A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron was many Americans' first introduction to the competitive bodybuilding world and to one of its most famous and awarded practitioners, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie and the sport fetishize men's shaved and oiled muscular bodies, and they are fully on display here, head to toe. Some competitors pose in skimpy bathing suits with bikini-ed girls hanging on them. Arnold compares bodybuilding to the pleasures of sex. A man says he likes women of all shapes and sizes as long as they are charming. Adults smoke cigarettes and speak of drinking beer. One athlete takes unidentified pills. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," and "bastard."
What's the story?
Back in in the 1970s, before every strip mall had a gym or Pilates studio, George Butler was trying, without much success, to fund a documentary about bodybuilders. The concept of PUMPING IRON, based on Butler's and Charles Gaines' book of the same title, was to show the hard work, dedication, and focus that amateur and professional bodybuilders pour into the sport. Driven to create artistically symmetrically and proportionally beautiful bodies, the men fight to win major competitions. The focus is on the all-important Mr. Olympia contest held in South Africa, where former Mr. Universes compete for the top honor in the sport.
The movie follows several competitors for the 1975 title, including Mike Katz, Ken Waller, Louis Ferrigno (later known for playing "The Incredible Hulk"), Franco Columbu and, most culturally significant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, then 28-years-old. Although Arnold isn't given that much more screen time than the others, his buoyant personality, subversive sense of humor, wit, intelligence and abundance of self-esteem make it immediately apparent that he is a star. The irony is that his photogenic face is far more compelling than his rippling muscles. He is magnetic, but he is driven by yearnings first felt in his Austrian childhood. He knew then he wanted to go to America and be famous, to fulfill a special destiny, just like Jesus, as he puts it.
Is it any good?
This documentary is no deep analysis of the bodybuilding world, and it doesn't dwell much on nuance or subtlety, but it's a portrait of a star in the making. Schwarzenegger does a lot of the talking, and his depth and magnetism create all the movie's brightest spots. Butler and co-director Robert Fiore encourage Schwarzenegger to outline his practiced gamesmanship, and Arnold proudly describes undermining naive opponents with warmly administered bad advice. It's clear that he would later bring such insights and experience to his successful acting and political careers (from The Terminator of 1984 to California's governorship from 2003 to 2010).
On the whole, the movie tells the story of the way the greatest champions endure self-inflicted pain and practice steadfast determination, but the negatives of this sport are omitted. Steroid use is not mentioned at all. And these guys spend a lot of time looking in mirrors, working on self-sculpting, a quarter inch at a time. It could be argued that the extremes to which bodybuilding take the human form line up with the kind of disfigurement brought on by excesses of cosmetic surgery commonly seen on television and movie personalities. While the movie serves as an unwitting advertisement for a culture of male self-obsession, narcissism, and physical perfectionism, it also begs comment from some young boy with an Emperor's New Clothes outlook. Symmetry may be objective, but beauty is not. There is something a bit silly-looking about top-heavy towers of protein, whose arms can't hang straight because their muscles are so big.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the way in which perseverance in any field can build character and nurture qualities that could also be used to foster success in other areas of life. Schwarzenegger started as a bodybuilder, as Pumping Iron shows. Do you think the diligence and drive he developed through that endeavor may also have given him the tools to succeed in the movie business and California politics?
It's commonly believed that bodybuilders use steroids to help achieve their unique look. Do you think that the use of drugs in any sport amounts to an unfair advantage? Why?
Bodybuilders describe experiencing pleasure in the pain of working out. What pleasure do you think fans of the sport get from watching competitions?
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