To understand the true appeal of professional wrestling, you have to understand the dichotomy and tension of the work and the shoot. In wrestling parlance, a “work” is anything that is manufactured, be it pre-determined results or the scripting of each moment. By contrast, something being “shoot” means that it is real, unscripted and unpredictable. True, genuine shoots are rare, and when they happen are often the thing of legend that define major turning points in the “sport”. The sleight of hand of professional wrestling then is to see if you can convince the audience that the work they are seeing is in fact shoot.
This is the aspect of people outside of wrestling fandom don’t always fully understand; the fact it is “fake” is not a flaw, but a feature. Because being drawn into the fiction, to be emotionally invested in something that is being presented to a live crowd with no cuts or easy cheats is quite a feat. It is a bit like magic, with the understanding between the performer and the audience that what they are seeing is an illusion, but the audience still relishing in those moments of belief when the fact it’s a mirage washes away.
Price James and David Darg’s new documentary, You Cannot Kill David Arquette, delves into this strange world on its own terms. It understands wrestling on such a deep level that it recognizes the power of the work, and utilizes it to its full effect. That is not to say that it is a work of fiction. The same way that wrestlers bristle when you call their industry “fake”, there is a genuine pathos and scars, both physically and spiritual, on display throughout the film that elevates it beyond just being false. But the film also uses clever editing and pacing to present a story with a clear narrative arc, cleverly shaping real events and presenting them within the frame of the film as a wrestling storyline. In that manner, You Cannot Kill David Arquette achieves a strange accomplishment: it is the first professional wrestling documentary.
That is not to say that it is the first documentary about professional wrestling. There have been plenty of those, from Barry Blaustein’s influential Beyond the Mat to the recent 30 for 30 biography of Ric Flair. At this point, the world of professional wrestling has been fully explored and exposed, which is one reason why a whole new era of somewhat detached intellectual geeks have become attracted to it as a form of post-modern performance art. But what David Arquette accomplishes is significant: it not only explores the world of professional wrestling, but it utilizes the very tools of that art form to tell its story, accomplishing the ecstatic melodrama that inspires people to become wrestlers in the first place. In fact, David Arquette has more in common with reality-bending docs like The Amazing Johnathan Documentary and Wrinkles the Clown. It taps into something primal and elemental, inspiring the viewer while also slyly letting you in on the work through most of the ride.
And yes, if you’re not aware, the David Arquette in the title is that David Arquette. From the Scream films, and countless other forgotten, thankless roles. The film opens by explaining his strange role in the long history of professional wrestling, that in 2000 for two weeks, he was crowned the WCW Heavyweight Champion, at that time one of the most historic and prestigious titles in the history of the industry. It is still regarded as one of the most disastrous storylines in the history of wrestling, seen as an insult to the history of that belt and the men who had claimed it before. Within a year, WCW would be bought out by the competition and effectively erased from existence, and Arquette would for nearly two decades be an easy punchline in the world of wrestling commentary.
The film thus follows the process of Arquette, now in his late 40s, deciding to return to professional wrestling to prove those who mocked him wrong, and also because it isn’t like his acting career is exactly exploding these days. This includes going to training sessions in Mexico, partaking in cut-rate backyard wrestling exhibitions, traveling all over North America and generally worrying his friends and family. The film functions as part biography, part travelogue, and part wrestling angle.
This is where the work comes in a bit. There are certainly portions of the film that are genuine depictions of a man’s quest for redemption in an industry that often is distrustful of outsiders and celebrities. The viewer is witness to the whole process of Arquette getting better and better with each match, catching onto the trade secrets and striving for respect and legitimacy. When he grows from punchline to genuine viral sensation, the film becomes thrilling because you are seeing the redemption arc we have seen in oh so many Rocky films played out in real life.
But it also is a structured, and in some cases manufactured, narrative. Interviews are featured showing Arquette’s opponents talking about how little respect they have for him, only to cut to later palling around. The film is not hiding its artifice; it is welcoming the audience into it, fluctuating between the work and the shoot with relative confidence. The final credits feature an oddity for a documentary, essentially a gag reel of cutting room floor material where wrestlers and even Arquette let the artifice down slightly, showing the fun behind all the bruising.
This is the great magic trick of this film. It is in one moment clearly structured to push you towards its cathartic final moments, ending in the only place it reasonably could with Arquette victorious. But there are throughout flashes of reality that disarm and disorient you. An early scene of Arquette receiving a ketamine treatment for chronic, crippling anxiety is truly unnerving, especially as he appears to have a panic attack halfway through the process. And a horrific accident in one match nearly derails the whole thing. It is up to the viewer to determine where the work ends and the shoot begins, and the film certainly isn’t assisting. Perhaps most grounding, near the end of the film the death of Arquette’s friend Luke Perry crashes down around the false world Arquette has built around himself. Emotional manipulation bleeds into actual emotional rawness.
Early on in the film, Arquette is trying to determine a persona for his wrestling comeback. He discovers a cape that he attaches to, which both hearkens to Ric Flair, one of his great inspirations, and also resembles a stage magician. (Arquette in fact utilizes sleight of hand magic as part of his wrestling persona; it’s all connected, you see.) But ultimately, the film itself establishes his true gimmick: a man possessed with a search for acceptance, hurt by years of mocking and perceived failure who pushes himself to prove those who doubted him wrong. It is a quest for authenticity.
Arquette in the film correctly identifies that the true appeal of wrestling is the grand, almost mythological storytelling possible. To that end, he serves as our Hercules, facing trials to receive his just reward in the end. We witness his struggles, his blood and swear poured out in his quest. He sees setbacks and tragedy along the way, but his sacrifice bears fruit, bitter and otherwise. The ultimate catharsis of the film lies in seeing him succeed; ultimately, you don’t much care if the worked shoot is illusory or reality.