If recent events in California are any indication, not all documentaries work in the service of progressive political causes. The classic doc Pumping Iron, released in 1977, made a star out of ambitious muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger and ushered in the era of gym membership and personal training that remains with us today. Schwarzenegger acquired the rights to the film in 1990 and the film’s director, George Butler, believes it was crucial to his election as governor in last fall’s recall frenzy.
“The film was shown about 50 times on cable in California,” Butler says in a telephone interview from New York. Furthermore, Butler says, the film was released on DVD on Oct. 6, the day before the election. “It even outsold Terminator 3 for a couple of weeks,” he says.
(There’s some confusion about the dates. According to Amazon.com and other Internet authorities, the Pumping Iron DVD was officially released Nov. 11, more than a month after the election. However, a clerk at Vidiots, a Santa Monica video store, clearly and positively recalls that the DVD was released on Election Day, that is, Oct. 7: “It came out on Election Day. That’s absolutely true.”)
The film includes scenes of the Austrian muscleman indulging himself in ways that most aspiring politicians would pay good money to suppress, including one of him smoking a big fattie. Probably more alarming to sensible people is a scene in which he talks about his own ambitions. “I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators, people like Jesus, being remembered for thousands of years,” he says.
“He can’t change the film without my written permission–and he’ll never get that,” Butler says.
Butler first encountered the future governator in 1972 at the Mr. America contest being held at, of all places, the ultra-hip cultural venue Brooklyn Academy of Music. “Even by that time, he’d been hanging around Hollywood for five years, waiting to be discovered,” Butler says in a second interview conducted by cell phone as he drove up to his New Hampshire home. Four years later, the director’s association with Schwarzenegger resumed in February 1976 at another New York cultural redoubt. “I put him in the Whitney Museum as a living piece of sculpture,” Butler says.
Butler, who will be in Durham to participate in a Full Frame panel with Michael Moore, D.A. Pennebaker and others on political filmmaking April 3 at 4:30 p.m., is currently working on a documentary about John Kerry, a personal acquaintance since 1964. The film is based on Tour of Duty, Douglas Brinkley’s recently published account of the presidential candidate’s Vietnam years. Although Butler is making the film with Kerry’s full cooperation–he’s shot 40 hours so far–he says his film is not intended to be a political infomercial. (Coincidentally or not, the film is scheduled to be completed in time for a September release.)
Despite his apparent political leanings, Butler is coy about discussing his personal feelings about Pumping Iron‘s later life as a campaign commercial for Schwarzenegger, saying only that “Pumping Iron is my gift to the Republican Party.”
Butler, who has made several films about intrepid Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton in recent years, including the IMAX film and the Liam Neeson-narrated flick that appeared in traditional theaters, views the Schwarzenegger ascendancy with the satisfaction of a vindicated soothsayer. “Look,” he says, “I’m in print back then as saying that Arnold would be governor of California someday. It’s something we were all expecting.”