Monday, July 11, 2016

Lucha Mexico: Who Are Those Masked Men?

American “professional” wrestling is “scripted.” Prep, collegiate, and Olympic wrestling is totally real and woefully under-appreciated. Lucha Libre wrestling in Mexico is completely nuts. It is also somewhat scripted, but the constant risk of injury means anything could happen during any given match. Mexico’s equivalent of OSHA does not spend a lot of time in the CMLL’s Arena Mexico, but fans regularly pack the Mecca of Lucha Libre to cheer on the league’s luchadors. Alex Hammond & Ian Markiewicz take us behind-the-scenes and sometimes even behind the masks in Lucha Mexico (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

By now, Lucha Libre has penetrated the American pop culture consciousness. For the mall crowds it was the Jack Black movie, whereas hipper viewers remember MST3K’s riffing on El Santo movies and those who really like to get depressed probably made a point of seeing Arturo Ripstein’s Bleak Street. All the contradictory impressions we might have from those sources appear to be true.

Some luchadors have achieved great success in the ring, but even a superstar like Shocker, known to his fans as “El 1000% Guapo” still relentlessly travels the shrinking Lucha Libre circuit. Evidently, there used to be more venues in border cities like Tijuana and Juarez, but luchadors stopping appearing there because of the cartel violence. Shocker will be our quasi-guide through the world Lucha Libre, which includes the “Technico” good guys, such as himself and his frequent American tag-team partner, Jon ‘Strongman” Andersen, the “Rudo” bad guys, like Ultimo Guerrero, Sexy Star and her fellow masked women, and the mascots, such as Kemonito.

We also see how Lucha Libre has changed with the increasingly violent Mexican culture. It seems like the breakaway Perros Del Mal is all rudos, but their hardcore style has proved popular. The thumbtacks and broken light bulbs on the mat are as real as it gets and so are the luchadors’ blood and scars.

Script or no script, the pain meted out during matches is often totally real. In fact, tragedy struck twice during the filming of Lucha Mexico, with the deaths of El Hijo Del Perro Aguayo, the founder of the extreme Perros Del Mal spectacles and Fabian “El Gitano,” a well-regarded Luchador’s Luchador and gym-owner. While Aguayo Jr’s death in the ring is described as a “freak” accident, it hardly seems so unlikely given the nature of Perros Del Mal bouts. For years, State Sen. Roy Goodman kept mixed martial arts banned in New York State, because he considered it excessively brutal. Can you imagine if he ever saw Aguayo’s colleagues at work? In contrast, El Gitano’s fate is more complicated and more tragic in the Shakespearean sense.

There are indeed real stakes in Lucha Libre, but the goofy spirit is also a lot of fun, at least with respects to the traditional CMLL luchadors, such as Shocker and the Blue Demon, Jr. Hammond & Markiewicz largely take an observational approach, entirely skipping the talking head sit-downs. Yet, the vibe is more like a casual hang than a dry exercise in direct cinema, largely thanks to the charisma of Shocker and Andersen, their primary and secondary POV figures.

Serving as co-editors and co-cinematographers (with a camera assist from indie stalwart Sean Price Williams) Hammond & Markiewicz convey a vivid sense of place throughout the doc. Frankly, Old School is the only term that really fits the seedy grandeur of the Arena Mexico. It makes you wonder why El Rey or Spike TV haven’t yet been able to build a crossover following for Lucha Libre. Lucha Mexico is probably too intimate for the extreme sports audience, but fans of ESPN’s 30 for 30 and HBO’s Real Sports will find it worth engaging with. Recommended for the intrigued, Lucha Mexico opens this Friday (7/15) in New York, at the IFC Center.