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Tribeca ’08: “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*”

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04282008_biggerstrongerfaster.jpgBy Matt Singer

[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]

On February 16, 2007, Sylvester Stallone was busted in Australia with 48 vials of the human growth hormone Jintropin. To some, this was a non-story; after all, Stallone was not “cheating” in the same way a professional athlete might be if he were caught with the same performance-enhancing drugs. Stallone is an actor, and he’s not competing against anyone. According to his lawyer, he was using Jintropin under medical supervision.

But Stallone is also the man who plays Rocky Balboa and John Rambo — in fact, he was training to play Rambo for the first time in 20 years when the seizure took place. In “Rocky IV,” murderous Russian boxer Ivan Drago is vilified for using steroids. On the other hand, Rocky trains the all-natural, old-fashioned way, with backbreaking labor. The message: Hard work and determination always triumphs over shortcuts. Hard to stomach when you know that the guy playing Rocky was probably getting some kind of liquid assistance with his training regiment of carrying enormous logs across great distances in the snow.

Christopher Bell’s clear-eyed, impassioned documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” puts this preposterous hypocrisy front and center. Narrated throughout by Bell himself, it begins with the director’s recollections of his youth, one spent idolizing hard-bodied ’80s muscle man icons such as Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan. Bell and his two brothers became so fixated on these Herculean figures that they put themselves on the training regimens these men publicly espoused. When they didn’t see the same results, they turned to steroids. Though it’s not fair to blame those men for the Bells’ actions — I watched all those movies and wrestling matches and only took steroids when I had mono — it’s not unfair to speculate that watching them is what first sparked his and many other young men’s interest in bodybuilding. Bell’s brothers still use performance enhancers, but they have a hard time admitting it to their loving parents (though, thanks to the siblings’ collective desire for fame and stardom, they’re incredibly comfortable discussing it with a movie camera).

Bell’s approach is both micro and macro, chronicling his own family’s steroid use and the strain it puts on the family’s ethos (one that jives with that clean living over cheating one that was discussed earlier), while putting their struggles into a larger cultural context through interviews with noted physicians who’ve studied the effects of steroids and athletes whose lives have been touched by their impact. Though Bell himself considers steroid use by athletes to be unsavory, he’s open-minded enough to discuss the drugs’ positive medical benefits (an HIV-positive man speaks of how they give him a standard of life) as well as question a father who blames them for the death of his son.

Above all, what Bell portrays better than anything else is the mountain of lies buried beneath the controversy surrounding performance enhancers. He gets a professional bodybuilder and model to admit that his chiseled build is a direct result of the steroids he takes, not the dietary supplements that he pimps in magazine ads; a photographer later shows Bell how the “before” and “after” pictures in a lot of these advertisements can easily be manipulated using digital airbrushes. While Ronald Reagan was declaring a war on drugs, he was also publicly saluting actors and their on screen creations that had more to do with injections than squat thrusts.

That American myth that Reagan used Stallone and Schwarzenegger to prop up in the 1980s is one built on the idea that everyone is given equal opportunity to succeed, and that those who work hardest are the ones that ultimately accomplish the most. Telling people with aspirations of a perfectly sculpted body that you’ve accomplished things through nothing more than grit when you’ve really been given a chemical boost isn’t just immoral; it is, as Bell points out, a competitive advantage. We like to imagine that our enemies — the Ivan Dragos of the world — are the ones sticking the needles into their butts. But consider this: Captain America, the flag-draped superhero, wasn’t born with incredible talents, and he didn’t earn his great strength through years of pumping iron. He was a scrawny weakling who was given a shot of “Super-Soldier Serum.” Yes, even our nation’s greatest comic book representation is a juicer. Coming to terms with that will ultimately be the true legacy of this so-called era. Bell’s fine film may well be remembered as one of the steps on the road that got us there.

[Photo: “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008]

For more on “Bigger, Faster, Stronger,” check out the official site here.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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