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Beyond the Mat: Unrated Director's Cut

Good documentaries are not about likable subjects, they are about interesting subjects, and Barry Blaustein's Beyond the Mat picks a dandy — professional wrestling. "I love the pageantry, the athleticism, even the incredibly cheesy acting," Blaustein notes in the introduction. "I look at wrestling as theater at its most base." Like soap operas, pro wrestling thrives on long story arcs, deeply held rivalries, and betrayals that simmer for months or years until they are punctuated by dramatic showdowns. Like the pornography industry, wrestling is often discredited by the mainstream press, despite the fact that it makes a whole lot of money and has a sizable fan-base. But above all, pro wrestling is about the show, the spectacle of it all, and at its loudest and brashest it is effortlessly watchable entertainment. And even though much of pro wrestling is "fake" (the top leagues employ writers, composers, costumers, et. al.), some of wrestling is pretty real. The business arrangements, the friendships, and some of the rivalries are real. The injuries — and often the blood — are real. And the men who put on the Spandex and do battle in our modern theater of pain are very real, as real as you or your friends or the people you work with on a daily basis. Beyond the Mat is about these men. While an expansive documentary, Blaustein's film focuses primarily on three wrestlers, all who are at different stages in their career. Squared-circle veteran Terry Funk was a headliner for decades, and he still attracts top billing at most venues, but in his 50s his knees have almost given out and his family is pushing him towards retirement. Mick Foley — another veteran who has wrestled under several personas but perhaps is best known as the World Wrestling Federation's leather-masked "Mankind" — is a family man with a wife and two young children, and while he loves wrestling and the security it provides his family, he knows he won't do it forever. Jake "The Snake" Roberts, a top-billed wrestler in the '80s, is found by Blaustein on a regional circuit in the midwest, where he still makes a living on the canvas but has been battling with substance abuse for years and can no more keep himself in top physical shape than he can form meaningful relationships with his parents or his daughter, neither of whom he visits very often. Other subjects also find their way in front of Blaustein's camera, including Vince McMahon, the head of the billion-dollar WWF, a man who commands respect by both enthusiastic charm and a ruthless iron fist; Chyna, the top female WWF wrestler, who claims that she's a very feminine woman at heart, despite having the build of an NFL linebacker; and a wrestling school in California, which fields two students to an audition for the WWF, the wrestling equivalent of Major League Baseball.

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If, as Blaustein claims, the sole purpose of making Beyond the Mat was to put a human face on pro wrestling, then it's hard to find fault with the final product. The best documentaries seek to shine a light on often-obscured subjects, and so much attention is paid to Blaustein's past and present heroes that the viewer will eventually feel they know them as people they have met in person. The noble Funk is adored by both his family and his fans, but his dilapidated shape does not wind up on the cutting-room floor — rather, we see his awkward gait as he walks across uneven ground, propelling himself from night to night on knees that cause him chronic pain. The lumbering, affable Foley — who comes across as one of the WWF's oddest headliners with his bizarro mask and slipshod necktie — is actually the sort of guy you'd like to have as a neighbor, always with a big smile on his face and happy for his good fortune, and most telling is when Blaustein shows him footage of his children during a brutal match, as they break down in tears and must be taken away by their mother from their ringside seats. Re-playing the footage for Foley at his home, Blaustein achieves a documentary moment akin to Gimme Shelter, when Mick Jagger is shown the footage of Meredith Hunter being stabbed to death at Altamont. Despite Foley's commitment to his career, there is no question where his priorities lie when he's struck nearly speechless before uttering "I don't feel like a very good dad right now." Most troubling is Roberts, who has a taste for the camera and is willing to share his personal demons. But when a reunion meeting with his daughter goes awry, Blaustein finds him in a hotel room, stoned on crack and talking about the darkest corners of his life. It's impossible to watch Beyond the Mat and forget these oft-punished, self-punished men any time soon. Universal's DVD edition of Beyond the Mat: Unrated Director's Cut comes in a clean full-frame transfer with Dolby 2.0 audio. Extra features include a commentary track by Blaustein, a partial commentary by Foley, and a partial commentary with Blaustein and Funk, as well as a trailer and notes. The shorter MPAA-rated version is also available, and while the "unrated" edition has some additional footage, none of it looks to be of the NC-17 variety. Frankly, whatever additional stuff Blaustein threw in for the home-video release was just icing on the cake, as his remarkable documentary never fails to entertain and transfix the viewer at every surprising turn.

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