PRINT December 1986


form follows lack of function.

LONG BEFORE SYLVESTER STALLONE, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chuck Norris, the movies had their muscle men. We remember some of them, like Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan; others are more obscure, including the various Hercules who came to cinematic life in Rome’s Cinecittà studios in the ’50s and ’60s, pursuing their sweaty chore of cleaning the Augean stables, which were set in the Italian version of the antique landscape. All these old movies, however, are somewhat more reticent than their contemporary manifestations. Bare chests are reserved for “half savages” such as Tarzan, and for the industry’s racist depictions of “total savages” such as the Indians of the westerns, who fight hopeless battles against well-dressed puritanical settlers, and end in a pile of naked bodies on the Calvary of history. Even when drops of water bead Weissmuller’s shoulders, or when the brawny chest of Jeff Chandler, as Cochise, drips with sweat, the resulting iridescent glimmers of reflected light are only briefly suggested physical signals, chaste infractions of unspoken taboos in a universe of covered bodies.

In the early years of cinema, the nude body could only be tolerated when it was seen as exotic. Hedy La-mares brief nude scene in Ecstasy (1933) caused a scandal, while F.W. Mumau’s bare-breasted South Sea Islanders passed the censors without so much as a raised eyebrow. This double standard was an extension of the ancient Greek practice of defining as “barbarian” everyone who didn’t speak Greek; here, those outside the pale of Western culture are the symbol of the animal in human beings, and the nudity taboo applies to them as little as to apes and crocodiles.

In the ’40s and ’50s, the illustrators of comic strips like Superman and Batman gave their superheroes clearly highlit muscles. Like them, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Norris are larger-than-life guys with larger-than-life survival records, but the flying men of the page were much more puritanical than their descendants—their repression of Eros sprang from an innocent philosophy of the American way of life, a philosophy in which the concept of the “good” had not yet been abandoned by the idealist spirits that once supported it. When Superman flexed his muscles, they remained encased in his trademarked body stocking. These comic strip heroes are ancient ancestors of the current muscle men, dinosaurs in their evolutionary history.

One of the few heroes of modern fiction to have become a movie myth is James Bond, agent 007. Although licensed to kill, this film hero from the early ’60s, not only still popular today but about to accumulate a third incarnation (both Sean Connery and his substitute Roger Moore have opted to be over the hill), is quite different from today’s muscle men. As one German critic, Claudius Seidl, has written, Bond raises “the cliché of the youthful, clean-shaven, democratic, erotomanic John .F Kennedy to the level of myth” Furthermore, he is a British gentleman, his manners as perfectly tailored to the different social settings in which he moves as his suits to his body. His tools are not his muscles—though he clearly has some, they are mostly concealed under his elegant attire—but his brains: his intelligence is an obvious part of his sex appeal. Generally, it is only when he shifts to erotic close combat that his naked body emerges from its customary coverings, as in a deodorant ad; and even then, in these films for all the family his bare chest is the signal for erotic acts that take place off screen.

Today’s male heroes have nothing to so with such mental and bodily niceties. The glistening, sweat-streaked, flexed muscles of the Rockies, Rambos, and Terminators are in and of themselves constant erotic content. But while these bodies are erotic objects for the viewer, their owners are not erotic subjects: their roles forbid them the kind of appetites that Bond enjoys. They are asexual. This is because they can’t be weak, even for a moment. Muscles that aren’t tense aren’t muscles, according to these films, and since sex inevitably ends in limpness, it is banned. In addition, the erect penis remains taboo in mainstream movies, so this is a substitution for it: we are given instead a fixation on blood-engorged male flesh, swollen by muscular contraction; a fetishization of segmented parts of the male body—pectorals, thighs, biceps; and, finally close-ups of the lubricating fluid of steamy sweat exuded by these “muscles” in action. The iconography of hard-core porn and this soft-core genre are a quid pro quo for each other, as well as for our taboos.

No doubt the phenomenon of these recent body-building films is in part a kind of flesh-and-blood protest against the supersession of the human figure by computers and electronics—Rambos storming of the American army’s central computer makes that point clear. But equally clearly, that’s not the main point: this warrior of the bow, arrow, and knife also makes ample use of machine guns and missiles. Anyone who sees the sullen heroes of the muscle films as the last great survivors of the action movie that made Hollywood great must also see porno films as the sole preservers of physical contact.

Wolfram Schütte is the film and literature editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper and writes a column regularly for Artforum.