Performances are tough in short documentaries. An interesting subject on paper doesn’t reliably make for an engaging subject on camera. It’s a smooth move therefore to pick out performing artists as subjects for a documentary, and Tucker Bliss, an NYC commercial director, found a whole gym full of inspiring characters at New Jersey’s famous Monster Factory, training at just that.
Many of you probably do not think of professional wrestlers as performing artists. Neither of course are they considered athletes by most. Isn’t it scripted? Where is the competition? Their craft is incredibly physically taxing, a bravura display of athleticism on a nightly basis, but true wrestling fans adore the stories as much, if not more, than leaps off the top rope. The appeal of the whole enterprise is deeply intertwined with its testosterone-driven soap-opera plotlines, and hard-nosed trainer Danny “Cage” doesn’t let his students forget that, through his charming mix of affirmation and tough love.
Befitting his commercial background, Bliss and his cinematographer, Mikey Van Beuren, produce splendid images of these aspiring wrestlers in training, which is a challenge in such a fast moving environment. While the results are not particularly inventive, they are immaculately executed, achieving a level of visual polish that is rare in documentary filmmaking. Still, the 18min film shines fullest when it turns its camera onto its subjects and simply lets it roll.
There are lengthy sequences in the film where the students are forced to stand in front of their fellow trainees and deliver monologues that define their “character”—the thespian construction that can make or break their professional dreams. They combat shyness, and they combat anonymity, as they deliver boastful, self-aggrandizing paeans to their current or future greatness—mustering what they can from within themselves to make it sound true.
In wrestling you have to talk the talk before you can walk the walk, so to speak. And these sequences are magic, filled with humor, but revealing deep insecurity too. The backstories of the students are remarkably diverse, as you have your jocks, but your misfits too. An inspiring desire is their uniting trait however, and the number of characters we come to relate to, and whom have identifiable character arcs, is remarkable for a documentary of this length. It’s a lot of fun, and seeing them in action by the end makes you want to cheer alongside those attendance, even though you’re home, alone in front of your screen.