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Steve Sterling: Recreational Vehicle

A review of "Steve Sterling #20", available for $60 from CAL Video.

In 1964, Andy Warhol took a break from mass producing Campbell's soup cans and Brillo boxes to produce some of the most challenging film work of the decade's avant garde.  Perhaps the best known, though now lost, example is the 480-minute epic Empire.  Warhol placed his camera on a tripod and, from a stationary position, shot reel after reel of the Empire State Building.  No editing, no sound -- just the building seen from one vantage point throughout an entire day.  Critics either loved or hated the piece, like most of Warhol's work.  Here was a film that challenged us to look at an everyday object, a cultural icon, in a whole new way.  A remarkable piece of pop-art every bit as thought-provoking as Warhol's earlier films, paintings, and sculptures.

Continuing in this tradition, an unnamed director has produced the most avant-garde and challenging work of soft-core porn seen by this reviewer -- a videotape that has much to say about our constructs of masculine and feminine, the politics of the bourgeois, and the state of America at the end of the 20th century. Steve Sterling #20 consists of the bodybuilder named in the title.  He is videotaped with the camera placed on a tripod in a stationary position.  No editing.  No dialogue.  Clad only in baggy blue shorts, Sterling flexes and poses for the camera.  For two full hours.

Yes, this reviewer actually sat through this entire work (with a little fast-fowarding here and there) and was amazed at the artistry and insight that went into such a simple idea.  We see the sexual object stripped of all pretense.  There is no dialogue, except for Sterling's occasional exhales after he pumps one of the handy barbells placed within reach.  The icon of the bodybuilder, through the unflinching eye of the video camera, becomes a lightning-rod for the fears, desires, and obsessions of late 90's popular culture.

Like big RV's that dot our highways, big professional wrestlers, and the perky bouncing big-breasted women of "Baywatch", Sterling is a stand-in for the societal obsession with bigness.  The use of the bodybuilder Sterling is an obvious homage to Warhol's Empire - both are representative of cultural icons and, in their own way, penis objects. As the Empire State Building was an erection for the 30's, and, by extension, Warhol's "go-go" decade of the sixties, Sterling is an erection for hyped (pumped?) up caffenated 90's -- a brick and mortar structure of flesh and bone that is not an external manifestation of our collected dreams, hopes, and desires as much as a post-modern statement of being and self.

Camille Paglia, in one of her recent columns for Salon magazine, derided the culture of the pumped-up bodybuilder, with all of it's unnaturally shaved male bodies and peacock-like posing.  Paglia prefers European athletes such as soccer players, in part, because of their more "natural" grace and hairy legs.  In one two-hour performance, Sterling not only shows the grace and athleticism that she so admires, but briefly displays hairy legs for Paglia's inspection when the camera briefly tilts down.

But this is only the beginning.  The video becomes an overwhelming statement about our perception of masculinity -- Sterling is at once both powerful and muscular, sporting a small mustache and bulging biceps, but reveals a feminine side with his shaved chest, the bouncing pecs almost mammory-like in structure.  As feminism has moved away from bra-burning and sexual empowerment to issues of workplace promotion and corporate power, Sterling demonstrates that one can be feminine, powerful, and sexy all at the same time.  There's no brassiere and power suit to hold in those bouncing pecs.

As a Gay porn icon, Sterling the bodybuilder represents the antithesis of the late 20th century Gay male, striving for acceptance and trying to be "just like everyone else".  Michelangelo Signorile, in his popular book Life Outside, pumps up stories of decadent circuit parties and steroid abuse among Gay men that are destroying the Gay community and urges us to quickly send a check to one of several political organizations (which Signorile happens to be connected with).  Signorile would be shocked by this display.  Sterling is no suburban Gay yuppie, squandering away time at the golf course, joining a Gay bowling league, attending MCC or partaking other polite pursuits that Signorile advocates.  As the video shows, he spends his time at the gym, shaping the ultimate post-modern statement of self.  He has ripped to shreds the uniform of corporate culture and designer clothes and tossed it aside, revealing all there is to see.  (Except, of course, what lies in wait beneath the baggy blue shorts.)  Signorile would definitely need some Prozac after viewing the devastating statement contained in this piece of art.

Here, Sterling and the unknown director, conspire to issue a direct challenge to Paglia, Signorile, and all the other nay-sayers in contemporary feminist and Queer thought.  The camera itself, trained in one position with no editing for two hours, is almost a metaphor for being, as it were, "unmoved".  With Sterling filling the frame with his own large frame, there is no room for the cowering, touchy-feely, victimhood of Queer theorists and journalistsAs much as Signorile paints a picture of tragic Gay life, Sterling projects an image of self-awareness and confidence.  He sings the body electric and it is a celebration.  Paglia and Signorile may try to hurl insults at this icon, but they will simply slide off the unmoving glass video screen.

As audience, we might initially dismiss this performance as mere narcissism.  But, a careful reading of Sterling's facial expressions and his careful body language reveals the direction and acting ability that went into this work of porn/art.  His arms, at some points in the video, take on the symbolism of the penis -- erect, grossly veined and "pumped up".  Sterling uses his arms (penis) only for display and, at times, he almost gives the impression that he is unsure what to do with them.  At first, this may appear to be a direct comment by the director on how we, as a society, are being rendered impotent (being devoured?) by our own bigness (as Paglia and Signorile might hope).  However, after two hours, one sees that Sterling and the director are using the flaccid penis to far different ends.  Sterling is a flower resistant to the prevailing winds, using the hot air of post-modern theory to spread the seeds of questioning and discontent against itself.  Sterling is an animated devouring deity statue -- a multi-limbed goddess Kali with a hard-on.

With his youthful appearance, Sterling exhibits almost a sense of wonder, taking on the appearance of a child trapped in an adult body.  The baggy blue shorts add to this effect -- the blue hue of the shorts reminiscent of certain types of baby clothes.  But, it doesn't take a village for this child -- Sterling stands alone in this self-contained video world.  We witness a kind of metamorphic birth in Sterling's singular performance, the baggy blue shorts providing the placenta for the child of post-modernism, the youthful offspring of Queer theory that will, ultimately, challenge the status-quo of prevailing perceptions and political correctness.

Sterling shows a depth and range of emotion seldom seen in this reviewer's memory.  At times he is teasing or self absorbed, issuing a challenge, using only his face and body, for us to ignore him.  At other moments in the piece, Sterling takes on a air of deflation and vulnerability -- after one posing segment, he sits on a stool almost deflated and dejected, the sexual object that has been tossed aside.  Is the bigness of our society headed for deflation, like a runaway big bull stock market that must come crashing down?  We stare for two hours, fascinated with the fact that Sterling looks larger and more bulky in the first section of the tape than he does at the end -- a bodybuilder's trick?  The result of some injection done before the camera started rolling?  A ploy by Sterling the actor to emphasize his vulnerability as the object?  An erection fading as our attention wanes?

The intensity of a camera trained in one position -- uncut (no pun intended) for a full two hours -- also brings other revelations.  We notice the plain off-white wall and hardwood floor -- is this a commentary on the socio-economic status of Sterling's character?  We see a mole on Sterling's back -- is it real or an inspired application of stage makeup to highlight the object's imperfection (and, ultimately, our own)?  We are never sure, adding to the mystery surrounding this character and the layers of meaning left to explore in further viewing.  We see an unused electrical outlet just to the right of Sterling -- the tension mounts throughout the two full hours as we wonder if he will plug in some device or accidentally brush it with his body, producing a torrent of electrical sparks, smoke, and flames that will end the video.

Instead, the tape just stops in mid-pose, a note of incompleteness that leaves the viewer lingering over the images just seen.  The ending, in one sense, stands as a commentary on the anticlimactic state of post-modern culture -- we can simply rewind the tape and begin again.  But, there is a deeper meaning here; the director choosing this particular method of concluding the piece hints at the ejaculation yet to occur --  art breaking from it's constraints into the realm of the transcendent, pop art that is not merely a duplication
of popular cultural images to reconsider the everyday, but art that is devastating socio-political challenge to the  world of contemporary art and Queer theory.

Make no mistake about it, the unknown director of Steve Sterling #20, is a master of the cinema that cannot be ignored.  Sterling himself turns in a tour-de-force performance in a piece that is an unflinching mirror for life in the nineties.  Book it for your next art house showing!  Make it a part of your next museum exhibit on the decadence of Western culture!  Place a video monitor on a pedestal running this two hour classic in an endless loop!  Write a grant to the NEA before someone else does!  You'll be glad you did.

Randy A. Riddle

The author received a copy of this video from a friend who, as should be obvious, shall remain nameless.  Riddle is a documentary filmmaker in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who decided he was in the wrong business after seeing the price of this video...

Update -- September, 1999

I received some comments about my review and reproduce my reply to the sender interspersed with their comments:

Subject: Re: Steve Sterling: Recreational Vehicle
Date:     Thu, 02 Sep 1999 21:52:44 -0400
From:     "Randy A. Riddle" <rand@coolcatdaddy.com>
Organization:  Cool Cat Daddy Productions
To:   User Comments <xxxxxxxx@netscape.net>

Hello --

I appreciate your comments very much.  Yes, the Net has alot of folks putting in their two cents, but insightful comments like yours are what make it a good place to be.

I do have some notes about your comments, interspersed in the original message:

User Comments wrote:

>I'm writing to you in response to your online essay regarding Steve Sterling
>#20. I must say, I enjoy your style of writing. I find your mention of Salon
>Magazine interesting because your wording seems to mirror some of the
>magazine's better writers.

Well, yes, I resemble that remark.  I got the idea for the piece after reading one of Camille Paglia's columns at Salon where she compared Gay male Bears to fuzzy earth mother goddess incarnations.  I couldn't quite figure that one out -- my theory has always been that it has something to do with a Gabby Hayes fixation.  Or reruns of "Grizzly Adams".  (I might mention that you should check out a fascinating, but obscure, little film from the early 1970's called "Pink Angels" that's about a group of Gay outlaw bikers.  The film features Dan Haggerty in his pre-Grizzly Adams days playing a straight biker that gets it on with a nice African-American biker chick.  I've often thought that the first editor of "Bear" may have seen this film several years ago and, somehow, the experience of seeing this sex scene with Dan Haggarty combined with the outlaw bikers in drag transformed into the Bear movement among Gay men as we know it today.  But, I digress ....)

>I don't think someone watching this tape would view The Amazing Shinking
>Bodybuilder with such adoration and amazement. In any case, the answer is
>quite simple.

Actually, I considered that theory when viewing the Steve Sterling tape.  Yes, the build-up of fluid in bodybuilders creates the "pump" that we all know so well. However, in Sterling's case, the change is quite dramatic.  He starts out the piece resembling a steer ready for the slaughterhouse and ends it looking somewhatlike a concentration camp victim with a nice tan and perfect hair.  I may exaggerate a bit, but it is a big change -- I have heard that some bodybuilders use some
types of drugs or what have you for an exaggerated pump.  However, in Sterling's case, the exaggerated "before and after" is really a result of his body language and poses.  Bodybuilders use certain types of poses to highlight largeness in one body part or another and Sterling's posing just breaks down by the end of the two hours.  He literally just slumps down on a chair, making himself look even smaller, deflated visually and emotionally.

Most people wouldn't sit through the tape to view the Amazing Shrinking Bodybuilder, yes.  That's why I feel it would work well in a gallery or museum setting.  A viewer might chance upon the tape near the beginning and catch a glimpse of the pumped-up Steve, then go on to other things in the gallery.  They finally see the deflated Sterling by the time they left the exhibit -- a devastating commentary on contemporary art that is so subtle that it would probably affect the viewer only on a unconscious level.
>Concerning the review itself, I have to believe you give it far more credit
>than it deserves. In fact, if you had paid the $60 price tag listed at the top
>of the page, I would have to wonder if your adoration would have transmuted
>into dismay.

Well, I think most classics of the art circuit are much like that -- unappreciated soon after their creation.  It takes some time, particularly for works whose creators are relatively unknown, for the subtle nuances of the piece to work its way into the collective consciousness.  Afterall, art is about communication and sometimes society just isn't quite ready for the message.

But what is $60 when one has the chance to view a work that communicates so much?
>It would take a true Sterling fanatic to find sixty dollars worth of value in
>two hour film, shot with a single camera, and completely unedited. And their
>delight would be more focused on Steve himself, not a focus on an electrical
>outlet that "we wonder if he will plug in some device or accidentally brush it
>with his body, producing a torrent of electrical sparks, smoke, and flames
>that will end the video".

>As adorable as Steve is, I might be tempted to pay $60 for that. But I could
>hardly conceive of even thinking such a thing when I see an outlet in the
>background. I think you read too much into it there.

Actually, in reconsidering the piece after writing the essay, I feel much stronger about the presence of the outlet in the two hour tape.  In a work as sparse as this one, every prop, every movement, color, and shading becomes important.  Perhaps I was a little too rash in my remarks concerning the "torrent of electrical sparks".

No, on further examination, I think the electrical outlet has much to say about our relationship to technology.  Here stands Sterling on a hardwood floor with a chair, a pair of baggy pants, a and a couple of dumbbells -- the barest essentials of props that are not unlike what one might see in the classic physique photography of the 19th century of strongmen such as Eugene Sandow.  But, Sterling is coming to us through mechanical devices -- obstensibly a camcorder then our VCR and television set -- that are are very much a part of our everyday lives here in the 20th century.

The outlet seems to strengthen this connection, pointing up the obvious non-mechanical and non-electrical nature of what Sterling needs as a man, but, at the same time, grounding us in the present by showing us a familiar part of living in the digital age.  Think of the irony -- Sterling seemingly doesn't need the electrical outlet to build his body or pose and never acknowledges the existence of the outlet in the piece.  But he does need that technology to communicate with us, the viewer.  The electrial outlet, representing the camcorder and television set -- the route necessary for us to view Sterling -- is a kind of "circuit".  A sly pun on the "Circuit Party" culture, perhaps?   (Or am I just going out on a wire here?)  The symbols and deeper meanings can certainly spark further investigation.
>To be honest, and don't take this personally, I have trouble believing your
>description of the video. Even the most unthrilling details (a plain wall, the
>abrupt ending, an exhale, and an electrical outlet) are described in the most
>thrilling and thought-provoking terms. You've done a very good job of
>explaining what Steve and the Director (if the director was not Steve himself)
>was trying to portray, but I can't help but to believe that the video did not
>sell these points as well as you have.

Steve himself is certainly not the director, since you can hear someone prompting him a couple of times in the background and the camera does move slightly, with a pan left or right or slightly up and down to keep Sterling in the frame.  This adds to my conviction that everything we see in the piece was very deliberately planned and controlled by an unseen hand.

For comparison, take another look at a piece such as Andy Warhol's "Trash".  In that film, a dirty wall, an old couch, a ratty-looking carpet, and a nude body speak volumes about the depths of humanity, the drug culture, and welfare.  I wouldn't be surprised if Sterling appeared in a sequel to "#20", perhaps posing and pumping with his barbells in a baby crib or birdcage as an homage to the early work of John Waters ("Pink Flamingos", "Desperate Living").  Now that would
bring an even deeper meaning to those blue baggy shorts we see Sterling wear in "#20".
>About Steve himself, he is absolutely incredible looking. (I'm sure you came
>to a similar conclusion.) But what I found interesting were your points
>concerning the deflation (actually, the personalization) of Steve himself.
>While the video seems to adorize Steve, you seem to describe it as something
>that humanizes him at the same time. Ironic, and something I find thought

But, this is nothing new, as I should have pointed out in the essay.  I seem to detect a certain connection to Fellini's "8 1/2".  In that case, the director used an actor as a stand-in for himself, examing his life as a film director.  With Fellini and directors like Woody Allen or Bergman, the mere action of putting onesself on the screen in a piece that is autobiographical or satirical is, in itself, an act of self adoration, not unlike Sterling posing in front of a mirror or flexing a bicep at the camera.  But, like Fellini or Allen, as we strip away the layers of pretense, we are left with something very human.  That is indeed the case with "Steve Sterling #20".