Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Films of Victor Rook


A couple of days ago I was talking to somebody about the films of Victor Rook, the multitalented brains behind WrestleMen. Rook is an Internet entrepreneur, a submission wrestler, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, an author, an editor, and who knows what else. Technically, I'm a member of WrestleMen. It's a fantastic site, but I'm a non-wrestler fast approaching 60 ("time's winged chariot" and all that--poetry, my friends, and it's not all bullshit), so my chances of snagging a handsome, young, and tough wrestler of my own to love and tussle with for a lifetime are, let's face it, zero. Anyway, in this conversation, I mentioned the two wrestling-themed films I was familiar with: Stronghold, which I reviewed on these pages in 2009, an ambitious film that everybody interested in wrestling, masculinity, or the varieties of homosexual identity must see (you owe it to yourself), and a smaller, more intimate film called Changing Perceptions: Profile of an Openly Gay Pro Wrestler, which contains an extensive film interview with UK-born wrestler Simon Sermon, the first openly gay pro wrestler.


Now I was under the impression I had reviewed both these films, but search as I may, I cannot find one reference in this blog to the Sermon film. My guess is that I saw the two films so close together that I decided to wait before reviewing the second and wound up not doing one at all. Contrary to what you might think, Sermon is a tough, brutal, and relentless ring competitor. He's gay, not just a gay gimmick. Fans, promoters, and fellow wrestlers know he's gay, but he typically does not flounce around the ring in a pink feather boa or attempt to crawl inside his opponent's trunks. For the most part, Rook conducts the interview in a car, as Sermon drives from gig to gig in the Southeast. This approach creates the sense of a man in motion, but also rightly portrays the rootlessness of indy wrestlers--most of whom do what they do for love of wrestling and get paid very little for their high-risk roughhouse, often making more money at the merch table than they do in the squared circle. (In another behind-the-scenes pro-wrestling film I saw recently, two wrestlers stated that they once received a sandwich as payment for a show.)


In addition to this frank and revealing en-route conversation, the film contains scenes of Sermon in the ring, appreciative comments from his peers in wrestling, and a short interview with Adrian Street, the "Exotic" Adrian Street, the straight wrestler who, years before Sermon did the deed for real, kayfabed "coming out of the closet" back in the 1970s, bleached his long hair, and sashayed shamelessly and flamboyantly, ignoring the hoots and howls of the crowd. In real life, Street strikes me as a quiet, mannerly gentlemen of the old school, modest about his achievements, reasonably forthright about his appropriation of a stereotype, and intent on showing that he meant no harm by it. What makes this scene particularly powerful is its contrast to the scenes with Sermon. Street is now settled, retired, with a wife and a home. Sermon is still on the road, sweating and grunting show after show, conscientiously not exploiting his identity as a gay man, while not hiding it either.

The film has a few scenes of action, and these mainly supplement the overall character study, which is the central focus. In total, the film lasts half an hour, but, like the comparatively sprawling Stronghold, Changing Perceptions is mostly concerned with why some gay men find wrestling appealing and how pro wrestling uniquely, albeit often ludicrously, ritualizes and acts out gender identities, especially the Western notion of masculinity. (Arguably, each culture's pro wrestling encodes its own notion of masculinity, lucha libre varying importantly from puroresu, and so on.) Sermon comes off well. He is smart, serious, and determined. He kicks ass in the ring with the best of them. His sexual identity is no mere performance, but he neither makes too much of it nor ignores it. If you have not seen these films, you should if you care about the topics usually addressed in this blog. They are serious and often deep examinations of what this blog and others attempt to deal with, and I hope Rook follows these gems up someday soon with another one on the same theme.

2 comments:

  1. I was struck in this article, Joe, by a biographical fact about you of which I was unaware: You no longer wrestle! Why would you give it up? Lots of guys our age and older still wrestle.

    MAwrestle

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  2. MAwrestle: Roughhouse,not wrestling per se, was my kink in my younger years. I cannot apply a decent hold if my life depended on it, never could. My problem is a lack of the skill and strength to challenge serious grapplers, for whom I am too much of pushover. Age has little to do with it, really, and I applaud everyone in his 50s and up who still climb into rings and onto mats to grapple. The last time I wrestled, weeks or days after I started this blog in 2008, it was against a somewhat older and lighter guy in Winston-Salem, who cheerily kicked my ass. But if I had local friends as interested in shoving contests as they are in making a perfect choucroute de la mer, I would get busy once again, I assure you.

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