by Boyd van Hoeij
What could inspire a photographer to become a filmmaker? Or, more specifically, what could inspire a famous photographer of glossy commercial pictures of near-perfect humans to become a documentarian, someone who documents reality, with all its beauty, certainly, but also all its incongruous aspects, its ugly truths and the scars caused by the hard knocks of life?
In the case of American photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber, the answer to this question is a fascinating and complex one. In just a handful of feature-length documentaries, Weber has turned his cinematic work into not only an extension of his thematic and aesthetic concerns as a photographer — it is impossible to mistake his films for those of anyone else, even if you are just familiar with his photographic work — but he has simultaneously greatly widened the scope of his artistic endeavors.
Films, which have the added benefits of time, movement and sound when compared to photographs, have allowed Weber to explore already-present themes in his pictorial work, such as American masculinity, in much more depth. Indeed, it could be argued that Weber’s non-fiction films are the most intimate and complete expression of his worldview as an artist. There’s a lot of beauty there but it is an exalted kind of beauty because as a documentarian, Weber also has room to explore the pain, heartbreak and intricacies of the beauties he displays.
1987’s Broken Noses, the first feature documentary from Weber, looks at Andy Minsker, a former boxing champion who runs a boxing club in Oregon for youngsters with talent and potential. Some of the hallmarks of Weber’s iconic photographs are immediately recognizable; starting with the fact most of the film is in grainy, shimmering black-and-white. And also very much like in Weber’s photographic work for iconic brands like Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch, the film unapologetically luxuriates in male beauty to the point of homoeroticism, with Minsker spending most of the film with his shirt off. Indeed, if you would happen to catch a random section of Broken Noses while flipping channels, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s some kind of long-form commercial.
But Minsker, while broad-chested, strong-jawed and in shape, isn’t quite your typical male model. He’s a man who was battered and bruised throughout his life and not only physically. The feature’s centerpiece is a conversation between Andy his old man, who is also a former boxer. They talk about what is probably the biggest disappointment of Andy’s life, which involves not making it to the 1984 Olympics, perhaps because of racial politics. Because his father wasn’t allowed to travel abroad to compete when he was a young boxer, there’s a tragic sense of history repeating itself that crystallizes in just one conversation. It suggests that these men from extremely modest backgrounds literally fought to try and better their lives but failed. Yet Andy, too, is still passing on his passion to the new kids at his boxing club.
This kind of insight into the intersection of U.S. society, masculinity, pride and destiny is nearly impossible to suggest in any one photograph (or even a photo book). Weber knows better than to try and aestheticize this particular moment; the conversation is probably the plainest shot in the whole film. This sobriety, in turn, elevates the more lyrical moments elsewhere, suggesting that beauty is also a part of the lives of those who struggle, as long as you know where to look. What finally emerges is the multi-faceted portrait of a man that’s embedded within the arc of history, the intricate fabric of society and complex ideas about masculinity, talent, opportunity and luck.
Weber’s most famous film, 1988’s Let’s Get Lost, looks at the life of jazz trumpeter and singer Chet Baker, while his latest documentary, Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast, explores the life of actor and occasional singer Robert Mitchum. In both films, the protagonists are clearly much better off than Minsker but that doesn’t make them any less complex. If anything, it becomes clear from the films that being famous brings about a whole new series of opportunities but also challenges.
Baker’s struggles with addiction and the complicated later years of his life are contrasted with earlier versions of Baker, the golden boy of jazz with the James Dean looks who had what looked like a very bright future ahead of him. The editing, both within sequences and for the overall narrative, feels heavily inspired by jazz, with riffs and warmly atmospheric notes enhancing the rhythm throughout.
The same editing approach is also applied to the story of Mitchum, whose prime as an actor is contrasted with footage of him in his later years, before he died, with the difference that footage from some of his most famous movie roles is spliced in to explore the many complicated facets of his character as well. This kaleidoscopic approach to documentary filmmaking takes into account the reality of the person at different ages almost simultaneously. The men portrayed exist as their past, present and future selves at the same time, much like the way in which Weber’s inimitable style is so clearly linked to our memories of the 1980s and 1990s even though many of the elements he uses — black-and-white photography and cinematography; jazz music — have roots in earlier periods of history.
The kaleidoscopic approach that’s so typical of Weber’s non-fiction work extends even beyond just using material shot in different eras. Throughout his films, he threads in moody shots and sounds that won’t have much meaning on their own but that, in the context of the work, evoke different kind of feelings and places. His documentaries aren’t biographies containing dry facts but rather adventurous and jazzy evocations of people that try to suggest how they felt and how they made other people feel. They are about the unexpected trajectories of their lives and the multi-layered and even contradictory people they were. And not only throughout but also because of all their ups and downs, Weber suggests, there was beauty in their lives.
Producer: Nan Bush, Steven Cohen, Kira Productions
Cinematography: Jeff Preis
Editing: Phyllis Famiglietti
Sound: John Boisseau
Music: Julie London, Chet Baker, Robert Mitchum, Danny Small, Gerry Mulligan, Joni Ja-mes and Ken Nordine
Broken Noses is the story of Andy Minsker, a professional lightweight boxer and former champion, and his small boxing club for kids in Portland, Oregon. The film traces Andy’s frustrated career with the U.S. Olympic Boxing Association, his fights in Las Vegas and his training of the young men, many of whom belong to dysfunctional families. Raised in a broken home himself, Minsker dedicates his time to help the kids he has almost adopted as his own sons, trying to become the role model he never had when he was a boy. In this moving debut film, beautifully shot and with a soulful jazz soundtrack, Weber deconstructs the myths of masculinity by exploring the notion of macho.
Producer: Nan Bush, Little Bear Productions
Cinematography: Jeff Preis
Editing: Angela Corrao
Sound: Maurice Schell
Music: Chet Baker
Cast: Chet Baker, Carol Baker, Vera Baker, Paul, Dean & Missy Baker, Dick Bock, Willian Claxton, Hersh Hamel. Chris Isaak, Lisa Marie, Andy Minsker, Cherry Vanilla, Ruth Young
Baker’s struggles with addiction and the complicated later years of his life are contrasted with earlier versions of Baker, the golden boy of jazz with the James Dean looks who had what looked like a very bright future ahead of him. ‘He was bad, he was trouble and he was beautiful’’. The film combines archival footage and candid interviews with Chet Baker, musicians, friends, battling ex-wives and his children in what turned out to be the last year of his life. Winner of the 1988 Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival and nominated for an Academy Award, Let’s Get Lost is still the finest jazz documentary ever made about one of the greatest jazz legends of all times.
Producer: Nan Bush, Eva Lindemann-Sanchez
Cinematography: Jim Fealy, Lance Acord ,Theodore Stanley, Franklin Stanley, Shane Sigler
Editing: Chad Sipkin
Sound: Tom Fleischman, Richard Q. King
Music: John Leftwich
Cast: Robert Mitchum, John Mitchum, Benicio del Toro, Al Ruddy, Clint Eastwood, Deborah Kerr, John Huston, James Brown, Luciano Pavarotti, Dr. John, Dean Martin, Johnny Depp, Julie London, Marianne Faithfull, Sarah Miles, Liam Neeson
In the late 1990s, photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber managed to convince Robert Mitchum to appear before his camera for a filmed portrait. When Mitchum passed away in 1997, Weber parked his beloved project and it was some time before he went back into his footage. Mitchum –who had run away from home ten times before he was 15, had been in prison, and was on a chain gang in Georgia–, made over 130 films, mainly as the tough guy in war movies, noir films and westerns. But he was also a great artist, very well read and wrote poetry. Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast (title from a Julie London song) is not only the portrait of a real bad boy with the soul of a poet, but it is also a film about the aging of a male sex symbol. Through interviews with Bob Mitchum as well as friends and admirers, musical numbers and archival footage, Weber tries to show the struggle of someone who spent his entire life still trying to run away from home.