This film about the annual International Mr. Leather competition, held in Chicago around Memorial Day Weekend, follows the format of the competition documentary down the wire -- so much so, that at times, you may have to remind yourself you’re not seeing a mockumentary of same, a la "Best in Show" or "The Big Tease."
Don’t look for any real, serious analysis of why some people gravitate to leather, or even of why a few people consider it a "lifestyle" instead of a fantasy built around clothes (or, for that matter, just a fabric). Instead, the camera follows a chosen few contestants around as they go through their contest paces.
The most remarked-upon aspect of these leather competitions -- their sideshow-mirror reflection of female beauty pageants -- is so closely adhered to that, when the first runner-up was announced, I expected the emcee to start the "if the winner should not be able to fulfill his duties ..." spiel.
The fact that the executive producer of the film is also the man who owns and runs the competition, Chuck Renslow, may account for the lack of any dissenting voices. I would have liked to have heard from anyone -- gay activist, gay aesthete, tastemaker, academic -- who might given some ironic distance to the goings-on in a Downtown Chicago hotel. A savvier filmmaker might have juxtaposed images of the macho men strutting down the runway in Chicago with couturier Jean-Paul Gaultier’s gay leather-inspired Paris runway.
Personally, I found all the New Age talk about finding personal liberation a bit ironic, considering that the duds and accessories that facilitate such personal actualization comes from the suffering of animals and the nameless, faceless humans who work in the dangerous tanning industry. Ah well, such are the paradoxes of capitalism, I guess; still, there does seem to be a disconnect there.
If nothing else, it would have been interesting to have at least one talking head mention the well-known theory that the leather fetish was born of gay insecurity over the community’s masculinity and that gay men of the post-post Stonewall generation may be finding it passé.
We do get a few competitors who are outside the Tom of Finland mold: a straight man; another wheelchair-confined; and so on. This is refreshing, but the filmmaker doesn’t do anything with the apparent conflict between these strayers from the macho-clone norm and a former Mr. IML who states frankly that the show is a beauty contest with facial hair and muscles. I also was left with the uncomfortable feeling that such contestants may be thrown in the mix more for the p.c. aspect than real competition -- a feeling disproved in the final moments of the film, which were actually empowering. (No spoilers here.)
I admit that living in New York probably has upped my skepticism quotient. I remember porn entrepreneur Will Clark once telling me that the city’s fetish community has a reputation for not taking these contests seriously.
In late March, I’ll be on the dance floor at Roseland Ballroom with 5,000 other men (and assorted women) all decked out in the leather they keep in that "special drawer." I’d venture to guess that not 1 percent know or care who Mr. IML is. If you do, you’ll find this film riveting.
For the rest of you, it may prove as interesting as a bunch of bankers getting together to honor other bankers. Then again, the same thing can be said of the Academy Awards.
I should note that the flyer accompanying the DVD promised a featurette "Top 20 Jockstrap Competition," which wasn’t in my screener. My bad luck.
Not to beat a dead horse (oi, did I just say that?), but all of these concerned people might want to take a look at what really goes into all that glamorous, sexy leather they’re wearing, via Stella McCartney:
Distributed by Breaking Glass Pictures
DVD format, $25