|John Garfield, the wronged man in They|
Made Me a Criminal.
|Kirk Douglas as the unconscionable reporter in Billy Wilder's |
Ace in the Hole, one of his many shades of gray
|Brando's Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named|
Desire. His macrocosm of machismo would
knock the socks off Hollywood.
|Monty Clift, post-crash.|
|McQueen on the move in Bullitt.|
People needed this carnality. Men particularly were desperate to make such carnal howls. As young men were called to serve in the Vietnam War, their drafts arriving like preordered toe tags, there was plenty to scream about. As women grew more independent and feminism started taking a more assertive stand, the male position in the generally accepted patriarchy started to crumble. As society endured race riots, police brutality, the push toward desegregation, the arrival of the hippie, the metamorphosis of sock-hop rock 'n' roll to the Kinks early premonitions of Heavy Metal, the world seemed to be moving faster than it had since the 1920s without the nonchalance. Men onscreen began to inhabit all facets of the male human conundrum. His desire for love, and his desire to dominate; his quest for order and peace of mind, and his desire to escape the roots of his father. His brute force was supercharged but tempered with an increasing attraction to knowledge. A child of communal hysteria, he questioned the world around him. He defied it, and fell prey to it. The jig was up, and a new game was set: there is no peace on earth. Life is War is Hell, From Here to Eternity.
|While Poitier's character in The Defiant Ones |
still had to inevitably take a fall for "the
white man," Curtis, he also presented a
man morally superior and more
sympathetic than his partner
|Spencer Tracy defends Darwin in|
Inherit the Wind.
|Peck and Mitchum represent exaggerations of|
two versions of the battling American male:
the Apple Pie man of morality vs. the
inner, untamed beast.
With the now absolutely dominant presence of television and the quickening informational capacity of the media, America was shrouded in mistrust and was Hell-bent on dismantling any still perpetuated delusions of grandeur. We are men; we are monsters. The method trend continued in two strains-- still real guys-- as activists or anarchists. Thus we witnessed the emergence of Dustin Hoffman's feminism in Tootsie and Kramer vs. Kramer and Robert De Niro's anti-christ in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Heroes were villains as they hadn't been since the '30s, and all were political. Who better to usher in these angst-ridden young men, seeking in vain to establish their misshapen identity than the Don himself-- he who had paved their way? Brando passed the torch to Al Pacino in The Godfather, and what followed on film was a new breed of man, violently tearing himself and his society down so he can build himself, and it, up again.
This anger began to dissipate in the hands of Ronald Reagan's 1980s optimism. America, in between battles for a time, was determined to enjoy the economic boom and continue the progress of the '60s and '70s by turning itself into a big enough threat to keep all further mutinies, attacks, and depressions at bay. From the spring-board of the Jewish and Italian actors who populated the masculine screen in the last decade, Captain America was due to return-- our arrogance transforming itself into the muscular, one man heroes that only needed a gun to save the world (a trend started by Charles Bronson in Death Wish, and Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, the bridge films to a new era).
|Arnold goes Commando; America is secure.|
Our heroes aged, only reappearing to mock their image or play on their past mammoth status-- mostly thanks to Stallone's still active imagination and business savvy, as evidenced in The Expendables. At the same time, the world was intruded by the world wide web. As the increasing technological forces at our fingertips became our new heroes, our fascination with human representatives diminished. Our art, our introspection, slowly lost its way while we personally downsized to smaller screens in separate universes, wherein we became our own idols. (For more on that subject, visit my past article YouTube Killed the Movie Star).
Now we find ourselves in search of "men." As a reflection of society at large, where gender equality between men and women has become (arguably) more balanced, more negative/competitive attention is given to the "other-genders": the homosexuals, the transvestites, the transsexuals, and even living dolls. The emergence of these different strains of manhood and the slow acceptance of them has split the previously more "predictable sex" completely asunder. A Man is a Man isn't a Man anymore. Men are expected to be more emotionally mature, to be more participatory and open in relationships, and to make room for women, who have invaded and irreparably altered the work place, changing all pre-programmed existential strategy. Wife, baby, house: they no longer apply. Your girlfriend is working, she's not ready to have kids, and who the Hell can afford a house in this economy?!?!
This economic slight is perhaps the worst. The depression has made our men depressed. The inability of a man to be a provider is the greatest wound to his ego. A provider is the one thing that he historically must be and which has been consistently represented throughout his path on film. A man must earn-- legally or illegally. Now, men are either out of work or working at jobs that torture them at breakneck speeds for far too little compensation. This, in conjunction with media saturation and our current obsession with surface over substance, pressures him to be a body-conscious metro-sexual with a sweet car, (that he can't afford).
Man is showcased as presentation-- hiding behind cool specs and wearing skinny jeans, because he doesn't know what else to do. At least, that is the way he is portrayed in advertisements or by the baby-faced, interchangeable pseudo-stars of today. "Men" are Zac Efron, Channing Tatum, singer turned "actor" Justin Timberlake, or that other guy from the inexplicable tragedy of Magic Mike... hold on, I have to look up his name... Alex Pettyfer? Whatever. He's so boring that I would rather watch two retarded hippos have sex than see anything he's in. Pretty, pretty presentations... Some of them try so hard to act, to come across with actual guts, but most of them are just nice guys who are nice looking and that's it. When they imitate the strong men they grew up with, it comes across as insincere and a little pathetic. We're far too cynical to take any of them seriously. As such, they have replaced 1940s wartime pin-ups to become our modern bimbos, a total sexism boomerang effect.
Instinctively, contemporary men reject their actors as physical embodiments of their threatened emasculation, and are consequently left without what they deem to be true representatives, which is why they reject the options placed before them. There are some standouts. Ryan Gosling gets away with what he does due to his taste for intriguing material and his tendency to keep quiet and underplay. (Is it minimalism, or is it just not acting? At least he keeps things interesting). Ryan Reynolds and Bradley Cooper have genuine chops, but they aren't taken seriously enough to be idols. DiCaprio keeps killing it due to his genuine talent and eagerness to take risks. Still, while men respect him, no one man-crushes on him like they once did Cruise. Mark Wahlberg will always be Marky Mark, with or without his funky bunch. Even Brad Pitt's Fight Club sheen has tarnished behind the public campaign he always seems to be waging to be "Look, I'm the Nicest Guy EVER!"
|In contrast to Bruce Wayne, the Joker dives into|
the chaos, as this is what has made him what
he is. His indulgence in it is his antipathy for it,
a fact many could certainly relate to.
What is interesting about these films, aside from Captain America-- which didn't catch on because of the pretty boy problem-- is that the commendable acting when mixed with the machismo is what made all of its stars acceptable. Bale was an actor's actor before. People knew him as the guy from American Psycho. He puts on a cape, and suddenly he's the man. Downey became the comeback kid when he got clean and became Iron Man, going from public enemy number one to everyone's favorite movie star. If it weren't for Thor, there would be no Chris Hemsworth. He would have been one of the vanilla, interchangeable, revolving-door-duds on the cover of whatever constitutes today's internet "Tiger Beat." Similarly, everyone thought Matt Damon was a "pussy" until he became Jason Bourne. Men need the personifications of their complexities with a little flexing of muscle. They may not be he-men, but they're still men after all. Whatever "men" means these days...
|Zach Galifianakis: modern hero lampooning|
the superficiality of an industry that normally
wouldn't have him. Thank God for tough
This does feel like the end, doesn't it? Everyone feels totally screwed, and seeing actors playing losers, degenerates, selfish bastards, and social retards reflects the feelings of total disorder that mankind experiences on a daily basis. Every day is like The Hangover. "What happened last night? What happened yesterday morning? The day before? What's happening now?! Where did my life go?!?!" The picket fence, the pie in the sky, the childhood home you grew up in, are all relics of a nonexistent society. The most we can do... is laugh.
With the return of our modernized Tramps to the forefront, the masculine onscreen presence is as cryptic as it has ever been. The absence of movie stars with the instant accessibility of Netflix streaming has also done some damage, as there is no hugely adored prototype of Americana to latch onto and label as the new "He." We have gifted actors like Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix who do compelling work every once in awhile; we have Hugh Jackman trying to be Wolverine and Russell Crowe trying to hang tough, but neither pull it off, because we heard them both sing. And "sing."
As man searches for his masculinity in modernity, trying to find that balance between personal, emotional security, intellectual stimulation, and faith in his government, we may be at a point where we have outgrown such distinctive representations of Manliness. We live in a world of big box-office flops and unique, unpopular independent films, which present many interesting stories about the struggle to just hang on. With so many voices trying to be heard, there may be no need for fictional, pinnacle male models to do the heavy lifting for their living brothers. As our world opens up, it too disconnects us. We are all introverts living on Instagram. Our films, therefore, present a myriad of faces and slices of life: individuals not communities. It's a strange sort of limbo. Where it will lead artistically, I don't know. But wherever humanity goes, the cinematic male archetype is certain to follow.