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11/16/1998 11:26:58 PM

Montreal Gazette review
the two
best hours to be found anywhere on the schedule this weekend.

Mike Boone
Montreal Gazette

As 250 irate e-mailers can attest, six hours of professional wrestling is
not my idea of great television.
After taking a few potshots at the popular ³sports-entertainment² in a
recent column, I received a yearıs worth of electronic correspondence
from aggrieved wrestling fans, the most temperate of whom were content
to suggest that I die a lingering death from some painful and disfiguring
disease.
The column ­ which made the modest proposal that wrestling fans be
prohibited from voting ­ was posted on a grapplinı enthusiastıs web page.
E-mail immediately poured in at the rate of about 50 a day, each firing a
rocket up a very vulnerable portion of my anatomy.
The deluge has subsided to a trickle. But while Iım reluctant to rile up my
far-flung friends (there was correspondence from all over the U.S. and one
e-mail from England), I canıt avoid comment on the full afternoon of
wrestling CFCF-12 has scheduled today.
The station has bought Exposed: Pro Wrestlingıs Greatest Secrets. The
prime-time NBC special, Nov. 1 telecast of which inspired my
anti-wrestling rant, will precede Channel 12ıs 5 p.m.telecast of World
Championship Wrestling.
Neither of these telecasts is worth rushing home from the mall. But anyone
who is anywhere near a TV set set at 2 p.m. must tune CFCF-12 for the two
best hours to be found anywhere on the schedule this weekend.
Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows is an insightful and poignant
portrait of a manıs struggle to reconcile self-respect with the demands of
show business. The National Film Board documentary follows a
tempestuous year in the career of Bret Hart, a 40-year-old Calgarian who
wrestles demons in and out of the ring.
Hartıs name is synonymous with professional wrestling in western Canada.
Stu Hart is a wrestler-turned-promoter whose eight sons followed him
into the game Şand whose four daughters married wrestlers).
Hart père was losing money on wrestling promotions when he sold his
western Canadian territory to Vince McMahon, the marketing genius who
invented the World Wrestling Federation. McMaho created Bret ³Hitman²
Hart, a WWF hero.
When Paul Jay (who made Neverendum Referendum) began work on the
film, Hart was being transformed from good guy to heel. The documentary
follows this process, which ends with an evening of backstage mayhem at
the Molson Centre as Hartıs WWF career ends in controversy.
Jay said during a telephone conversation that he began the documentary as
an exploration of wrestling as a morality play. He was fascinated by the
phenomenon of fans beginning to cheer for the sportıs outlandishly
villainous bad guys.
³We wanted to focus on how the good guy-bad guy theme played out in the
Hart family,² jay said. ³And we were struggling with it. The Harts are
fascinating, but theyıre back-story, which is never as interesting as what
unfolds before your eyes.²
What began to unfold, as shooting progressed, was an epic story. If, as
many of my e-mail friends pointed out, professional wrestling is ³a soap
opera for guys², then the saga of Bret Hartıs last year in the WWF is a
melodrama for all.
The film-makers had no idea that the Hart story would end in anger, tears,
bitter recriminations and, in the bowels of Montrealıs hockey arena, an
outburst of unscripted violence.
³We got lucky,² Jay admits. ³We were smiled on by the gods of
documentary film-making. We had this good-bad framework and then a
real story began to evolve with exactly those themes. All we could do was
jump on it and run.²
Viewers are taken on a great ride. Hart gave Jay and his crew
unprecedented access to what goes on behind pro wrestlingıs sequinned
curtains, and the star of the film is an intelligent and articulate man with
a
sophisticated grasp of what McMahon and Ted Turner, the media tycoon who
owns the WCW, are selling the public.
Jay, who is not a wrestling fan, acknowledges that the spectacle being
mounted by Turner and McMahon is ³touching buttons² with an estimated
500 million viewers who watch WWF and WCW on telecasts that span the
globe. He dug up an essay on wrestling by French philosopher Roland
Barthes.
³Barthes treats it with great respect,² Jay said. ³He argues that wrestling
appeals to primal emotions. One guy plays Greed, one guy plays Cowardice,
another plays Loyalty. And it touches people in a way that most culture
doesnıt.²
Expanding on Barthesı thesis, Jay suggests that fans allow themselves to be
fooled into thinking that unlike movies or theatre, pro wrestling involves
real jeopardy. Once they suspend disbelief and stop trying to analyze the
magic trick, wrestling crowds buy into the whole elaborate drama.
³Then itıs fun and intriguing,² Jay says. ³The Undertaker can beat the
crap out of Bret Hart and Bret can reover at the last minute and win the
match. Barthes has this great phrase to um it up: ŒFinally, a
distinguishable form of justice.ı Hereıs something you can really get your
head around.²
So the wrestling public embraces the hero ­ or at least they did. But then
McMahon, ever sensitive to shifting emotional currents among the hordes
that scream their giuts out at his shows, sensed disillusion creeping in.
Wrestlingıs time-honoured scripts would have to be re-written.
Revisionism thrust anti-heroes into the WWF spotlight ­ and pushed Bret
Hart into the existential crisis that plays out in Wrestling With Shadows.
Itıs great television.

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