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'Chop Suey'

"Chop Suey" is an apt and delightful title for this artfully assembled visual memoir from photographer Bruce Weber, whose commentary is heard on the soundtrack.

It is the most personal and accomplished of the several documentaries Weber has made over the years, and, like the dish for which it is named, it contains many ingredients. Weber is famous for his celebration of youthful male beauty, and although "Chop Suey" abounds in it, the film also reveals the photographer's interests and acquaintances to be far-ranging.

Weber's key model is Peter Johnson, an impossibly handsome and muscular young Midwestern wrestling champion. As he has with countless others before him, Weber films and photographs the unpretentious Johnson in a wide variety of settings, sometimes with a group of equally spectacular young males and sometimes alone, occasionally nude. As sexy as Weber's models are, Weber tends to treat them as part of a celebration of nature, emphasizing a natural sensuality rather than a contrived eroticism. If Johnson is Weber's latest incarnation of male physical perfection, the late cabaret singer-pianist Frances Faye is an enduring passion in Weber's life. A singer's singer, Faye was a sophisticated staple of nightclubs and the concert stage for decades with her dynamic stylings of classics. Although her film appearances were few--she played a bordello madam in Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby" (1977)--Faye made numerous appearances on TV.

Weber threads this archival footage throughout his film along with the reminiscences of Teri Shepard, her personal manager and longtime lover. The elegant Shepard sets a relaxed, low-key tone of openness, camaraderie and enjoyment of life, values that Weber celebrates throughout his work.

Along with celebrating Johnson, Faye and Shepard, Weber pays homage to his idol and subsequent mentor, the late fashion arbiter Diana Vreeland, whom he filmed in her famous bright red, highly ornamented New York living room in 1989. Vreeland speaks with her usual enthusiasm of surfing and skateboarding, two activities she admits to having missed out on.

In a linking typical of the film, her remarks are echoed in Weber's section on the handsome skateboarders; Weber similarly introduces us to the even more stunning family of Brazilian jujitsu champion Rickson Gracie.

Weber recalls with affection his working with Jan-Michael Vincent, who is represented by the groundbreaking nude scene from "Buster and Billie" (1974) and of his and Vincent's shared awe of Robert Mitchum, who was photographed by Weber in 1974 and 1994.

Weber reveals a wide and knowledgeable appreciation of his fellow photographers, with special emphasis on Sir Wilfred Thesiger, an adventurer and explorer who made a stunning series of photographs of Bedouin horsemen. Tracking down the elderly Thesiger in Britain, Weber felicitously describes the striking Sir Wilfred as possessing "a Giacometti nose." (And yes, Sir Wilfred is related to the ineffable Ernest Thesiger, the mad scientist of "Bride of Frankenstein.")

As the film unfolds, we learn that Weber made his way from the farm town of Greensburg, Pa., to New York, but he tends to let us know him through his passions rather than in a biographical outline, which is ultimately far more revealing. Of the many remarks Weber makes in the course of his beautifully fashioned film, none may be more significant than his observation, "We photograph things we can never be."

Unrated. Times guidelines: Adult themes, some nudity.

'Chop Suey'

A Zeitgeist Films release. Director Bruce Weber. Executive producer Nan Bush. Text written by Weber & Maribeth Edwards. Cinematographers Lance Accord, Douglas Cooper, Jim Fealy. Editor Angelo Corrao. Music John Leftwich. Art director-set decorator Dimitri Levas.

Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., (323) 655-4010, and the Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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