Thursday, February 26, 2009

NFB Film of the Week: I Was a Ninety-pound Weakling

It can be tough selling people on physical fitness. It isn’t that we don’t know exercise is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle—we know, we know. The problem is that we know it’s a vital part of a healthy lifestyle, and yet still we don’t embrace it. How do you sell something that is free and good for people, but requires some form of effort, however simple? Imagine if the only currency accepted by grocery stores were push-ups done on the spot. My friend, half the human race would starve to death and the other half would be ripped and smug about it.

I Was a Ninety-pound Weakling approaches this problem of promoting fitness with admirable cheekiness. Directors Wolf Koening and Georges Dufaux use a mixture of interviews and staged footage to construct a likeable comic essay that hides its public-service message behind irreverence. This documentary is undoubtedly good for you, but its little touches of sardonic humour make it go down like a chocolate shake.

“Our civilization is being swamped by a tidal wave of unprecedented luxury and ease,” we are warned by the narrator, and the film explores a variety of fitness cultures combating this tidal wave, ranging from wrestling to bodybuilding to Yoga. The film is modestly informative, but it seems less like a hard documentary than a light essay on the topic of physical fitness, using that subject as an excuse for exercises in humour and style, like any good essayist would do. Often, the humour resides in the film’s wry juxtapositions. For instance, when a man running a gym declares that “life is a tough thing” and we must be physically fit to meet its demands, the film illustrates this statement by showing a man running across a street. Only the strong will survive (jaywalking)?

Of all of the interview subjects, the people involved with “passive exercise” are most open to ridicule. The camera lingers on the overweight butts strapped into the vibrating machines, the flab jiggling hypnotically, as a way of suggesting the questionable merit of this process (or else simply indulging a rather particular fetish). The man running the facility makes grandiose statements about the fall of the Roman empire, but when one of the employees tries to explain how the machines work, she continually stumbles over the laboured sales pitch. If our society is collapsing because of obesity, you think they could at least memorize the salient points of our salvation.

The film drives its point home with the purely illustrative scene that follows: a man at a driving range uses an automatic ball drop, which promptly breaks down and starts overrunning his tee with too many balls. As the narrator dryly notes, mechanical or physical means may not be enough to solve the fitness problem. From this point, the film moves in to the realm of Yoga, which opens up questions of spiritual fulfillment in the quest for health while allowing the filmmakers plenty of opportunity to gawk at the impressive flexibility of the instructor.

The overall tone of I Was a Ninety-pound Weakling, as I noted earlier, is comic and light. Even as they convey the urgency of physical fitness by declaring “every time a machine robs us of the work a muscle used to do, we get a minute fraction weaker,” they self-mockingly illustrate the point with ominous images of automatic doors opening. This sort of technique—footage that deflates the grand claims of the narrator or interview subjects—might make it seem as if the filmmakers were subverting their ostensible goal of promoting fitness, but in fact it’s just the opposite. With subtle humourous pokes at various fitness subcultures, the film aligns its sympathies with the out-of-shape audience member skeptical at the sight of middle-aged men flashing their taints at the camera as they sprawl on a wrestling mat, all while the coach raves excitedly about the concept of “pep” and declares the nation would be better if it had more wrestlers in it.

Who wouldn’t be a little wary of the most gonzo elements of any subculture? Sure, I want to be healthy too, but does that really require strapping myself to some sort of torture device called a “Miracle Machine”? Forget about slimming thighs—the miracle is that it’s even legal. So the film indulges our skepticism and allows us a mild sense of superiority—or at least until the end, when it turns around and starts laughing at us. In one of the film’s best transitions, we cut from a calisthenics class to a man in his home, lying prone on his couch as he watches that same class on his television. The following parade of indolent men watching television is meant to stand in for us, the sluggish audience members who have been amusing ourselves with the eccentricities of the healthy living types while we slump in our chairs, passively contributing to the downfall of our entire society by preferring to laugh at passive-exercise devices instead of doing Yoga. Who’s laughing now, you lazy jerk?

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