'Daddy' pays tribute to anonymous pioneer of gay art

January 13, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

A friend writes, "Tom of Finland influenced my life probably more than I'd really like to admit. Ludicrous as he was, his drawings became icons for those of us struggling with our feelings, and finding no mentors, counsel or guidance in our families or society."

That's the poignant chord sounded in "Daddy and the Muscle Academy," which opens today at the Charles. It's an examination of the life, work and imagination of the gay artist whose stylized drawings in the '50s and '60s for an obscure magazine called Physique Pictorial were a kind of call in the night for isolated gay American youth in a culture that officially detested homosexuality.

Tom's works, which the movie reproduces in abundance, are unforgettable, whatever your orientation, because they are so ablaze with sexual urgency. To see them is to feel the heat and to be led to the liberating insight that heat is good: Tom was a sort of Vargas of the homosexual libido, whose men and boys were idealized, muscular male gods, bulging and glistening with want.

At the same time, it's clear his imagination was engaged not only by sexual but also by political forms of power, and the subjects are almost always in uniforms of authoritarian organizations -- sailors, motorcycle guys, cops, occasionally even Nazis. The pictures aren't about sex as freedom but sex as power, though one of the film's key weaknesses is that it refuses to deal with this reality, preferring instead to sentimentalize the old guy. (He died last year at 71.)

Yes, they're ludicrous, but what's so remarkable about them is how bald and unashamed they were. In a culture in which homosexuality, if it was represented at all, was represented as lisping, effete intellectuality, Tom of Finland's drawings were unabashedly queer and macho at once.

Tom of Finland turns out to have been a Finnish advertising artist -- name never given -- who had fought for five years in the brutal and now-forgotten Russo-Finnish War, a war in which the Nazis were the good guys (they helped the Finns against the Russians), which may explain his otherwise inexplicable weakness for the twisted cross. He drew initially as a private pastime, trying to capture his own fantasies, and developed his fetishes (for leather and what is euphemistically called "discipline") relatively untouched by the outside world.

He began sending the drawings to Physique Pictorial, which was at the time America's only gay publication, though like the nudist magazines on the other side of the sexual spectrum, it camouflaged itself behind a concern with "health."

The movie is built around a lengthy interview with Tom mostly on technical matters, which is not very interesting; then it cuts away to American keepers of the flame, worshipers in the cult of Tom, which is sometimes interesting.

Anonymous voices on the soundtrack insist, "I'm a Tom man," and now and then someone will appear to bear witness to the power of Tom's iconography as a life-changing event. The film's most controversial gambit is to reproduce a kind of impressionist collage that stands for Tom's imagination: a nether world of leather boys and outlaw gay sex in bars and under highways and in alleys some may find excruciating to sit through.

One point the movie makes quite proficiently: Tom, almost single-handedly, was responsible for --ing the theory of homosexuality as a "third sex," neither male nor female but an unusually repulsive combination of both. Tom's men were men, not hermaphrodites. Moreover, the look he invented has more or less entered the mainstream. Those bomber jackets and cowboy boots so casually showing up on middle-aged businessmen (and film critics) in suburban shopping malls in the '90s had their origin, years and years ago, in the fervid imagination of Tom of Finland. Amazing but true.

MOVIE REVIEW

'Daddy and the Muscle Academy'

Documentary

Directed by Ilppo Pohjola

Released by Zeitgeist

Unrated

***

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