Friday, September 27, 2013

Predator Might be the Most Masculine Film Ever...

One of the earliest sequences of the 1987 John McTiernan film, Predator, is probably the most testosterone filled of any 80s action movie. Curiously, the intensity of this moment is ramped up through the use of the music of one of the most effete of the 50s rock-n-roll musicians: Little Richard. Long Tall Sally plays throughout the three-minute scene, the entirety of which is red lit - a kind of lighting which is often used in strip bars. There aren't any lingering shots of male bodies here, however, but rather close ups of the men's faces as they prepare to be dropped into the jungle. The camera rests on strong jaws, thick necks, square heads and cleft chins. The men cover their faces with camouflaging war paint. Jesse Ventura's Blaine dips snuff and offers it to his fellow soldiers. They all refuse which prompts him to insult their manhood, calling them "slack jaw faggots." He insists that the tobacco will make them "sexual [him]" causing one of the men to suggest that Blaine perform a sexual act on the end of his rifle. After which, Blaine ejects tobacco juice on Dillon's (Carl Weathers) shoe. There is so much tension in this scene....the anxiety of men about to be dropped into a battlefield in which "they are on their own." They are leaving civilization behind and entering a world in which they are alone and are responsible for their own defense. They must protect themselves. So they are getting themselves psyched up for battle and much of that excitement seems to veer toward the sexual. There is a tinge of the homoerotic here, though it is not purposeful. Or rather, a misreading of the sexual energy in this scene could label it as such. Yet I perceive this moment in the film as something unabashedly male and more in the spirit of serious competition as to whom is the most masculine.

This film also focuses on men's spaces--the helicopters, the military offices and all the arenas of war. There are almost no women in it until much later when a Central American woman named Anna (Elpidia Carrillo) is rescued by the soldiers. As much as the film is about men's spaces it is also concerned with men's bodies as these are on full display throughout later scenes. Predator features some of the most immense of the 80s actions stars- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers,  Jesse Ventura and Sonny Landham. Early on in the movie, Dutch (Schwarzenegger) and Dillon lock sweaty fists and arm wrestle in greeting. Later, in the jungle, these are the men who lead the smaller and weaker men; they are the true alphas. Finally, Dutch is shown to be the ultimate alpha. The only one to survive (along with Anna whom he rescues and protects) after the film transforms from action film to sci-fi/horror when the alien that kills everyone off in spectacular and gruesome fashion is introduced.

Interestingly, it is the return of the music of Little Richard in the latter part of the movie that is used to showcase the spectacular failure of the mission and also the failure of almost all of the men. Mac (Bill Duke) has been seemingly driven mad by the deaths of his fellow soldiers and attempts to kill the predator on his own. While pursuing it, he sings a part of the chorus of Long Tall Sally over and over until it is a chant, as if in an attempt to psych himself up just as the soldiers used the song in the beginning of the film. It is a compelling moment, not just because Duke is a remarkable actor, but because it is the moment that establishes that the destruction of the group that was once so united in strength is real.

It seems that the final message of this film is that only the biggest and manliest man is capable of defeating both worldly and otherworldly menaces. In all, this is a film that celebrates maleness at the same time that it almost eroticizes it. The sexual charge here isn't between men and woman but rather in the competition amongst men. The suggestion isn't that they are attracted to each other but must, at all costs, be bigger and better and tougher and stronger than each other and must at every turn prove that strength. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Take Shelter

My intention was to focus on the way in which masculinity and manhood is presented in the films of the 70s and 80s (particularly crime and action films). However, I just watched a movie that was so good it forced me to examine a 21st century film. That movie is the 2011 Jeff Nichols’ film, Take Shelter.  In it, Michael Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a small-town Ohio man who is beset by apocalyptic nightmares. This film is expertly directed and acted. Nichols is able to create a sense of dread through lingering shots of threatening skies and also, most importantly, through images of everyday places.  Never has a country kitchen or an impossibly bright blue and cloudless mid-western sky seemed so claustrophobic and inexplicably terrifying.

Yet what compels me to write about this film is Michael Shannon’s stoic, powerhouse performance. Here is a very specific type of man--white, blue-collar who is trying to support his family and survive during an economic crisis.  Once the bad dreams start, Shannon’s LaForche must navigate what he first perceives to be a mental breakdown that later deteriorates into a crushing, all encompassing fear. It is the way in which the character handles this terror that makes the film. First, he attempts to hide it, then he tries to deal with it by doing something constructive, literally using his construction worker skills to add on to the tornado shelter in the backyard. Still, this is not enough and his terror becomes so great that he begins having panic attacks and seizures.

So many aspects of this film stand out. Yet, what struck me most was an interesting scene with LaForche’s older brother, Kyle (Ray McKinnon). Kyle is concerned that Curtis is losing his mind and visits to try to find out what is happening. When Curtis is vague and dismissive, Kyle threatens to beat him up. Then, after a rather strained discussion, Kyle and Curtis begin to say goodbye. Curtis, in a behavior that is clearly out of character, reaches out and hugs Kyle. It is a very awkward hug and afterwards Kyle, who is stunned by the action, shakes it off.  These are men who are uncomfortable with emotion and affection, they deal with things by building and fixing and when something occurs that can’t be handled in that way, they are bewildered and uncomfortable.

Later, when the stress becomes so great that Curtis breaks down in front of his friends and family, yelling about the coming apocalypse and finally dissolving into tears, his shame and embarrassment over becoming emotional is palpable.  His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) seems shocked over the display as well, but is quick to comfort him. There is is so much going on in this film that it can’t be addressed in one post. Not only is about masculinity in a world where the ideas of maleness are changing rapidly, it also deals with issues such as the economy, health care and mental illness.

More importantly, the aesthetic of this film is clearly drawn from another era. It appears to take place in the late 70s or early 80s if one judges the furniture and clothing of the characters. The kitchenware and accessories are definitely vintage.  One wonders what motivated Nichols' to make this choice. Was it an unconscious homage to the appearance of the films of some of his favorite directors, which include Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese?

Echoing Kubrick's The Shining, Nichols' film is a series of mirror images-each scene is followed by its double in later frames-only it is presented on a larger and more dramatic scale. Like The Shining, the scenes that contain LaForche's daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart) are promptly followed by a scene containing LaForche in which he repeats her behavior, just as Danny (Danny Lloyd) and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) were mimicking each other's actions in different scenes.  It would seem that Nichols is revisiting a type of 70s masculinity (at the same time he is revisiting the kind of psychological horror present in this era also) in this film. The tormented Curtis does everything he can to hide his torment. He deals with his problems internally and is unable to share them with his wife. He is the provider while his wife sews and sells her work at fairs. Their roles are clearly delineated and his is specifically and stereotypically masculine as hers is feminine. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Films of the 70s and 80s

Here is the moment in which I set down the actual theme of this blog. It appears that I am as focused as I am ever going to get, so, the focus, then, of this blog, will be gender and film. Specifically, the ways in which masculinity is presented in film. The best place to start, to me anyway, is through the action adventure and crime films of the 70s and 80s. The 70s film featured a kind of strong, silent masculinity. Men in these films were either buttoned up and suave or sort of rumpled. No matter how neat or sloppy they were, the typical wardrobe choice was a suit or slacks. Toughness was not overt, but rather, suggested. When violence occurs it isn't necessarily surprising but it isn't the theatrical well-choreographed violence of the 80s. The 70s fight sequence seemed way more believable than the 80s fight scene. The 70s character could be wounded and never springs up from a punch to the face or a kick to the groin as if nothing happened. In the 80s film, the action heroes are seemingly invincible. This is evident in their appearance.

Actors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone's bodies are on display. They glisten with sweat, muscles and veins jump out constantly. They rarely wear suits as in them their huge physiques would look ridiculous. They wear jeans (tight ones, too) and sleeveless shirts, or very often, no shirt at all. Even the least steroidal of the 80s action stars, such as Mel Gibson, display their bodies. In all the Lethal Weapon films, Sgt Riggs' very fitted faded denim jeans and cowboy boots get much attention from the camera and he also takes an opportunity to flex his biceps.

The point is that a very rapid evolution occurred between these two eras. The action star transformed from moody, cerebral and hard in mind, if rather lumpy in body, to a man that was tough externally, clearly not a deep thinker, (save for a few tortured characters---I'm thinking Gibson's grieving Riggs in Lethal Weapon) who took blows and seemed to get stronger from them. In the 80s, strength becomes a purely physical thing. Soundness of body is paramount. A theory that I have concerning this change is that it is largely political. Many of the 80s action films have a very obvious conservative agenda. I aim to make a comparison of a number of films from both eras and examine what was occurring during these times that might have led to these changes.