When I told my extended family over last Sunday's dinner that I loved Beyond the Mat, they looked at me like I was down for the count.
I don't blame them. Nice, middle-class, pacifist ladies like me don't like professional wrestling, don't understand why such vulgarity is popular, and, given the option, would probably vote for an all out ban on any type of blood sport.
This probably means that if you are a wrestling fan, Beyond the Mat may be a disappointment. Then again, maybe not. Writer and director Barry Blaustein (writer of such Hollywood gems as The Nutty Professor), is a self-confessed wrestling maniac himself. An avid fan from the age of eight, Blaustein uses Beyond the Mat as an excuse to meet wrestlers at all stages of their careers, from young aspirants to those at the top of their careers. He talks to fans and to promoters, most notably the smarmy, smirking, vulgar CEO of the billion dollar World Wrestling Federation, Vince McMahon.
But Blaustein's real interest is families, and it is in the documenting of the wrestlers' relationships with their wives and children that the movie really shines.
Central in the film are three men at very different stages of their careers: Terry Funk, once the world's greatest wrestler whose busted body makes it difficult even to get out of bed in the morning; Jake "The Snake" Roberts who could have had it all were it not for his addiction to cocaine and other drugs; and Mick Foley (a.k.a. "Mankind"), a sweetheart in a frightening leather mask whose huge tolerance for pain has him at the top of the WWF heap.
Following these men at their most vulnerable, Blaustein and his camera document some amazingly raw moments for these men and their families like Jake's reunion with his grown daughter, his cocaine addiction or the naked terror on Mankind's children's faces as they watch their beloved father get beaten to a pulp in the ring.
Blaustein is obviously a smart guy who made really good editing and filming choices. The only disappointment was his final commentary that wrestlers are just normal guys like the rest of us, only different. True, but, for me at least, Beyond the Mat points up a larger issue. The schizoid lives of these men -- violent onstage, tender (or trying to be tender) offstage -- gives fascinating insight into the dilemma of contemporary masculinity.
We want loving fathers, good citizens, and we want to watch men beat the shit out of each other on television. We want real blood and they give it to us. These wrestlers act out the contradictory scripts of masculinity for all of us, and they, and their families, weather the consequences.