The life, mind, and loves of a suggestive gay icon
That Man: Peter Berlin
Directed by Jim Tushinski
Distributed by Gorilla Factory Productions.
Opens Jan. 13
“He was a full body genital.”
“His fascinating image drew me in.”
“He was an iconic gay sex figure.”
“He was a great exhibitionist.”
These are some of the marvelous quotes and observations expressed in filmmaker Jim Tushinski’s intriguing documentary “That Man: Peter Berlin,” about the artist/model/porn star/legend Peter Berlin, a Tom of Finland image made flesh.
Tushinski’s fabulous film about the porn star/recluse will entertain those who remember Peter Berlin, and educate those who do not. With his Dutch boy haircut, and skintight clothes that left nothing to the imagination, Berlin caused heads to turn, tongues to wag, and fantasies to ignite when he turned up in San Francisco in the early 1970s.
Using amazing archival images, excerpts from Berlin’s porn films—“Nights in Black Leather” and “That Boy”—as well as photos by and of Berlin, Tushinki reveals the very private, and very public, lives of this gay male icon.
What makes “That Man: Peter Berlin” so riveting is the way Peter Berlin discloses himself, talking candidly about how much sex he had—debunking the lies about the number of people he slept with—and asking viewers if they think he should have a face lift.
Sure, his fetishistic image—open mouth, open shirt, revealing a beautiful smooth torso, and eye-catching skintight pants that accentuated his anatomy—was a deliberately constructed representation of desire, but Berlin openly acknowledges his attention-getting image. Only when he claims that he “wants someone to turn him on” does his reason for exhibiting himself in such a way become poignant.
Berlin’s personal stories about strutting down the streets of San Francisco and his description of his two decades-long relationship with one of his lovers are quite insightful. So too are his memories of Sal Mineo, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, and others he met, posed for, and worked with over the course of his career. It does not go unnoticed that most of his anecdotes are about dead people who can’t refute what he says.
Yet it is the observations made by Armistead Maupin, Rick Castro, and the hilarious John Waters that truly make this portrait come to life. Their impressions of Berlin provide telling details that the subject himself does not admit. From Maupin’s awkward encounter with Berlin in a cruising spot to Castro’s explanation about why Berlin didn’t want a bigger career reinforce if not explain Berlin’s carefully manufactured mystique.
When members of the adult film industry reflect on Berlin making so few porn films compared to other stars of the day—e.g., Jack Wrangler, who is interviewed in the film, and Casey Donovan, who is not—it illustrates Berlin’s savvy. Wisely, Tushinski also contextualizes Berlin’s film work with the Warhol films of the era, to show that Berlin’s look and style were particularly unique for the time, and have yet to be bettered or even equaled since then.
“That Man: Peter Berlin” provides an incredibly well-rounded portrait of its subject. The various images of Berlin’s self-made art, beautifully compiled throughout the film by Tushinski, show the progression of his work, photographic process, and of course his beauty/image.
And viewers wondering, hoping, and anticipating a glimpse or more of the fully nude Berlin will not be disappointed, as there are several self-nudes on display. However, seeing Berlin full-frontal takes on a complex meaning, because of the way his style of dress creates the fantasy, and sparks the voyeur’s imagination, Perhaps Berlin is sexiest when Tushinski shows him pulling away a gauzy pantyhose-like garment, not quite making his penis visible, but still clearly illustrating its size.
And such images make “That Man: Peter Berlin” so exceptional. This film is a remarkable time capsule; it is never a dry history lesson. When Berlin explains his childhood in Germany, or describes how he became involved in the film industry, it is always interesting, and slightly enigmatic. Such is the strength of “That Man: Peter Berlin,” as Berlin himself would insist, it leaves the viewer wanting more.
Berlin and producer Lawrence Helman will be attending the 8 p.m. show on Friday, January 13 for a Q&A/discussion after the film.
The fetishistic image of Peter Berlin—open mouth, open shirt, revealing a beautiful smooth torso, and eye-catching skintight pants that accentuated his anatomy—was a deliberately constructed representation of desire.