Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What's so bad about Beyond the Mat?

I remember that Beyond the Mat came out when I was in high school, when I would read the Washington Post's movie section cover to cover. While I never got to go see the movie, I remembered that it stayed in theaters for quite some time, and the Post's review made a sincere case for Mrs. Foley to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year.

I also recall that it was described as "the movie Vince McMahon doesn't want you to see!" After seeing the movie, along with the "Mania of Wrestlemania", I'm a bit confused as to exactly why the WWE was upset with the movie. The hyperreality of wrestling was clearly acknowledged and appreciated by both the fans and the WWE itself at this point in time. As was mentioned in class, "Mania" turned the story into a sacrifice of the body. While Beyond the Mat was much more a story about wrestling sacrificing one's psyche, and may have been WWE's initial revulsion from it, I kept thinking about the number of times that the Wrestling shows have actually embraced the idea of wrestling as a story about emotional sacrifice. Take Kurt Angle. During his feud with John Cena, and when he started to turn on the fans chanting "you suck" during his entrance, Kurt mentioned all that he has sacrificed in his life just so he can perform each week, including how he was currently going through a divorce but was still performing (as he was a heel, a small portion of the crowd actually cheered this). When he eventually moved to TNA, it would often be promoted that TNA "saved Kurt's life". This was in the sense that the WWE travel schedule led him to a painkiller addiction and a ruined personal life, but TNA's program helped him focus back on what he loved, heal his personal crises and kick his drug problem. I kind of see this as the flip side to Beyond the Mat's depiction of the wrestling-psyche: wrestling not as dramatic or physical redemption, but an emotional redemption for the wrestlers.

This says nothing of Mick Foley talking about his family and passions while in the ring, or the open manner in which the WWE talked about Eddie Guerrero's drug addiction that he overcame by (among other things) rediscovering his passion to wrestle. Or how Stone Cold Steve Austin's marital/life problems often bubble up in storylines (his return was hyped with an explanation as to why he left in the latest WWE magazine, and his divorce was even mentioned in Mania). The willingness to explore the issue is certainly there among wrestling promotions. The frequency and depth is not on par with the backstage politics or health issues, certainly, but it in no way is it considered off-limits.

So again, what would be so preturbing about Beyond the Mat? Was the real concern with the documentary that wrestling was viewed almost entirely in emotional terms, a lens that was too much for the current tastes of WWE execs? Or could it be that the emotional story arc just didn't have a satisfying ending, or that corporate didn't have a hand in guiding it?


Sam Ford said...

Brian, I think there are two things that may help explain it. One is timing. Sharon Mazer pointed out in class that the four years between Beyond the Mat and The Mania of Wrestlemania were key. I would conjecture that WWE's problems in 1999 with folks like the PTC and major advertisers backing out could have made them particularly guarded. Plus, they were not the only game in town when this came out, and it had nothing about WCW. That is a positive, on the one hand, but WWE may have felt this film tied them to wrestling's problems and underside.

Most of all, though, I think it is your last point. I believe WWE wanted some involved with the project, but they had none. Therefore, they wanted to keep it from being distributed, especially advertised during RAW, because they felt it was a competing product.

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

I think the opposition to Beyond the Mat has more to do with subtext than text. Jake Roberts is quite a scary figure indeed, and has probably been so all his life. It might not be accurate to say his life "fell apart" after his stardom ended, but it's certainly there to be read. I think BtM could be said to imply, if not actually state, that the WWE does a piss-poor job of taking care of its performers after they're too damaged or too non-famous to continue competing. Which might be true, but it's an open question as to whether the WWE has an obligation to take care of the people who made them all that money. I think it's just a question the WWE would prefer not to have people asking.

Omar said...

The hyperreality of Beyond the Mat is what I believe makes it most appealing. Very rarely do we get to see the side of wrestlers that the documentary presents. We are invited to witness the actions and the going-ons of wrestlers outside their characters, and, more importantly, outside the confines of the wrestling arena.

In The Mania of Wrestlemania, the interviews with the wrestlers are inextricably linked to the wrestling setting. It becomes much more difficult to consider the interviewees as real people when you can see the wrestling ring in the background. Again, this may all be a matter of what constitutes good documentary-making rather than what consitutes better telling of the truth.

In any case, Beyond the Mat presents us with another interesting mix of the worlds of reality and fantasy. We are forced to witness the real life shortcomings of Jake the Snake and Terry Funk and we must take into consideration role of family in the lives of these wrestlers.

Sam Ford said...

You make good points, Omar, that a lot has to do with the setting. Seeing Terry Funk try to get out of his bed in his underwear or at his daughter's wedding where they talk about how the family would be so much better off if he would retire is so unlike anything that could be shot backstage at a wrestling show...And the definitive voice of Jesse Ventura is replaced by the much less confident and more questioning Blaustein.