Review: That Man: Peter Berlin

For Peter Berlin, art was the strangest thing: a studied pose of personal expression and sexual abstinence.

That Man: Peter Berlin
Photo: Gorilla Factory Productions

Gay men too young to have had sex in the ’70s are probably unfamiliar with Peter Berlin, but Gen X queers who remember scouring the pages of HX or Next for reduced admission to NYC clubs have felt his presence. A Tom of Finland cartoon come to life, Berlin was a German expat who settled in San Francisco and devoted his life to cultivating a singularly personal and artistic aesthetic predicated on self-adulation. Jim Tushinski’s bullet-pointed doc That Man: Peter Berlin weaves interviews with a still-spry 60-plus-year-old Berlin and other gay luminaries like Armistead Maupin and Wakefield Poole with footage of Berlin’s cock-of-the-walk years in ’70s-era San Francisco, when the man was taking photographs of himself and acting in classic porn like That Boy and the seminal Nights in Black Leather. One might peg the man for a sex fiend (many, in fact, did), but what’s revealing about Tushinski’s exposé is how mild-mannered this “Dutch boy” comes across (his timidity and reclusiveness draws several comparisons to Greta Garbo). Tushinski recognizes that it’s not easy to take Berlin seriously, at least not today, which is why John Waters’s interview footage is most revealing. The director mocks Berlin’s personal aesthetic and shameless self-promotion (he calls the man “Dinah Shore with a hard on”) but seems to seriously wonder how a cartoon like this came to life. This curiosity mirrors our own and seems to egg Tushinski on, and while the director never really taps into the root of Berlin’s narcissism, he does give us a glimpse of a real person beneath the artifice. In picture after picture—many double exposures—Berlin’s life-long desire to meet someone who could excite him in the same way he was able to titillate other men comes expressively to life. Unlike the blank slates Joe Dallesandro played for Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, or the sinfully sexy sailor Brad Davis essayed in Fassbinder’s Querelle, Berlin doesn’t necessarily come across as someone who wanted to be loved. But this reticence, at once sad and pathetic, came to explain why he outlived most of his friends; in short, he was too busy fucking himself to fuck anyone else. For him, art was the strangest thing: a studied pose of personal expression and sexual abstinence.

 Cast: Peter Berlin, Armistead Maupin, John Waters, Wakefield Poole, Rick Castro, Ray Chance, Dan Nicoletta, Jack Wrangler  Director: Jim Tushinski  Distributor: Gorilla Factory Productions  Running Time: 80 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2005  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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