A tendency I’ve started to notice—though a rather diffuse and subjective one so perhaps you shouldn’t take my word for it, but James Wood’s review of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Southern dispatches is close to what I’m talking about—is reviewers praising writers and filmmakers for not condescending to subjects from what you might call “the real America,” as if we’ve so internalized this myth of snobbish “coastal elites” that we feel the need to rush back into the debate newly armed with counterexamples (when in reality imaginative sympathy is a quite common symptom of life in a crowded and diverse city). This hardly the fault of the artists being praised for withholding judgment, or at least obvious judgment—they are indeed bringing the rest of the world closer to us, with an insight borne of unfaked intimacy. But it can be worryingly self-congratulatory, our own suspension of critical judgment, as if we deserve a medal for not issuing blanket dismissals of diametrically opposed lifestyles; at its most acute, this tendency even draws a contrast between earnest if blinkered belief and big-city cynicism, conferring a verdict of superiority upon people all too happy to concur.
Anyway. Robert Greene‘s documentary Fake It So Real, which plays for a week at the reRun starting Friday, is about the unfortunately acronymed Millennium Wrestling Federation (MWF), an independent semiprofessional league based out of Lincolnton, North Carolina, and it’s not condescending—if anything, the editing demonstrates, even indulges the aspirations to glory or at least validation nurtured by the cubicle drones and exotic weapons connoisseurs who fight on Saturday nights in a ring they assemble themselves at the local VFW hall. But though Greene is simpatico, it’s not at the cost of self-awareness; the frequently priceless film is a stream-of-consciousness from a self-selected corner of America that’s weirder and more complicated than it knows.
There’s a lovely moment, midway through the films, when the man who wrestles as “Chris Solar”—early 20s, long brown ponytail, born with an undetected omphalocele and frequently unhealthy in his childhood—and his roommate, “The Archangel Gabriel”—unemployed, in violation of a restraining order against his ex, one of the relatively few members of the league who wrestles shirtless—practice a couple of throws on a grassy hill on the side of a road. Chris tosses Gabe and he barrel-rolls, exaggeratedly, down the hill, almost running into the cameraman—the photography is by Greene and the talented young local DP Sean Price Williams—who tilts up to the top of a hill, at a steep angle, getting a heroic low-angle shot of Chris, in his street clothes, striking a power pose.
That heroic composition, and then the zoom-in, to a more casual closeup of a guy in a baggy t-shirt flexing in the rain, is a nice (reviewer-friendly!) summation of the film’s balanced perspective—of the narrative satisfaction it understands wrestling to provide, as well as the interesting people who get something from it. (Well, interesting men, anyway. Aside from Chris’s mom, briefly, we don’t see much of the women in these guys’ lives.)
Though there looks to be footage from a fairly complete immersion in the culture, the film is structured around the week leading up to the usual Saturday match. The guys hand out flyers to the geriatric owner of a local pizza parlor, do crunches at Planet Fitness, drink beer, and talk about their lives and dreams to Greene. The Archangel Gabriel, with his Ambercrombie torso and elaborate black and silver body paint, is fascinating: the league’s newest member, he’s a tagalong, constantly asking the older, heftier part-time heroes what they think he needs to work on, and inevitably turning these conversations towards the character narrative he seems to have mapped out minutely for years into the future; they keep stopping to ask if he’s ok during his practice matches, because, as Gabe grinningly reminds them, he’s just practicing his hammy cries of pain. His undercard match, on Saturday night, is the film’s climax: Greene edits it dramatically, even cutting back, like a TV line producer, to Gabe’s training runs from earlier in the week, with board shorts and bottled water in hand, and afterwards, amid audience chants of his name, including several manly hugs of approval from the more grizzled types, who earlier in the week, couldn’t seem to lay off the gay jokes. One of the seemingly better-adjusted veterans, seen calculating his teenage son’s grade average, keeps grinning and interrupting him midsentence: “Are you gay? You can tell me, you know. It’s ok.”
Chris Solar, meanwhile, is a heel, a cheater; the hook is that the character is in the closet, and the wrestler explains to Greene how he loves working the crowd into a fury of resentment at his villainy (during the match, he stomps and shakes his head angrily, pouting, milking it as five-year-old kids in American flag t-shirts chant “Solar is gay!”; the crowd of dozens also chant “U-S-A!” when “The Mikado” is vanquished by Brandon “The Natural” Powers, who leads the wrestlers in their pre-match prayer).
Greene treats these attitudes as casually as his subjects do, including things in passing—like the noose put around the neck of the MWF’s one African-American wrestler—but allowing their place on the margins of the movie to to suggest how unexamined they are. Aside from the somewhat obsessive Gabe, Greene doesn’t prod the wrestlers towards introspection, except to ask them to defend wrestling against charges of fakery—”If it’s fake,” one replies, why does he have a separated shoulder from slamming on the mat over and over, and four ex-girlfriends from his life on the road?
This is J-Prep, who wrestles in shorts with plump, red lips embroidered on the back; his signature move is sitting on his opponents’ faces. Wrestling, for him, is the one place where he can be proud of his enormous, waddly ass, which he blames on the weekly asthma shots he was subjected to as a kid, and for which he was mercilessly teased (“this black monkey will be laughing at me because my butt is bigger than hers”). The hilarity and pathos are inseparable, and the psychology is there to be parsed; Greene doesn’t push the sociology, because despite the instrumental recording of the national anthem played before the match, the members of the MWF are too singular to be representative of anything but themselves. Greene shows how his subjects express themselves, and gives context for their expression, which doesn’t make him some lofty menschlike font of empathy, but does make Fake It So Real the product of basic human decency, and attentive and respectful filmmaking.