Chop Suey

As suggested by its title, Chop Suey is an exotic mixture of many things. Something of a documentary, something of an autobiography, something of an essay about the relationship between photographer and model, famed shutterbug Bruce Weber's third feature (his previous work was Let's Get Lost, the moody documentary about late jazz trumpeter Chet Baker) is a wonderful mess.

The two main threads throughout the film involve Wisconsin hunk Peter Johnson, who becomes Weber's muse for several years and provides him with many successful photo layouts (most of them featuring Johnson nude or nearly nude), and Frances Faye, a once-popular but mostly-forgotten jazz singer who was considered the "entertainer's entertainer", a frequent guest on the Ed Sullivan Show and a relatively (for her time) open lesbian.

Chop Suey isn't exactly a "gay film", though some hetero guys may be uncomfortable at the frequent shots of Johnson's unclothed, muscle-bound body. It's also a surprisingly personal display of Weber's own obsessions and eccentricities, cutting back often to his prize collection of famous photographers' work, then to interviews with a Brazilian jujitsu fighter and his family, and even to a scene of Robert Mitchum recording a bluesy tune shortly before his death.

Weber's occasional narration sheds some light on the film's main theme, about artists and their muses (the clips of the late Frances Faye - who was a fantastic singer - are shown in the context of the memories of her younger lesbian lover), and the often unbridgeable gap of longing that a photographer has for all his models. (Johnson is straight, married, and happy about it - Weber can only worship him with his camera lens.)

As a filmmaker, I was moved to see somebody acknowledge this connection, for I have found myself somehow similarly obsessed with the performers in my own films. This is because I have to stare at every detail of their faces, their movements, and their expressions for enormous amounts of time as I film them, edit them, and market them. I don't think it's weird. In fact, I think it's inevitable. I can easily recommend Chop Suey to anyone who works behind a camera or a canvas. However, those outside the art world may find the film little more than beautifully-photographed and self-indulgent.