Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hard Knocks

Arthur Cauty's wrestling documentary Hard Knocks (2009) is not listed on IMDb or Netflix. I'm not sure why that is. I heard about the movie some time ago through Facebook, as I remember. I can't say how long I looked around for this movie, which promises a no-holds-barred look at the inside of pro wrestling, particularly in the United Kingdom. Then, in the midst of searching for something entirely different, I found the DVD at Amazon.

The theme of the movie is summed up in the title. The lives of pro wrestlers are indeed hard and full of soul-wrenching knocks. Touring the festival circuit the year after the huge success of The Wrestler--which was not a documentary, but felt like one (well, specifically like the Jake "The Snake" Roberts segments in 1999's Beyond the Mat, almost certainly the screenplay's inspiration)--Cauty's film, which is a documentary, brimming with actual real life, garnered friendly attention in the British press.

The movie seems intent on swinging the pendulum back now that WWE and other promotions have torn down the veil of kayfabe and now that a good bit of the interest wrestling once generated has moved on to MMA. The point is that "fake" is not an entirely accurate word for pro wrestling. The punches, we are told, are real--though perhaps not as forceful as the men are capable of. The pain is real. There's no way to fake being thrown twenty feet off a balcony, as we see happen to poor Alex Shane. As Al Snow points out, "The fakest thing we do is winning and losing." The rest, apparently, is sheer bloody bone-jarring hell. Snow then adds that the "real finish" in wrestling occurs when the crowd feels what the wrestler wants them to feel.

Most wrestlers cannot even move the morning after a show--and yet they go back into the ring the next chance they get. It's a devotion and a passion that outsiders just don't understand. And, like other areas of show business, it's all about the roar of the crowd--and the smell of the sweat, if not the greasepaint. And apparently the word "pro" is something of an inside joke: two wrestlers recall being paid with a sandwich (which did not even have mayo or mustard inside). These guys get most of their money off the merchandise--T-shirts, 8x10 glossies, toys--they sell to fans away from the ring.

The photography captures not only the seedy grit of a life in the squared circle but also a good bit of its brutal eroticism. As this blog has shown again and again, some fine looking wrestlers on both sides of the Atlantic do not mind putting their bodies on sweaty display--and Hard Knocks captures them at their most luscious--in action in the ring. After establishing the grueling, often thankless, seldom fully respected lives of wrestlers, the film shows us young wrestlers in training, their faces bright with hope in the midst of exhaustion--and we're told how few of them ever make it to a crowd-filled stadium. Depressing stuff, but happily we also get to see Chris Andrews working out, shirtless, his muscles like mountain vistas--and there's a very juicy 20-second posedown by Chris Masters too.

Among the faces most familiar to US fans, CM Punk, Mick Foley, and AJ Styles show up from time to time to embody the brass ring of success and fame that most of these guys (and ladies) are grasping for. At the entry level, however, we see that the wrestlers are less huge, less free of body fat, and less salon-tanned. They look like ordinary people--a bit better looking, more athletic than average, perhaps, but still the kind of people we might find at the mall on a Saturday afternoon. What they crave is the love and hatred of the ticketholders. And they count the heads in the dark surrounding the ring much more carefully than they count their take at the end of the night. Too often they throw their bodies and souls into matches only seven people are there to watch.

In the process, we see the life on the road that wrestlers must lead, driving themselves and each other from one show to the next. We get to see what goes into the making of a promo--and how vital a good one is to a wrestler's career. We see that storytelling counts for more than the action and wrestling moves--a hard lesson many an acrobat or bodybuilder learns when he's upstaged by a pure showman (and published storyteller) like Mick Foley. Al Snow says if he can make the crowd believe he can knock a guy out with a plastic mannequin head (part of his gimmick) he can make them believe anything. So in the end we see suckers on both sides of the ropes--the marks who throw their hearts and money at the ring and the fighters inside, who crave nothing more than adulation and respect, which they pursue ironically in the most disreputable bullshit game in town.

I recommend this movie, if you can find it, which gave me as much insight to the pro wrestling world as any other film I've seen, and more than most. The public at large will never see the bravery, glamour, and erotic spectacle in the sport that you and I do. Somehow they hold pro wrestling to a higher standard than they do the special effects and 3-D glasses of Hollywood entertainment--phonier than anything you'll ever see in the ring, where the men and the risks they take are real and immediate. And when Kevin Costner, Matt Damon, Will Smith, and Sylvester Stallone pose as athletes in sports films, everybody knows it's not real--but at the very least in wrestling you have a chance of being smacked in the face with a gob of Petey Williams' sweat. 

1 comment:

  1. OK, devil's advocate time. Dude, were you really impressed with this documentary? I ask because if you apply its insights to gay pro wrestling, there's a bit of a disconnect. Al Snow mentions the "fakest" thing a wrestler does is winning or losing, and the "real finish" is in getting the crowd to "feel" what the wrestlers want them to feel. He adds the physical toll is only slightly affected by the theatrical aspects, and most wrestlers can "barely move" the day after a match.

    What wrestlers on the gay scene most deeply and consistently move the crowd to feel the story they're telling? What wrestlers are more likely to be sore the day after a match at BGE or Thunder's or Rock Hard--the ones who get the glorious position of dishing it all out and then gratuitously posing over their hapless victims, or the ones who take the bumps and bear those only slightly pulled punches? Does it matter if those guys aren't slogging around the country for no money in the vain hope of hitting the pro wrestling lottery?

    I'll name those guys: Brad Rochelle, Troy Baker, Justin Pierce, Beau Hopkins, Jimmy Royce, Wade Cutler, and, working today, Rio Garza, Cameron Matthews and, particularly notably, Zack Z-man Jonathan.

    Z-man recently earned a boost in my esteem. I just saw his match with Kid Karisma at BGE, which I almost didn't buy at all because even though you, Bard and Cage Thunder all gave it high marks, you all singled out Kid Karisma as the obvious "talent" in the match, to the point that Z-man was barely mentioned. However, as a person who's a sucker for a really pretty face and hot body in a wrestling ring and one who knows BGE tends to put more into their action, I thought differently after a few weeks. And, wow--Z-man absolutely blew me away. His selling is exuberant and top notch (one can't help contrasting how KK barely moves in contrast when he's on the receiving end), he's got personality, seems wholly engaged and, above all, he's taking huge bumps all over the ring. I mean, there's a freaking superplex(!) in the match, and Z-man sells it as well as any multimillionaire professional wrestler who has the backing of billion dollar corporations helping him out.

    That boy--no, I'll say it--that man takes the biggest bumps on the gay pro scene today, ones that most of what the overly-vaunted "pros" working the scene could only dream of, gives his best effort every time he's in the ring, puts a ton of work into looking the way he does when a lot of guys don't even bother to work out but expect to be worshiped as if they do and is consequently one of the biggest draws at not one, not two but now three companies. And he's never gotten a single blog post or substantial bit of praise for his work, anywhere. Ever.

    Anyway, if you're really impressed with Hard Knocks, the guys who take the hardest ones on the gay pro scene certainly merit some acknowledgement. Peace out.



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