Though we’ve discussed it amongst ourselves for much of the past year, my good friend and colleague Blake Howard and I have long been planning to collaborate on a project where we could really delve into a subject of mutual interest – honest, diverse and memorable representations of masculinity on the screen.
By doing so, the hope was to at least partially explain why the subject fascinates us. Why a film, a performance, a theme, or an artistic choice relating to masculinity was so resonant on a deeply personal level for two men who are very similar in personality, tastes, humour and backgrounds, and yet are distinctly different in their temperaments, desires, fears and life experiences.
With this series, those divergent perspectives will approach the same topic from different angles. Ultimately we’re hoping to offer potential insight into the way contemporary masculinity continually reinvents and redefines itself across the cinematic medium, and how that in turn impacts individual understanding of this social construct that is ‘manhood’.
My own obsession with screen masculinity mostly revolves around the subversion of it. My favourite works with those themes, which run the gamut from “Aliens” to “Deadwood” to “Full Metal Jacket” to “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” all involve the dismantling or deconstruction of pre-built archetypes. These works deliberately showcase a fuller spectrum of man – one of more nuance and dimension that feels truer to life even if it’s in material that could often be described as heightened genre fare.
It’s an interest that ties back to my upbringing. I thought I had figured out who I was from a young age and so tried to explore my limits and test boundaries wherever possible as I had little patience for acquiescing to the established order. This put me at odds with male peers – especially in the surf culture I grew up in which was an Aryan brotherhood of conformity and castigation. Being a gay man in this culture meant I was constantly forced to walk a tightrope – rebelling against downright parochial notions of masculinity, yet indulging in its pleasures and always aware that the wrong gesture or lingering stare could be met with lethal reprisal.
Inner city gay enclaves offered little solace either, places only for the Peter Pans and Dorian Grays of this world – ethereal beauties in an opiate haze of grinding bodies, illicit substances and arrested development. All men of a young age enjoy the vices of the flesh and the bottle, whole film genres are built on celebrating that time in one’s life to varying degrees of success. With a binge-inclined personality, but one saddled with adult responsibility from early on, I indulged heavily but always maintained a level of control – an inability to completely relax that has become both a reflex and a torment in later life.
That constant drive from within saved me though, kept me from falling like some less fortunate friends who were consumed by their vices and paid the ultimate price. Trying to understand the nuances of that masculine drive in both myself and others has always been a primary interest of mine, and a topic cinema rarely tackles with the right amount of nuance and emotional intelligence that it deserves. It’s seductive and dangerous, makes men adventurous pioneers in one aspect of their lives but reduces them to timid wallflowers in others. It is both self-empowering and self-destructive, and always all-consuming.
Young gay Quebecios filmmaker Xavier Dolan is someone who very much understands this bipolar nature, and no film of his better encapsulates it than “Tom at the Farm”. A story of two men’s shared anguish over the surrogate lover and brother respectively that they lost, this masterful psychological thriller owes obvious deference to Hitchcock and the great Gothic melodramas of the 1940s-60s. Yet the repressed desire and simmering sexuality only inferred in those classics is made overt here – a horror film where grief, desire, and self-deceit are the tempting and terrifying monsters in the shadows.
Masculinity and male sexuality is made palpably manifest – like the most intense male relationships it is one driven by an inevitable power struggle, fuelled by uncontainable desire and occasionally bordering on violence. ‘Tom’ beautifully captures the allure of masculine desire for itself – its intense physicality, its palpable yet enticing danger, and its unapologetic and pure carnality. From a drunken nighttime choking to a barnyard tango dance sequence, it’s a sex-free film that bristles with more eroticism than a dozen Hollywood ‘erotic’ thrillers, and defies cliche at every turn.
In one way though ‘Tom’ does conform – like so many films about masculinity it shows you there’s punishment for those whose lives don’t run along conventional lines. In my case that punishment came in the form of a now decade-long case of tinnitus which brought me the edge of the abyss. To this day it can still render me into a small child, sitting in a corner as tears trickle down my face and the roaring buzz threatens to consume my soul. For a while my life was effectively shattered, and it took many months for me to slowly pick myself up and glue myself back together.
True depression isn’t wallowing in despair, it’s accepting a lack of hope. A cold, emotionless, endless fog where one faces insanity or death which manifest themselves as circling predators just beyond your field of vision. For me it was a burning crucible, even stuck in neutral that constant drive of mine along with the help of my family somehow kept me going, and I emerged slowly and painfully from the ashes with a hardened resolve to rid myself of the last of my bulls–t.
These days I’m not quite the same man I was before, that cocky little prick who thought he figured out the world and his place in it came to realise he knew nothing at the end of the day. I came to understand that I will never be rid of my worst qualities – my stubbornness, indecisiveness, dismissiveness, and futility – but could acknowledge and move past them. Instead I channel my energies towards the better aspects of my nature, and in doing so have found a new level of self-acceptance I had never reached before. There’s still a long journey ahead, but it’s one where the path is now much clearer.
A film that speaks wonders to me on that front, and indulges my love of clever evisceration of male insecurity, is Joe Carnahan’s unrelentingly bleak Alaskan survival drama “The Grey”. Pitched and sold on its action premise, instead we were given a mature, earnest, unapologetic and contemplative deconstruction of the ‘men in peril’ genre. Tenderness, sentimentality, self-doubt, and fear – qualities often portrayed as weaknesses in many male-targeted films but are more accurately shown here as signs of strength and wisdom.
Liam Neeson’s character is a sensitive and haunted man, both a part and apart from the rest of this group of pipeline workers stranded in the wilderness – macho men brimming with arrogant pride and insecurity. “The Grey” smartly embraces the lazy stereotype of strong, angry, white hetero “men’s men” at first before quickly turning that on its head. It begins with a beautiful scene in which Neeson’s character talks a dying man into quietly accepting the inevitable. Offering only compassion and honesty, in doing so he allows the terrified man to slip away with dignity.
There’s also a wonderful subplot given to Frank Grillo’s machismo-fuelled prick who, over the course of the film, is forced to overcome his own fear and insecurities. One key scene sees Neeson wrestling Grillo to the ground, yelling at him “enough of this” – physically shaking him in an effort to shake off the emotional armor Grillo has built around himself because that bravado and posturing is going to get them all killed. I’ve never really possessed the inner rage and sense of entitlement so many men seem to have, but witnessing its wonderfully acted dissipation over the course of Grillo’s arc I feel like I can nearly grasp why some men do. “The Grey” offers insight into masculinity at its most noble and seemingly truthful at least to me, something of a rarity in recent years as films targeted at men have begun playing to the darkest and most degenerate aspects of the masculine ideal.
Amongst the most extreme in the opposite direction is Timur Bekmambetov’s “Wanted,” an inventively shot but tedious action thriller which isn’t about self-contemplation but rather a celebration of a type of masculinity that I find abhorrent to my very core. Mistaking anger for passion, brutality for self-actualization, and cruelty for charm, this ultra-violent and morally bankrupt work goes beyond mere machismo fantasy with its misguided ideals and its unapologetic condemnation of everyone who doesn’t conform to its sadistic doctrine.
James McAvoy’s character changes from being a meek man so pathetically underfoot he could only be a caricature, to a self-deluded, self-centered, incredibly cocky and abrasively arrogant prick whose attitude adjustment is regularly rewarded. Self-empowerment is a good message to share, and assertiveness is always a tricky thing to convey because the right balance is key, but saying it can only be achieved through consequence-free random violence goes beyond the pale. There’s a whole generation of frustrated middle management guys out there suffering from white-collar malaise, and the easy escape of a good bit of anti-establishmentarianism is understandable, but films like “Fight Club” or games like “Grand Theft Auto” offer the same thrill in far more subversive, well-made and compelling ways.
“Wanted” scares me because it’s a kind of masculinity I not only don’t understand but don’t think I ever could. It’s one in which a man finally finds his drive, only for it to pervert his soul. My drive IS me, in my darkest hours at the bottom of a (metaphorical) deep pit, it was all I had left. It keeps me going, it powers my curiosity, my refusal to conform, and has allowed me to pursue my passion as my occupation – a pursuit that has ultimately been rewarding in ways I couldn’t have imagined, even if it has come at personal costs to my relationships, my health, my self-identity and self-value.
I can’t live without it, it’s why regular beers and routine relationships can never quite compare to all-night benders and torrid affairs. I truly wish I could enjoy the simple pleasures, but deep satisfaction was never easy for me. Understanding that drive better, both in myself and others is always what I look for in male roles on screen. Others look for things much more basic – aspirational role models, men who reinforce their own ideals, or avatars exploring lives they could never have due to fear or circumstance.
A wealth of diverse masculine portrayals on screen can only be a good thing, one that can make men consider themselves and their place in life. In the case of that very young kid on Sydney’s northern beaches who never quite fit the profile, witnessing more varied portrayals might have given him the confidence to go even further than he did. It’s an important topic and in coming months we’re going to go deeper and further into it than you might expect. Hold onto your hats.