Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Bigger, Stronger, Faster": documentary about the culture of banning performance enhancement substances

Bigger Stronger Faster,” from Magnolia Pictures and directed by Chris Bell, has two working subtitles, “The Side Effects of Being Human” and “Is it cheating if everybody’s doing it?” The website for this comical documentary is this.

I used to hear teachers say that about cheating. “Everybody does it, but it doesn’t make it right.” Indeed. But Bell has a point here, there is a lot of double talk in the steroids-in-sports crackdown.

Chris Bell is the middle child among three brothers (the filling of an oreo cookie, his mother says) in a religious (Catholic?) New York State (Long Island?) suburban family. All the family members tended to be heavy, but the men were always able to build muscle mass and strength. Pumping iron became a major family mission. The youngest boy, nicknamed “Smelly” had a wrestling career despite needing special education in school. Bell himself has had somewhat of a similar career and, in his 30s, lives near Los Angeles, apparently.

Gradually, Bell develops his thesis, that we are of many minds on the use of “performance substances.” They are banned in sports (both Bush presidents make a spectacle of this) because they are seen as “cheating” and making the “competition” meaningless. But there is nothing wrong with a classical musician’s taking beta blockers (like atenolol) to inhibit stage fright. And the US Air Force allows its pilots to take “Go pills,” which were mentioned in a tragic incident in Afghanistan in 2002 when friendly fire accidentally killed four Canadians. Athletes, in fact, are sometimes allowed “inadvertent use” of substances like common decongestants. Anabolic steroids (based on testosterone) are much more objectionable than other hormones. The film shows a cow genetically engineered to be “muscular” and asks ethical questions about genetic engineering for sports performance.

He spends some time on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has to act Janus-faced about the issue, and whose pictures were taken down from Gold’s Gym when he was suddenly elected governor in California when Gray Davis was recalled.

The bodybuilders in the movie tend to look moonfaced, and seem to pay homage to David Skinner’s notorious June 1999 essay in the Weekly Standard, “Notes on the hairless man.” In fact, anabolic steroids may increase body hair but cause infertility and reduce male performance. There is a scene where an ad photographer demonstrates manipulating a model’s look on a computer, strictly for vanity purposes. Nevertheless, a girl shaves the chest of the male “model” on camera, as if it were part of the beard, the first time I have seen something like that since a scene from “Bent” (about much grimmer subject matter; I’m not counting the waxing of Steve Carell or Harrison Ford.); that could have been done on the computer. There was plenty of animation (in Morgan Spurlock style), and some ("Final Destination") goofy special effects appeared for gross-out purposes, as when a man's arms fall out of their sockets at the shoulders during a power lift.

For men, remember, physical fitness and presence used to have socially competitive and "moral" significance for young men. The June 23 issue of Time Magazine, with its presentation on overweight kids, mentions that now even boys feel the social pressure from male icons where are "buffed and waxed" (page 105, from article by Lori Oliwenstein, "Weighty Issues").

The movie also treats us to the look of female bodybuilders, who have their own corner of the web world (look for “valkyries”).

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