Grappling Hook: “On the Mat’
When waters are turbid and murky, it’s quite difficult to determine their depth. That’s the very problem the 87-minute feature documentary On the Mat, currently playing at the Tribeca Film Festival through April 29 and the winner of the Best Online Feature award, faces from the start. But despite the up-the-hill presumption that pervades the beginning of this film, an irresistible pull comes from it regardless of what may be to some, a seemingly uninteresting subject matter: high school wrestling.
Giving it a chance is a worthy risk for any film lover, and one that surely won’t disappoint in the end. There’s a strange identifiable attraction and shared sentiment in the sense that the wrestlers not only struggle with competitors, but with themselves as they quest for a chance at a championship once gained, but recently lost. The latest documentary by film director Fredric Golding at first glance may appear to be nothing more than a puddle, with its true complexity hidden, only to be discovered for the sea of marvel it truly is by fully submerging oneself in it. And while it can easily be overlooked, it definitely shouldn’t be.
Chronicling the Lake Stevens High School wrestling team on its way to recapturing the glory it had lost in a previously disappointing season, the film explores what wrestlers go through to train and compete and all the effects that the absorbing “lifestyle,” as many in the film call “wrestling,” has on the individual competitors and the team as a whole. Nevertheless, in spite of its feats, the film does suffer from structure problems that could’ve been easily fixed. It doesn’t explain the rules of wrestling well enough for outsiders unfamiliar to the sport, which can lead to confusion in the overall thematic direction of the film as weight class and the point system take the spotlight numerous times in the film. Combined with an overly nostalgic remembrance and an almost selective memory of the high school experience, it’s very easy to see how people might stray early from a film that has so much to offer in terms of character development and an apt examination of a seldom-examined aspect of American masculinity. In many ways, not only does the film document a comeback, but it is one itself.
Director Fredric Golding is no stranger to documentary filmmaking with a grandiose resume to prove it from his production of various episodes of the Bravo Profiles for television on stars such as John Leguizamo and Billy Bob Thorton as well as directing feature length films like his 2006 TV documentary Love and Marriage: Real Journeys and Harwood Dreams: Ten Years Later. Golding also came close to Oscar glory with Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream. In his recent endeavor, the story is told through a familiar voice in both late Stevens’ history as well as in film and television: Chris Pratt. Pratt, who was a recurring character on the hit show The O.C. and played Scott Hatteberg in last year’s Moneyball, was a wrestler once himself, giving the film a knowledgeable guide who has experienced every apex and nadir that the current crew of Lake Stevens wrestling team has.
Whether it was done on purpose or merely accidental, it was impossible for anyone with knowledge of antiquity to not see the richness and diversity in the documentary’s subjects and the films utilization of Greco-Roman themes, symbols, and resemblance (a portrait of ancient Greek wrestlers divides the film’s chapters as a somewhat unofficial logo). The shaggy haired Steven, the team’s most naturally gifted athlete, mirrors Achilles from The Iliad, both formidable in combat, yet stricken by hubris and apathy. Ryan, the team’s captain, is Hector, one who is also quite awe-inspiring in his attitude and performance; he’s righteous and hardworking, yet ultimately doomed to fall. Even the driven Coach Barnes bears likeness to King Agamemnon, with his own pride on the line, as he feuds with Steven over his efforts and contributions to the team as they pursue their ranking for the state championship.
Principles in the film also reflect that of the ancient Greeks; Coach Barnes echoes a sentiment of knowledge through suffering. At one point, he sends his squad on a semblance of a suicide mission to learn from purposefully planned defeat, leading his team against another school of wrestlers in Pennsylvania as he admits to the camera that they are clearly head-and-shoulders above in ability than his own team. He is often seen throughout the film, while coming off a little too immersed in the lifestyle of wrestling (which the filmmaker realizes and tries to break through by hilariously showing Barnes’ home winery), comforting and guiding his combatants through their most difficult times and stinging defeats.
“Good people win and lose…in the end it’s about the approach,” he says, while one of his most talented athletes loses a tough match. Barnes’ sense of duty to possess a championship and return the title to Lake Stevens bounds him however, as he’s ostensibly determined to win at any cost much like Agamemnon felt that sacking Troy was necessary to return home, paralleling the concept of nostros, literally Greek for homecoming.
While the film displays some fantastic depth in that regard, it’s also where it takes a wrong turn; the wrong path in the fork in the road. Although On the Matclearly demonstrates the benefits of athletic competition: the development of mental discipline, teamwork, physical fitness, it meekly grazes the more unwholesome aspects of the sport. In a disturbing trend which spans the entire film, wrestlers struggle to make weight, many admitting on camera to not eating and drinking little water for days in an attempt of entering their desired brackets, something which is strangely condoned by Barnes as an admirable act of sacrifice. They get the knowledge of “what it’s like to miss a meal,” he states. While it’s admirable to identify with those who have little or nothing, one cannot help but ask is this admirable sacrifice or merely kamikaze? Not to mention the evidential controversy and concern it spurs on the topic of eating disorders among America’s youth in the sports industry.
There’s also aggrandizement, and an unhealthy one at that, of masculine aggressiveness. Steven’s ego seems to be exacerbated throughout the film as he is convinced of his own abilities to the point of which he almost fights his own teammates, who criticize his attitude and outlook, on a bus preparing to travel to a match. Other wrestlers seem to admit to getting feelings of wanting to beat people up and declaring that wrestling was like a drug. The film does a great job at exposing some of the darker aspects that athletic competition has on adolescents, but it just walks on by the more undesirable elements as the film focuses more on glory, self-image, and wistfulness.
In a sense, every viewer will wrestle with themselves on what kind of film On the Mat truly is. On one hand, someone could see a film that was almost destined for failure, but avoids defeat to offer a spirited and rich commentary and a vivid portrait on a topic which is ignored at worst or grossly misrepresented at best. Others may see a film that had perched itself on a great ledge to oversee a vast landscape, yet couldn’t see the true gestalt of the sport and missed the forest for the trees. Nevertheless, the film’s weight, as well as its wings, provides the viewer with a flight path that’s irresistibly provocative and unpredictably captivating.
Rating: 3 out of 4
“On the Mat” will be on view online for free through April 29 as part of the Tribeca (Online) Film Festival. For more information visit the following Web site: http://www.tribecafilm.com/tribecaonline/.