Sunday 17 January 2010

Behind the Mask: Lucha Libre USA (?)

Directors: Chris Metzler & Jeff Springer

My favourite No Festival Required screening of the year is always the selection of short films shown at the Phoenix Art Museum. Here's Selection 2010.
I grew up watching wrestling and I have a soft spot in my heart for lucha libre, the Latin American version of the sport. I gave up on WWF long ago, so long ago it was still WWF at the time and not WWE, but I still download classic English wrestling on occasion, check into what insanity the Japanese are getting up to nowadays or tune into Galavision and watch the Mexicans in masks. I love the concept of masked wrestlers, where the masks reflect the character the wrestler is playing, and I love the concept of the minis, short luchadores that are generaly taller than American midget wrestlers, and who are just as high flying and fast moving as their larger equivalents. These two things thrive in lucha libre.

This twelve minute documentary from Tilapia Films was interesting but hardly a comprehensive or particularly deep insight into the mindset of the luchador. Given the time restraints, we focus on only two wrestlers: José Diaz, a 42 year old banker who moonlights as Diez Mascaras on the weekends, and Alan, a high school student who takes his title under the guise of El Jugador. The two are friends, and they play up the community aspect of lucha libre, handing out fliers in stores and posing for photographs with the public. It's always interesting to see tolerance promoted through violence, but that's only one of the paradoxes in lucha libre. You wouldn't see it in Vince McMahon's world. I remember the Russians and the Iraqis and the rest.

Their insights on what it means to be a luchador really count as the key material here. José and Alan are remarkably consistent, given their differences in age and background. José is a Puerto Rican immigrant to the US who has become establishment, a middle aged man working in a bank. Alan is a first generation Mexican American, but with a heritage in lucha libre through his family. Both talk about the character they play being someone else, a persona they take on when they put on the mask, more a friend or another personality than just an acting performance. The film ends with an LAW title match between these two in what looks like a school auditorium in Sarasota, FL.

The other material is far less important, being inherently skimpy because of the short running time. There's classic wrestling footage, old black and white material with the original El Santo and more recent colour clips with his many successors. There are clips from wrestling movies, a particularly Mexican concept that drives me nuts because none of the DVDs I pick up from the Spanish bins at WalMart have subtitles. Lucha libre is a major cultural phenomenon, one that the US is starting to acquire through Hispanic immigrants. Already it has a presence in Hollywood, courtesy of Jack Black's Nacho Libre, and on TV with the cartoon called ¡Mucha Lucha! It warrants a feature length documentary that can speak to the culture with more appropriate depth. This certainly isn't that, but a 2005 movie with a similar title might be. That film is Lucha Libre: Life Behind the Mask and I'll have to track it down to see if it's merely a 70 minute version of this with twice as many wrestlers or something more substantial.

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