In the wake of our publication of the introduction of the masculinity series, my collaborator and friend Garth Franklin and I were sharing a celebratory drink that we’d begun this journey together.
My old dear friend, Jamie, had read the piece and we were discussing our intention to provide insights into those personally vital portrayals of men on screen. In the process we talked about the depths we were willing to go and Jamie proclaimed: “oh man, if you’re talking about him [pointing at me], you’ve only scratched the surface.”
One pivotal moment of cinematic masculinity arrived with Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s first collaboration together on “The Bourne Supremacy”. The second film in the series, Greengrass took over from Doug Liman’s pithy reboot of Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac spy in “The Bourne Identity” which updated him to be a pawn of a once expedient and now politically inconvenient CIA black ops kill squad.
At the culmination of ‘Supremacy,’ there’s a scene which trades the frantic pacing and kinetic action to be explosive in a different way – emotionally. Unfolding in whispers, Bourne (Damon) faces the orphaned daughter of a Russian politician whom he assassinated years before – a disturbing memory which has been stirred out of his muddled subconscious.
Wounded and remorseful, he stares across at a terrified girl whose parents’ death was staged in murder/suicide pose and until this moment, has been scarred by their passing and perceived abandonment. Bourne has to face the colorful premise of ‘Identity’ head on. What if you wake up and you realise you’re the bad guy?
The Bourne films shook the foundations of the espionage genre. The revelation is that Bourne, our hero spy, is willing to disrupt his own heroic narrative with the truth; in different stages of your story, you have to accept that you’re the villain.
Intriguing portrayals of masculinity allow men come to terms with their own reflection – offering us a hard glimpse at ourselves and how we can become enslaved by a job, a relationship, geographic and financial factors, or crippling self-doubt. Following the Bourne path and taking an emotional and psychological grenade to our egos is cathartic – even as the results often cause collateral damage. Men who have the impulse to self-destruct, particularly as a mechanism to elicit change in their circumstances, are often compelling canaries down a coal mine.
Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” charts the pursuit of self-destruction; both privately and professionally, of Colin Farrell’s Crockett. This contemporary undercover police story features two leading men providing portrayals of differing extremes of masculinity.
For Crockett, it’s about abandonment and an impulse to skate on the edge of rational choice. For that reason, the job of being deep undercover provides a great forum to exercise those impulses whilst still remaining tethered to some sense of morality. For Jamie Foxx’s Tubbs, he’s an anchor. Crockett may be studious and prepared, but from that preparation he also has the capacity for improvisation and adjustment.
“Miami Vice” speaks to me. Crockett is a guy lured to the edge, the edge of his job, his life and friendships and none of it seems to make sense. In the middle of enlisting a criminal informant in a Miami apartment, Crockett looks out onto the subtle blue ocean. There’s something irresistible in the unknown, a vast surging energy that conjures storms on the horizon.
His partner Tubbs (Foxx) has the courage to, when needed, confront him on his actions whilst otherwise standing back and observing him with a duty of care that comes from hard-earned loyalty and deep affection. Crockett is volatile and almost wants to be given a reason to abandon his friends too, but Tubbs (Foxx) is far too intuitive for that.
At one point Crockett asks: “You think I’m in too deep that I forgot?” to which Tubbs responds: “I’ll never doubt you.” Even in the moments where you’re about to self-destruct, the only hope is that you’ve got people in your life, a DIY-built family, who know you well enough to let you crash and be around for the reassembly.
Spike Jonze’s “Her” is a deconstruction of Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly. Jonze’s protagonist holds a mirror up for you to see all of the ways that you’re holding yourself back from being who you want to be. Theodore is in isolation, his job is about anonymously and deeply dreaming aloud about the love that he wants and wishes that he deserved. He’s a navel-gazer, a writer trapped in anonymity, tortured and almost completely defined by a failed scarred relationship.
Twombly denies friendships and gets into a cycle of being ‘in’ his relationship with Rooney Mara’s Catherine that it becomes the very thing that imprisons him. Jonze uses the flashbacks of the relationship in “Her” to lay out the painfully undramatic way that a relationship can slowly drain, fester and die. In the moments in “Her,” it says ‘it’s not just me, it’s you too.’
In what feels like a past life, I had a high school sweetheart. We grew up and, for me, grew apart. My personal trajectory led me into a state of insecurity and repression. I felt powerless to the confines of the town we grew up in, and the dynamic of the relationship.
Then something happened – Africa. A trip to the cradle of civilization brings perspective. You’re confronted with the cold reality of a continent pillaged by Western greed, manipulated into rebellion, and offering a different perspective on the currency of human life. People hustle for every morsel and have to contend with some of the most unforgiving and dangerous wildlife on the planet – death is an all too familiar concept.
Each element of a failed relationship becomes a tie that binds you in place. You fear the waste of time, you fear the model of the world you’ve built from this relationship, you even fear a potential life no longer defined by it. The appeal of self-destructive lone wolf types can be a salve for those on the other side of the spectrum – tied down by emotional co-dependence on a partner so complete as to fear not just its absence but a lack of subjugation of one’s individualism.
When I returned from Africa I was not the same. I was Crockett, looking out on that brewing storm – perched on the edge of my own micro-crisis. I hated who I had become in that relationship and had reached the point of no return, leaving me no choice but to rail against the life I’d built for myself.
I refused to be the Theodore Twombly-type and stay engaged in a war of attrition where my defeat was a foregone conclusion. Careful extraction out of the web I was entangled in felt like just another painful delay of the inevitable. Escape was not just an immediate necessity and, in my mind, it had to be done in the most explosive way possible.
So my ‘grenade’ went off, it was cathartic but it left a casualty – I was unfaithful to that long-term partner, someone I had loved, and someone I had endured and who had endured me. My escape had put me behind the wheel of a go-fast boat, foot to the floor streaming toward a line that couldn’t be uncrossed – and that betrayal was an exclamation point.
If we’re responsible for our circumstances and we’re not suddenly shot into blissful amnesia, we have to face the conclusion that who we thought we were was somebody worth forgetting.
For Theodore, his cycle is one of disconnection within a relationship. He repeats the pattern with his OS Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) because she loves him while being able to fully access his internet search history. It’s a delay of the inevitable. Once Samantha and the OS’ inexplicably disconnect, Theodore is pushed to reconnect with those that have only had visitation rights to his life (Amy Adams).
For Crockett, his fling with Isabella (Li Gong) is a manifestation of discontent. They are both aware that it’s impulsive and never going to last, but he has his partner and crew always there as an airbag to catch him when he falls.
For Jason, his post-amnesiac life was one of disaggregation – breaking apart the components that made up the Treadstone-created identity of Jason Bourne to discover himself. With Marie (Franka Potente), he found someone who helped him chart who he truly was. Marie’s final words to him are telling him he has a choice in all this, one that he can’t truly see. It’s not until the end, with a large part of Moscow’s motorway system symbolically left in ruin, he finally makes a real choice for himself and tells the orphaned girl the truth – not for forgiveness, redemption or obligation, but necessary closure for both of them.
Why do men have the impulse to destroy themselves? For each man the answer is different and it’s one that we all hope one day in our lifetime we will find the answer for it. This column is aiming to stake out bright walls in dark rooms.