Mission to Mars As Litmus Test; Pro Wrestling Documentary Beyond the Mat

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:53

    Beyond the Mat Directed by Barry Blaustein The Oscar-nominated pro wrestling documentary Beyond the Mat is terrific when first-time director Barry Blaustein stays out of his own way and lets the pictures tell the story. But he can't resist injecting himself into the material. The film begins with his nostalgic memories of growing up watching wrestling on tv, and Blaustein chimes in throughout the picture with droll-but-punchy narration that proves, if nothing else, that he saw Michael Moore's Roger & Me and really liked it. The director probably thinks he's personalizing the subject matter, but his motives are suspect, his epiphanies trite. (Wrestlers play-act viciousness in the ring, then go home and play with their kids! Wrestling is a soap opera for men!) Blaustein is just another fanboy grooving on body slams from the safety of his couch. What's with the proprietary showboating? The film vividly illustrates the idea that wrestling is just another kind of showbiz. Blaustein starts out telling us about regional wrestling schools, where guys who work by day at loading docks and mortuaries wrestle in warehouses at night for pitifully low wages, praying some ambitious promoter will give them a shot at stardom. The established wrestlers love seeing young talent come up through the ranks, but they also fear what will become of them when they get too old and beat-up to compete. The emotional dynamic is like All About Eve with hammerlocks?the Margo Channing of Beyond the Mat is warhorse Terry Funk. Blaustein establishes his warm, functional domestic life (when Funk leaves home to attend a match, his wife reminds him not to forget the branding iron in the trunk), but also notes the tension between this old showman, who loves the sport so desperately that he can't retire, and his anxious wife and kids, who know the ring is killing him. His most haunting moment is snuggled inside a directorial grace note: after promising a down-on-his-luck fellow wrestler the chance to make extra dough by refereeing Funk's farewell match, Funk walks slowly away from the camera, visibly limping on his old, swollen legs. To succeed in pro wrestling, Blaustein says, you need a gimmick. One young wrestler gets an audition with McMahon because he can projectile vomit on cue; McMahon, a charismatic pit bull with gimlet eyes, christens the kid "Puke," and a star is born. Another of Blaustein's subjects, masochistic WWF superstar Mankind (aka Mick Foley), is the Sammo Hung of pro wrestling; he soars through the air with a grace that belies his pear-shaped physique and takes falls that just have to hurt.

    After cooperating with Blaustein during filming of Beyond the Mat, McMahon tried to block its release; then he allegedly conspired to stop it from being advertised on USA, the home cable channel of the WWF, and on other channels owned by media behemoth Viacom. He must be an awfully thin-skinned, paranoid guy if he thinks this movie is bad for wrestling. The movie paints McMahon as a master showman and a brutal businessman, both of which he is. It also underlines the humanity of wrestlers, promoters and fans while glossing over the thorniest sociological issues raised by wrestling's popularity. Blaustein goes into detail about different kinds of substance abuse behind the scenes, but mostly ignores steroids. Nary a word is uttered about sexist, racist and homophobic taunts in the ring, or about the effect of this mayhem on kids. The latter could have been illustrated by a sequence where Foley, in a match against the Rock, gets his head bashed open with a metal chair while his wife and young kids watch at ringside. But Blaustein ignores the scene's larger implications. He'd rather milk it for primal kinds of horror (Will Daddy die in front of his children?) and irony (It's a great night for Foley and a terrible night).

    After making his points brilliantly with images, Blaustein can't resist restating them in voiceover ("The sight of Noelle and Dewey watching their father being beaten up haunted me for weeks," he says, as if anybody gives a shit). Then he takes the whole problematic spectacle a step further, replaying footage of the incident for Foley and his wife so he can film their reactions. It's like Gimme Shelter for morons.

    Despite the director's dopey auteurist blunders, Beyond the Mat still manages to suggest the faux-sport's darkest aspects. The most frightening and moving character is Jake "The Snake" Roberts, so named because of the boa constrictors he totes from match to match. Roberts is a 50ish, beer-bellied legend with the sandpaper drawl and crinkly eyes of Sam Elliott. He's also a crackhead who drank, drugged and whored his way into one mess after another, destroying his marriage and ignoring his children. His self-knowledge is absolute and pitiless. In lucid moments, he suggests that tragedy might be in his bloodline, and he might be right: his sister was murdered; his uncle died in a freakish electrocution accident; Roberts was conceived, he says, when his father, wrestler Grizzly Smith, raped a 13-year-old girl. Grizzly appears in a father-son reunion scene that's as painful as any of the film's wrestling matches. In a chilling scene filmed in 1998, Roberts greets a wide-eyed young female fan who came with her mom and dad to watch him wrestle in North Platte, NE. Walking away, he mutters, "She's gonna live here the rest of her life and have seven kids and seven husbands. My God, I could be mayor next week. They'd execute the one they got and put me in power. I'd be dictator-mayor. And they'd love it. That's what really scares you." A few weeks later, Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota.

    X Directed by Taro Rin X, a sci-fi anime epic that opens this Friday at Cinema Village, won't be of much interest to those unfamiliar with Japanese animation, and it won't work as an esthetic introduction because it's so gruesome, convoluted, emotionally opaque. A 1996 effort from the all-female Japanese animation collective Clamp, it tells the story of 16-year-old hero Kamui Shiro, who's trying to save Tokyo from being devastated in a war between two opposing cosmic factions, the Dragons of Earth and the Dragons of Heaven. (One side wants to protect humanity, the other wants to destroy it to purify the universe.) The sides match up in high-flown aerial slugfests, mixed with occasional feats of Fury-like telepathy. The action is inventively staged, the photorealistic backgrounds are stunning and there are a couple of memorably grisly moments, but because director Taro Rin is compressing a 22-volume manga series into a two-hour running time, it's hard to follow the plot and even harder to care about the mostly indistinguishable characters. (The badly written, dubbed dialogue doesn't help?though it yields a few accidental howlers. My favorite comes when one of the heroes stands on the sidelines while a pal dukes it out with an enemy, then explains, "You were handling the situation so stylishly it would have been unesthetic for me to interfere.") Fans of the genre will eat it up (if they don't already own the imported video version), but it's worth asking if this sort of thing is starting to become old hat. The apocalyptic classic Akira offered much of the same imagery to American audiences a decade ago, and since then, the more varied and ambitious works of Studio Ghibli (Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke) have proved there's more to anime than big-eyed ingenues nuking each other with psychic fireballs. This kind of cartoon is starting to look like the Japanese equivalent of Disney animated musicals, with their yearning heroes, nelly villains and wisecracking animal sidekicks. They're usually entertaining and always brilliantly rendered, but one movie tends to blur into the next.

    Framed Eyes Wide Peeled: Jeffrey Wells' "Hollywood Confidential" column for www.reel.com is consistently delightful, combining a fan's passion, a critic's insight and a reporter's nose for dirt. But his writing this month on the DVD and video release of Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut goes beyond buffdom and into the realm of public service. You know that prior to the theatrical release, Warner Bros. obscured copulating figures in an orgy scene with digitally generated actors to secure an R rating from the MPAA. The studio kept the so-called digital fig leaves in the U.S. video release and does not plan to release an NC-17 version. Wells convincingly argues that Warners is sticking with the R version to avoid pissing off Blockbuster, which won't stock NC-17 titles. NC-17 or unrated versions of Eyes Wide Shut will be available in other countries, but not here. Among many hints of studio tampering: (1) Digital figures in the orgy sequence appear in one shot and disappear in the next, an inconsistency that Kubrick, a notorious perfectionist, would never have allowed; (2) a slow-zoom mirror shot of a nude Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman that appears to have been tampered with. The latter created a huge media buzz when it was exhibited for theater owners last spring, then was inexplicably reframed and truncated prior to the film's theatrical run. Obviously Kubrick wanted his work seen by as wide an audience as possible. I don't doubt he'd have okayed alterations to obtain an R rating. But the man was an obsessive who tried to micromanage every detail. He would have subtly and precisely revised his work to get an R. The actions of Warner Bros. don't suggest revision. As documented by Wells, they look more like vandalism.

    Thanks for Sharing, Guy: A.O. Scott's March 17 Times review of experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin's Spectres of the Spectrum substituted free-floating snottiness for real thought, ending with, "you ignore this movie's message at your peril. And if you figure out what it is, please let me know."