We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Some documentary filmmakers impose their visions on what they shoot. In Man of Aran (1934), Robert Flaherty persuaded members of the remote Irish coastal community to replicate a basking-shark hunt, a pursuit their ancestors had abandoned nearly a century earlier. For The Thin Blue Line (1988), Errol Morris staged multiple re-enactments of a real-life cop killing and color-coded the clothing and backdrops of the people he interviewed. Documentarians working in the cinema verite tradition—Frederick Wiseman, director of Titicut Follies, of High School and, most recently, of Belfast, Maine, is the best-known American exponent of this style—choose a subject, turn on their cameras, cross their fingers, and hope that something interesting will happen.
No matter how much or how little a director attempts to predetermine a documentary, the outcome depends—far more than in any other kind of filmmaking—on luck. The gods must have been smiling when Barry W. Blaustein decided to make Beyond the Mat, a behind-the-scenes look at the world of professional wrestling, which sustains interest in spite of the director’s incompetence.
Nearly every artistic choice Blaustein makes is maladroit. He opens the movie with gratuitous footage of himself discussing his childhood fascination with wrestling. He pops up intrusively in a number of other scenes. His inane nattering clogs the soundtrack (“I was excited. I had never met a legend before”; “Traveling around the country, I met all kinds of wrestlers”). His dimwitted notion of musical commentary is to underscore a wrestler’s retirement match with Rosemary Clooney’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” His film lacks continuity, hopping from person to person and place to place with little sense of purpose and less of chronology. Ultimately, the movie has no strong focus or point of view—a failure summarized by the filmmaker’s valedictory observation about wrestlers: “They’re just like you and me except they’re really different.” Duh!
Beyond the Mat’s opening scenes recycle the same stuff we’ve seen in television-news-magazine examinations of pro wrestling: an admission that the “sport” is scripted, costumed, choreographed, and staged for cameras; a visit to a school for would-be wrestlers; a tour of the World Wrestling Federation’s posh headquarters and an interview with its ubiquitous head, Vince McMahon; an obligatory cameo by the governor of Minnesota. But then Blaustein, the lucky bastard, zeros in on three wrestlers whose stories make his mess of a movie compelling, if not exactly pleasurable.
Now in his mid-50s, Terry Funk, the ring’s grand old man, continues to wrestle even though his knees are shot. Funk’s wife and grown children beg the good-hearted, God-fearing family man to retire, but he’s reluctant to renounce the rush of performing and the adoration of fans who have supported him so faithfully.
Jake “the Snake” Roberts is Funk’s antithesis. The tormented spawn of an incestuous rape, he’s slid from being a major wrestling attraction to accepting dingy gigs in North Platte, Neb., and other whistle-stops, largely due to his use of crack cocaine. In sequences that reach Sophoclean dimensions, Roberts attempts to elicit a caring response from his stony ex-wrestler dad, then behaves as icily as his father during a brief, troubled reunion with his daughter, Brandy, a tongue-pierced, Sylvia Plath-imitating psychology student. Although sensitive, articulate, and self-aware, Roberts can’t summon up the strength to break his own fall.
Blaustein saves Mick Foley for the film’s harrowing conclusion. A WWF superstar who, calling himself Mankind, wrestles in a spooky leather mask, Foley is otherwise a modest, devoted husband and father with a striking wife and two adoring young kids. At a WWF match held in Anaheim, Calif., Foley loses his championship belt to powerfully built Duane Johnson, known as “the Rock.” A masochist whose previous bouts have involved wrestling in a mat ringed with barbed wire and falling onto his back from the top of a tall, metal-link cage, Foley insists on giving rabid fans more than their money’s worth. At the climax of the Anaheim event, Johnson grabs a metal folding chair and beats the unyielding Foley’s head to a bloody, senseless pulp. (Foley’s horrified wife and children abandon their ringside seats and flee from the auditorium. You might well be inclined to follow their example.) In a coda, Blaustein films the wrestler’s unsettled reaction to the footage we’ve just seen.
By examining the professional and private lives of these three men, Blaustein conveys some rare insights into the camaraderie of wrestlers, the anxieties of their families, and the rapaciousness of their audiences—who, although they realize that the matches are contrived, hunger for the spectacle of pain and bloodshed. Only you can determine whether this is knowledge you wish to obtain. Clearly Blaustein did, but keep in mind that earlier in his career he co-scripted Police Academy 2. CP