Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, April 13, 2015


I have no interest in sports competition, much less one as niche as body-building. Yet I came to watch “Pumping Iron” for one name: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the most movie-starry of all the great movie stars. Arnold had appeared in a handful of films before, some of them more notable then others. However, “Pumping Iron” was his break-out movie, the first true goal-post on his road towards becoming the highest grossing star of his time. That a documentary, already a niche genre, about bodybuilding, an even more obscure profession, became a wide-reaching success at all is a testament to the strength of the film and the magnetism of its leading characters.

The film follows four competitors in the two biggest body-building competitions, the amateur Mr. Universe contest and the professional Mr. Olympia contest. In the run-up to Mr. Universe, we spent time with Mike Katz, a long-time competitor, former football player, and a family man. We also meet his rival, the young Ken Waller. More of the film is focused on the duel for the title of Mr. Olympia between reigning champ Arnold Schwarzenegger, up-and-coming dark horse Lou Ferrigno, and the lighter weight Franco Columbu. The rivalry between the boisterous Schwarzenegger and the soft-spoken Ferrigno forms the backbone of the film.

In “Pumping Iron,” Arnold fills a role that he would fall into a few times in his early career: That of the villain. It’s become well-known over the years that “Pumping Iron” is more “docudrama” then straight-up “documentary.” The film purposely builds a dramatic plot. Schwarzenegger has admitted that one story he shares in the film, of skipping his father’s funeral so he could participate in a body-building contest, was made up. Arnold, already a star in the field of bodybuilding and eager to become a movie star, was more then willing to play the role of the proud, unflappable winner. This is the earliest glimpse we get at Arnold’s movie star persona. The Austrian Oak tells outrageous stories, infamously comparing “the pump” to an orgasm. He undermines his competitors psychologically, flaunting his incredible confidence and his shit-eating grin. Yes, Arnold is a dick in “Pumping Iron.” The way he’s seen treating Lou Ferrigno, passive-aggressively insulting him and his dad, even in the minutes leading up to the show, is shitty behavior. Yet, as in real life, Arnold’s disreputable behavior can’t mask his utter charm. His incredible screen presence and overwhelming charisma makes it impossible not to like him.

When focused on Arnold, “Pumping Iron” is the story of how a winner becomes a winner through pure talent and vicious personal sabotage. When focused on the other bodybuilders, “Pumping Iron” is a story of would-be winners coping with failure. Mike Katz’ story is so affecting. As he relates his life story, you really want to see him win. When he doesn’t, the massive, musclebound man is fighting back tears. He tries to be a good sport, attempting to shake the actual winner’s hand, but you can tell he’s crestfallen. Similarly, Lou Ferrigno's failure to dethrone Arnold seems to be an issue, not of skill, but confidence. Ferrigno’s trainer is his father. Though he gives him words of encouragement, there’s something misleading, mean-spirited, about what he says. All of Lou’s family acts like that, egging his training on in a very aggressive way. When Lou doesn’t win, what he says basically boils down to “there’s always next year.” But behind his eyes, you can see how disappointed and upset he is. Just as a documentary about the dispiriting blows of being a perpetual runner-up, “Pumping Iron” is impressive.

When “Pumping Iron” sheds its plotting is when the film just focuses on the guys in the gym. The movie doesn’t dissuade the narcissistic, homoerotic underpinnings of body building. The movie even plays with it, as the very first scene is of Arnold and Lou training with a ballerina. You see Arnold showing a novice body-builder the ways of the sport. As an outsider looking into the world of body building, what struck me is how committed the participants are to this sport. One of Arnold’s partners does reps until he literally collapses to the floor. The men groan, scream, and screw their faces up in agony while working out. The huge, protruding veins on their arms and bodies are nothing short of grotesque. Arnold and others say they aim to replicate the physique of classical sculpture, pushing the human form to its limit. To me, extreme body building such as this seems to me to be an extended, willing act of self-mutilation. The film is a testament to the insane places determination can take people.

The final scene of “Pumping Iron,” after Arnold has won the Mr. Olympia prize once again and announced his retirement from the sport, has the winner and Lou riding in a car together. The competition is over but the two are still preening, still snipping at each other. For some, the competition never ends. It’s a fascinating documentary about extreme body modification and the wages of winning and losing. As a Schwarzenegger fan, it’s even better, seeing the origins of his career and persona. A star is born. [7/10]

[X] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm


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