2001, NR, 98 min. Directed by Bruce Weber. Starring Hoots The Poodle, Christian Fletcher, Teri Shepherd, Peter Johnson.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Jan. 18, 2002
A more apt culinary title for this concoction from photographer Bruce Weber might be Goulash or Mulligan Stew, given the mishmash of ingredients that he's thrown together here. More like a glorified home movie than a documentary, Chop Suey is a primer on 20th-century photography, a celebration of American celebrity, a biographical sketch of jazz singer Frances Faye, and a showcase for the physical beauty of a young man named Peter Johnson, the model who serves as the callow student to Weber's worldly tutor in the film. It's a setup that's not so much creepy as it is slightly bothersome -- while Weber is careful to avoid any hint of exploitation, the highly homoerotic nature of his photographs of Johnson will have you nevertheless second-guessing his motivations. Aptly described by Weber as “a schoolboy from Eden,” Johnson is as perfect a specimen as they come: big white teeth, a shock of hair, a lithe frame, plenty of muscles, and about zero-percent body fat. He is, without question, the quintessential Weber model. Despite his perfection, it's difficult not to like Johnson because he's such a good sport here. He seems genuinely receptive to what Weber has to say, most of which will keep your interest as well. The footage of Faye performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, among other venues, is fascinating stuff -- she was truly the last of the red hot mamas, an “entertainer's entertainer” whose open lesbianism somewhat kept her career in check. There are taped interviews with jujitsu champion Rickson Gracie, extreme sports figure Christian Fletcherf, and fashion maven Diana Vreeland, who natters on about “mahvelous” surfers and skateboarders. There's even an old Super-8 film of Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds before everything went to hell after Todd's untimely death. But the most intriguing aspect of this film are the dozens of still photographs scattered throughout, from Mapplethorpe to Stieglitz to Beaton to Weston to Avedon. Every picture has a story, and while much of Weber's ponderous narration is often annoying (he can't speak about something without using a quote to give the matter context), his discussion of these photographs is illuminating and entertaining. The only complaint about this portion of the film is that the camera often pans too quickly over many of these shots; you want to linger over these captured pieces of time and soak them all in. Without question, this photographic essay is the most delectable ingredient in Chop Suey, the one that gives it a taste to remember.