Reviews Of Brother Born Again And Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects Of Being American
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/27/13
Being able to flip through genres and subjects on Netflix is an interesting experience because it allows one to slake the mood one is in at a given moment. So it was when, one recent afternoon, I happened upon two documentaries with a similar theme: the dysfunctions of the documentarian’s immediate family. The two films were Brother Born Again and Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects Of Being American, and the latter film was significantly better than the former.
In 2001, documentary filmmaker Julie Pimsleur released Brother Born Again which chronicled her and her family’s decade long estrangement from her older brother Marc, a few years after the untimely death of their academic father. The film runs for 76 minutes and has its moments, but ultimately it does not echo into that part of the viewer’s soul that makes the experience in any way universal. Pimsleur, at the time of the documentary, is a thirtyish bisexual liberal Jewish New Yorker, in the midst of a two year lesbian relation, and she and her mother (who lives in Paris) are trying to come to grip with Marc’s almost deranged conversion to become a Born Again Christian, and move to a cultic farming community in Alaska called, simply, The Farm, near the town of Hoonah. Now, if the thought of a lesbian Jew trying to woo her Born Again Christian brother back to sanity sounds like a Woody Allen plot I can only add, ‘if only.’
This is because Marc so clearly has many psychological issues he is dealing with. Throughout the film he is clearly sleepwalking through his life and void of any intellectual activity. Something has deeply scarred him, but the film gives no clue as to what that is. Again and again, on Pimsleur’s trip to Alaska, and Marc’s subsequent rip back to New York City (pre-9/11, as we see the Twin Towers standing), she tries to get him to think and he refuses. As the film comes to an end, though, there seems to be hope, as the last scene that plays out, over the end credits, is a telephone call from Marc, to Pimsleur, where he seems to be expressing doubts, and thinking of coming back to the Lower 48 and pursuing studies in college, again (he had been studying to be a doctor before he left for The Farm).
In a sense, the film might have been better to go on a bit longer, for it leaves us sort of in the lurch, and like most of the film, it seems more like a haphazard ending to a film that likely should have been saved for the family’s personal archives, aside from the fact that much of it reeks of amateurism. That Marc agreed to appear in it is, itself, evidence of his seeking to find reasons to leave his life. In looking online, several websites report that Marc did leave the cult, became a doctor, and one website even claims he came out of the closet and is now homosexually married to a rabbi. This may be a spoof, but the film almost implies as much, given Marc’s claims of a mental breakdown, speaking in tongues, and anti-intellectual claims about homosexuality and the Bible, which are in sync with the anti-Rapturalist cult leader’s, who proclaims, of Marc: ‘What needed to be broken was his intelligence.’
Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects Of Being American, by contrast to Pimsleur’s film, is well made, humorous, and definitely for a wider audience. This 105 minute long film basically debates the controversy over steroid usage, and throughout the film, director Chris Bell, the middle of three sons from a family of overweight people, takes an ambivalent approach. He believes that the science of steroids being bad and evil is overblown, and he presents a statistically solid case, but ethically, when it comes to sports, he feels it’s definitely cheating. I feel much the same way, although I have a much darker view of drug usage, steroids, mind-altering, nicotine or alcohol. I suspect, though, that Bell- who made the film in 2008, would now likely agree that he made a bit too light of the adverse effects of steroid use since, later that same year, his older brother, Mike “Mad Dog’ Bell- a washed up pro wrestler, simply up and died of a heart attack at age 38- fulfilling a diegetic prophecy of his father. His younger brother, Mark ‘Smelly’ Bell- also a wannabe pro wrestler and high school football coach, lies to his team about his steroid usage. To the filmmaker it seems cheaters always win (with the caveat of the post-film information mentioned above).
The film opens up with the 1980s imagery of wrestler Hulk Hogan, and actors Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as heroes, and weaves an intricate trail through the assorted scandals of Olympic and pro athletes (especially Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and the Carl Lewis vs. Ben Johnson track and field controversy, from 1988), illegal steroid and supplement makers, the Chris Benoit murder-suicide and ‘roid rage, users and abusers, and includes a great moment when Bell interviews his congressman, the clueless California Democrat Henry Waxman about some of his votes on steroid use (mainly in the infamous 2005 Congressional hearings with baseball superstars accused of doping) and the legislator shows he’s utterly clueless on most things. It also contrasts steroid use with other sorts of cheating prevalent in sports. It also tackles the hypocrisy prevalent on both sides of the issue, such as a doctor who is against steroid use but knows little of the statistc, and a father whose son committed suicide but seems utterly clueless as to the real reasons his son committed suicide having far more to do with conventional drug abuse, and psychological issues for which he was already seeking counseling for. Then there’s the issue of genetic engineering, where we see a hyper-muscled Belgian Blue bull cow, and Bell shows that few seem to have a clue as to what to do with this issue.
The best parts of the film come from the no-names, though, when Bell speaks with a 50 year old loser who sleeps in his van in the parking lot of the Venice Beach, California Gold’s Gym, made famous by Schwarzenegger and Hogan, and claims everyone will envy him for staying ripped; or the neighbor of Bell’s with ghastly large biceps, who starts promoting his own cocktail of body enhancers so others can become as freakish as he is, despite claiming he loathes his freakishness.
One of the best moments in either film comes toward the end of Brother Born Again, when Marc meets his aging Aunt Beatty, who declares, of his cultic beliefs, that Marc is ‘Comfortable, but not happy,’ and his face manifestly echoes that sentiment exactly. Almost the same can be said of some of the final scenes shown of Mike ‘Mad Dog’ Bell, in Bigger, Stronger, Faster. One man made it through his addiction and delusion while the other did not. Why this is so is debatable. What is not debatable is that Chris Bell’s film is significantly superior to Julie Pimsleur’s, because it opens itself up to the viewer rather than closing itself off. To this date, neither director has essayed another film, and that’s too bad because, despite the gap between their abilities and results, both seem to have a passion. Here’s hoping both will grow as Marc Pimsleur apparently has.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Open Salon website.]
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