Weber's archetypal models always have a certain look -- mussed hair and full lips atop chiseled, hairless torsos -- and none has it quite as much as Peter Johnson. Weber was on a (ahem) photo shoot when he spotted the Wisconsin teenager, then fifteen, pounding the mats at an Iowa wrestling camp. Johnson's beauty stood out like Lana Turner's must have at the legendary Schwab's drugstore in Hollywood, and Weber pursued him relentlessly. After a call to Johnson's parents (whose judgment is surely bizarre), Weber stole the teen to share him with the world, and in no time Johnson was modeling for Versace and other boy-toy design campaigns.
The book Weber created as a shrine to Johnson, The Chop Suey Club, soon depleted its print run and now fetches upward of $1,000 on various Web sites. Weber and Johnson's relationship flirts with classic definitions of artist and muse but more accurately borders on sexual fetishism. Their seemingly equal exploitation of each other is on display in Weber's film Chop Suey, which opens this weekend at Tivoli Cinemas. It is as fascinating as it is perverse as it is shallow -- the mix that has made Weber's work so iconic.
Weber's film is the joke about why dogs lick their balls; he made it because he can. What reason could otherwise exist for a movie that documents Weber's boyhood passions -- cult cabaret singer Frances Faye, movie bad guy Robert Mitchum and the high priestess of twentieth-century fashion, Diana Vreeland -- examined anew through Peter Johnson's eyes? "Oh, that's one of those drive-in theaters," Johnson says while Weber (who is never seen in the movie, perhaps because his 55-year-old presence around Johnson would be a tad creepy) flips through his photo collection for the blockhead teen. Weber totes Johnson around like a talisman as the filmmaker interviews Faye's coterie of former friends, lovers and hairstylists. The discussions ramble on and on to Johnson's blank stares, while archival footage from nightclub gigs and "The Ed Sullivan Show" explains whatever needs to be known.
Interspersed throughout -- in just the right salacious proportions -- are shots of Johnson frolicking in the nude, showering and lazing around in his underwear. Johnson's so masculine he's feminine; he's a yin-and-yang conundrum that's never so perplexing as when he's wearing (or swimming in) evening gowns. Weber's narration, though, is transparent and elusive; he's constantly commenting on Johnson's good heart and soul while the camera zeroes in on his abs and glutes.
Though the movie's a mess, it's extremely watchable (obviously) for its "chop suey" blend of rare home-movie clips of, for example, Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds on vacation, Mitchum recording a song with Dr. John or the choice scenes of Vreeland in her Park Avenue roost affirming the "marvelous, wonderful" sight of boys skateboarding in Paris. And the film includes enough chats about Weber's predecessors and contemporaries to make it an academic necessity (really). Johnson's frequently nude pouts and giggles elevate the movie to a genre invented by Weber: advertorial porn.