In the long, tortured, maddening relationship between Southern California and Mexico, we have only wholeheartedly accepted three things from the Empire of the Sun: "96 Tears," the taco and lucha libre. From the moment Mexican-wrestling movies started airing on late-night movie matinees during the 1960s through the rise of live matches at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles and the Yost Theater in Santa Ana in the 1970s and to the present day, when lucha libre masks can be found at football games and in Hollywood, we have loved its high-flying ways, its Manichaean tales, its little-people grapplers and gay wrestlers who antagonize muy macho men so.
Hell, now you even have museums diving into the lucha libre game—this Friday, the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) will not only host matches featuring 12 luchadores, but also screen the half-hour-long, independent documentary Viva Lucha Libre. The production is a good, enjoyable romp through the industry—and while we can nitpick the hell out of it (and we will in a bit), the film is best enjoyed as you would a lucha libre match: a whole bunch of desmadre happening fast and colorfully, with the obligatory cameo of midgets jumping off the top rope toward glory.
Frontline, this isn't—that would be Tales of Masked Men, a one-hour documentary on lucha libre that's screening later this month on PBS. But it's a good overview of the phenomenon, especially for people who only know the sport on a superficial level. It goes quickly through history, through trends, through explanations, while moving through footage at the hyped-up speed of Edison actualities. The history is spot-on, with rare footage of silent newsreels and old photos flashing oncreen while scholars of both the gabacho and Mexican persuasion drop names and theories as if they were Bill Simmons channeling Octavio Paz. There's the obligatory section devoted to the Holy Trinity of lucha libre—El Santo (the one with the silver mask), Blue Demon (the one with the blue mask) and Mil Máscaras (the one gabachos have never heard of), with summaries for novices on who they were, how they differed from each other outside of different-colored masks, and their influence on the sport.
Viva Lucha Libre was directed by Brad Bemis. Unrated. Screens at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.org. Fri., 7 p.m. $15; members, $10. All ages.
A good time is spent on cult-classic lucha libre films; on the roles in the sport (the good guy is called a técnico, the bad guy is a rudo, the flamboyant ones exoticos, and the little people minis); on interviews with said wrestlers, as well as with promoters and announcers. There's even a hilarious, inexplicable cameo by Patton Oswalt, who remembers what first got his attention about lucha libre: those fabulous films, in which Santo and his ilk fought mummies, space zombies and all sorts of supernatural monsters to save the world. "And no one [ever asked], 'Why is there a guy in Speedos and a cape in a police station?'" Oswalt says, his hair disheveled as always, martini glass empty. "Instead it's, 'Oh, thank God, it's Santos. Listen, here's the problem: There's vampire women, and we need you to wrestle them.'" (Another great Oswalt quote: He calls the minis "tiny little powerhouses of ass-kickers.")
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the movie—but okay, I'll nitpick. It seems the only Mexicans the filmmakers could find to speak are from Mexico City, the giveaway being the telltale singsong accent of chilangos. While director Brad Bemis illustrates why it's so likable and why the sport was a natural psychological fit for Mexico, there's no examination of how lucha libre migrated into the United States or why gabachos didn't reject it as they do almost everything else that comes from south of the border. One writer points to Los Straightjackets—who play surf rock while wearing lucha libre masks—as proof it is influencing American culture, but we don't hear from the band why they decided to adopt the gimmick (and citing a barely known group as your proof instead of mentioning Nacho Libre is a mistake you make in community-college, critical-thinking class, not in a professional documentary).
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And about that music: For some reason, Americans like surf rock to go with their lucha libre (check out the chaos unleashed during the local Lucha VaVoom lucha libre/burlesque shows), and Viva Lucha Libre continues that tradition by throwing out a lot of pseudo-"Misirlou" tracks while the pundits pontificate. It gets grating after a while, though—and I think "Surfin' Bird" is the greatest song since "Largo" by Vivaldi. And what the hell was the point of using "La Cama de Piedra" (and why the version by Pedro Infante? Why not the better, original version by Cuco Sanchez?) during the section about the roots of lucha libre? What does the "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" of Mexican music have to do with high-flying acrobatics? If the filmmakers had taken a Frederick Wiseman approach instead of the MTV route, it could've been a more powerful statement.
Again: all nitpicks. Viva Lucha Libre is worth the half-hour viewing, and it was a genius move by MOLAA to screen it before the matches—a great opening act to whet appetites for the parade of masked men to come. And when you take the documentary like that, then Viva Lucha Libre is the mini that can.
This review appeared in print as "Tales of Masked Men: Viva Lucha Libre is a quick, enjoyable intro to Mexican wrestling's desmadre."