June 16th, 2022
MOVIE: ALL MAN: THE INTERNATIONAL MALE STORY
STARRING: MATT BOMER, PARVESH CHEENA, SIMON DOONAN, DREW DROEGE
DIRECTED BY: BRYAN DARLING, JESSE FINLEY REED
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 4 STARS (Out of 4)
Any gay man of a certain age will remember International Male (IM.) The colorful catalog featuring mostly straight looking models in very non-traditional and sexy fashions would magically appear in some of our homes in the 1980s and 90s. I was one of those young men who viewed the magazine from cover to cover often titillated and simultaneously shocked by what I was seeing. Sometimes the outfits were so revealing and outlandish that all I could do was laugh. In Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed’s documentary All Man: The International Male Story, having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, they go in depth on the history, heyday, and ultimate demise of this must-have catalog.
Being a keeper of all things pop culture, I had a box of old International Male (IM) catalogs still sitting in a box in a closet until the pandemic prompted me to do some major cleaning and recycle the apparently now valuable publication. (Woe to me!) I had never really thought about the significance of the catalog or its place in fashion or queer history. However, the film does an amazing job of covering all aspects of its life and impact across all spectrums.
Taking a comfortable, chronological look at its origins, the filmmakers provide ample evidence, through archival footage, of what the fashion industry was promoting post World War 2. The very uniform look of gray suits and white shirts was all it really had to offer. Thanks to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, more fashion experiments were attempted, often quite successfully. The founder of the IM, Gene Burkhard, was interviewed for this film shortly before his death in 2020. He talks about his experiences overseas and witnessing the changes in men’s clothing as the 60s progressed. He had the seed of an idea which he thought would be fun: to try to sell some of the unique items he was seeing. The catalog grew out of his desire to break the mold of men’s fashion and allow for a new form of male self-expression.
Throughout the film there is an abundance of fascinating magazine, television, film, and commercial footage which traces not only the history of men’s fashion during the 20th Century but also the changing nature of LGBTQ culture. I particularly love how the film showcases closeted gay figures like Paul Lynde and the objects of many people’s (both men and women) desires such as Lyle Waggoner on The Carol Burnett Show and Burt Reynolds’ in his spread in Playgirl. Darling and Reed do a painstaking job of compiling many images such as these that clearly represent what a lot of us witnessed in the years before IM.
Taking us into the 1980s, the film explores how the perception of what men could wear was evolving thanks, in part, to MTV music videos and Miami Vice. This was the heyday of IM and it’s the era I remember most. The filmmakers do an outstanding job of tracing these changes in the culture and what it meant for men. The catalog allowed “readers” to embark on a fashion adventure covering the whole world.
What the film also gets right is the lack of diversity in the media, including within IM. There rarely was an African American or any other ethnic minority in the catalog. The publishers were clearly seeking the most dollars from a mostly mainstream audience, including women who are said to have bought some of the flamboyant clothes for their boyfriends and husbands. The film also explores how AIDS ravaged the industry and how the catalog allowed for escapism during the troubled times. Through interviews with buyers, art directors, and even some of the male models, the film meticulously paints a portrait of the psychology of its audience. Having many of the former IM models on hand to speak of this and their own experiences is quite revelatory. These once beautiful faces and bodies are now given a chance to speak and become fully dimensioned public commentators.
Expression is the cornerstone of All Man, with an emphasis on how IM helped to create a wider acceptance, or how men see and represent themselves to the world. However, the film and its former employees aren’t overly self-serious about it. They recognize how the IM look became a bit of a parody, whether it be on Seinfeld or in the film Zoolander (seen in hilarious clips.) There’s no denying though that without IM, we might not have the Harry Styles and Billy Porter’s of today who affirm one’s ability to freely self-express themselves through what they choose to wear.
All Man: The International Male Story is an important documentary. It not only covers an important period in men’s fashion history, but also the history of straight and queer men’s identities, along with the changing nature of self-expression among an increasingly diverse set of gender identities. Today IM would be compared to someone’s Instagram page, but without it the world of fashion would have suffered, and a world of self expression might have been lost. With this documentary, Bryan Darling and Jesse Finley Reed truly grasp what made International Male so special, it has left a lasting manly mark.
ALL MAN: THE INTERNATIONAL MALE STORY IS CURRENTLY STREAMING AS PART OF TRIBECA AT HOME. TO PURCHASE TICKETS AND VIEW THE FILM, VISIT: https://tribecafilm.com/films/all-man-the-international-male-story-2022
Written by: Dan Pal