So two film geeks walk into a bar. No seriously, Garth Franklin and I walk into a Sydney inner city pub when he asks me about this column. We’d been discussing it for the longest time, a way for both of us to explore our mutual interest in compelling and resonant portrayals of masculinity on screen.
I had written a lengthy beginning to attempt to contextualise my obsession with portrayals of a certain kind of masculinity. The filmmakers and films in question include my top three favourite films of all time – “Heat,” “Apocalypse Now” and “No Country For Old Men”. All three centre on masculinity in crisis and, for mostly the right reasons, the crisis endures.
In “Apocalypse Now,” it’s surfing the wave of a United States in collective existential crisis following Watergate and Vietnam. The film doesn’t realise that the shift between the narrative of world saviours post-WW2 had been all but extinguished in that bloody, pointless South East Asian conflict.
The men from “Heat,” as a result of director Michael Mann’s world view, are forged from the same elements as the heroes of the New Hollywood era – yearning for a purpose, for a profession worthy of their life force, well aware it can become an all consuming gyre that swallows your soul.
Then finally, “No Country For Old Men” shows you that life is fragile – especially when there are tangible forces of chaos and impulse like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) driven by a foul purpose to equalise the playing field. It’s a world where honour has crumbled into a handful of dust.
Now I may not have to fully articulate, after those brief descriptions, why there’s a certain level of fear that I associate with my affinity and affection for these films and characters, but in case you maybe haven’t drawn the lines…
What scares me, in truth, is becoming my father. That’s probably a fear shared in a roundabout or trivial sense with everyone. You hear yourself say something; a pearl of wisdom, a criticism, an instruction and you discover a surprise piece of subliminal infiltration from many years being battered with the same advice.
That’s not what I’m talking about though; and without diving into near granular personal details that could one day be used in a libel suit, I’ll say that I fear that I’ll betray myself. I fear I’ll let my pride and stubbornness ruin opportunities to forgive and grow. That ability to say sorry seems to have been omitted in my parents’ DNA to such a pronounced degree that it fills me with rage.
Perhaps even greater still is the fear that the armour that I’ve built to cope with this kind of constant emotional self-defence is going to all but compel me to make the same mistakes. I fear that a reflexive callousness will make me blind to those effects in every part of my life. And it’s not unfounded, I know my friends and family have seen it.
The movies that I love speak to me. The movies I love converge on things I love, loathe and fear.
Willard (Martin Sheen) is a warning in “Apocalypse Now”. We project upon him, like he’s a blank canvas painted over a macabre portrait of the torment of life where one’s purpose is death. A man quietly infected by the river, and the river is war, Kurtz, death, history and the sublime power of nature. It’s psychedelic and psychotic.
The logical end game for the character is to complete the mission, but the poetry is that in completing his death he inherits the fate of his target Kurtz and the implied targets before him. He follows his orders to execute with extreme prejudice and he’s consigned to the fact that he’s morally aligned with Kurtz. It’s that moral treachery that leads him to become Kurtz.
No matter how many times you’ve seen the film, when you see Willard emerge from the river in camouflage and bathed in smoke, like a creature birthed out of the primordial ooze, he’s re-orientated. What scares me is asking, was that there the entire time? I don’t know if I have the answer.
Hannah (Pacino) and McCauley (De Niro) in “Heat” are two sides of the same coin; they’re equal and opposing reactions to an action. They come to a mutual understanding of who they are in the reflections of the other, and they do what they do at the expense of a “regular type life.” Even at the culmination of “Heat” the clarity of this defiance, “I told you I was never going back,” continues to haunt me.
You’re forced to wrestle with the devastating purity of that fleeting connection, to recognise and reconcile your self-destructive tendencies, to face what’s left in life when the obsession to be exceptional (professionally in this case) has corrosive effects. Stare into Pacino’s boundless expression as Moby’s God Moving Over the Face of Waters is playing and perhaps there’ll be more; that’s only what I can remember from my last watch (I lost count after one hundred viewings).
“No Country For Old Men” makes you face impending mortality by destroying the respectful way with which foes may conduct themselves on a battlefield. “Heat” may as well be a fencing match, told as an L.A. crime opus; but ‘No Country’ abandons rules, ethic, morality, and dismantles the illusions that bigger plans are waiting for you. Tommy Lee Jones’ weathered Sheriff has the lines of that time etched on his face.
Josh Brolin’s Llewellyn is a result of the Vietnam war. Stumbling upon this task, this cartel money, and putting him in the path of the unstoppable force that is Anton Chigurh (Bardem), should make for a formidable head to head confrontation. But the Sheriff of old and the displaced soldier of the next generation can’t be reconciled. The future is here and it’s ugly and chaotic.
Masculinity is problematic in our current discourse. Discussing what makes a man has almost become taboo. My only active direction is to diverge from the path of my parents, particularly my father, and sometimes it’s hard to address where you’ve landed. I chose not to have a father and as a man you’re looking for men that are role models, men that inspire you, men that you relate to and heroes.
I’m sorry to say but “what would Batman do,” is not the ‘cure-all.’ In your quiet moments in the dark, with your guard down, you connect with movies. It’s in those characters in art that you aspire to, or have a natural affinity with, that you get a chance to self-reflect. The characters that enrapture us and resonate are vital to unpack. So why write a column about masculinity? Masculinity is in crisis and while that crisis persists, we’re going to get fascinating and interesting portrayals of men in cinema; and I want to talk about it.