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Beyond the Mat (1999)

19 September 2003 by Gnoll No Comment

BEYOND THE MAT


1999, dir. Barry W. Blaustein
102 min. Rated R.
Starring: Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Jake Roberts.

Review by Gnoll

I’ve made it no secret here that I’m a huge pro wrestling fan. The denial is over, I’ve been “outed”. Since I began watching almost twenty years ago, there’s barely been a week that I missed my fix of the grappling game. I’ve stuck around during the high points and the low points, pretending I wasn’t interested in the days when it wasn’t “cool” to watch it. I can give you a pretty impressive career background for just about any wrestler currently on television, just off the top of my head. I read wrestling news sites, participate in discussions on the topic on newsgroups, and even have conversations about it with friends. I still can be found watching four to six hours of wrestling programming every week, even though the product at this time is some of the worst it’s ever been.

That said, I am not in the target audience for Barry W. Blaustein’s documentary on the business, 2000’s BEYOND THE MAT. Oh, sure, I saw it as soon as it was available in theaters and enjoyed it immensely, but I am not the guy this movie was aimed at. Fact of the matter is, I already know all the secrets that are revealed in the movie. I already appreciate the physical and mental stress that the participants go through. For me, BEYOND THE MAT is pure entertainment, an addendum to the program that I already watch constantly. It’s a chance to see the folks who usually don’t make it on TV doing their jobs — a process I already know is happening behind the scenes, but still fun to watch. It’s a chance to see people I see beating the hell out of themselves and each other hanging out with their families. For those who don’t obsess over the biz like I do, though, these things are more than just entertainment. They’re informative, and in a way, persuasive. Barry Blaustein didn’t make this movie for wrestling fans, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t make it to plan on winning any fans either. This movie was made to help relieve some of the ridicule that the average (and dare I say uninformed) person tends to lump on to an entertainment phenomenon often unfairly referred to as “fat guys in their underwear fake fighting”.

I could go on forever with my personal take on pro wrestling, and I could also go forth and do a straightforward review of the film BEYOND THE MAT. Neither of those choices seem all that interesting, however. Rather, as I have elected myself to do here today, I could go through and look at what other so-called “reviewers” have had to say about the film, and look at how a prejudice about wrestling can taint peoples’ reviews of an actual film, one that should be judged on its own merits.

Suprisingly, I’m not starting with Roger Ebert this time around. Ebert actually does a pretty good job of judging the film on its own, for once in his life. This time, it’s Erik Childress from eFilm Critic, whose membership to the Chicago film Critics’ Association must have been at the urging of Ebert himself in hopes of keeping him out of the bottom of the barrel. Childress shows first of all just how irresponsible a journalist he is by misspelling a key player in the film’s name, referring to “Nick [sic] Foley”. Y’know, the Internet Movie Database is there for a few reasons, and the real beauty of it is that it makes an excellent fact-checker for simple things like getting the names of the people involved right.

Childress then demonstrates that he completely missed the point of the entire film, as he goes ahead with this diatribe: “Wrestlers always defend the organization by calling themselves great athletes who know how to take and deliver a punch. Why not take the time to show us this then? Show us why a body slam doesn’t hurt or why a pile driver isn’t life threatening or what part of the metal chair or baseball bat you hit with so it doesn’t open a four-inch gash in your head.”

Had Childress been paying attention to the film, he’d know that the point is a body slam does hurt, a piledriver can be life-threatening, and as demonstrated by a sequence where Mick (not Nick) Foley is being sewn up after a brutal match, you don’t go in taking chairshots and not expect to open a gash. Childress takes a pretty condescending attitude toward the subject matter in his entire review, which I’ve come to expect, but the fact of the matter is he went in to the thing knowing full well that he was going to write about it in such a fashion, and didn’t give a shit about getting the names or the principles down.

But, really, I should expect no less. The condescending attitude has always been a problem with the mainstream’s coverage of pro wrestling. I recall reading something in Entertainment Weekly, one of the largest and most prolific (note the lack of the word “respected”) entertainment news sources in the world, that mentioned something about “The Undertaker fighting on WCW Raw.” Of course, anyone who has any sort of basic knowledge of pro wrestling (hell, even a casual observer) would know that WCW was in fact the rival of the company that produced Raw. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the EW writer intentionally flubbed the line just to they could demonstrate how “above” something as barbaric and white trash they were. In the end though, intentional or not, it comes off as bad journalism. End of story.

But that’s neither here nor there. Let’s take a look at Film Threat‘s review, penned by Merle Bertrand. This guy doesn’t even let the first word out before he starts ripping on the business: “If ever there was a sign of the coming Apocalypse, it would be the popularity explosion of professional ‘wrestling.'” And while that quote may be quite benign on its own, he then follows up with this line: “For years relegated to the obscure upper reaches of the UHF television dial along with roller derby and fishing shows, wrestling once appealed only to the lowest of the trailer park lowlifes.”

Well, that’s all I need. Merle Bertrand has blown his credibility as a responsible journalist right there, as well as insulting a good portion of his audience. I felt no need to read any further, but did catch another little jab where he says “I weep for our future.” Methinks Merle should worry about more important things than the popularity of professional wrestling before he starts “weeping for the future.”

Hey, speaking of getting things wrong, how about Mike Gregory of Reel.com, who says Vince McMahon is the head of the “Worldwide Wrestling Federation”. Maybe twenty years ago, but not these days. However, I’m sure that this oversight was pretty innocent. The “MovieMom”, whoever she is, refers to Darren Drozdov as “Droznov”, and mistakes Vince McMahon as a simple “director/coreographer” [sic] when mentioning him by name earlier in the same paragraph. But at least MovieMom doesn’t sneer at the subject matter.

Edvins Beitiks of the San Francisco Examiner decides he’s going to give the movie a low rating (one and a half stars) without giving a single shred of evidence on the quality of the film itself. Rather, like so many others, simply ridicules the subject matter. Edvins rips on the players of the game themselves, insulting the intelligence of the denizens of “Extreme Championship Wrestling, peopled with big men with baseball hats on backward who can’t talk without spewing spit.” He sums up his review by mentioning that the film “should satisfy the hard core – people who like watching other folks mess up their lives, or actually want to see Funk, in his underwear, pulling himself painfully out of bed.” Yet in six paragraphs, he offers nary an ounce of reason for the low rating of the actual film. Now, I’m not exactly one who follows the traditional rules of film criticism, but I don’t get paid big dollars by a major newspaper for doing it. I’m just sayin’.

Finally, we come to Brandon Curtis, who apparently also writes for some semi-legitimate web resources, prefacing his review with “Barry W. Blaustein’s “Beyond the Mat” is admittedly one of the only few documentaries I’ve ever seen, of course, it helps that the subject matter was that of pro wrestling something that interests me greatly.”

Of course, when he starts his review, he states promptly that “I must admit I’ve never heard of [Terry Funk].” I’m not sure how someone who is interested “greatly” in pro wrestling can be ignorant of Terry Funk, especially when the same reviewer is familiar with Mick Foley, but whatever (around this time, Foley and Funk were both competing in the WWF, and had been working together for years.)

Of course, I do have an opinion of BEYOND THE MAT, as stated before, and that’s thet it is a great documentary. I’ve been critical in the past that documentaries tend to be an overrated genre in the first place, often receiving praise when it’s not due. The film is not without its flaws, but it flows well, elicits an emotional response, doesn’t hold back in its criticisms, and most of all, is entertaining as hell. Most documentaries wear out their welcomes after about the one-hour mark, but this one actually keeps you intrigued for the 100-plus minutes. In fact, with the place that they leave you, it’s almost as if you’re hungering for more.

But if you want a synopsis, there’s a hundred other sites out there to get one. You might find some snarky comments like the ones I’ve quoted above, but you’ll generally see what’s covered during the course of the documentary. I mean, if you’re really that interested in what happens, you might as well go ahead and rent it and see for yourself, because I’m not going to dumb myself down from the general “smart mark” terminolgy just to make my it more understandable for a reader who doesn’t check Meltzer’s site every day for the latest scoop, who wasn’t reading Herb Kunze’s tidbits column and the Bagpipe Report religiously at one time, and who isn’t wondering why the hell Mike Samuda would abandon Micasa to go be a silly lawyer.

I recently rewatched BEYOND THE MAT with my girlfriend, who is at best a casual observer to the spectacle I love so much. She merely puts up with it when I watch it and rolls her eyes a lot. However, she was reeled in sinker, line, and hook to BEYOND THE MAT. You see, she’s the target audience. Someone who has a basic idea of what wrestling is, but just has yet to see the “real” side of this “fake” sport.

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