| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    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.