Judge Brett Cullum dives into a sensuous world of boxers, jazz musicians, wrestlers, and golden retrievers.
Four films from the master of black-and-white photography.
During the 1980s, Bruce Weber changed the way the world looked at photography when his images became the basis for ad campaigns used by Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Versace, and Abercrombie & Fitch. He revitalized the brilliance of black-and-white, and found a way to eroticize the human figure in revolutionary ways. Men particularly became subjects of his beauty shoots. Suddenly the world was seeing the rise of the male figure as sex symbol clad only in tight white underwear and some well-placed dirt. He pioneered an all-American homoeroticism at a time when male sexuality was taboo and dangerous, thanks to the specter of HIV and fear of gay culture.
Weber mainly is known as a photographer, but he did dabble in film with music videos and a quartet of documentaries he made on his own. Bruce Weber: The Film Collection collects the fashion photographer's feature documentary work on four discs, which provide a nice career retrospective of his notable titles.
• First up comes Broken Noses, released in 1987. Weber fixes his camera on Andy Minsker, once a Golden Gloves champion, now a coach for a teenage boxing team in Portland, Oregon. It's the perfect subject for a fashion photographer who idolizes the dichotomy of being tough and soft all at once. Andy's story is about heartbreak, abuse, not making the Olympic team, and then finally inspiring young boys to learn the sport he loves. The feature alternates between black-and-white and color, and features Weber's trademark shots of men in boxing shorts looking tough and playful for his camera.
• Next is the incredible visual essay on Chet Baker called Let's Get Lost from 1988. It shows the jazz pioneer in his last days, looking haggard and worn, and juxtaposes this with the shots of him from his career height decades earlier, looking like a beautiful male model that Weber would photograph. Chet Baker emerged during the '50s, and he had chiseled good looks and an Oklahoma farm-boy charm that worked on fans and critics alike. Chet fell victim to a severe drug addiction, and what is left of him is showcased here by Weber only weeks before he passed away. Baker fell from a window in Amsterdam on Friday the 13th in 1988. This film serves as an elegant eulogy for a jazz legend who was as fragile as his own phrasing suggested.
• Chop Suey is basically a vanity project produced in 2000 which dwelled on a myriad of Weber's obsessions. Topics include Midwestern wrestler-model Peter Johnson and legendary lounge singer Frances Faye, among others. Weber provides free association memories on his subjects, and there are also some audio interviews with the people being documented. Oh, and there are also copious shots of a poodle and an elephant. It's sexy and full of a lot of great music. You come out of the 98-minute film feeling as if you have been at a funky dinner party with Weber, who showed you some of his favorite things and private collection artworks.
• The final piece in this four-part collection is A Letter to True, which is a scrapbook focusing on Bruce Weber's pets. The photographer owned five golden retrievers, and this film explores their world and holds them up as symbols of purity in a corrupted world. It is moving and elegant, but also as slick as any ad campaign Bruce Weber ever conceived.
Bruce Weber: The Film Collection presents these films in their original aspect ratios, and the quality varies according to the film stock used by the photographer. He liked to mix his medias between film, video, and grainy shots with the color drained right out. Soundtracks are presented in the original two-channel stereo, and they all are rendered well. There are no extras save for an elaborate booklet, which includes still photography plates and a description of each film.
These are four great works to finally have together in one package, and I love seeing this tribute to Bruce Weber's films. They are sexy, gorgeous, enigmatic, and all too human. Yet at the same time, there is always that heightened sense of the artist there making it all look brilliant and inventive. They are clever films, and ones that could roll by on your television with the sound turned off as easily as sitting down to analyze each at full volume. They provide an unusual amount of insight into Bruce Weber, who has always been an enigmatic figure in photography. He's a married pioneer in the world of gay imagery, and these works don't dispel any of the irony or questions that sparks. Maybe he is a man simply who knows beauty when he sees it, and forces us to do the same.
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