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With: Peter Berlin, Armistead Maupin, John Waters, Wakefield Poole, Rick Castro, Dan Nicoletta, Jack Wrangler, Robert Boulanger, Guy Clark, John F. Karr, Robert W. Richards
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Jim Tushinksi
MPAA Rating: Unrated (but contains some adult images)
Running Time: 80
Date: 02/14/2005

That Man: Peter Berlin (2006)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The 'Berlin' Affair

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Many recent celebrities have achieved fame simply by appearing on television, whether they're competing on a reality show, pretending to be a singer or simply doing nothing at all (Paris Hilton).

At the same time, real performers -- the ones with talent -- have their every move scrutinized by endless chat shows and so-called "news" programs.

Though it's difficult to see now, building a cult of celebrity can still sometimes be an art in itself. That's where Peter Berlin comes in, a canny cult figure who created his image by using many tried and true methods, as well as inventing a few new ones.

A fascinating new documentary about him, That Man: Peter Berlin, opens today at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.

Born Armin von Hoyningen-Huene in Germany, Mr. Berlin is most closely associated with San Francisco, his current home. During the 1970s and 1980s, he created a series of photographs -- as well as a couple of porn movies -- depicting himself as a new kind of pinup.

Showing off his stunningly chiseled physique and sporting a blonde "Dutch boy" haircut that seemed out of its time, Berlin became something of a cartoon mascot for the gay lifestyle, though his slightly androgynous looks make him appealing to nearly any eye, regardless of sex or orientation.

He would gaze blankly at the camera, lips slightly parted, suggesting sexual ecstasy or perhaps simply mild interest. He sometimes appeared nude, but mainly his pictures teased at near-nudity, much like the early Betty Grable pinups of WWII. It was this unreadable expression, this near-gesture, that made Berlin so captivating and so alluring.

One interviewee in That Man says that Berlin's photos gave him the idea that all gay culture would be like this; what a letdown to discover that it was more like real life.

In That Man, filmmaker Jim Tushinksi sits down with the real Berlin, now in his 60s but looking much the same. He apparently still goes out walking on the streets of San Francisco, just like he did in his heyday, dressed in tight jeans and with his white bangs covering his eyes. He still turns heads.

Like Woody Allen or Greta Garbo, we learn that Berlin was happy to let the images do the talking for him. He was photographed by Andy Warhol and drawn by Tom of Finland. But in real life, he disliked company and was bored by business arrangements and having to hustle his pictures to make a living.

Human contact was not important to him; ironically, many of his double-exposed photos showed two Peter Berlins side-by-side, as if Peter Berlin were the only man Peter Berlin could love. Even in a clip from his porn films he tells a potential sex partner that he'd rather be alone.

In an interview, Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City) tells a story about meeting Mr. Berlin at a party. Not long after, Maupin spotted Mr. Berlin posing near a tree by the beach. He said hello, but Mr. Berlin simply ignored him. Maupin likens the incident to speaking to the actor inside a Minnie Mouse costume at Disneyland.

In other interviews, writers, porn stars, cultural scholars offer their insights and opinions on Mr. Berlin, but each of these only serves to further his mysterious icon status. With his unique outlook on pop culture, filmmaker John Waters (Pink Flamingos, A Dirty Shame) chimes in and comes closest to dissecting the real Berlin.

Only when Tushinksi steers toward the topic of Mr. Berlin's lifelong mate, Rob, does the film begin to get personal.

All through the 1970s and 80s, Mr. Berlin generally steered clear of actual sex; he liked to tease and to titillate a great deal more, and he subsequently avoided the deadly HIV/AIDS virus that slowly emerged during that time. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for Mr. Berlin's late partner. In discussing him, Mr. Berlin puts on a nonchalant face, but it's clear enough how deeply the loss affected him.

The bar for personal documentaries about living subjects is still Terry Zwigoff's Crumb (1995), and though "That Man: Peter Berlin" doesn't quite get that high, it does pull off one seemingly impossible task. Taking a subject this self-obsessed, Tushinksi still manages to portray Mr. Berlin in a flattering light.

We come away liking him. Indeed, a great celebrity has the ability to do just that: to seemingly give you everything you want and yet give you nothing at all.

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