is relatively harmless, but tends to produce copious blood. Factoid courtesy of Gooden.)

Funk turns out to be a very gentle and sane man outside the ring-he looks like an old country/western singer. The same is true of "Mankind" or Mick Foley. Here's a character who plays insane, using a white sock as a puppet that chokes his opponents when he gets really angry. Foley is a bear of a man who can simply take pain almost without end. He is thrown off roofs, dropped onto folding tables and loudspeakers, hit with the ubiquitous folding chair again and again. But outside the ring, he's a normal, gentle family man.

Documentarians will rarely try to change their subject: most go by Starfleet Federation's Prime Directive: don't mess with the natives. But I give Barry a lot of credit for intervening on the behalf of Foley's family. Shown footage of his wife, son, and daughter panicking as he is beaten badly in a championship fight, Foley realizes that he's traumatizing his children. The truth is that wrestling is faked, but not faked enough; for Foley needs several sets of stitches in his head where the folding chair opened up awful gashes.

We get another dark glimpse of wrestling life in the example of Jake "The Snake" Roberts. This was a wrestler without much of a body or much skill in the ring, but he had a presence that made him a favorite for years. He would step into the ring with a steely gaze that would make you believe that the fight was completely and seriously real. Where did the intensity come from?

Barry's closeness to Jake opens him up, and Jake confides in Barry a life of extreme tragedy and loneliness. Jake's disappearance from the high-profile wrestling world was a result of drug abuse, which in turn was a result of psychological trauma. Barry's interventions in this case--trying to reunite Jake both with his estranged father and his estranged daughter--have less than ideal results. No folding chairs this time, just further surrender to despair. The scene is honestly tragic: nothing fake about it; and, to Blaustein's point, wrestling happens in the real world and the sacrifices made for celebrity are heavy-weight ones.

The highly competitive nature of prime-time wrestling clearly takes its toll on the men and women who do it, but they also stand to gain fame and fortune in the process. I would like to go on about Vince McMahon, a fascinating character study (or lack-of-character study, depending how you look at it). Blaustein also looks at the EWF--The Extreme Wrestling Federation, a new circuit that thrives on the bloodiest, most high-risk stunts. Show biz is a weird world, and wrestling is about as extreme as show biz gets.

This is a well-made and engrossing documentary about the fringe freak show that's hit the big-time--the guilty pleasure of men and women who still feel the boy/girl in them searching for a four-color hero. Searching, searching...

Maudlin music swells...and out.

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For your collection, Beyond the Mat.

Gooden's listening to Jerky Boys 4, (but I can't strongly recommend it.)

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