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Abajo los de arriba, arriba los de abajo: Tales of Masked Men on PBS

Father knows wrest...
Father knows wrest...CaraMar Inc.

Tales of Masked Men

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It's amazing that it's taken 80 or so years of Mexican lucha libre for North American filmmakers to take note of arguably the most cinematic of sports. That's right, sports. Any performance where two or more competitors take each other down with sheer physical strength and agility achieved through years of rigorous training is by definition a sport. Add to that sport not names on the back of a jersey, but a corps of colorful characters with rich histories, rivalries and unique personalities, all contributing to a plot that unfolds between each round in matches that go on for years, decades and even generations. Now you have drama in the ring. The fact that the sport's participants create these elaborate histories and personalities while donning masks that simultaneously conceal and reveal identities only adds to that cinematic experience. And because I love film I love lucha libre.

Like cinema, lucha libre is for me another re-tooling of Plato's Cave: an impression; a reflection where things are not what they seem and images are mere shadows on a wall struck by fire. The fire, to me, is a much too real life, and much like cinema (and theatre and opera and fiction) lucha libre is an entertaining reflection where the mask is simply narrative shorthand for life experiences and archetypes. The saint, the sinner, the valiant, the warrior, pestilence, rapture, etc., are all represented by masks within the four corners of the ring. A metaphor for life, then? No, something far richer than symbolism. A ritual, the equivalent of an Aztec dance to the gods. But instead of making masks for display, they're proudly worn. Instead of honoring mythological deities, it's an exaltation of the human spirit through physical skill. Paradoxically, the masks serve as a fitting tribute of celebration and pathos--much like the face painting during Dia de los Muertos--to a culture with a rich and complex history...

But who gives a flying squirrel about all that highbrow stuff, right? It's a prickly enterprise bottling an electrical charge, anyway.

On Friday, September 28, the PBS documentary Tales of Masked Men will offer the most comprehensive glimpse thus far into the electrifying world of lucha libre. A wonderfully poignant hybrid of history lesson and intimate portrait, Tales of Masked Men is that long-overdue feature-length (yet too short!) documentary on Mexico's unique contribution to pop culture...and sports. Directed by Echo Park native Carlos Avila (Price of Glory), Masked Men is filled with a tag team of enlightening experts from both sides of the border who don their fanboy best: from la antropόloga (Heather Levi) to el autor (Dan Madigan); la fotógrafa (Lourdes Grobet), el blogger (Ulises Jimenez) and la "Folk Art Specialist" (Marta Turok), to name just a few of the talking heads sin mascaras who flesh out lucha's roots and its cultural significance through most of the first half of the documentary.

But it's the second half of the documentary that provides a glimpse of the heart of the sport by way of the personal stories of a couple of luchadores. Much like two of the more human interest story-type lucha docs of the past decade (2005's Lucha Libre: Life Behind the Mask and Peru's Mamachas del Ring, from 2009), most of the second half of Masked Men focuses on the great and small, personal and professional struggles and triumphs of two very different enmascarados, the old school wrestler Solar (and by extension, his son, Solar, Jr.) and the mini-luchador Mascarita Sagrada; and how they overcame poverty and social awkwardness, respectively, and rose to become heroes in their country. It's uplifting stuff to be sure, especially the time spent with "personcita" (little person) Mascarita Sagrada, who is the mini version of legendary luchador Mascara Sagrada. "Little Sacred Mask" is the literal translation of Mascarita's moniker and one that couldn't be more fitting. With a will the size of a whale, he clues us in as to why the sport is followed with such passion. His passion is infectious.

His story is what the highbrow set might call a "testament to the human spirit." But his story is the story of a whole culture, a culture of saints, sinners, warriors, valiants. As with Mascarita, religious faith, everyday courage and familial support despite great odds is par for the course for the Latino working class, the class that's had the longest love affair with the sport. It's about time our sport got some respect.

PBS will premier Tales of Masked Men on Friday, September 28, at 7pm PST (10pm EST) as part of its on-going celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The one hour documentary will play as the season opener for the Latino arts and culture series, Voces.

For more information regarding Tales of Masked Men, visit: http://www.talesofmaskedmen.com\

Update: According to my cable guide, this is showing as playing locally at 10pm.

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