DVD Reviews: Afghan Muscles and Bigger, Stronger, Faster

George Butler and Robert Fiore's Pumping Iron debuted 33 years ago, focusing on a number of bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. Because so few documentaries give us insight into an improbable kind of hyper-masculinized identity, briefly contextualizing two recent efforts with Butler and Fiore's film seems useful.

Afghan Muscles and Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American examine the Adonis Complex from different perspectives—one from a rhetorical context (about how definitions of masculinity are defined and debated), and, the other, how a culture views a specific kind of male beauty standard.

Afghan Muscles follows Hamid, a flyweight Afghan bodybuilder, as he trains, travels and competes in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Despite familial pressure to start a family, Hamid hopes to open a gym. In this mini-case study, director Andreas Dalsgaard makes some simple choices when characterizing Hamid by contrasting his highly individualistic work with the broader formations of Afghan culture, a culture based largely on group identities.

This contrastive approach is mildly interesting, but Dalsgaard doesn't delve explicitly into his subject enough to answer some simple questions. For example, why does Hamid desire to stand apart from the ordinary Afghan male? Why is bodybuilding growing as a sport in Afghanistan as the documentary implies? Afghan Muscles claims that champion bodybuilders win fame and honor for their clan, yet the film doesn't quite explain how or why, so the social context for understanding bodybuilding (and Hamid's efforts) in Afghanistan is presented without much insight.

When the documentary turns to the competitions, we see the intensity (and some pettiness, too) we've come to expect from watching Pumping Iron while ineptness, too, is offered by some bodybuilding officials. Most interestingly, the film carefully sidesteps the issue of steroids, though one suspects that some of the competitors at Mr. Asia might be using, for the presence of gynecomastia raises suspicions but offers, of course, no definitive proof. Such an example does not condemn the displays of bodybuilding, but it does raise the issue of fairness when Hamid competes against people who have more resources and are willing to transgress certain boundaries.

Clearly, bodybuilding is not so much about health as it is about aesthetics, but what does this kind of aesthetic medium teach us about Afghanistan, about how identities are formed and expressed within its many cultural practices? Is the sport truly more popular than buzkashi, futbol, or cricket, as the documentary's promotional materials claim? Though Dalsgaard had a chance to delve into the differences between westernism and modernism as such paradigms work in Afghanistan's complicated culture, the film has few aspirations beyond treating Hamid and this sport as case-study curiosities.

With more ambition and an ironist’s perspective, Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American focuses on the lowly pop culture obsession with comic book heroics. Here, hyperbolic images of masculinity—ones based on comic book heroes, pro wrestlers, bodybuilders, and even Olympic athletes—are measured by their impact on the lives of three brothers.

According to Christopher Bell, the director, narrator and the middle sibling, representations of heroism occur frequently in popular American narratives, many of which are enacted upon by young American males—some with sad consequences. Here, the interesting question, and one that fails to get answered, is why? Why are such stories told repeatedly? Why did these brothers choose, as the film leads us to deduce, the wrong role models to emulate? Bell has few answers, but he does offer some clues.

Interestingly, the documentary contextualizes pop culture heroism with the American pursuit of exceptionalism. This cultural synthesis, Bell seems to argue, places the ordinary individual (recreational athletes, especially) in a precarious position of taking performance enhancing substances (PES), even steroids. Bell's argument leads us to conclude that American males tend to conceptualize personal strength with social respect, one that an ordinary life full of important responsibilities (of whom Bell's dad seems to embody) doesn't seem to offer. But Bell quickly points out that in the leap for social respect, steroid users suffer from a lapse of self-respect, for they are clearly bothered by the deceptive tactics they use to conceal their use of PES.

For Bell, deception is part of the complicated rhetorical context when people argue about the relationship between drugs and performance. The film interviews experts, politicians, parents, and athletes to illustrate and demonstrate the rhetorical exegesis regarding steroids, and, from the film’s perspective, the most effective arguments—the ones that move politicians and affect public policy—are the very emotional ones that distort the issues. When clarity and sobriety are needed, policymakers are persuaded by the emotional appeals of well-meaning but biased witnesses, particularly a parent of a teen who committed suicide.

The debate becomes murkier because of the media's extemporaneous and sensationalized discussions of steroids. One of the film’s many points is that the media's use of empirical evidence (and use of pathos) often trumps the forensic evidence presented by honest researchers because such research is either ignored or becomes disfigured in the media's hands. Bell's arguments for a proper understanding of anabolic steroids makes good sense, and his effort does well in underscoring the demagoguery involved in creating public policy, but only in its conclusion does the documentary falter, an ending in which America is condemned for attacking and supporting cheaters.

The problem is that the documentary frames much of American life by focusing on the theater of pop culture, the kind of culture that Bell and his brothers have embraced. This reductionism is problematic, of course, because there is more to America than this narrow context—no matter how popular pro wrestling was when Bell grew up. For most Americans, pro wrestling, comic book and movie heroes—even bodybuilders—are contextualized as ideations of masculine fantasies.

But Bell is a clever documentarian, for he briefly broadens his scope to look at military pilots, symphonic musicians and students who take PES to better understand how the desire for exceptionalism is ingrained in mainstream American culture. Clearly, non-athletes use PES to improve their performances, but why? Bell seems to surmise that competitive Americans strive to make themselves more exceptional in order to gain more respect.

No doubt, his thesis is interesting, but there are problems with clarity. At times, Bell says he’s opposed to steroids; a bit later, he says he’s on the fence. Then, we discover he used to use them. Clearly, Bell is too involved in his own project to be a sober documentarian. But his example illustrates one weakness of empirical research, where the researcher puts his own needs—at times—above the needs of his subject. And this circumstance makes some of his observations unreliable.

However, Bell’s weakness as an empiricist is part of the film’s appeal. His examination of his family creates some difficult but interesting circumstances for his mother as well as one of his brothers, a competitive weightlifter who helps coach high school football. There are awkward scenes in which this coach has clearly deceived his impressionable (and underaged) players, and this deception is part of the complexities of how people use deceptive tactics to be persuasive communicators of public values, and an honest researcher has to untangle the effective lies from the slippery truths.

Bell’s approach certainly accounts for such complexities, but his use of his family to make some poignant criticisms of American culture is inductively and hastily problematic because his argument is based largely on emotive appeals. And that’s the logical trap that Bell has willingly stepped into: criticizing emotive appeals (as they relate to steroids) but conceding that his arguments, too, are often framed by such appeals.

Afghan Muscles and Bigger, Stronger, Faster bring a mindful audience back to Butler and Fiore's insightful study of bodybuilders, the film that raised the profile of Lou Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger. Though Pumping Iron lapses in some critical areas, it is a superior project in terms of contextualizing the relationship between personal ethics, individual achievement, and the allures of the Adonis. Butler and Fiore's effort brought popular attention to an interesting kind of obsession with improbable male beauty standards.

However, Bell's effort is a worthy companion that examines how public policy is influenced by the heavy pathos of popular culture as he argues that certain men are drawn to a bright stage—and will make every effort to get there—even if they get burned.

Afghan Muscles (2007)
Directed by Andreas Dalsgaard

Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American (2008)
Directed by Christopher Bell

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