ho are these guys?” a voice asks, as the screen is filled with successive images of men, some bloody and all wearing tights, beating one another senseless. This is a perfectly legitimate question to ask. Reportedly years in the making, the documentary Beyond the Mat explores the lives of the men and they are mostly men who make a living hitting one another with fists, legs, elbows, and foreign objects (usually folding chairs) to entertain millions in the hugely fascinating world of wrestling.
Wrestling fans are often imagined to be someone else: the sometimes face-painting Other. The truth is that wrestling fans come in all shapes and sizes and are everywhere; there are enough of them to put books written by wrestlers (and their co-authors) on the bestseller lists and make wrestling shows among the most watched cable programs. Director Barry W. Blaustein is a fan of the slightly embarrassed variety, who sits with his back to the camera and begins his film with the defensiveness of many fans: “I don’t know why I like [wrestling].”
As his narration continues, one of the first statements he makes is that fans of professional wrestling know it is not a sport, despite what some assume about their self-consciousness or their understanding of the business. Though he does not mention it, everyone pretty well accepts that professional wrestlers as highly skilled and physically gifted actors. Indeed, Blaustein’s narration describes professional wrestling as “theater at its most base.” World Wrestling Federation (WWF) owner and sometime wrestler Vince McMahon makes the most revealing statement about wrestling. Early in the film he looks right into the camera (with food in his mouth) and says, “We make movies.” With its in-house costume designer, songwriter, and scriptwriters, WWF can rightly be called the MGM of professional wrestling.
Like MGM, the WWF has seemingly more stars than the night sky. Blaustein profiles two wrestlers affiliated with the WWF (he also spends considerable time with the legendary Terry Funk, at the time wrestling for the ECW). Each performer has handled success differently. “Jake the Snake” Roberts used to be a top level star for the WWF, but like many wrestling luminaries before him, was brought low by life on the road, sex, and drugs. But even if the narrative arc is familiar, his “confessions” for that is what they feel like as he speaks to the camera make his “star is born” story seem more like a real life than a production. He now peddles his persona to much smaller venues, but clearly that persona is intact, in the ring and out of it. The film reveals, however, that he also has a terrible relationship with his father, a former wrestler himself, the turmoil of which Roberts has passed down to his own children.
An uncomfortable meeting with his father and a reunion with his daughter, Brandy Smith, whom he has not seen in four years, are both difficult to watch. Smith, a graduate student in psychology, says her father needs to quit “acting” and be “real” with her if he hopes to. Due to these comments, the presence of the camera during their tear-filled conversation is even more noticeable than in other portions of the film. Might this camera encourage Roberts to continue his habitual “acting”? Can she, or the viewer, really expect a man seemingly hiding beneath a well-practiced persona to drop it in front of a camera and the audience it represents?
Moments like this conversation raise all sorts of questions about documentary, performance, film, and reality in the midst of this always entertaining documentary. The wrestling footage has been expertly selected, highlighting the explosions, loud music, blood, bizarre costumes, and huge fan base. Blaustein’s narration has an “aw shucks” tone, resembling a less cynical and manipulative Michael Moore, particularly as he asks a former third grade teacher turned wrestler to recite some Shakespeare as blood trickles down his face. Blaustein treats him with respect, and the exchange suggests that this guy is a possible doppleganger for himself or any other fan, for whom watching is no longer enough. At the same time, Blaustein acknowledges that he is a screenwriter by trade and his structuring of the film demonstrates a sure sense of plotting. The viewer can laugh at the people and situations on screen admittedly treated lightly by the narration and editing until Roberts’ arrival. Any viewers who reject wrestling and wrestlers outright as “low class” or beneath contempt will be jolted by Roberts’ sad story.
Like Roberts, Mick Foley speaks into the camera, but he stands at the other end of the success spectrum. This current WWF star (who wrestles here as “Mankind” but has other names as well) has survived success. Foley describes the love he feels for his family and we see him repeatedly with his wife Collette or playing with their two young children. Collette states clearly that she worries about him and wishes he would quit his dangerous profession. Yet this wrestler, well-known for his ability to absorb punishment, continues to perform even though he admits he has noticed some slowing of his thought processes and speech.
His bout with another star, The Rock, is the climactic action of the film and the most embellished sequence. While The Rock brutally defeats Mankind (Foley), the film crosscuts between the fight and Foley’s increasingly distressed family at ringside and happy at home. His children begin to cry, and so does Collette who finally takes them backstage to wait for the end. While her anguish is upsetting, the strains of “Stand By Me” playing over and clashing openly with the wrestling makes the scene a touch surreal (or perhaps satirical if one takes into account that the director is a frequent Eddie Murphy collaborator).
Afterwards, the profusely bleeding Foley, who insists he is fine despite the large gash on his scalp, says that for every person offended by the beating, there are twenty who enjoyed it. Blaustein stacks the deck against those twenty with cuts between the family crying, and handcuffed daddy being hammered like a tent spike. When Blaustein shows his presentation of the bout to Foley and Collette (in a moment that echoes Mick and Keith viewing footage of Altamont, in the Maysles brothers’ Gimme Shelter), the couple recoils in horror, along with the audience. Foley responds not only to his family’s (filmed) reaction, but how the film has represented the bout, with cutting and music.
The sequence Foley and Collette view brings together fiction a bout written by McMahon and reinterpreted by Blaustein and the family’s real distress, into a fusion that plays much like a segment from a Rocky film. Collette’s reaction becomes the Adrian’s emoting over Rocky’s peril. The whole scene and the violence within are horrifying, and enthralling, like the best of wrestling’s “movies.” Foley’s blood and his pain are real, yet The Rock intends not to hurt Foley, only to make the violence look convincing. The violence simultaneously is totally convincing the chair is hitting Foley’s head and so cartoonish that it can only exist in the realm of the “movies,” and professional wrestling.
This portion of the film allows the viewer to reflect on how professional wrestling mixes the real and fictional, and conclude that this is perhaps it’s most appealing feature for some viewers. Before the match between Mankind and the Rock, a group of boys face the camera, and one maybe 11 or 12 years old gleefully says that Foley could fall off a building and survive. If Vince McMahon is correct that he makes movies, then genuine danger in a fictional setting functions in the same manner as the thrill of seeing actors, such as Jackie Chan and Steven Seagal, whose films emphasize that they do their own stunts. Beyond the Mat ends not with outtakes of stunts (as most Chan films do) but with text stating that aspiring wrestler Darren Drozdov (nicknamed “Puke” by McMahon) was paralyzed since the completion of the film.
Beyond the Mat notes the danger of wrestling and at least hints at the very different effects it has on children, comparing the boys’ enthusiasm and Foley’s reaction to seeing himself on screen he says, “I feel like a bad dad.” Blaustein’s narration admits to loving the spectacle of it all, while he ostensibly tries to figure out why he likes to watch. If the film doesn’t really answer this question, it does argue that Foley and Roberts, and the numerous others whose lives are only touched upon, are worthy of respect. Beyond the Mat is much more than a possible guilty pleasure. One hopes it does not face the same dismissals as wrestling because, like wrestling itself, the film is more interesting the more intently one looks at it.