Beefcake

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



All Male

Thom
Fitzgerald’s Beefcake, an odd but likable documentary-docudrama
twofer, takes us back to the 1950s, when muscle magazines flourished. These
publications served up Olympian images of slicked-up studs with beatific expressions,
flexing in the name of fitness; they asked readers to admire the beauty and
manliness of the models’ carefully sculpted physiques, and to view their
very existence as a call to improve themselves physically, mentally and morally.
It goes without saying that many of the folks who bought these magazines never
set foot in a gym. For them, the photos and accompanying information on the
models ("Chet is a varsity athlete who lettered in track and field and
enjoys fly fishing and origami") were used primarily to facilitate fantasy
(sex in a locker room, sex on a fishing trip, sex while making paper animals).



These magazines served mainly
as vehicles of reassurance and escape for gay men (confirmed or closeted) and
for some women. They were also a lifeline for barely adolescent small-town boys
who felt stirrings of homosexual desire but were too cowed by their environment
to seriously contemplate them, much less act on them. Astonishingly enough,
pretty much everybody who distributed or bought these magazines understood their
real function. So did members of the publishing world. Considering the cultural
climate of 50s America, it took a surprisingly long time for the morality cops
to catch on. But when they did catch on, they came after the publishers of beefcake
rags with a fury utterly disproportionate to the apple-pie sexiness on display.


In a sense, then, the beefcake
magazines created a kind of homoerotic fantasyland with no fixed address, a
fantasyland necessarily much gentler and more oblique than the one that exists
today, post-Stonewall. It was a reassuring place–a place of coded symbols
and signs that decoded themselves easily for some readers and remained invisible
to everyone else. Fitzgerald’s movie conveys this mix of sexual excitement
and boyish sweetness, innocence and wink-wink sophistication; it’s a tender
movie about a vanished world and a vanished way of seeing the world. He concentrates
on the representative case of Bob Mizer, a gay Southern California entrepreneur.
Fitzgerald sees him as an unlikely poverty-row artist-hero in the tradition
of such feature films as Boogie Nights, Ed Wood and The People
Vs. Larry Flynt
. He’s an entrepreneur who wants to help young men make
it in Hollywood and sets up an agency to distribute head shots and contact information.
One way he does this is by featuring his handsome clients in promotional magazines,
posing in spreads that have a stereotypically manly milieu, like athletics or
war or Ancient Rome or Greece. Pretty soon Mizer figures out that he’s
making more money with the promotional magazines than on commissions, so he
concentrates on that, becoming kind of a gay Hugh Hefner. His Hollywood home
becomes a Playgirl mansion of sorts, with assorted young hunks fresh off the
boat crashing in guest rooms, hanging out by the pool and occasionally posing
for pictures while they’re waiting for their big breaks.


The filmmaker employs a
braided structure that interweaves elements of straight documentary (pardon
the phrasing) and docudrama. On one strand we have a fairly standard (and mostly
unremarkable) tale of a wide-eyed innocent named Neil O’Hara (Josh Peace),
who comes to Hollywood from a small town to seek his fortune, falls into Mizer’s
circle and is brought into the city’s discreet gay subculture, which introduces
him to such previously unknown concepts as cruising, casual blowjobs and the
inhalation of the evil weed known as marijuana. Mizer, played by Daniel MacIvor,
is the genial patriarch, a kind and decent man who (it appears) means everyone
well. He’s a gay Ward Cleaver. The Eddie Haskell in this picture is a red-haired,
sneakily sexy hophead troublemaker named David; the actor who plays him, Jonathan
Torrens, looks so much like professional fratboy Craig Kilborn that the effect
is rather eerie, especially when David is on his knees, dispassionately giving
another man a Hollywood hello. Neil’s clean-cut personality (so straightlaced
he’s nearly straight) will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a gay
indie film aimed at crossover audiences; ditto the disillusionment subplot,
with Neil finding out that the world isn’t as giving and decent a place
as he’d hoped, and that his mentor figure isn’t as disinterestedly
affectionate as he initially seems.


The film’s other narrative
strand consists of interviews with people who were part of the scene, including
Valentine Hooven, author of the book Beefcake; former models Joe Leitel,
Jim Lassiter and ex-Warhol star Joe Dallesandro; and fitness guru Jack LaLanne.
Their comments are alternately goofy, nostalgic, sentimental and tough; they
remember the time fondly for its mix of innocence and hedonism, but they don’t
paint themselves or any of the other participants in the scene unrealistically.
We are reminded that back then, as now, most people who came to Hollywood were
either pursuing fame or escaping from misery–usually both–and that
a climate of raw ambition isn’t conducive to lasting friendships. Fitzgerald
displays a sure hand with the documentary portions of Beefcake. The fictionalized
portions are better in concept than execution, partly because of budgetary restrictions,
but mostly because Fitzgerald hasn’t figured out how to frame the shots
and edit the sequences in a way that visually evokes the intensely romantic
and nostalgic tone of many of his interviews (except in the engrossing trial
sequences, which draw on historical records; they’re galling in the exact
same way that contemporary obscenity trials are galling).


But the overall effect is
still rather beguiling. Beefcake is like a low-budget Reds of
muscle culture, with living witnesses lending authenticity and grit to stories
of murdered dreams.



Framed

Fight
Club
is the most entertaining and precisely constructed
Hollywood movie I’ve seen this year, and the one that most deserves the
description "popular art." Godfrey Cheshire did a good, thorough job
of detailing its merits in last week’s film section, so it would be redundant
to spend much time treading on that same ground. But there are a few observations
I’d like to add.



First, this very well might
be the most amusingly and consciously homoerotic big-budget movie ever made
in this country. It’s all about men’s fascination with their own bodies,
their own beauty, their own capacity for physical and emotional pain. I was
reminded of NYPress columnist Lionel Tiger’s comments in a recent
Harper’s that modern Western men feel that women no longer need
them for much. They also feel increasingly feminized by our global, high-tech,
unphysical workforce–and they assuage their misery by spending increasing
amounts of time and money on drugs, pornography and spectator sports, three
essentially pointless pursuits that effectively let them escape their own minds
(and their own responsibilities) for a few hours. There is a need to feel savage
and brutal and male; the modern high-tech consumerized world offers men fewer
societally approved opportunities to express these impulses.


 Which isn’t to
say Fight Club is a humorless, Oliver Stone-type polemic. On the contrary,
director David Fincher and his actors see how tragically funny this all is.
They’re dead serious in their mockery of consumer culture, and they express
that seriousness by ridiculing advertising and catalogs and tv spots and the
like; the Ikea catalog and Starbucks are slagged by name, and if either company
paid for product placement, they got suckered.


I’d caution critics
against misinterpreting the film as overwrought or in any way self-serious.
There is no evidence in the film to suggest that Fincher feels that sorry for
the men whose self-destructive odyssey he depicts. They’ve been robbed
of qualities that haven’t been necessary for thousands of years, so their
rage over being robbed is amusing. So many of the images suggest he’s grimly
amused by both men’s obsession with manliness and their methods of proving
same–think of the scene with Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden riding a bike
around his decrepit house like some dimwit little boy, or the scene where one
character literally beats himself up, or Meatloaf’s testicular cancer survivor
bellowing after winning a fight, fists clenched, bitch tits jiggling.


When I described the plot
to one friend, she asked, "Was there some kind of contest at 20th Century
Fox to see who could greenlight the gayest film of all time without any gay
characters in it?" Another friend commented, "You know how straight
guys who are too uptight to hug punch each other in the arm instead? This is
how they fuck." In their own hyperbolic way, both comments are dead-on
accurate.


Strip away the sociological
riffing and self-consciously filmic sight gags (the single-frame flashes of
Tyler appearing at the edges of the hero’s vision, for instance) and you
have a film about male narcissism–men’s love of their own bodies,
their own beauty, their own capacity for emotional misery, physical pain and
dark, macho self-pity. It’s about how self-love expresses itself in the
fetishization of bodies and pain. The movie’s very salable narrative hook–disillusioned
young men with no fixed identity feel most alive when beating each other up;
muscles and blood and tenderness and cruelty–is like the ultimate Kenneth
Anger wet dream, the beatdown sequence of his legendary short film Fireworks
expanded to feature length, then given a polish by Thomas Pynchon.


After you’ve watched
the movie and evaluated it as spectacle, think about its intense homoeroticism–especially
how that homoeroticism is expressed in the very special relationship between
Tyler Durden and the film’s hero, who is identified only as "Narrator."
I’d direct people’s attention to the scene where the two men board
a bus and have a laugh over an underwear ad featuring a hairless, lanky guy
with a sleek torso and fashionably bony hips. "Is that how men’s bodies
are supposed to look?" the Narrator asks Tyler. The fact that Tyler is
played by Pitt, a guy who looks like an ambisexual beefcake fantasy figure–the
modern equivalent of a Bob Mizer hunk–is not a happy accident. For reasons
I can’t go into here–and you’ll know exactly why when you see
the movie–this scene might be the script’s equivalent of a secret
decoder ring. Tyler is the guy men are conditioned by consumer society to want
to be–the devil-angel of corporate fantasy, the place where advertising
and personal imagination merge and fuck.


Cinemascope Al: There are
two posters in theaters right now for films starring Al Pacino–one for
Michael Mann’s The Insider, in which the star plays a 60 Minutes
producer helping tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, and one for Oliver Stone’s
Any Given Sunday, in which Pacino plays a pro football coach who has
to win or be fired. For some reason–the marketing equivalent of the zeitgeist,
I guess–both posters feature photos of Pacino that are cropped to widescreen
dimensions. In the poster for the Mann film, Pacino is looking down and his
mouth is closed. In the poster for the Stone film, Pacino is looking out in
the general direction of the spectator and yelling. It occurs to me that this
is the essential character of the two filmmakers in a nutshell–a widescreen
image of a guy brooding and a widescreen image of a guy screaming in your face.


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