The general public is probably best acquainted with the work of photographer Bruce Weber through his titillating campaigns for Abercrombie & Fitch. On a quarterly basis, the clothing company issues a catalogue replete with Weber’s images of buff and often bare-assed young bodies cavorting in pristine settings. Little about these pictures, for all the flesh and folderol, is terribly erotic. For the most part, the models regrettably possess the kind of unblemished, almost airbrushed beauty that seems just a tad inhuman, if not otherworldly; most often these well-toned figures romp in pastoral edens. Even when Weber locates these Apollonian youth in the urban metropolis, as in his rock & roll campaign for Calvin Klein some years back, they seem oddly detached from the environment about them, almost as if they were superior to the natural world.
The documentary films that Bruce Weber has directed take a different approach to his infatuation with the human form. Less committed solely to the grace of youth, they illustrate how age and even the decay of self-abuse wrought by drugs and alcohol cannot diminish the elegance of spirit that only a few, rare people possess. His 1988 homage to Chet Baker, Let’s Get Lost, luxuriates in the shattered visage of the late vocalist and trumpet player. For Weber, Baker’s bruised beauty coexists with the breathy lyricism of his singing and the stark eloquence of his simple but shapely horn lines. If the young bodies in his advertisements seem immune to the wrath of time, Weber illustrates in Let’s Get Lost how the passage of the years chisel their very soul upon some people’s sagging skin.
Peter Johnson, Frances Faye
US theatrical: 5 Oct 2001 (Limited release)
His first feature film in more than a decade, Chop Suey combines deftly and distinctively both sides of Weber’s approach. The film addresses not one, but an array of individuals, old and young, who have caught the director’s attention through possession of some unique skill, physical attributes, or both. These are people who for Weber are the epitome of style and character, the unique quintessence that elicits desire and attention from another person. More a miscellany than a linear narrative, Chop Suey zigzags from one figure to another and pays homage to the particular gift of each.
The topics and subjects Weber brings to life here include the cabaret stylings of pianist Frances Faye; the apercus about appearance and elegance espoused by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland; the craggy hauteur of Robert Mitchum, who croaks out a song accompanied by bluesman Dr. John; and the wind-etched visage of the British explorer of the Arabian dessert, Sir Wilfred Thesiger. Weber typically lets these figures, all now deceased, speak for themselves. He does add his own two cents with voice-over narration, but he comes across as less adept with words than images. The sequences in which he and others enthuse over some of Weber’s favorite photographs amount to random chatter rather than riveting commentary.
Interspersed with these celebrated elders is the individual who has been the object of Weber’s infatuation for some time, the Wisconsin-born high school athlete turned model Peter Johnson. Weber discovered the young man at a wrestling camp during a photo shoot of high school athletes, and Johnson rapidly became the iconic embodiment of a kind of physical and temperamental ideal that the photographer has chronicled throughout his career. At first, Johnson seems a blank slate, a gap-toothed Adonis with little to say. He impresses one as the illustration of Weber’s physical obsessions rather than a personality in his own right. Gradually, through narration and Johnson’s interaction with a number of the other subjects, most notably Frances Faye’s surviving lover, Teri Shepherd, Johnson’s character emerges.
A small town boy admittedly bedazzled by the world to which Weber has introduced him, Johnson takes a wide-eyed delight in acting out the roles and fantasies that he is directed to undertake. One gets the feeling that despite some initial trepidation, Johnson committed himself whole-heartedly to the worshipful devotion of Weber’s lens. Doing so permitted him to act out elements of his personality he might otherwise not have explored or acknowledged. The role-playing enticed him, so that in short order, donning exotic clothing or disposing of his clothing altogether became second nature. He appears entirely at ease with the fact that, while a straight man with a wife and child, he has become an icon of homoerotic visual art. In the end, his relationship to Weber, as muse and something of a surrogate son, has influenced his transition from youth to adulthood and permitted him to encounter a world far wider than anything Wisconsin might have offered.
So attuned is Chop Suey to the gyrations of Weber’s roving eye that the film lacks a center other than the sensibility of its maker. Even though Peter Johnson is the ostensible biographic subject, it is more the director’s sensibility than Johnson’s narrative that connects these seemingly random, even tangential concerns with creativity and beauty. The odyssey Chop Suey takes occurs at a whirlwind pace, and at times one is almost wearied by the whiplash shifts from scene to scene. However, in the end, what resonates is the fragile yet unfailing grace of the human spirit embodied by Weber’s subjects, and Chop Suey illustrates that for Weber, Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s craggy face holds as much wonder and wisdom as Peter Johnson’s taut torso.
The fact that the aged amongst the film’s subjects are undeterred by the passage of the years while the young, embodied by Peter Johnson, plunge without protection into the barrage of novel experience reveals a depth to Weber’s work not apparent in his more familiar still photographs. If the subjects of his fashion photographs appear to ignore, if not deny, the weight of time and experience, the subjects in Chop Suey welcome the marks that life lived to the fullest leaves upon our flesh and even our souls. Life may wound us, yet our scars prove infinitely more attractive in the end than an unblemished exterior.