A homoerotic-biographical potpourri about a photographer's lifelong pursuit of beauty, Bruce Weber's "Chop Suey" begins supposedly as a portrait of Weber's current favorite model, Peter Johnson, a Wisconsin wrestler.
But then it all but drops its main subject and turns into something more rambling and freer in form: the documentary as grand, gossipy confessional. Weber ("Broken Noses," "Let's Get Lost") discovered Johnson at one of legendary Iowa college coach Dan Gable's wrestling convocations, and what he shares with all the other subjects of "Chop Suey" - actors Robert Mitchum and Jan-Michael Vincent, pianist-singer Frances Faye, Vogue magazine editor Diana Vreeland, explorer-author Sir Wilfred Thesiger, among others - is an ability to arouse an obsession in Weber.
The film is a catalog of his obsessions - for male beauty, lesbian showstoppers, adventurers and athletes. All in all, it's somewhat reminiscent of a long, glittering, half-drunken conversation with the talker wandering all over the map, jumping from one topic to another, discreetly covering up some of the dirt while perhaps only half-consciously telling you the story of his life.
It's a fascinating life and an interesting movie, but it's also a little evasive.
Weber is a gay photographer who specializes in straight male subjects of unusual physical prowess, talent or attractiveness: Johnson, the wrestlers of "Broken Noses," self-destructive matinee idol jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in "Let's Get Lost." He falls in love with his subjects, then possesses them - with his camera.
"Chop Suey" is about unattainable love or sex - and the art that can result from that unslaked passion. Even though he dresses Johnson in drag and shoots him in the nude, it hardly crosses your mind that they were lovers, any more than you could imagine Webster with the late lazy-eyed hipster king actor Mitchum (subject of Weber's next movie). Instead, Weber makes love with his camera, generating art instead of sex. For that we can be grateful: Weber is a brilliant crafter of windblown, romantic, angled images. But he's also an offbeat chronicler of the whole phenomena of celebrity, gay or straight. Once he introduces Johnson - as well as the Chop Suey club of photographers who give the movie its name - he suddenly veers off into other loves. And I was happy he did. Unless you're as taken as Weber with Johnson's physique and dark good looks - or the intrigue of his double life as small-town Badger State boy and New York fashion world celebrity - he's a pretty boring subject.
Weber's other obsessions here are not. Chief among them: cult entertainer Frances Faye (nee Frances Cohen of Brooklyn), who was Danny Kaye's first cousin and whose electrifying song recitals - punctuated by unabashed cries of "I'm Frances Faye! Gay, gay, gay!" - earned her celebrity audiences and admirers in Las Vegas, New York and London. (Once a co-star of Martha Raye and admirer/colleague Bing Crosby, Faye had a late-career actor's showcase in Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby" as the bordello Madame.)
Getting introduced in this movie to Faye - whom Weber discovered through her album "Caught in the Act" - is worth the ticket price. Other fascinating snapshots catch a number of fellow photographers, many of whom Weber casually calls "my friend": from Edward Weston and Thesiger to Richard Avedon, David Bailey and Dianne Arbus. A gentle film, not very controversial despite its gay content, "Chop Sue" is valuable as a record of beauty and obsession, much less interesting as a human document. In the end, Weber reveals more than enough of some of his subjects (especially Johnson), not enough of himself.
2-1/2 stars "Chop Suey" Directed, co-written and narrated by Bruce Weber; photographed by Lance Accord, Douglas Cooper, Jim Fealy; edited by Angelo Corrao, Elizabeth Heeden; art direction by Dimitri Levas; music by John Leftwich; executive producer Nan Bush. With Peter Johnson, Frances Faye, Robert Mitchum, Sir Wilfred Thesiger. A Just Blue Films release; opens Friday at Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:38. No MPAA rating (adult: nudity, language).
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.