That Man: Peter Berlin

Did we just have sex, or were you only walking by?
Jim Tushinski
Peter Berlin, Armistead Maupin, John Waters
The Setup: 
Documentary about Peter Berlin, who fashioned himself into an image of fetishized maleness and drew fame by parading it around.

I think this documentary was at the NewFest [gay lesbian film festival] last year, but finally got a theatrical run here in NYC, so me and my boyfriend hauled off to see it, to continue working on our collaborative Ph.D. in Bulgeology.

Peter Berlin was this guy, mainly known for his time in San Francisco, who would dress up in clothes he had made himself, and go out to show himself off. He had a blond Dutch Boy haircut, was skinny but muscular, and always had an enormous bulge in his pants. As such, he created an almost cartoon-like erotic figure, something out of Tom of Finland come to life [and in fact he commissioned Tom to incorporate him into some of this drawings]. The fact that he made his own clothes meant that he could design them to entirely cup his crotch and ride right up his ass, as well as create various personas exactly to his own liking.

He also was quite prolific in taking photographs of himself in his various outfits, many double-exposed to show him cruising himself, and mostly with the kind of heated half lust-crazed / half just-crazed expression that can drive a person nuts. He also made a few films that are now considered porn classics: That Boy and Nights in Black Leather, neither of which I’ve seen but both of which I want to; they sound more like strange little documents of his life and the San Francisco gay scene of the 70s than porn proper, which in my mind is more interesting—not because I’m so far above porn, but because Berlin [blond, hairless] isn’t so much my thing. The bulge and the crazy look can stay, though.

What I found most interesting about the movie was the whole sense of Berlin’s identity, and specifically how this related to his sex life. We are told that Berlin was terribly elusive as a sex partner: he would walk back and forth in front of you and cruise, but when you made a move, he would walk away. Berlin himself says that “everyone in America who says that they were fucked by Peter Berlin is lying.” Armistead Maupin, interviewee in the film, tells a story about how he had met Peter at a party, then later saw him splayed out across a tree at this cruising park in San Francisco. He went up to him and said “Hi!”, and Berlin completely ignored him, and he realized that he was not there to chat [who is?], but really, JUST to create this tableau of an object of lust, and that’s it.

So what I really wanted to know was; Did Peter Berlin have sex at all, or was his posing THE sex? Was he just a total bottom that people assumed was a top? Berlin says that he dressed the way he WANTED someone else to dress, but they never did [tell me about it, GF]. And then these pictures of him staring at himself, making himself the sexual object, and the act of looking the sex act. So it’s very interesting. There is one guy in the film who claims to have had sex with Berlin, but [probably because Berlin was involved in making the film] he is not asked to describe it, which would help us know if it was true or not. Ultimately we’ll just have to wonder.

As a total digression, there used to be this guy who went out to the New York leather bars [I saw him for a few years after I moved here in 98] who seemed to literally have a sack of dirty laundry stuffed down his leg. I mean, TO HIS KNEE. It was shaped into a dick and balls, but it looked fake—it didn’t move right when he walked—but there was always that twinge of uncertainty; what if it WAS real? And me and my friends always wondered—WHAT does he do with anyone that goes home with him? Did they just look at it and feel it and imagine if it was real? No one ever knew. We also never saw him go home with anyone, or even anyone talking to him. So I assume it’s one of those Peter Berlin-like things where seeing people lusting for it WAS the sex. A few years later, I received undeniable evidence that it was fake by seeing that it had grown, now all the way past his knee, and again later, when I saw him on the street during the day and there was NOTHING there. Nevertheless, it makes me miss the days when New York was full of weirdos instead of yuppies.

So anyway, back to Peter Berlin. Apparently he did have a relationship with a puppyish sort of boy that lasted 20 years, until the lover died of AIDS. Personally I could have done without the footage of his lover unconscious and possibly deceased… this is part of a great deal of footage that the documentary never really explains the origin of. Who was taking all these movies?

And again, toward the end, there’s some footage of Berlin trying to pose and maintain that lustful / crazed look, but he’s crying. You never find out why, or the context for the footage.

There are a lot of unexplained elements, or big questions left unanswered, but what you do get is interesting enough, and makes you think about what does it mean to say one has had a successul life, that one has left a mark or been a historical figure… and even that one has had sex.

Should you watch it: 

Yes. It leaves a lot unanswered, but what is there is interesting and somewhat moving.