Chop Suey

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

CHOP SUEY

6/10

US 2000 : Bruce Weber : 98 mins


ONE-LINE REVIEW: Freeform scrapbook of a movie in which we enter fashion-photographer Weber’s camp visual world of past memories and current fixations: a coffee-table movie, infuriating and beguiling in equal measure.


Fashion-photographer Weber’s film is free-form scrapbook with two main strands – a portfolio of photo-spread-type situations ‘starring’ high-school-wrestler-turned-male-model Peter Johnson, and a mini-biography of Frances Faye, raucous nightclub pianist-singer of the 50s and 60s, as recalled by her longtime assistant and lover Teri Shepherd. Every few minutes Weber embarks on tangents that feature Robert Mitchum and Dr John, travel-writer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, actor Jan-Michael Vincent, legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, AIDS-victim stylist Don Sterzen, uber-surfer Christian Fletcher and his family, who were President Nixon’s next-door neighbours in California, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu champ Rickson Gracie and his family.

The free-association effect is much like flicking through one of Weber’s sumptuous still-photography albums – the film did start life as a thick hardback entitled ‘The Chop Suey Club.’ The coffee-table book is a well-established branch of publishing, but Chop Suey may be the first coffee-table movie. With such a deliberately non-sequential narrative there’s no need to pay equal attention to everything that’s going on. The film may, in fact, be ideally suited to television – perhaps playing in the corner of a room during a party as viewers drift in and out. There are some vaguely recurring themes (‘family’ seems to be a keyword) but this is an anything-goes mix, unified only by Weber’s visual aesthetic.

He’s very much a viewer, a watcher of the world – not a thinker. He’s not even very bright, if his banal voice-over is any guide – recalling Harmony Korine’s zonked mumblings from Gummo. There’s a series of ‘Studio Conversations’ in which the camera roves around various galleries of photography as Weber identifies various celebrities to Johnson and relates some triflingly inconsequential anecotes. Spotting Marilyn Monroe, someone (Johnson?) notes “She looks so sad,” and the film operates purely on this superficial level – (perhaps it’s no coincidence that at one point we glimpse the title page of Thesiger’s book on Arabia, ‘The Empty Quarter’) – the level of surfaces.

And most of the surfaces belong to Johnson’s own sculpted body, as the hunk cavorts and poses before Weber’s lens in a various stages of dress and undress, including some howlingly camp flights of opulent extravagance. But when Weber talks of how much fun he and his photographer pals have with Peter during shoots, they seem to view the lad as little more than a life-size posable action figure, a doll for dress-up. The presence of Jan-Michael Vincent, however, puts a darker slant on Weber’s current Johnson-fixation. Weber recounts an idyllic photo-shoot with Vincent from the early seventies, but makes no mention of the actor’s more recent, well-chronicled health problems – did Weber simply lose interest as his former idol lost his youthful looks?

Chop Suey seldom lets such painful reality intrude on its daydream-precious world, but it’s nevertheless frustrating to hear so little of Johnson’s own perspective – the film never comes close to exploring Johnson’s personality as greedily as it lingers over his exterior. Then again, Johnson – apparently a happily heterosexual young dad – seems happy enough with all the attention, not to mention his presumably lucrative new career: “a great experience for me,” is how he sums up the movie on his own website. Chop Suey isn’t exactly a love letter from Weber to Johnson (it’s dedicated to Sterzin), it’s more a souvenir of the subject’s physical prime and a record of his aesthetic education as he’s introduced to Shepherd and other figures from the way-out reaches of showbiz: “a record of his journey and of ours,” is how Weber puts it.

Regardless of how it serves these private, home-movie aims, Chop Suey will seem to many viewers a self-indulgent mess – which is precisely the point. It’s nothing if not self-conscious and self-justifying, with a constant stream of epigrams flashing by via text or narration (“the work is the life – it’s just coming straight out of ’em!”). The best and most entertaining come from Vreeland, so much so that it’s a cause of real regret that Weber never got around to making the aborted film on her which he mentions in passing. The grande dame of fashion justifies the price of admission on her own as she extols the virtues of skateboarders, and relates how she told off some over-hedonistic staff with the line: “I, and only I, have earned the right to die in an opium den in Hong Kong!” Her eulogy of Elizabeth I, meanwhile, sums up the daft, giddy, intoxicatingly decadent spirit of Chop Suey to a camp T: “She loved flowers, and everything in the palace was alive.”

24th July 2002
(seen 23rd, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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