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Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

The Side Effects of Being American
Director: Chris Bell
Cast: Chris Bell, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, Mark “Smelly” Bell, Dr. Charles Yesalis, Dr. Wade Exum, Gregg Valentino

(Magnolia Pictures; US theatrical: 30 May 2008 (Limited release); 2008)

The Muscle

In my mind, there’s no excuse for not being as strong as you can be.
—Mark “Smelly” Bell

Well, mizz-ann up just a little bit.
—Hulk Hogan to son Nick Bollea (Tampa Tribune 22 May 2008)


Chris Bell wants to believe. Or so he suggests at the start of his documentary on the connections among steroids, success, and Americanness, Bigger, Stronger, Faster*. At 12 years old, Bell says, he was moved by President Reagan’s 1984 call to identity, his designation of true Americans who had “given the ideas, the muscle, the moral courage and, yes, the spiritual strength that built the greatest, freest nation the world has ever known.” Yes, thought young Chris, the world was made up of heroes and villains, winners and losers, the U.S. and, at the time, Iran. Chris understood the battle according to the TV terms available to him: the WWF’s Iron Sheik versus Hulk Hogan.


The Hulkster was huge, Bell recalls, tall, tanned, and gigantically muscled, overcoming the Camel Clutch as he fought “for our country.” As a boy, Bell assumed that Hogan, like his other heroes Stallone and Schwarzenegger—other components in the USA’s “explosion of ass kicking,” looked fantastic because he worked hard. As he comes to find out, of course, these hardbodies had some help too, from steroids. With this discovery, the film takes a predictable turn: like Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore before him, Chris Bell is sorting out his own disillusionment and bringing you along for a mostly entertaining, not very surprising journey, with detours into his personal experience and his essential and ongoing love for all things pop culture. Unlike his predecessors, however, Bell is not always sure where he’ll come out, and so his film is less didactic than it is awkward, curious, and willing to name its confusions. And to its credit, the film’s very inelegance is frequently enlightening and almost always entertaining.


Part of that enlightenment is cued by Bell’s post-colon subtitle, “The Side Effects of Being American.” The film parallels young Chris and his two brothers’ devotion to bodily perfection as they perceived it, with the rising popularity of juiced up physiques, the splendiferous masculinity performed by movie characters and sports heroes. Growing up in Poughkeepsie, the boys were neither athletically gifted nor conventionally beautiful, and so they dug in, Bell remembers. They spent long hours working out, imagining it was their ticket to stardom. “For us,” Bell rhapsodizes, we knew muscles were the answer.” 


Little did they know they were asking the wrong question.  Though his brother Mad Dog was captain of the football team and Chris and his brother Smelly were competing in weightlifting contests, the boys were increasingly unable to achieve the levels—the fame, the money, the adulation—they had dreamed of when watching Hogan and Arnold perform form adoring throngs. Instead, Chris ended up selling gym memberships and listening to stories about the “old days” from his from Paul, a gym rat from forever. What’s great about lifters, says Paul, is that the dream is never out of reach. Bell wonders about when he finds that Paul is living in his van. Paul is undaunted. “In six months,” he explains, “I could still be in the van, but if I can out-lift everybody, out-squat ‘em, out-bench ‘em, out-dead-lift ‘em, who’s the king?” Who, indeed?


While the culture of weightlifting—insular and legendary—arguably constitutes its own planet, Bell notes that the steroids as a way of thinking and competing is frequently termed cheating. Bell can’t get this concern out of his head: even when he learns Mad Dog and Smelly have been enhancing for years, he’s reluctant. He admits trying it once in college, feeling pressed to measure up, but “I got so scared I had to stop,” and is soon after worried by the walking cautionary tales, Los Angeles Raiders defensive end Lyle Alzado (who attributed his brain cancer to many years of using steroids) or the WWE’s Chris Benoit (whose murder-suicide galloped over the tabloid internet). Rather than reargue such cases, the film lines them up alongside experts who dismiss or assert them. Doctors, lawyers, and sports writers speak their pieces with reference to shrinking testes, increased acne, deepening voices, bitch tits, and, even prolonged life, as in the case of HIV patients combating muscle wasting.


The point, as Bell’s film makes clear, is not what is known about steroids, which is rather little, but what is perpetuated about steroids, the media, political, and legal wrangling over the ostensible “purity” of sports and especially, national identity. While the a smattering of statistics demonstrate that alcohol and cigarettes do more visible and verifiable damage per year than any form or steroids, still, officials and public figures make popular noise against the demon drugs. “There’s something simply un-American about this,” declares Joe Biden during the 2004 Congressional hearings (hearings, the film notes, that took eight days, when no other issue—not Iraq, not Katrina, not national health care—was granted as much official time). Even President Bush indulged in some chest-thumping during his 2004 State of the Union address: “The tragedy of so-called performance-enhancing drugs is that they foster the lie that excellence can be bought rather than earned and that physical potential is an asset to be exploited rather than a gift to be nurtured.”


As Bigger, Stronger, Faster* indicates, the amplified attention to the problem brought on by positive testing or records-breaking by Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and now, though he’s not mentioned in the film, Roger Clemens, is more about the threat to myths of honor and honesty than it is about the cheating. For, the film argues, cheating is most American, the most typical way that stars become stars. “To get where Arnold got in life,” submits Gregg Valentino, owner of the world’s biggest and absolutely scariest biceps, “You have to be willing to step on a few fingers and step on a few friends and fuck a few people over.” Better to be the barracuda, he concludes, than the minnow. Though the film includes some truly heart-wrenching footage of Bell’s brothers struggling with steroid use (their wives disapprove, their mother is in tears, their father believes one is an addict and “a screw-up” who’s taking his wife “with him”), it doesn’t pretend to have answers for everyone. It is more interested in probing the corporate and entertainment industries that encourage steroid use, including the deregulated “health industry” in Utah (where now the FDA must prove a product is dangerous in order to get it off shelves, rather than the previous process, where drugs and tonics and potions had to be proved safe before being marketed) and the track and field regulations that has somehow allowed U.S. athletes (Carl Lewis being the film’s prime example) to get by with “inadvertent” use of banned substances rather than being disqualified.


It is telling, too, that the movie’s visual illustrations are limited, mostly by the refusal of the major sports industries—the NFL, MLB, the WWE, and the USOC—to license footage. As Bell points out, this “presents some real hurdles when you’re trying to make a doc about steroids.” His persistence in the face of same is to be commended. Especially as he has made an intelligent, earnest, and challenging film that is only partly about steroids, and mostly about the culture that makes them go.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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