In a Steel-Cage Death Match … Beavis vs. Butt-head
THE BACKYARD, Paul Hough, USA, 9
For the people who thought MTV’s two cartoon cretins were absurd caricatures too shallow, vulgar and thoughtlessly vicious to represent The Kids Today — I wish I had the power to force them to see THE BACKYARD when it comes out on video Tuesday. I saw it twice during its second-last theatrical engagement, and here is a documentary about kids (and, more importantly, adults) who seem like real-life versions of Beavis and Butt-head — ids shaped only by celebrity culture and a very high self-esteem quotient.
THE BACKYARD is like an anthropologist’s trek to a world, that of backyard fantasists putting on “pro wrestling” shows, that you have not seen and could not imagine existing. While the film’s appeal, the incredible number of amazingly funny sequences, is not dissimilar to that of a PT Barnum circus-geek show, it’s the kind of laughter that sticks in the craw. We’re not laughing at freaks, but at people who have willed themselves into freakdom. Which makes it both easier to laugh at them and easier to be angry at them. Everybody who’s ever put aside a childhood fantasy (I wanted to beat Ali and become heavyweight champion … stop laughing, people) will feel better about himself after seeing these amazing scenes of people who can’t let their dream go.
It made me decide that, besides the truly cheap and ugly-as-ass Digital Video, what I really hated about JACKASS (which this film obviously resembles in some ways) was the way it locked you into complicity with the jackasses and had a surrogate audience, the other jackasses, laughing onscreen as though this was so obviously funny, and I just began emotionally rebelling against the film. If Jeremiah had an ironic sense of humor (and movies had been invented in 7th Century Judah), he might have produced a Lamentation like this. It’s almost a time capsule of the vices of our time:
The culture of fame, and the way fame even defines the behaviors of the patently unfamous and untalented. Everyone wants to become a pro wrestling star and they can talk the talk because they’ve been so saturated in its language — in one moment, a 17-year-old promoter (yes, that’s right) tells his troupe that other federations are coming into the hotbed of Modesto, Calif., and “we’re not gonna become the WCW of Backyard Wrestling.” Yet they can’t walk the walk — the shows look like the Max Fischer Players production of WWF Smackdown. Or any of Beavis and Butt-head’s school reports or projects. And are hilarious in that very same way, often *because* of their sincere pretensions. But that’s what they know. Lizard talks like he thinks his heroes do, but he can barely spit out a sentence without mispronouncing or mangling something: “I’m gonna walk in with very much confidence in my self-esteem.” The absolute cheesiness of these shows and the obviously sincere hunger for fame becomes sad with its combined the patent fact that there *is* a career path to being a professional wrestler, outlined by Rob Van Dam at the beginning, but which is basically a type of craft apprenticeship, and none of these people are on that track. I was reminded of Pauline Kael’s reaction to a young man who said he wanted to be musician. Then when he admitted he couldn’t read music and had no interest in learning how, he said “I just want to be creative.”
Me-ism and self-esteem run amock. Everybody in THE BACKYARD is confident that “nobody’s gonna get in the way of my dream”; “I have the dedication and drive,” and all the rest of the cliches of the therapeutic society that tells you that you can do anything, when nothing is farther from the truth, especially in this case. Practically the film’s very first image is of a guy, Lizard, lecturing to the camera (in a perfect poor imitation of “camera” talk, though the guy has about 40 cards in his deck) about how he’s gonna become heavyweight champion of the world. And you see him stripped to the waist, and, well … it’s kinda obvious that he certainly doesn’t have the needed physique and strength. It’s doubtful that his body shape would ever let him, but it would certainly take years of work. But he’s playing it straight, flexing his biceps and doing a bodybuilder’s “grrrr” pose. It’s not done for irony, like when Benny Hill talks about how sexy he is, so it’s finally pathetic.
The Peter Pan syndrome. One absolutely indelible scene shows a 26-year-old man playing in a room full of thousands of dollars worth of WWF dolls and souvenirs and “train sets,” while his 2-year-old daughter wanders in and out of the room. While her father is playing with dolls. Lizard tells us that his girlfriend, her parents, his mother all object to his fame-seeking, but it’s all water off a boulder. It’s at the same time incredibly funny and really, really sad. These guys are simply playing Xtreme Cowboys and Indians in the backyard. Except that most of us grow up, and these people are adults, risking (and suffering) injury and cutting themselves up — essentially for nothing (at least when Hulk Hogan takes a razor to his forehead, he’s getting appropriately compensated). One of the other wrestlers, Scar, gets a girlfriend who forbids him from doing backyard wrestling any more. Hooray for her.
Absent or toxic parents. It’s hard to know what’s creepier or more disturbing in THE BACKYARD: the parents who refuse to be interviewed about why they let their (mostly) sons do this, those who do get interviewed, or those about whom we learn nothing. An early scene shows the mother of two Nevada sons, helping wrap the barbed wire around the ring where Bo and Justin will fight. She brags about how this gets her more involved with her sons’ lives than other parents. She’s proud about “it gives me a rush as a parent.” And then there are all the parents in upstate New York (this is not just laughing at the inbred hayseed states) who actively get involved in the organizing and planning and even (get this) the local school. Their rationalizations, inevitably: “it’s a lot worse than other stuff they could be doing”; “at least he’s not out doing drugs.” Which leads one to wonder what their standards are. (One hilarious moment involves reading out the list of promotions that the school put on, one being “Martin Luther King Day Destruction.”) There’s even one parent who is shown on camera refusing to sign a medical release form demanded by the 17-year-old promoter because her son has a knot in his head (“What if you get dropped on your head? Who’s gonna have to take care of you, feed you, wipe your ass? You think these guys give a fuck about you?”) Speaking as someone who could not participate in any contact sports after adolescence set in because of major leg surgeries to correct a dormant birth defect, these are very good reasons. Which makes what happens later even more repulsive. Another mother even says “we realized that it had to be his choice,” and that phrase about says it all. Choice is the God we mortals dare not question.
Vicious indifference and contempt for social standards. We aren’t simply talking about people here who are misguided; we’re talking about people who are proud of their misguidedness and who, in the words of Bo and Justin’s mother “don’t care what people think” or, in the words of Chaos, “we don’t give a fuck what you think, this is for us” and “if you don’t like us, fuck off, cause we’re gonna stay here” (or idiomatically: “We’re here; We’re XXX; Get used to it.”) Backyard wrestling also seems to promote an aggressively self-infantilizing and morally indifferent culture. T-shirts are labeled “Most tasteless” and the two Nevada brothers wear Satanic pentagram T-shirts without ever once doing anything that would strike most anyone as Satanic in the usual sense. It’s as if even Satan, whom Milton could make grand and serious, is now just one more signifier. Beavis: “The real Satan doesn’t do videos. Unless maybe it’s for Danzig.” The Retarded Butcher wears a T-shirt reading “I put the ‘S’ in ‘Retarded’ “; and Chaos casually compares using some of the weapons to “going out gay bashing.” Both moments are incredibly funny, but again nauseating because it’s hard to know what could ever be said to souls like that, whether they mean their words literally or not.
Obsession with erasing the fakery/sincerity gap. Now here’s where I’m not sure THE BACKYARD knows what it’s doing. Or rather, all of what it’s doing. It’s patent that some of the violence is faked, and the “wrestlers” show they’ve picked up a few tricks of the trade (like setting on fire the underside of garbage can lid, but bashing the opponent with the other side of it, and “blading,” nicking themselves on the forehead with a razor to simulate a cut on the head from some blow). But for all they show the filmmakers, it’s also patent that some of it is not faked — we see the scars. After all, even the best professional wrestlers do sometimes injure one another (as all acrobats occasionally miss a mark or a tumble or whatnot). And these “wrestlers” are very far from experts, and the things like lightbulbs, mousetraps, tacks are playing with fire (and the real Fire does do this video). But by showing the fakery, it looks like a strategem to sow doubt about whether the other stuff is fake, too, and make it look like pro wrestling (which we all know is fake). But that has consequences, in that it makes it hard to know when anyone is being serious. So when the mother of the Retarded Butcher breaks up the match in the park (after going through about six rounds of DW Griffith heroine-like hand-wringing and lamenting) and says to the camera “to all the parents out there. Don’t let your kids do this,” you realize, if you’re a fan of pro wrestling at all, that this is a very common pro wrestling script. And the sound mix was suspiciously good for a woman being recorded on the other side of a field. But it could just as easily be real too. Making fakery transparent and then going ahead anyway makes it hard to tell when something else is *not* fake. (I remember hearing Tonya Harding’s boyfriend, the one who actually performed the hit on Nancy Kerrigan, say “it didn’t look like I’d really done anything until I saw the video.” A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has a similar line.)
All that is clear enough, but then we get to the end, we get the part I’m not sure how to take. Brothers Bo and Justin explain their “Three Stages of Death storyline”: 1) fight to a finish in a barbed wire ring; 2) battle to bury the other guy alive in the desert sands; 3) slam your opponent into a pit through a plank wrapped in barbed wire and then set aflame. They explain this as a cathartic ritual for one of the boys having been abused. In the arc of a conventional documentary, this is at the “revelation” moment, and could be taken as an attempt for pathos or at least something serious on the filmmaker’s part. But I didn’t feel a damn thing or any emotional involvement at all. The brothers do it in such self-aware, blandly positivistic language that it’s hard to take seriously as truly cathartic. “This pit symbolizes the mirror my father threw me threw me against and when I crash through it and walk through the fire, I’ll have left it behind,” he says. Is it really the case that you’re haunted by something if you can talk about it so casually and clinically? To readers of Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind”: my reaction was very like that of Bloom to his Atlanta taxi driver talking about the various therapies he had undergone and how he was “trying out gestalt.” The clinical and self-conscious language completely locked and I sat stone-faced through the scene. And yet the fakery of everything else makes me doubt that this was intended to be “real” — and thus its miserable failure on those “straight” terms might be its method — it’s a storyline meant to be seen through. But I’m by temperament and longstanding ideological disposition ill-disposed to entering that hall of mirrors.
THE BACKYARD definitely has its problems, and second viewing persuaded me to drop it a couple of notches in the Year-to-Date Top 10. The main problems are 1) that it is filmatistically pretty undistinguished; 2) that we never get to see Lizard’s tryout with the WWE and because of a sloppy camera movement and focus pull, we even have to infer what happened offscreen; 3) a voiceover that, while not omnipresent, is never necessary or enlightening; and 4) I’m really not certain that the attempt at pathos near the end was actually not sincere. And indeed, even most of the film’s fans aren’t really sure how conscious the filmmakers are of what they have and what they’re doing. But maybe that’s irrelevant since the subject makes nonsense of trying to tell apart the real and the fake, the ironic and the sincere, in this milieu at least.
There is also one moral problem with the movie. It doesn’t particularly bother me, but some readers will disagree. THE BACKYARD, it has to be conceded, is what Eve Tushnet calls “purely negative” (THE ICE STORM also fits into this category, so sez she). It tells you how awful is a certain segment of the world that has lost its moral compass, and even if you think the film hilarious and sickening in equal amounts (as I do), it’s hard to claim that it gives you a vivid sense of what that world *should* look like. It’s not the most damning criticism of a film (even negative virtue is in short supply in these interesting times), but it is a true one.