Chris Bell and his brothers really missed the boat. They could have entered the banking industry and peddled disastrous loans to unqualified suckers, or maybe studied hard in chemistry class and developed a miracle drug that simultaneously gives middle-aged men an erection and a full head of hair. Failing that, they might have cheated their way through law school in order to get into public office and fleece the taxpayers legitimately. Instead, they decided to worship Hulk Hogan. Dumb move.
But their mistakes are our entertainment, at least. Or in the best instance, which is the case with the thought-provoking new documentary, Bigger, Stronger, Faster, the Bell brothers’ delusions provide an object lesson in what Chris Bell calls “the side effects of being American.” One of those side effects is that in this country, believing what you see on TV and at the movies can literally make you sick and wreck your life.
As kids in Poughkeepsie, New York, the three Bell siblings were distressed to find that they had inherited their parents’ short stature and chunkiness. But there was still a way for them to emulate Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Hulkster, and other larger-than-life action heroes: build a home gym in the basement and start bulking up. One thing led to another. All three used steroids and packed on serious biceps, deltoids, and quads. Older brother Mike, aka “Mad Dog,” became a WWE wrestler. Youngest brother Mark, affectionately known to the family as “Smelly,” also wrestled professionally but settled on competitive weightlifting.
Middle brother Chris tried his hand at writing such sports TV shows as WWF Raw Is War, then hooked up with Jim Czarnecki and film editor Kurt Engfehr, two of the producers of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11. That Michael Moore influence shows up in Chris Bell’s first-person narration as well as the story structure of the film, in which the Bell brothers, a little older and wiser now, try to reconcile their foreshortened dreams with the national preoccupation with muscles, manhood, heroism, athletics, competitiveness, victory, and what Chris Bell sees as an “explosion of ass-kicking in America” while he and his brothers were growing up.
The TV footage in Bigger, Stronger, Faster is amazing and also mind-numbing. The bewildered Bell boys didn’t stand a chance. Editor Brian Singbiel and archive producers Pamela Aguilar and Andy Zare take us on a lickety-split chronological tour of pop-cultural warrior rituals and totems, from Rambo and Rocky and Conan the Barbarian and the Iron Sheik vs. Hulk Hogan to baseball sluggers Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire (they look “constructed in a lab,” gushes sportscaster Joe Buck), busted Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, Tiger Woods, cyclist Floyd Landis, busted track star Marion Jones, and the guys at Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, where Chris Bell works out. We even see shots of a grotesquely muscled bull, the product of genetic engineering, otherwise known as “gene doping.”
All of the above took advantage of various “enhancements,” but before we join the anti-doping witch hunt, filmmaker Bell sits us down for a short exploration of the “steroid menace.” Are steroids actually killing people? Hmm, yes and no. Compared to such public health bugaboos as tobacco and alcohol (not to mention meth, heroin, cocaine, and bullets), steroids barely get into the game. Anabolic steroids, recognized as the riskiest variety, are used mostly by gym rats and body-modifying freaks like Gregg Valentino, of the mountain-range biceps. Pro athletes reportedly account for only 15 percent of steroid use, but somehow the baseball connection is what sends legislators into a tizzy — US senators have spent more time sweating ballplayers than investigating health care costs or the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Conflicting rules and the perennial imperative for victory have created a firestorm of misplaced hysteria around steroids. People are outraged by cheating, but seemingly everyone does it. Note the careful juxtaposition of images of steroid poster boy Jose Canseco and his one-time boss, George W. Bush, who owned the Texas Rangers baseball team. Notes Bell: “In America it seems like cheaters always prosper. The real heroes are the ones who win at all costs.” Despite ostensible public outcry, Bell points out that the public “votes” for drugs by buying tickets and merchandise. At the same time, heat-seeking pols crack down on steroids while ignoring the explosion of other meds — “pixie dust” supplements for students and musicians, methamphetamines for jet pilots and porno performers, etc.
In the film’s final quarter, Bell shifts gears from his brothers’ health problems to America’s image problem. He tells us, “For every performance, there’s a way to enhance it.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess who’s to blame: we, the consumers, driven crazy by images of ripped demi-gods and fed a steady stream of advertising for more meds, gadgets, and wars to cure what ails us. “People need heroes,” claims Marvel Comics king Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man and the Hulk. He should know. But what Mad Dog, Smelly, and Chris discover is that nobody’s perfect.
In Europe, of course, they’re past all that. Nobody wastes time adulating muscle-bound gods and goddesses anymore, just famous filmmakers of the past like Jacques Demy. The late Demy, you’ll no doubt recall, directed fanciful musical fables like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort — he thought of them as tributes to MGM and Gene Kelly. In truth, no one could be less like Gene Kelly than Louis Garrel, star of writer-director Christophe Honoré’s lightly enchanting confection, Love Songs, aka Les chansons d’amour.
The gravely charismatic Garrel is possessed of a noble nose and chiseled brow, framed by curly black hair. Delacroix might have painted him. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, he was part of an ingrown brother-sister team of seducers. In Honoré’s drama of love and loss, he’s a contemporary Parisian office worker trying to juggle the memory of his true love (blond “It Girl” Ludivine Sagnier) with his office bed-buddy (Clotilde Hesme) and a bashful Breton gay guy (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), while occasionally bursting into song and dance in the street. Composer Alex Beaupain supplies fourteen tunes, none of them especially memorable, but the audacity of the project counts for something, as does Garrel’s brilliantly daffy performance as a lovestruck loon. The terrific credit sequence, with its montage of street scenes, sets the tone and the movie almost catches up.