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DVD Review: Card Subject to Change

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Professional wrestling is an ignominious thing. Garish though it may be, this ring-roped grotesquerie has been the subject of several excellent films, most notably the documentaries Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998) and Beyond the Mat (1999). Building upon these texts to discover the untamed and generally undocumented wilderness of the independent wrestling world, Card Subject to Change (2010) is a revealing, though also revealingly flawed, depiction of wrestling’s lower depths, where old stars wanderlust and new stars break through, all for a coveted spot in the gleaming, HD fantasy land of the big league, otherwise known as World Wrestling Entertainment.

Unlike the two aforementioned films, Card Subject to Change is thematically, rather than narratively, structured around experience. This theme is elucidated through an often clumsy technique of juxtaposition, counterbalancing profiles of accomplished veterans with those of earnest newcomers. Particularly interesting is the grandfatherly Kevin Sullivan, an old hand who continues to step between the ropes, defying both logic and common sense. His altogether too short segments are reminiscent of Mickey Rourke as the fictional Randy “The Ram” Robinson in The Wrestler (2008). Any interest in him is limited at best, all in favor of broadening the scope of the film to include more and more subjects. Similarly, all subjects suffer from this fundamental lack of discipline. For example, an intriguing thread of women’s wrestling, which profiles the young Lacey Von Erich in contrast to the elderly Sherri Martel, is picked up and peremptorily dropped, failing to even emboss the rich and multilayered history of gendered difference within pro wrestling.

Though the film maintains the theme of experience for its duration, through juxtaposing the veterans with the rookies, this technique does little else besides showing the haggard nature of the old guard and the unbound enthusiasm of the young performers. What is learned about the independent wrestling circuit – that these men and women, regardless of experience, wrestle in dank ballrooms and VFW halls for little money – is clear from the outset, from the very introduction. Loose though this theme may be in execution, it is naively pushed aside as the film nears its conclusion, in order to build to an uninteresting, narratively-ungrounded and awkward climax, shifting the structure of the film too late to be anything but annoying. Foisting narrative closure upon an audience already accustomed to a thematic structure forces them to make connections which do not exist.

In terms of style, voice-over interviews with the wrestlers themselves form the main source of knowledge about independent wrestling in the film. These voices are laid over top of a variety of images of these wrestlers pummeling each other. While the film should be commended for straying from the common and immensely tedious “talking heads” style of documentary filmmaking, these images are flat and uninteresting, neither reinforcing nor ironically subverting the words being spoken. Furthermore, while footage of the wrestlers planning matches backstage is certainly interesting to hear, subsequent footage of the matches themselves do not adequately demonstrate how these plans were executed, whether they failed or went off seamlessly. This footage fails to delineate the artistry or athleticism involved in telling stories through the medium of pro wrestling; it looks like complete chaos, rather than a carefully orchestrated chaos, and the difference is elemental in understanding the talented individuals involved in manufacturing its anachronistic anarchism.

As for the DVD, you get some deleted scenes if you wish to indulge.

Card Subject to Change is a highly disorganized, tonally troubled, and structurally schizophrenic film that fails to make its subject appealing or artful. I recommend you watch the criminally neglected Beyond the Mat instead.

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About Jesse Balzer