Song of myself

Photographer waxes poetic.


directed by Bruce Weber runs April 5-11 at Varsity

INTRODUCING a coffee-table book of Bruce Weber's glossy male nudes, William S. Burroughs offers readers this advice for getting past the obvious: "I look at the collage as a whole . . . without allowing myself to zero in on you-know-what." It's always been difficult not to eyeball you-know-what in Weber's photos because you-know-what is everywhere. That pulsing but innocent homoeroticism is on full display in Chop Suey, Weber's lush, hypnotic documentary about his own artistic life, but this time Weber also turns his camera inward.

It could have been a dubious affair. Immaculately photographed, the film first introduces us to Peter Johnson, a straight, achingly beautiful Midwestern wrestler. Languid, scripted narration has him reading poetry and Weber lionizing the "bravery" it took for the na裂to drop trou and play along as Weber's latest photographic obsession. "My friends and I got together and we started taking pictures of him," Weber says. "Over and over again, dressing and undressing him, like a character in a coloring book." Great, you want to respond, but cut the euphemisms, buddy—you got an exquisite Peter to haul out his Johnson, and aren't you lucky?

Chop Suey feels like Weber's personal elegy, with all the pompous, melancholy, and sometimes joyous self-revelation that implies. Weber has always been a vaguely closeted fetishist—witness 1988's Let's Get Lost, his elegant, amorous paean to pretty-boy jazz icon Chet Baker—but he's surprisingly up front here. While recollecting the self-conscious boyhood torment of the locker room, he shows us modern footage of carefree, shirtless young men stomping through muddy water, and quietly intones, "We sometimes photograph things we can never be." Or never have—the artist's obsession with the heroic suppleness of callow youth, now embodied by his latest model, is perhaps less complex than Weber would have us believe.

His other inspirations are more interesting. We meet the teeming roster of souls who have touched Weber's life over the years: Robert Mitchum, seen in a smoky recording session; fashion guru Diana Vreeland, lamenting that she never learned to surf; and, most lovingly, Teri Shepherd, companion to outrageous '60s jazz singer Frances Faye. These acquaintances temper our perhaps cynical view of the Weber/Johnson relationship, showing how they made Weber what he is. In return, he generously shares these influences with the wide-eyed wrestler and us alike. Though Chop Suey will appeal to anyone looking for handsome young men taking it all off, it is Weber, finally, who seems beautiful by exposing himself.

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