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Cinema: A Delicate Beefcake Ballet

5 minute read
Richard Schickel

PUMPING IRON

Directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore

A movie about bodybuilding? You’ve got to be kidding. All those grotesques walking around in bikini briefs, narcisstically flexing those grossly overdeveloped muscles. Disgusting? Besides, they’re all gay, aren’t they? If the general public thinks about bodybuilding at all, it is likely to be in such derisive terms. So besides indifference to the documentary form, Pumping Iron must also overcome smug prejudice about its subject manner as well.

Hidden World. One hopes the picture makes it past these barriers, for it is a very good film, beautifully shot and edited, intelligently structured and — to risk what will surely seem at first a highly inappropriate term —charming. Yes, charming. For its makers have resisted the most common of the temptations visited upon journalists when they attempt to penetrate the small, half-hidden worlds of the strangely obsessed: they do not patronize and they do not satirize. Rather, for 85 minutes they report objectively, yet sympathetically, on a small group of dedicated people who have found happiness in the camaraderie of the gyms where they devote themselves to sculpting their lats and pects and stuff to preposterous perfection. When they are not tugging and hauling with an infinite variety of weights and pulleys, they are perfecting their posing routines for the contests with which they mark off their years, trying to psych themselves up and —gently, slyly —psych their opponents out for them.

The film’s first part explores several amateurs’ preparations for the annual Mr. Universe contest. It features a particularly appealing loser named Mike Katz, sometime pro footballer, currently a phys.-ed teacher and devoted family man. Katz is one of those nice guys who finish fourth in all sorts of competitions. Here he is done in by a psych artist named Ken Waller, a not-too-merry prankster who steals bits of his opponents’ costumes in order to upset their concentration before they go on-stage to face the judges. Katz’s musculature may, on one level, set him irrevocably apart from the rest of us, but his sweet sporting spirit as he sits trying to absorb his defeat while graciously applauding a trickster’s win is something with which any weekend athlete who has been one-upped by an allegedly friendly opponent can identify.

The film’s second, longer half deals with professional-level competition in the Mr. Olympics contest. The film makers have found an ideal protagonist and set him against a dramatically perfect antagonist. In the former role they have, as the contest announcer endlessly calls him, “the one and only” Arnold Schwarzenegger, 29, an Austrian-born U.S. citizen, six times winner of this title and anxious to retire on the seventh victory. A cool, shrewd and boyish charmer, he exudes the easy confidence of a man who has always known he will be a star of some kind (and who could, if this movie takes off, become a multimedia presence of some force). He is contrasted with Louis Ferrigno, 24, a Brooklynite trained by his ex-cop dad, an intense and excitable man who is always trying to buoy his boy’s confidence. By the peculiar standards of bodybuilding, young Louis appears to be every bit as gorgeous as Arnold. What he cannot see, and what his old man will never accept, is that Arnold has a gift that cannot be acquired no matter how hard an athlete trains, no matter how many pep talks replete with references to Michelangelo’s sculpture he absorbs. It is, of course, the gift of charisma, something capable of magically compelling his opponent’s collapse and the judges’ favorable votes.

Tactful Acuity. Once these lines are laid out, there is a marvelous inevitability to the contest’s— and the film’s—ending. Comic without being cruel since Schwarzenegger numbers among his many gifts the ability to let losers down lightly —it has tact, delicacy and psychological acuity. These are qualities few fictional films have managed in recent months. For documentarians to quarry them out of a seemingly slim slice of life seems almost miraculous, particularly since neither director can be considered a seasoned talent.

Butler, 33, who conceived the project and is coproducer too, is a still photographer who became fascinated with the sport cum art while working on a Sports Illustrated assignment. He began promoting the film more than four years ago, even as he and Writer Charles Gaines put together a book of the same title, which became an underground bestseller and is now in its 15th printing. Money for the movie was acquired in painful bits while Fiore, the young cinematographer, was shooting, and it was still coming in as the team worked for over a year on the editing. The result is a splendidly professional but never overslick film. You may not leave the movie with a desire to start pumping iron, but you may feel like pumping the hands of those who made it.

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