Body-Slam Cinema

Grappling with Stardom: Michael Rapaport is the heavy in The Naked Man.

ON THE SET of the locally filmed film The Naked Man, actor Michael Rapaport lies on his back beneath the large ass of wrestler Dennis Carlson, a behemoth of a man in a grass skirt and face paint. It's an amusing sight, even if you're unfamiliar with Rapaport's thick-headed, hard-luck screen persona (Mighty Aphrodite, Kiss of Death). Set in a pro-wrestling arena and shot in the old Minneapolis Armory, the scene calls for Carlson's "The Samoan" to squat on the red-haired hero's face until he flails, in need of "precious oxygen." "This is the shot of a lifetime," Rapaport cries from beneath the hulk atop him, his distinct Queens accent intact. "The money shot!" someone yells back.

The Naked Man looks good so far: Co-scripted by Ethan Coen and directed by long-time Coen Brothers collaborator/storyboard artist J. Todd Anderson, it's a darkly comic murder thriller in the Fargo tradition, set partly in our own hamlet--one-time hotbed of professional wrestling and wanna-be hotbed of indie filmmaking. Rapaport plays chiropractor-by-day and wrestler-by-night Ed Bliss--or "the Naked Man," per his nom de groin-kick--whose trademark in the ring is a skin-tight, anatomically illustrated jumpsuit (a la "Slim Organbody" from Conan O'Brien's show), complete with sewn-on, comically protruding internal organs.

If nothing else, the wrestling scenes bring the Minneapolis Armory to life in all its former glory as a mid-sized sports arena with gorgeous architecture. (The production pumped in its own electricity and created its own ring.) Once slated for demolition, the building has seen its salad days come and go, just like local pro wrestling.

"I saw wrestling here as a child," says Rapaport's amiable stunt-double, wrestler Bill Borea (a.k.a. Billy Blaze). "When I heard they were going to tear this building down, it kind of bummed me out. So now I get a chance to make this wrestling movie here, and maybe the attention will help somebody save it."

Despite his "Samoan" ferocity, Dennis Carlson is a soft-spoken man of good humor with a mane of black, curly hair befitting his ring name, Samson. He muses that the popularity of live local wrestling has been usurped by TV coverage. "This is a great town for local wrestling," he says. "Trouble is, no one finds that out 'til they get to Atlanta or New York."

Still, the home of Jesse "the Body" Ventura and Road Warriors trainer Ed Sharkey was a perfect place for the filmmakers to draw on local pro-wrestling talent. (After the shoot wrapped in mid-October, the movie's wrestlers participated in a night of matches to benefit long-time promoter Ray Whebbe, of Rock 'n' Wrestlingfame).

The wrestlers say the movie is hardly a mirror reflection of their world, but the filmmakers did reach out to the local community. "They went to people who know the business," says Mick Karch, longtime local pro-wrestling booster who was consulted for the film. Karch, who plays an announcer in the movie, has decades of announcing and promoting experience under his belt and hosts a local weekly pro-wrestling show on cable channel 6 in Minneapolis (airing at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday nights and 6 a.m. Thursday mornings).

On the day of my visit, the set has a giddy, relaxed feel. During breaks, Rapaport leads some of the crew in a round of "You're The One That I Want," from Grease. As Karch and I enjoy the virtual wrestling from a stack of nearby bleachers, I realize I've left my courier bag among the collapsed and reassembled ringside chairs now filled with popcorn-tossing extras--it's nowhere to be seen.

Not to worry: The bag is retrieved within minutes through the highly efficient coordination of the production staff ("The guy from City Pages lost his bag," someone broadcasts through a radio head-set). Impressed by this post-walkie-talkie setup, I immediately give the film my thumbs-up for competence. If The Naked Man hits the canvas when it comes out next year, it won't be for lack of pro quality--or the gravity of its topic.

 
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