Hollywood is so hooked on happy endings and feel-good stories that other types of movies, brought to the screen by independent and international filmmakers, often do a better job of providing serious looks at the darker sides of life. Two new documentaries provide sober views of material that's frequently unpleasant to watch but has much to reveal about disquieting aspects of our world.
The more contemporary of the two films is Beyond the Mat, a rambunctious study of professional wrestling. Mature moviegoers might normally steer away from this so-called sport, but there's no denying that its shenanigans have gathered a large and varied audience in recent years. This qualifies it as a legitimate subject for serious commentators who want to understand its inner workings and illuminate them for the rest of us.
That's what director Barry Blaustein does in his remarkable study. He begins the movie by admitting his longtime fascination with the knockabout antics of the World Wrestling Federation, the outfit that controls American pro wrestling. He then delivers a behind-the-scenes examination that focuses to some extent on the sport's well-known fakery and foolery, but puts most of its emphasis on the real-life personalities of the men who bash one another around in the ring.
They turn out to be an interesting group, full of surprising character traits - such as the eagerness of Mick Foley, who wrestles under the name Mankind, to be known as the sport's most polite and courteous figure. They're also challenged by a complex array of personal problems that their unconventional occupation often intensifies, despite the fame and fortune its most successful members accumulate.
Blaustein is a veteran screenwriter whose credits include "The Nutty Professor" with Eddie Murphy, and his experience at building comic and dramatic moods is fully evident in this riveting nonfiction film. See it if you want an eye-opening scoop on one of today's biggest pop-culture attractions - but stay far, far away unless you can handle the copious amounts of blood (some of it phony) and sometimes agonizing psychological problems (all of them real) that its participants face on what seems like a daily basis.
Homo Sapiens 1900 turns to recent history for its disturbing subject: the rise and fall of the eugenics movement, a pseudoscientific effort to "improve" the human race by making procreation a matter of political policy rather than personal choice.
The film traces this intermittently successful crusade through several countries including Germany, where the Third Reich used it to cultivate physical beauty; the Soviet Union, where communists hoped to breed intellectual titans; and the United States, where it influenced various health-improvement and family-values campaigns.
The thoughtful narration clarifies the two main branches of the movement - one taking a "negative" approach that discouraged "inferior" births, the other a "positive" approach that encouraged "superior" people to pass along their genes - while painting a vivid portrait of its insidious influence on its adherents.
Directed by Peter Cohen, whose 1989 documentary, "The Architecture of Doom," was a memorable study of Nazi aesthetics, "Homo Sapiens 1900" avoids the temptation to liven up its topic with fast-paced editing and fancy visual effects. Instead, it moves at a leisurely pace, giving us plenty of time to study its images and ideas, and to draw our own conclusions about them. Anyone interested in the troubled history of the 20th century should seek it out.
*'Beyond the Mat,' rated R, contains profuse bloodshed and other disturbing material. 'Homo Sapiens 1900,' not rated, contains explicit footage of physical dysfunction as well as other adult material.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society