Robert Greene’s new vérité wrestling film, “Fake It So Real,” kind of has a catchphrase, which is fascinating because I can’t recall the last documentary I saw that has one. Unfortunately, this phrase is possibly alienating to homosexuals. It’s complicated because the offense stems from the world being observed, and to an extent it’s probably intended as a kind of innocent self-satire to begin with, but it still rubbed me the wrong way. Not the film, which is simply a window through which we witness the unsurprisingly homophobic indie pro wrestling scene in North Carolina, at least not at first. While watching it, though, I tweeted that I was doing so, and later I was re-tweeted by someone who added a double shot of this apparent ‘memorable quote’ from the doc: “Solar is gay!”
Those three words make up a chant shouted by local wrestling fans whenever Chris Solar, aka “The Queen City Classic,” hits the ring. He’s a flamboyantly dressed guy whose shtick is that he looks gay but isn’t. And he gets very mad at the audience — well, pretends to — when they call him gay. He likes women, he assures them both during matches and in promotional videos. It’s an idiotic type of character gimmick that seems to be understood by most of the live audience. They likely don’t truly think Solar is gay, either the character or the performer, and they might not even care if he were or not. However, if there’s any concern about the phrase and its context is with the very young fans who maybe do get the idea that being gay is bad, and calling someone gay, whether they are or aren’t, is an insult.
Outside of the ring there’s even more of this fine-line mix of insensitivity and sensitivity. Greene’s doc follows a week in the life of a pack of wrestlers, just regular dudes with other lives who get together on weekends for the theatrical sport. Most are big men, some of whom have grizzly beards and a general intimidating look to them, but of course they have their soft sides that come out onscreen. It’s almost like their everyday persona lies somewhere between what’s seen in the ring and what’s captured with the camera. On the mat they become hyper-masculinized, while the film exposes their ability to cry during off-the-cuff testimonials. Or, if they still don’t literally shed tears they’re at least very candid about their dreams and worries.
The in-between, common conduct consists of a lot of teasing. One of the cohesive narratives running through “Fake It So Real” concerns Gabriel, a newbie to the scene who is also now the runt of the pack. He’s small but fit, clean-shaven and likely to get by on his sex appeal (ironically he’s got ex-fiancee drama). His gimmick is that, like the mythological Gabriel, he’s an angel sent from Heaven. The other guys taunt him daily with suspicions of homosexuality — just jokingly. And such hazing and “boys will be boys” behavior is to be expected. It’s also thematically quite interesting. The doc’s title directly refers to the fake aspects of wrestling, but it also fits the false fronts put on by men. Not just these men, either, though they specifically display an added level of macho make-believe.
The sport entertainment of wrestling is noted for its homo-eroticism, which obviously results in some playful homophobia as well. It’s all the more apparent with the film that there’s a cycle of masculine showboating involved. The kind where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You’re not a real man if you don’t wrestle, but you’re not a real man if you enjoy wrestling with other guys. That was the logic deduced on my elementary school playground, anyway, and the same confused and immature rationality is evident in this lifestyle. The idea that it’s all a staged soap opera might imply it’s not truly tough anyway, yet the injuries involved are pretty severe. At one point we’re let in on an interview between the head of the local wrestling organization and another prospective recruit. Not just any manly man can join up, and apparently even some ex-Marines aren’t cut out for it.
Nothing in “Fake It So Real” is quite as revelatory as Barry Blaustein’s 1999 pro-wrestling doc “Beyond the Mat,” perhaps because it doesn’t feature well-known figures like Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts, whose personal issues and emotionality are felt stronger as a result. Actually their problems would be just as significant if they weren’t celebrities, but the fame does contribute to our sympathy and attentiveness. Greene’s film is nevertheless a very absorbing and heartfelt look at a world curiously relative to the WWE realm. Many of the men in North Carolina’s independent scene strive to go pro. It’s like “Fake It So Real” is almost the “Anvil! Story of Anvil” to “Beyond the Mat”‘s “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.”
The main difference is that Greene, whose last film, “Kati With an I” objectively followed his half-sister over the course of her high school graduation week, doesn’t seem to aim for an emotional response from his audience. He simply gains the trust of his subjects, documents them with a genuine interest and respect, and whatever comes through the lens is mostly between us and the wrestlers. I was particularly responsive to J-Prep, a pear-shaped sweetie of a wrestler whose enormous backside has become integral to his act. He has turned a physical misfortune and health issue into something positive — if you consider pretending to crush people with his big butt a positive appropriation. If he’s enjoying himself, you should, even if his story is by far the saddest sounding of any in the film.
And my takeaway of the “Solar is gay!” thing is also basically between me and those encouraging this silly yet still serious form of vilification. On its own “Fake It So Real” is no more guilty of advocating the continued chanting (or tweeting) of the phrase than “The Cove” is guilty of inspiring others to slaughter dolphins. However, some promotional materials for the doc, such as the video below, may include Solar’s shtick quite approvingly, and I expect that some screenings, especially ones accompanied by the wrestlers, could have viewers joining in the shouting of pretend ant-gay sentiment. Hopefully everyone understands the gag.
“Fake It So Real” is touring the Northeast this week with screenings in Boston (July 25), New York City (July 28) and Philadelphia (July 30). The NYC show will include a wrestling match.
Recommended If You Like: wrestling, “Beyond the Mat”; the Maysles’ “Salesman”