Nov 27, 2011

[Movies] Beefcake (1998)

Many writers have written many articles about the slow death of the magazine industry in light of the rise of online media. One aspect of this that we don't often think about as a pivotal moment in publishing history is the role that pornography has played in our cultural history - and I suppose it's somewhat ironic that this same industry has been one of those that have best adapted to the shift to online media versus its other print brethren.

I've never directly purchased gay pornographic magazines, but like most teens of the time I was able to see a few magazines through other friends who had some. These days you can download porn for yourself off the internet - sort of eliminating the middle man altogether.

I didn't know what to think when Tobie and I ended up watching this movie at random one afternoon. I had never heard of nor seen any of these "beefcake" magazines back in the day and so I wasn't all that aware of what they represented.

Thus the movie wasn't just entertaining but also quite informative, at least for me.

Beefcake is described by Wikipedia as "a docu-drama homage" given the movie both has documentary aspects (e.g. scenes featuring various resources from the period to provide expert opinion or just tell their stories) with a rather length dramatization of the life of the "protagonist". I'm not quite sure how to tag it either, but I suppose that description works well enough.

Between the 1930's until the 1960's, it was considered obscene (and thus illegal) to feature nude male models in magazines, even for strictly artistic purposes. In the late 40's a man named Bob Mizer (Daniel Maclvor) decided to put up a catalog of potential male models for the use various filmmakers in Hollywood. The shots included both stylized and nude photos under the premise of providing a full display of the model / actor and what they might bring to the film. While the model agency didn't quite get off the ground, it eventually became the basis for the magazine Physique Pictorial by December 1945. The models weren't entirely nude, but most of the shots had them only wearing a "posing pouch", which was essentially a g-string.

The movie goes on to cover the growth of the popularity of the magazine, especially among closeted homosexuals who had no actual "gay culture" to reach out to or find affinity with. And to provide an additional point of reference, the movie starts to follow around one of the models, Neil E. O'Hara (Joshua Peace) as he gets enlisted by the Athletic Model Guild (AMG), as Bob referred to their group. He sold the concept of the magazine as a way for the guys to become role models for other Americans in order to inspire them to better themselves and life healthy and fit lives.

As mentioned prior, the movie also includes a lot of testimonies and interviews by other models and photographers from the period as they sort of follow through a particular angle of the dramatic portion of the film. Thus the real-life models could go on and talk about their experiences with the dramatizations also playing to demonstrate how things might have been at the time.

What is most interesting about the movie apart from all the thought that all these guys went along with the story of the AMG and how they were doing totally on the level modeling work was the fact that most did not think ill of Bob and his efforts. Sure they found him to be a little quirky and eccentric in terms of his tastes, but otherwise they really felt that working for AMG and Physique Pictorial meant getting closer to their dreams of getting major acting jobs in Hollywood or at least earn enough money to settle down somewhere.

One has to remember that the models were, for the most part, straight, and were apparently clueless to the homoerotic nature of some of their poses. And this is not just based on the depiction done by the actors in the dramatic bits of the movie but even in many of the interviews with past models who agreed to participate in the movie. Plus the tone of the feature was fairly neutral - they tried to focus on the actual events instead of solely focusing on the negative connotations of Bob's work. Thus it remains in the hands of the viewer to form a final opinion of what all this was about and whether or not this was just Bob being a sleaze bag.

If anything, some of the resource persons also talk about the impact the beefcake magazine had on the formation of pink culture around the US. Many think of it as one of the first ways closeted gay men could get a taste of gay culture and understand that they were not alone in their interests and desires, all of which were considered highly taboo at the time. Thus it's not just about porn as a sleazy result of this whole adventure but it's also about the role such magazines played as people more and more defined what being queer meant to them, which eventually contributed to the definition of the larger LGBT culture beyond.

Beefcake is a smart, witty and quirky movie, one that should provide value to viewers on many different levels. I happily rate it with 4 ridiculous costumes the models are made to wear for their shoots out of a possible 5.

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