Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Past is Prologue: The GLOW Documentary

Mountain Fiji: Larger than life, both in her career and in the tragedy after it ended
Photo via Pro Wrestling Wikia
While Total Divas enjoys its vacation from nonstop reality television coverage, we'll toil away at the fruits of wrestling-related work on Netflix. A majority of these works are WWE fluff, but we've found a few gems inside that deserve discussion. The top of these is arguably the 2012 documentary on GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a great companion piece to another doc we'll talk about soon, the 2004 women's wrestling-centric Lipstick and Dynamite.

It's hard not to feel this weird fondness about campy things. We're fans of professional wrestling, something patently absurd on description anyway, and yet something like GLOW is beyond even that level of camp. It's hard to even define what GLOW is on the grander scale of pro wrestling history. Despite being one of the few showcases with exclusively women wrestling, no one discusses GLOW as a feminist or progressive movement (because, if anything, it was kind of the opposite in both cases). Even as the documentary pointed out that TV ratings were solid, neither of the big two (WWF and NWA/WCW) attempted to even approach a semi-serious women's division until years after the company's demise. So what the hell does it mean?

It's hard to get that answer in GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which is fair when a lot of things are considered. While GLOW came out of the late 80s boom period, the doc hints that the promotion was more described as an infomercial for the Riviera Casino or as a tax writeoff. Even the principal personalities are more or less surprised that it took off the way it did at all. In this pre-Baywatch syndication era, any television success in the arena was more or less occupied by the talk shows of the time. Ultimately, this aspect of GLOW is vague in the documentary, but it mutates into something far more interesting.

When the film shifts from the kitschy history of GLOW to the accounts of the women involved with the promotion, it suddenly gains a much needed emotional involvement. The most effective and tragic portrait is that of arguably the most fascinating figure in GLOW's history, the powerful Mountain Fiji. Fiji is argued as the main star of GLOW, something that felt right from watching an episode earlier this year. She is about like a pre-heel Andre the Giant, a larger-than-life figure beloved for her size as well as her infectious personality. This makes it especially brutal to learn that she is currently in a nursing home due to how her knees have buckled from her frame.

To be fair, GLOW's alumni have only seen hints of the open tragedy of the wrestling business, although Fiji's injuries as well as stories like how Matilda the Hun is mostly confined to a wheelchair based on a toe amputation never get any easier to hear. But director Brett Whitcomb manages to create emotion that feels contained entirely in the film's final third. The reunion scenes of the cast, complete with a strangely heartwarming version of the infamous GLOW rap, shine strongest. The interviews, relegated mostly to the cast since owner David McLane and head writer Matt Cimber declined to be formally interviewed for the film, speak to this vision of just how weird and taxing GLOW could be and how those women miss that anyway. In most cases, this was the most prominent thing these women were ever a part of and certainly most of their involvement in the wrestling business.

Ultimately, these women just went back to the lives. A few stayed in the business at least in the custom video market (and the obvious case of Tina Ferrari, the WWE). But the rest went back to their lives, left with the type of surreal experience that they fondly recollect. When Mountain Fiji returns to be reunited with the rest of the former cast, it doesn't feel cheap. It feels exactly like reality in all of its cliches. And for its 78 minute run time, GLOW kind of leaves you wanting to live with these women for just a little bit longer, which is not me deriding the film. If anything, it's the best compliment I can give it.