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, where lucha libra masks can be found from football games to Hollywood, we have loved its high-flying ways, its Manichean 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 -- tonight, the Museum of Latin American Art will not only host matches featuring 12 luchadores but also screen the documentary Viva Lucha Libre. The half-hour independent production is a good, enjoyable romp through the industry -- and while we can nitpick the hell out of the flick (and we will in a bit), it's best enjoyed like a lucha libre match: a whole bunch of desmadre happening fast, happening colorfully, and 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 about 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 on the screen 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.
A good time is spent on those cult-classic lucha libre films, on the roles of lucha libre (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, along 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, where Santo and his ilk fought mummies, space zombies, and all other 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, 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 that the only Mexicans they could find to speak are from Mexico City, the giveaway being the tell-tale sing-song accent of chilangos. While director Brad Bemis illustrates why it's so likeable and why the sport was a natural psychological fit for Mexico, there's no examination of how lucha libre migrated into the United States, and why gabachos didn't reject it like 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 the sport 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 do in community college critical thinking class, not for 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 the parade of masked men to come. And when you take the documentary like that, then Viva Lucha Libre is the mini that can.
Viva Lucha Libre, directed by Brad Bemis, produced by Brad Bemis, Angela Galletta, and Robert Levy. 30 minutes. Unrated. Screening tonight at the Museum of Latin American Art, 628 Alamitos Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-1689; www.molaa.org. 7 p.m. $10 members, $15 non-members. All ages.