Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Beyond the mat

Watched Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler last night, and well, it is what it is. The film was the first thoughtful fictional cinematic look at professional wrestling, and the movie itself is as blunt, unsubtle, and manipulative as its subject.

I don't know if it flies with people who never got into wrestling (Ebert gave it four stars, but as he mentions, he does watch wrestling), but Mickey Rourke's transformation as Randy "The Ram" Robinson--he not only looks, but sounds like an ex-wrestler from the Hulkamania era--is nothing short of amazing, Marissa Tomei's stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold (isn't that the biggest cliche in indie films) is a joy to watch, and the wrestling scenes are good, but not too good. The tight, handheld camera shots take a bit of getting used to, but they end up working perfectly; you really do feel like you're in the ring with The Ram, and you really feel like you're getting a lap dance from Tomei's Cassidy. Both are very good things.

The plot is simple, and if you haven't been under a rock in, I don't know, the past 25 years, the turns are predictable, but like a good wrestling match, it's often the nuances that make the movie special. My biggest qualm would be The Ram's physique; for a washed-up wrestler, he seems in too good a shape. Seriously, have you seen how those those wrestlers from the '80s look these days?

(No, I don't know why Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, the greatest wrestling barber ever, is dressed up like a gay zebra.)

But back to the movie. The Wrestler reminds me of a 1999 documentary called Beyond the Mat by Barry Blaustein, which followed various promotions, featuring what was then the WWF (with unprecedented behind-the-scenes access), the then-fledgling ECW, and a garage wrestling promotion in Northern California. The documentary also follows closely several wrestlers, each of whom were at different phases of their careers, and most prominently featured Mick Foley (at the height of his rivalry vs. The Rock), hardcore legend Terry Funk, and late '80s/early '90s icon Jake "The Snake" Roberts.

I don't know if Aronofsky or screenwriter Robert Siegel was inspired in any way by Blaustein's documentary, but Randy Robinson's life echoes much of Roberts' plight as portrayed in Beyond the Mat. Like The Ram, Jake was a gifted entertainer, at one time among the most popular wrestlers in the world, with a preternatural gift for connecting with the crowd.

The documentary shows us a washed-up Roberts, like The Ram (and dozens of wrestlers from that era), several years removed from his heyday and plying his trade in pathetic venues with audiences in the low hundreds. Again like the Rourke character, Jake is estranged from his daughter. Now a born-again Christian, Jake expresses a desire to get his daughter back in his life, and the documentary films a tearful reunion between the two. A few hours after their meeting, Roberts disappears from his motel room, and Blaustein narrates that Jake had snuck out to do crack. After their meeting, Jake and his daughter never get in touch again.

Roberts has since railed against the documentary as misleading, a hatchet job on him, and claimed that he has finally reformed after entering rehab. But he was back in the news earlier this year, after TMZ posted a video of him wasted at a wrestling event:

The footage shows a stumbling, overweight, rambling Roberts struggling to form a coherent sentence, while addressing the crowd moments before his match in the Firestorm Pro Wrestling league.

But the story behind the scenes is even more tragic. According to several sources, the 53-year-old legend was found passed out backstage moments before he was scheduled to perform. We're told when Snake was woken up, he was aggressive, violent and asking for "an 8-ball."

We're also told nearly two dozen empty airplane bottles of vodka were found by his gear.

During the match, Roberts was clearly unable to perform, barely responding to the barrage of "fake blows" he received from the other wrestler, J.T. Lightning. Around one minute into the match, Roberts' opponent -- clearly frustrated with the situation -- whispers to the ref to end the fight. Afterwards, Lightning grabbed the mic and told Roberts, "I've wrestled drug addicts ... you are a piece of s**t, Snake. You gypped these people. F**k you."

After the verbal assault, Jake pulled down the front of his pants and exposed his penis to the crowd.

After watching The Wrestler, I found myself downloading Beyond the Mat again, and it still holds up. If you've been any kind of wrestling fan at all, you really ought to see both movies.

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