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With: Peter Johnson, Francis Faye, Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent, Tara the Elephant
Written by: Bruce Weber, Maribeth Edmonds
Directed by: Bruce Weber
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 98
Date: 02/11/2001

Chop Suey (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Photo Finish

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even if you go in not knowing who Bruce Weber is, you get a pretty good idea of him at the end of the Chop Suey, even though he rarely -- if ever -- appears on camera during the film's running time. I'm not talking about biographical details like how old he is or any awards he's won; you just know who he is. Weber's best known film up till now is the Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary Let's Get Lost, about jazz legend Chet Baker. Weber didn't just make a standard talking head biography -- he turned the film into something personal, concentrating on his own fascination with Baker's pinup allure. Chop Suey, which opens today for a two-week run at the Castro, is even more personal.

It begins as the 50-something Weber breaks in a new model, the angelically gorgeous Peter Johnson. Weber presumably wants to earn Johnson's trust, so he takes him to meet a handful of his friends and associates -- basically jumping all over the place through Weber's past and present. While we're jumping around, we also learn about Weber's fascination with another jazz legend, Francis Faye. I'd never heard of Faye, but from the film's archival footage of her, I became convinced that she was hot stuff. She was a brazenly outlandish figure, wearing her hair short and comfortable in her preference for women. Weber takes Johnson (and us) to meet his friend Teri Shepherd, Faye's former manager and lover. Besides that, we see footage of Robert Mitchum recording blues with Dr. John, scenes from a 1970s Jan-Michael Vincent film featuring the actor fully nude, photos of British adventurer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, footage of a weirdo ex-junkie surfer dude and his even weirder family, and scenes of Johnson posing nude with an elephant.

The film has no logical order. I suppose that's where the title -- a metaphor for a mixed-up dish -- comes in. The point seems to be Weber convincing himself that he's had a very interesting life. His voice keeps appearing on the soundtrack, narrating stories from his life and quoting the famous people he's met, while we look at amazing photos from his personal collection. While this may sound awfully pretentious, the thrown-together scrapbook feel of the film (it's shot in black-and-white and color film, as well as video) makes it work. Spending time with Weber and hearing his stories makes you realize you might be listening to the secret of a happy life. Chop Suey makes you long to pick up a camera yourself.

In 2013, Docurama released a four-DVD set including Chop Suey and three other Weber films: Broken Noses (1987), Let's Get Lost (1988), and A Letter to True (2003).

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