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11/16/1998 11:20:02 PM

Ottawa Citizen Review
a tale as bizarre as Kafka and as tragic as Shakespeare.


Tony Atherton
The Ottawa Citizen

A Canadian
film crew spent a year snooping behind the scenes at the WWF, and
recorded a tale as bizarre as Kafka and as tragic as Shakespeare.
* The riveting two-hour film, Hitman Hart, Wrestling With Shadows
records the manipulation, intrigue and betrayal leading up to what
The Wrestling Observer Newsletter calls ``the single most famous
finish of a pro-wrestling match in the modern era.'' It premieres on
TVO Wednesday at 10 p.m.

Even going into the project, film-maker Paul Jay (Never-Endum
Referendum) had a sense that wrestling was more like classical drama
than modern sport.

``Wrestling has always been the grand spectacle/morality play,''
Jay said in a recent interview. ``One guy plays Greed, another plays
Envy, somebody plays Coward, and somebody else plays Hero. It
touches these primal chords in people, I think that's the attraction
of it.''

It was a notion that came to him through French philosopher Roland
Barthes who in the 1950s called wrestling ``a spectacle of excess''
akin to Greek drama and bull-fights. Wrestling's virtue was its
clarity, Barthes said. ``A light without shadow generates an emotion
without reserve.''

What struck Jay was that the world of professional wrestling in the
1990s was changing, becoming more ambiguous. The good guys and bad
guys had become interchangeable, and fan favourites were the biggest
heels. Had society become too sophisticated to ndulge in simple
primal release?

Jay saw Hart as a larger-than-life character through which he could
examine issues of substance, but still maintain a mass audience.
Hart was a long-time wrestling good guy, the favoured son a Calgary
wrestling dynasty, the long-time champion of the WWF, and -- because
of his popularity with wrestling-obsessed kids in Europe, Africa and
India -- arguably the most famous Canadian in the world.

Jay meant to make a film about the business and psychology of
wrestling and wrestlers, and about the peculiar micro-culture that
had formed Hart. The son of legendary wrestler and promoter Stu
Hart, a tough man with a dark streak (as the film makes chillingly
clear), Brett remembers living in paralysing fear of his father, and
yet wanting to emulate him. He wasn't alone. Bret had seven brothers
who all became wrestlers, and four sisters who married wrestlers.

* All of what Jay originally had in mind is still part of Hitman
* Hart, Wrestling With Shadows, but on Nov. 9, 1997, as the film crew
was in the final stage of its year-long quest, the outcome of a
single match changed what had been thought-provoking documentary
into an epic drama.

The way in which Bret Hart was betrayed by WWF owner Vince McMahon
is well-known in wrestling circles. McMahon conspired with his
ringside officials to stray from a carefully pre-planned script for
a match in Montreal between Hart and his arch-rival Shawn Michaels.
Hart was soon to leave the WWF, at McMahon's urging, to join the
WCW, and McMahon, naturally, wanted him to lose the WWF title before
his departure. Hart had agreed to lose the title in a match in the
U.S.; he didn't want to drop the belt in Canada. It was a point of
pride.

Just before the match, McMahon acquiesced (we hear him doing so in
the documentary on tape from a concealed recorder), but during the
match ordered a quick count, and declared Michaels the new champion
while Hart was still reaching for the next move in the planned
sequence. The wrestling world erupted in pandemonium.

It is the buildup to this moment over the the course of a year that
makes it so dramatic. Earlier in the film, Hart agonizes over a
lucrative offer from the WCW, and agrees to continue working for a
conciliatory McMahon for much less -- and the promise of an extended
role in the WWF front office after his retirement from the ring.
Hart, who had only ever worked for two promoters, his father and
McMahon, is compelled by loyalty to stay.

But within months, the machiavellian McMahon wants out of his
contract with Hart, saying he can't afford it, and suggests Hart
re-open negotiations with the WCW. The stage is set for the final
act, which unfolds obligingly before the camera backstage in the
ring.

``It was like the gods of documentary film-making said, `Wait a
second you don't have an ending for your film yet' -- which we
didn't -- and this real battle between Vince and Brett started
breaking out,'' says Jay. ``And it becomes a battle between a guy
who believes in heroes, and a guy who believes in the bottom line.''

Hart's candid and introspective commentary, collected in dozens of
interviews, serves as a compelling narration for the film. He comes
across as an intelligent, well-spoken man who believed too much that
good would prevail and loyalty would be rewarded. He has since
changed, he said in an interview this week.

``I had given Vince McMahon so much ... and all of a sudden I found
myself being dragged though the mud with him. I lost a little pride
in the business from that stand point.''

``I always used to put the wrestling business first,'' says Hart.
``It comes fourth now. My health comes first, and my family ... then
my money, and, oh yeah, then the wrestling.''

He's pleased with the response the film is getting from other
wrestlers. Rick Flair watched and thought it was terrific, says
Hart. Rowdy Roddy Piper watched it and cried. Hulk Hogan watched it,
and watched it again. Then he brought in his family and made them
watch it.

Hart plays a bad guy in the WCW these days, ``as bad as they
come,'' he says. It's what the fans want these days, plus it's
therapeutic, he says.

``You hold in all this stress and tension, and then for 20 minutes
of the day you get paid to be the most unbelievable asshole you
could be, and you let it all out.''

But, he adds, ``I don't know if it's the Hitman that I want people
to remember. The Hitman I still take the most pride in, nobody wants
him right now. I'm not going to force feed anyone on heroism or
preach morals.''

As much as he misses the old Hitman, he also misses the old WWF,
the way it was before the kids that were weaned on the comic-book
wrestling of the 1980s grew up and wanted more -- more shock, more
sex, more bad guys. These days, wrestling is geared to
testosterone-driven 16-to-25-year old males, he says.

``I'll always look back with more fondness on the times I wrestled
where you had such a mixed group of people watching. I miss the
kids, and I miss the older people. I miss old grandma's hitting
people with purses.''


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