Let's put aside for one minute the fact that the star of Pumping Iron would eventually go onto become the governor of the 8th largest economy in the world. (And I understand that asking for that indulgence is asking for a lot, because seeing such a national public figure talking about how he feels like he's coming when he's flexing his muscles is unbelievably hilarious.) But let's pretend for a second that we were looking at this movie the way it was meant to be seen when it was released in the mid-70s. What did Pumping Iron look like before Arnold Schwarzenegger was Ahh-nuld in the public's mind?
Honestly, this documentary about a group of professional body builders on their way to the Mr. Universe competition in South Africa looks like a less creepy version of Toddlers and Tiaras. Don't get me wrong: when I say less creepy I don't mean that it's totally normal because it isn't - not at all. Looking at these super-sculpted men isn't far off from looking at people who have suffered plastic surgery disasters - the rough shape is there, but it's been exaggerated into something so extreme that it is off putting to look at. No, by less creepy I just mean that it makes a big difference that all the bodybuilders in Pumping Iron are all adults, because that reduces the grossness of gaping at them, which is good, because their job is to be gaped at. And if you spend a few minutes gaping at them in competition you'll see that adult pageants aren't that much different from little kid's pageants.
There's the same preening and petty jealousies, and there's the same weirdness between people and their parents. (After Lou Ferigno is done posing his father has to wipe the baby oil off his son's entire body, which looks... weirdly intimate.) At one point a jealous competitor hides his rival's clothes as a prank, and later in the film Arnold tells a story about how he convinced a guy who was asking him for advice to scream while he was posing as a way of embarrassing him. There's something kind of surreal about seeing how fully formed their bodies are while their minds seem so immature.
More importantly, there's the same quicksand of irony surrounding their performances. I could never quite tell if I was impressed by the bodybuilder's freakish size or if I was rubbernecking at a freak show. There's something ridiculous about their preening, but there's also something sad about it, too, because it seems like a lot of them retreated into body building as a violent reaction against unhappy childhoods. (Schwarzenegger only briefly touches on how authoritarian his father was, but the social problems that Lou Ferigno's deafness caused him as a child are directly mentioned by his father.) There's an element to which these sculpted men look like gods, and it feels like they are being celebrated; but at the same time they seem like outsiders, driven to obsessive lengths to shore up their complicated egos. Watching the crowds at the body building competitions hoot while the competitors flexed gave me the same unsettled "who the hell are these people?" feeling that watching the crowds at child beauty pageants does.
In other words, underneath all the historical relevance that a candid portrait of pre-superstardom Schwarzenegger brings to the table there's an interesting documentary about an odd sub-group people, one that explores the ins and outs of a hidden and bizarre world. So if you take that part of the doc - which is compelling on it's own - and add in the humor value of seeing one of the most famous men in the world smoking a joint while waiting to eat birthday cake, well, you have a helluva historical document.