Watching Salo the other day, at a near-packed session no doubt, the feeling in the room when The Duke literally shat on the marble floor of the unspeakable mansion was of a surprised boredom. It was playing to an audience forty years since its premiere, an audience well versed in the controversies and premature bannings of Passolini’s finale. A few of us squirmed (me) but the overall mood was a resounding “oh, so that’s what the big deal is.” It’s difficult to shock an audience that has recently experienced the Boston bombing and that airplane-versus-twin-towers thing, though the Malaysian airlines crisis is doing a good job, however the initial watching of the muscle-bound freaks in Generation Iron does come close to an abject horror.
Freaks in this context is meant in the jocks/freaks way, like how the cool nerdy kids were labelled freaks because they listened to frostbitten black metal, not all-American cheese curds Blink 182. It’s a point of admonishment, a pragmatic label to something that very few understand. The narration goes, “they’re in a freakshow with no tent to hide in.” Director Vlad Yudin goes a long way to identifying the humanity behind the wall of muscle and suggesting they’re artists helps a lot (and he’s right) but until sympathy sets in, one stares open-mouthed at the extremity of the muscle. And the awkward bronzing for those competitors with pale skin. It’s a sobering moment when reality sets in.
Yudin follows a small handful of these freaks on their journey to 2013 Mr Olympia stardom with the help of Mickey Rourke’s narration. It’s a remarkable addition to the story, as if Marv of Sin City were reciting beat poetry at a bar, wavering between the brilliant to the cringe worthy. We watch Phil Heath defend his 2011 title against a handful of other bodybuilders, all preparing themselves for the torture that is Mr Olympia. (If you’ve ever stepped inside a gym for even a second you’ll have a newfound respect for the kinds of weights these guys are lifting.)
The greatest victory of this film is probably its ability to get a person with no interest in the sport excited to find out the winner of an event posthumously. Outside of a Schwarzenegger history reminder, it’s fair to argue this sport has a very niche appeal and everyone else that engages in water cooler talk about the event is just excited about emailing photos of the extremity of the neck muscles or maybe that’s just me. But by the end I was at the edge of my office chair, hands pinned to the cushion with nervous dread to find out the winner.
It’s expected for Schwarzenegger to make an appearance and of course he does. He offers a glimpse into the rarely seen intelligent side of the Austrian Death Machine (also the name of a metal tribute band), exchanging free wisdom about what it means to be a bodybuilder in today’s competition. “It’s become extreme” he says. In a police lineup with these contestants, he would be dwarfed. But when you remove all your preconceptions about the guys looking funny in tiny shiny shorts, they’ll teach you a thing or two about what it takes to be an artist. They’re Michelangelo sculpting David, David being themselves.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire