Documentarian Paul Hough has completed a multiple-layer examination into the human psyche. His movie, The Backyard (now available on DVD, Image Entertainment, $19.99), has captured humanity at its most miserable, its most exploitative, and shows us people who have exaggerated the natural thirsts and curiosities of our species to a frightening level. As captured, it forces us to question them, ourselves, and the social bonds that we agree to.
The movie travels from location to location, showing different versions of the heteroclite underworld of hormones and pain that is backyard wrestling. A spectacle wrestler Rob Van Dam in the movie called watching “like a car crash.”
Such an enterprise naturally requires parental approval—especially considering the stunning proliferation of children involved. Early in the movie we meet the promoter of Modesto (California) Championship Wrestling, a 17-year-old self-affirmed “Vince McMahon of professional wrestling” named Josh James who makes sure to cover his ass at all times, getting waivers signed, and setting rules of operation for the “promotion.” When one of his wrestlers (a stable of which consists mostly of youth) needs to get a waiver signed and his mother comes down to understand the fine points of such an arrangement she tries to talk him out of it. She says he has a bump on his head and if it is injured than he is in big trouble. She says that promoter James won’t be there for him when he’s injured and needs his needs met. “He won’t be there to wipe your ass,” she states pragmatically. But she ends up signing the waiver and at the end of the movie we are told that he was injured but was lucky enough to recover. In the end the onus still lies with the parents, and the blame here lies mostly on their negligence. These parents who have forgotten that they shouldn’t be afraid of their children and respect that the line they draw is not a choice or an option, but a responsibility. The youth who participate in this do so because there parents have reneged on their promise to them.
We meet one of the primary men of this documentary at Modesto Championship Wrestling: the harmless wrestler known as “The Lizard,” who ends up making it to the 250-person final mélange of hopeful wrestlers in the tryouts for MTV and WWE’s collaboration “Tough Enough 2.” He was deluded, without a doubt. He is the kind of person that looked at a Chris Benoit, Mick Foley, or Crash Holly, said that anyone can do this, and then made up his mind that he would, regardless of anything. Such a decision was made with little more than a superficial study in to how and why certain people made it. Realistically, most who try will fail miserably. Physically they will be broken down and their dreams for naught, especially in an atmosphere when one main federation is left (WWE) and they have specific demands and few spots. Anyone who doesn’t go to an actual wrestling school, decreases their chances beyond even the norm. And WWE doesn’t hire 35-year-olds who look 40, can’t move, and who’s foreheads look like road maps from the age-old self-mutilation process known as blading to produce blood. He discusses his daughter and wrestling in a way similar to that of Mick Foley in Beyond the Mat. The question is: are either right. Is it right to condemn one style of backyard wrestling, but not Mick Foley’s barbed wire matches, the use of thumbtacks in his matches, or his flying off the top of a 15-foot cage into a table?
One of the backyard operations visited, which seemed like the most upper-class of them all, was located in upstate New York. It was sanctioned by the parents and supported by the community. In fact, signs for events hung inside the school with the support of the administration. The main justification was that it was accepting a lesser evil in the place of something that parents can’t monitor, plus it allows the children to flex their creativity muscles. “They are doing it instead of drugs.” “There are a lot worse things they could be doing on a Friday night.” Whether such an explanation is satisfactory enough or not, is a decision you will have to come to under the volition to use your own discretion. Is professional wrestling an acceptable outlet? This community’s example was the closest that one could get to saying yes out of all of these examples. A comparison comes to mind of a practice in other similar neighborhoods. The idea, parent-sanctioned alcohol parties, is the idea that alcohol experimentation will happen, so it should happen in controlled amounts and in the sight of willing parents. No cultural agreement had been reached, but microcosms not illustrative of the majority have, in many cases, been unanimous in their unconventional approach to controlling the seemingly irrepressible teenager’s spirit.
The first example from the movie of a backyard wrestling group was a duo that performed in the middle of the desert to a crowd of three, and a supportive mother and girlfriend. The mother stood and looked the set up for a gimmick contest and looked at it with awe. She would later comment on how amazed she was at what they had been able to do, while helping with the set up. She showed complete love and trust in the process. After one of the stunts went badly for her boyfriend, she later attempted to console him by saying, “You juiced beautifully. I was proud of you.” Psychologically, layers are added late in the movie to this story when one of the brothers tells the story of the idea behind his next three stages of hell match (a gimmick contest they set up where the first objective is to win in a barbed wire ring, then the loser is buried alive in “the pit of hell” in the desert sand, then the grave is covered in a plank of barbed wire-encased wood, and then set ablaze). He discusses the storyline around it being that his mother has caused them both pain and his brother has caused him pain, the story being rooted in truth. He says his brother used to show him love by physically abusing him and explains it within the context of the storyline. He concludes: “pain is my only friend.”
In all situations, the backyard wrestling idea seemed to serve each individual participant in their own personal way. Another wrestler for example, the owner of another backyard federation, this time in Tucson, Arizona, had no aspirations of being a WWE wrestler, but rather an indy wrestler. He saw the WWE product as cheap, easy, and a sell out. It wasn’t gritty enough. It wasn’t hardcore enough. One of his first quotes in the movie about backyard wrestling is that “it’s like going downtown and gay bashing.” That is representative of the bottled-up anger, unharnessed energy, raw masculinity, and masochism that could have led him to set others on fire, fall on thumbtacks, get hit with and hit others with purposefully raw barbed wire (he prided himself on not dulling the edge’s of his barbed wire), as well as other stunts, including a part where he, as the receiver braces for the pain, staples a piece of paper with a random machismo statement on his forehead. The themes are endless, and the participants are forced to grapple with fiction versus reality, for them a losing battle, just the same as many retired actual professional wrestlers, who are incapable of distancing themselves as a person from the person they play. And who can examine the motives of the people who watch, who videotape, who cheer these activities. What draws them to the chaos, but not into it?
Cinematically, the documentary plays its role well. Stepping back, the movie allows us to peer into this alter universe with horror, without being colored by bias. Thus, we are allowed the asylum to reflect, without a narrative voice pushing us one way or the other. There were some instances that this was possible and did happen, such as the voiceless, text blocks that broke into the flow of the movie. They act without destroying the credibility otherwise established. In one case, the boy interviewed about a British backyard wrestling group, decries the American backyard wrestling system that he felt was too rooted in the WWF style of hardcore wrestling, at a time when that had run its course. He said that their system was more like “real wrestling” with moves and such. By moves, he meant moves such as a powerbomb, not a rear naked choke or any sort of amateur wrestling maneuver. The screen then read “razor blades are handed out.”
As one mother, for the first time, watches her son’s wrestling match, she cries. By the end, she starts taking their weapons and throwing them away, saying that this is the last time that he will ever wrestle again. She, voice cracking and eyes red from crying, approaches the camera with a message directed at all parents, “All parents who see their sons interested in backyard wrestling, stop them when they first show an interest. Stop them! Don’t allow them to continue because it just goes on and on and on. And all they’re doing is damaging themselves, hurting themselves. Why? I don’t know, maybe they have psychological problems. And they won’t stop until probably one of them is going to be dead.” Her son, unfazed by her interruption, then through Scar (a teen who had a troubled childhood and thus his parents wanted to give him freedom through wrestling) through a table littered with barbed wire.
But the practitioners of this scary, entrepreneurial, masochistic venture would read this and not care. They operate against the establishment that created them. They’re belief only grows stronger when “no” is the answer and consider themselves heroes. They were the tweens attracted because of their disposition to the role played by Steve Austin, giving a middle finger to his employer Vince McMahon, and some then drawn in by the ECW atmosphere, a hard-to-describe reality of thrills and small venues and drugs and bus trips and everything else (the new “groupie,” perhaps). Naturally, the professional comments from people in this video, made about the fine points and machinations of a business they don’t understand, is absurd. There is certainly a passion that exists in each of these people, but they practice not for money, and by any definition of the term, backyard wrestling is no art. What these backyard wrestlers have failed to realize are the most fundamental tenants of professional wrestling. And uniformly, this failure—this irony—is their single achievement.
Be afraid: because The Backyard may be the very one your children play in.
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