Sunday, February 12, 2006

# Posted 8:37 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

A DIFFERENT KIND OF CARTOON VIOLENCE: In case you didn't know, this half of OxBlog is a big fan of professional wrestling. Dare I suggest that this much-derided form of entertainment provides a creative outlet for the excess of testosterone that results, under different circumstances, in the burning down of embassies?

Anyhow, the real reason for this post is to review two pro-wrestling DVD packages that I've recently had the pleasure to watch. First up is the three-disc compilation of Ric Flair's greatest matches known, appropriately enough, as The Ultimate Ric Flair Collection.

'Ultimate' is bascially a compilation of Flair's best-known matches, each preceded by a few minutes of commentary from the Nature Boy himself, now in his mid-50s. Two of the matches -- both against Ricky 'The Dragon' Steamboat -- were instant classics that are simply among the best matches of all time. Even today, more than 15 years later, they seem fresh and innovative.

A lot of the other material is disappointing. The low-point is the hour-long battle royal in which Flair first won the WWF title. Like most battle royals, it is an over-hyped brawl. The match with Terry Funk is also underwhelming.

The commentary from Flair is quite informative, but has two major drawbacks. First, the WWF/WWE continues to insist that its DVD retrospectives maintain the illusion that wrestling is real. Although this illusion plays a critical role in the weekly drama of pro-wrestling, it serves no purpose when looking at history.

In other words, Flair is never allowed to explain either the theatrical or economic rationale for his decisions inside the ring and out. For example, why and when did Flair decide to invent the egomaniacal, materialistic persona responsible for so much of his success?

Did Flair have to prove his pull at the box office to ensure that he would win the belt back time and again, or did management simply trust him?

Instead of finding out, we are simply treated to a strange narrative in which Flair pretends that he didn't cheoreograph his matches or even know the outcome in advance. Yet at the same time, Flair talks about his opponents as good friends as describes many of them as a pleasure to "work with". This half-illusion serves no purpose.

The second problem with the commentary is that it is all from Flair himself. Impressively humble, Flair doesn't explain what made him one of the greatest performer of all time. Instead, we should've heard from all of the other legends against whom Flair fought. However, it seems pretty clear that the WWE simply wanted to sell copies of a compilation rather than investing the effort necessary to produce a real tribute to the Nature Boy.

In contrast, The Rise and Fall of ECW does a fantastic job of telling a story about the wrestling business and what makes it so exciting. The first disc in the set contains a two and a half hour documentary about Paul Heyman and the ECW. The second disc contains six or seven well-known ECW matches.

The documentary is quite impressive because it is a story woven together from interviews with dozens of wrestlers and executives involved with Extreme Championship Wrestling. Although strongly inclined to sugar coat its own past, this time the WWE lets Paul Heyman, Vince MacMahon, Eric Bischoff and others describe their business rivalry quite frankly. The documentary also lets numerous wrestlers give their unvarnished opinions about their bosses and their bosses' egos. After you've watched it, you'll know what made ECW revolutionary.

Even so, the docuementary is still held-back by the usual insistence on maintaining the illusion of wrestling as real. This is especially unfortunate given how ECW changed the business by making it far bloodier. Thus, we never hear from the wrestlers why they decided to let themselves be cut open and/or regularly hit with chairs, tables and street signs. Was it about business? Was it a creative decision? Or just an attitude problem?

Now we come to the matches on disk two, which are a mixed bag. Rob Van Dam vs. Jerry Lynn may be the greatest match of all time, but therefore it is available on lots of other discs as well. The finale of the Raven vs. Dreamer feud is vintage ECW. Taz vs. Bam Bam is worth watching, but Taz fought many more interesting matches.

I guess the real moral of the story here is that with Netflix you can't lose. You watch the good stuff and ignore the rest.
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