Pumping Iron


Pumping Iron.  White Mountain Films 1977.
Pumping Iron. White Mountain Films 1977.

Before watching the movie:

Way back in the beginning of this blog, when I was still feeling out what it was and what it covered, I reviewed one documentary. And in the years since, I have had one lonely post in the Documentary category (and one in Mockumentary, which I made a subcategory, but that’s another story).  I like documentaries. I’m just never in the mood to watch them, and I swiftly came to the idea that this blog should only cover scripted films. Maybe I’m better equipped to discuss scripted cinema, maybe it comes more easily. But lately documentaries have become a bigger part of my life, and I’ve been piling up docs in my to be watched list. I decided it was time to do something about it. So this month, not only am I reviewing four documentaries on this blog, I’m also trying to watch a total of at least 20 in the entire month, which I’m keeping track of on Tumblr.

I should probably discuss a little bit about this particular movie, even though I’ve gone on about the theme of the month for one whole Schwarzenegger. I get the sense it probably would have been forgotten if it hadn’t been the screen debut of a model about to become an actor known for being buff and not saying much. I don’t think I knew before now that it also profiles Lou Ferrigno, who also transitioned into acting in roles on his physique. It sounds like Arnold is more of the bad boy superstar of the movie, while Ferrigno has a more, perhaps sympathetic portrayal. They might be positioned as rivals in the narrative, or they might just be competitors in the same circuit, but the former seems more likely unless I’m missing an option for how the narrative may be constructed.

After watching the movie:

Five-time champion Mr. Olympia pro bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to retire after one more season. Louis Ferrigno has been in bodybuilding a few years, but this is his first year going professional, and as the biggest man in the history of professional bodybuilding, he hopes to unseat the king on the mountain. While Schwarzenegger trains with a group of friends, Ferrigno trains under his father’s coaching. They both know the other one is out there, and they both work harder to rise to the challenge.

In the opening of the film, I thought for a moment I was going to be wrong about the rivalry aspect. It starts with Schwarzenegger training with his friends and being very helpful with the other bodybuilders at the gym. It seems briefly like the sport is full of friendly encouragement. But then it quickly seems to be revealed that the encouragement is only for the athletes who aren’t a threat, as the competition gets nasty between the two headliners. There’s also a digression early on where it follows Mike Katz getting unbalanced by Ken Waller with a prank that apparently was not as mean-spirited as the movie portrayed it.

I was also correct about Schwarzenegger being the villain, although it was much more subtle than I expected. His extravagant lifestyle is shown, but I was never quite sure if I was supposed to take that as a bad thing. He gets kind of nasty toward Ferrigno when they meet, and apparently has a history of sabotaging bodybuilders, but it’s presented at only face value, so I thought it might just be saying this is how it is in that world, especially with the bit with Katz and Waller. Meanwhile, I also expected the relationship between father and son Ferrigno to be portrayed positively to make him the wholesome underdog, but Mr. Ferrigno’s pep talks to Louis sometimes seem to walk right up to the line of bullying. Again, I was a little confused about which impressions were my own and which ones were actually the ones the film was going for, I think from a combination of unfamiliarity with the sport and from the fact that I’m used to films with a much more heightened level of reality. Good things are righteous, bad things are evil, ambiguous things are pointedly so.

While I respect bodybuilding as a way humans have found to push their physical abilities to extremes, like all athleticism, I don’t really care for the results. I find too much muscular bulk aesthetically repellent, especially when it’s been flexed taut, as is done in exhibition poses. It’s also by nature the most objectifying sport, since the competitions are basically “stand there and look like an imposing specimen”. I don’t want to dump too much on the pastime, because it is so completely alien to me and my endomorphic world I’m sure I sound like I’m not giving it a proper chance. But it’s just not for me, even as an observer.

All documentaries create a narrative out of the elements they have to work with, and as a result they sand away the more aimless parts of real life into a story that’s easy to tell in the allotted amount of time. However, this seems to have been a little more staged than is typically expected from a documentary. It launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition into acting, but maybe he was acting already?

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