'Tis the region: Robert Greene’s Fake It So Real

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The school gym-turned arena in Fake It So Real
  • The school gym-turned arena in Fake It So Real
One of the more admirable qualities of Robert Greene’s Fake It So Real, which opens Friday at Facets, is how it creates such a rich sense of place with such a mundane setting. The movie documents a small-time wrestling league based in Lincolnton, North Carolina, a town of roughly 10,000 located 40 miles outside of Charlotte. Like many American towns, the geography is dominated by strip malls and nondescript housing: the people seem to spend a lot of time at home or in their cars. Yet Greene senses how uninspired landscapes make fertile ground for dreaming and big talk. His subjects, as in his previous documentary Kati With an I, are always going on about the things they want to do. Casually word-drunk, they end up venting all sorts of local idioms and creating some of their own, which Greene records with anthropological curiosity. The movie reminds you of the important role played by conversation in shaping an environment.

It also reminds you of how varied U.S. culture actually is—something that Hollywood movies, even good ones, seldom exploit to the fullest (I think of how the Milwaukee and Chicago locations of Bridesmaids were basically interchangeable). Writing about Indian filmmaker Shyam Benegal last week, I noted how his films’ situations seem to grow out of the national region in which they take place; it got me thinking of how a similar-minded filmmaker could take advantage of this country. Alfred Hitchcock, Frederick Wiseman, and John Sayles (and, to a lesser extent, the Coen brothers) have shown how much thematic ground a filmmaker can cover by moving from one part of the U.S. to another. Based on how distinct is the North Carolina setting of Fake It from the Alabama setting of Kati, Greene seems to understand this well. He’ll need to make another dozen or so movies before we know just how well, but I hope that he gets to.

As seen by Fake It, Lincolnton is the perfect incubator for the subjects’ dreams. The Millennium Wrestling Federation is comprised mainly of misfits too peculiar (or physically unfit) for mainstream success or family men seeking a creative outlet. Their wrestling narratives, albeit family friendly, are so unusual and obsessively personal that they’d qualify as outsider art if exhibited in a larger metropolis. Yet the people of Lincolnton seem happy to share in this fantasy, as witnessed by a charming early sequence where one of the wrestlers convinces a local pizza joint to pass out Millennium Wrestling flyers with all delivery orders. Moments like these recast fame on a different scale. There seem to be about 100 people attending the movie’s final wrestling match, though Greene makes you well aware of how this indeed constitutes a crowd in a town of 10,000.

I find it encouraging that a subculture can take root amid so little actual culture: it implies that there are outposts of blue-collar America where imagination hasn’t been conquered by chain stores and Fox News. Kati With an I showed what one of the casualties looked like, with the malls and backyard pools of northern Alabama coming to suggest a modern-day purgatory. When Christian right ideology entered the movie (which was rarely; Greene strives, nobly, to be apolitical in an era when documentarians spend as much time on soapboxes as they do behind cameras), it registered as just more nails in the coffin of independent thought.

The subjects of Fake It So Real may be provincial in how they regard North Carolina as the center of the world, but they’re neither bigoted nor prone to cliches. One of the interesting things that Greene observes is how much these wrestlers mock each other for being homophobic and laugh at their own homophobia. One gets the feeling there’s room enough for everyone in Lincolnton—and that this is how small towns ought to work. It’s a quirky form of patriotic zeal that recalls Jonathan Demme’s masterpieces Citizen’s Band (aka Handle With Care) and Melvin and Howard or his Evanston-shot TV movie Who Am I This Time?, another life-affirming comedy about community theater that would pair brilliantly with Greene’s.

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