Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Brief Word About Modern Manliness

Jake Gyllenhaal: An example of 21st century
manicured masculinity
I am considering doing some future blog posts (along with the upcoming series The Male Appetite and more 70s and 80s blog posts) that include analysis of modern action films. I thought this would provide an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast the presentation of manhood in the 21st century as compared to the 20th. Before I do so, as with everything else I do, I thought I'd take a moment to ponder  what modern manhood is all about. If anything, manhood in the present day is a little less restricted. There are many more opportunities and different ways to showcase manliness. Men today are seemingly more concerned with the details of their physical appearance. It isn't just about physical strength and muscles. Lean definition is important but there is, too, a focus on certain aspects of grooming. Men get manicures, pedicures, wax their eyebrows and other parts of their bodies. There's more attention paid to wardrobe. These changes are welcome to some but others see it as a disturbing trend.

In the past fews years, many sociologists, political figures, writers and anyone with an opinion has commented on the changing state of masculinity. Some suggest the role of the modern man is unclear. Others have said that men are becoming obsolete. Still others talk of the rampant feminization of men. This last assertion interests me most. Are men becoming more feminine? If so, what is the cause? Is it something chemical, is it some after effect of the feminist movement, or is it evolutionary? Obviously, I won't find this answer through watching a bunch of bad modern action films, but sometimes clues can be found in art. Perhaps it is a stretch to call an action film art, but for the purposes of this post I am doing so.

Stallone: Then and Now.
Many of the top 80s action stars have made their way into 21st century films, and though these men are technically senior citizens, they remain as buff and firm as ever. Then there is the 21st century action star- these men aren't necessarily locked into a permanent action hero role. Like Jake Gyllenhaal in the photo above, many get really ripped and toned for one performance and then go back to their regular bodies to play a part in a non action oriented film. I'd imagine this puts more stress on the body then just maintaining a muscular physique at all times. Nevertheless, in many ways, these modern actors are much less limited then a Stallone or Schwarzenegger, who played essentially the same role their entire careers.

What can be made of all these changes? Do they benefit men or harm them? Do men need a specific type of masculine ideal to follow or is there power in breaking down these traditional notions? Is the modern action star any different then those of the 70s or 80s? I will try to answer these questions upon viewing some current films* and if any readers have any ideas as to the answers, comments are welcome on this topic or any other.

*This will likely not become a series. I will probably get frustrated and annoyed by the modern action film and return to watching 70s and 80s stuff pretty rapidly.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Seven Reasons The Seven-Ups is a Deeply 70s Film

Never mind the fact that Philip D'Antoni's The Seven-Ups was made in 1973 which automatically makes it a 70s film, there are certain aspects of this movie about a secret special forces group of police officers (nicknamed the Seven-Ups for the maximum sentences they get for the criminals they capture) working undercover in New York City that are unapologetically 70s.  Here's seven of them:

Roy Scheider doing his 70s thing.
1. There are scarcely any ladies in it. This is a movie by for and about men. They do manly things. They smoke cigars, they chase each other in cars. They meet at piers, they drink beers. This movie is all about men meeting, plotting and occasionally killing, all while wearing smart leather jackets and trench coats.  The scenes in which women do appear are brief and these women are either wives, waitresses or nurses. They include a wife who says little and brings her husband some mixed drinks. She appears later as a whimpering crying mess when her husband's criminal activities bring the police bursting into her home brandishing weapons. The waitresses and nurses say nothing at all.

2. Roy Scheider is in it. Studies have shown that Schieder's presence in a film ups the 70s quotient dramatically. Seriously, Scheider is the quintessential 70s male action hero. Made famous by his roles in Jaws and The French Connection, he's stoic, intense, lean and wears a suit well.

3. The background music rarely matches the scenes. The incongruity of the music actually works quite effectively during a scene in a car wash that is far more tense then might have been intended. The music   used here isn't action movie music at all, but rather the kind typically reserved for thrillers. Other times the music is far too jaunty or vaguely disco-ey. This is an entirely 70s film phenomenon. There are countless films from this era in which scenes are made jarring, dramatic and odd through bizarre selections of music. In an unusual way it makes the films more realistic. It's almost as if the music is coming from someone's radio nearby.

4. The bad guys are suited up and look like bankers. 70s era bad guys are the best. Suits, tweed coats and subtle bell bottoms are everywhere. These men are grey-haired, paunchy and look like they belong in an office or board meeting somewhere. The scenes in which they gather to discuss their nefarious business are made all the more interesting because these men manage to appear both sinister and totally on the up and up.

5. The car chase that lasts forever. Nearly every action film of every era has at least one car chase. But this scene is about fifteen minutes long. Roy Scheider weaves his car through the streets of New York in pursuit of some shadowy bad guys while the snappy soundtrack plays. Out of the city and onto the highway the car chase continues. It ends with Scheider looking believably dazed and bloody.

6. It requires an old-fashioned attention span. This is a film that reveals quite clearly the change in the attention span of viewing audiences over the years. Scenes are longer and the actions and motivations of the characters are not explained in depth or at all. The casual modern viewer of this film will get lost easily. Though the car chases and shoot outs and fighting abound, it is paced in a totally different way than modern films.

7. There aren't any heros here. Unlike 80s films, the police aren't really portrayed as great, noble men. They are shown instead as driven to do the job because they need the money or they are just driven and intense in general like Scheider's character. Moreover, the lack of heroism and heroics underscores the general grim tone of the film. Shot in winter in and around New York City, there is a grey heaviness over everything. Most scenes seem to take place in isolated places of subtle decay such as industrial settings, empty piers or lonely stretches of highway. Even the most populated places seem bleak, such as the bustling Midtown street of the film's opening scene. There is the ever present manic buzz of the city, but it is vaguely melancholic. The feeling produced is a kind of muted agitation which is in keeping with the tone of the film.

So those are just some of the reasons this film is very 70s. It's a quick gritty little film that makes for intense viewing if the viewer is willing to pay close attention.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Long Sequences, Dramatic Pauses and the Endless Scene in 70s film

Earlier I wrote about the editing style of the 80s film as compared to 70s films. At the moment, I am considering, watching and analyzing a number of 70s films with dialogue, sequence and editing in mind and intend to do some later in depth posts about this very topic. I'd like to, with this post, compose some of these ideas to use as a reference. Curiously, this topic about dramatic pauses coincides with a period of writerly pause, if you will, and there is some drama involved. In that sometimes there are ideas, so many ideas swirling around in my head that I can't grasp any of them and so writing becomes a frustrating and even draining undertaking. That said, I'm working on the 70s items and on making The Male Appetite into a series and also have some more 80s film and actor posts in the works too. Yet, sometimes the act of writing is about thinking, gathering ideas and then hopefully managing to convey them in a way that makes sense and is entertaining.

So I suppose it is appropriate that I am watching a number of 70s crime films. My current (and constant) fascination with 70s film is, of course, the raw and rough and realistic way in which they are presented. Yet I think what deepens this realism is the use of dialogue and pause. Pause, in these films, is vital. Between the action, are scenes in which the characters discuss, plot, argue, review. Moreover, it is male interaction in these films that is most valued. Conversations amongst the male characters and their female partners, wives and girlfriends is often limited. Yet amongst men, the dialogue soars, it finds a rhythm, a beat, a meaning and moves the narrative forward. Much could be made of the dynamics of male/female relationships at this time, but since this blog is about men, I won't go into it, rather I will attempt an analysis of male interaction in film that doesn't involve violence or killing, which makes this kind of a unique topic here.

Also, there is this idea of the physical interaction between men that isn't meant to harm. When men speak to each other in these films, do they do so from a great distance? Do they touch or embrace at any time and how is that conveyed? Here again, can be found these subtle cues in the norms of masculine behavior. And how do these scenes work to create good characters? These are just some ideas, some questions, some things I am pondering at the moment.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Male Appetite

Appetite can represent the sexual realm or any manner of desire. Or it can simply refer to the prosaic activity of stuffing one's face, refueling for the next challenge. Many action film's feature a scene or two of the hero eating. Even this action must include some kind of reassertion or confirmation of his masculinity. Meat is the meal of choice, and sausage-y meals seem to win the day. Meat is bolted, eaten one handedly which is why hot dogs are the usual selection. It is often simply crammed into a corner of the mouth and chewed briefly while the hero stands and discusses his next plan. If he is seated to dine, he leans back or forward, taking up space, opening his lower body. Large quantities of food may also be eaten.

Arnold eating meat and making a goofy face.
Masculinity has been linked to meat eating since forever. There might be something to this as studies have shown that meat consumption increases testosterone levels. In the natural world, the predators eat meat. The prey forage for roots and vegetables and then usually get eaten by the predator while standing in a field or savannah somewhere staring into space and chewing. In the movie Predator, Arnold ate nothing. He rarely eats in his movies which is rather interesting as he seems to be above the baser appetites in his films. This might be an attempt to show strength of character (to match his physical strength) through abstaining. He does eat in Twins but that film is comedic and not action oriented at all so it doesn't really count. He is shown enjoying an ice cream cone with his daughter in Commando, but that scene is part of a montage used to reveal his devotion as a father. Once the action starts in that film, the food eating stops. In Conan, Arnold eats, drinks and notably, screws. But that was one of his earliest films, once he was established as action star, he abandoned decadent behavior and never fucked again (in movies anyway).

Testosterone aside, there is just something masculine about meat in itself. Sometimes it's skewered on a stick and roasted. Barbecue is usually performed solely by men. Even the name 'pit master' suggests something dominant or puts one in the mind of scenes from Conan the Barbarian. Compare carnivorous men to herbivorous men and it becomes obvious. Complete masculine failure is evident in the vegan man. They're typically emaciated and weak. They can barely speak above a whisper because they lack the energy. They are ghostly, undefined. They possess an air of sanctimonious vegan piety as they eat their pathetic meat substitutes. Food becomes all and the sex drive collapses. Much of vegan fare is estrogenic it must be noted, which explains the utter lack of masculine aggression most vegan men display.

Action heroes are never vegans obviously so we can be done discussing them. Yet in some films, they display some unusual eating habits. In Cobra, Sylvester Stallone is something of a picky eater, a rarity for an action star. He worries about his partner's sugar consumption and suggests he eat fruit (which is rather a feminine food). He is weirded out when Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) drowns her fries in ketchup.
Cobra appears to be a deep thinker, he mulls over the world while he chews his toothpick- that seems to be his sustenance. His first name is Marion though so maybe that's why he is so sensitive. The only time he is shown eating is in the opening of the film. He cuts cold leftover pizza with scissors (a masculine and resourceful solution to a lack of proper cutlery...having said supplies would be feminine, no?) and eats absentmindedly while watching the news and getting upset over the state of the world. But then this action becomes meaningless when he doesn't even eat the whole slice, only a dainty corner that he eats slowly, meditatively.

Tough guy seeks sustenance.
In The Thing, MacReady's so tough he eats whiskey. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs (Mel Gibson) inhales a hot dog at the side of the road. In Lethal Weapon II, Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and Riggs eat fast food with Leo (Joe Pesci) who gets stuck with a tuna sandwich he didn't order. Riggs and Murtaugh dine on more masculine meaty fare while Leo refuses to eat the tuna. The Dirty Harry films, too, are filled with hot dog eating. In Sudden Impact, Harry Callahan offers disgusted advice on the proper way to eat a hotdog to his partner: "nobody, I mean, nobody puts ketchup on a hot dog." In the first film in the iconic series, Dirty Harry stops a group of bank robbers by himself while casually chewing on the last bite of a hot dog. Said diner hot dog, we are told, is his typical lunch and dinner fare.

So why all this hot dog consumption? What is so masculine about the hot dog? The suggestive way it can be tucked into a bun? Is it its portability, it's phallic shape? Is it the insouciance and bravery that must belong to the hot dog eater, who is content, nay, eats with relish (heh) a tube of meat in a questionable casing fashioned from the flesh of various animals? Why do action heroes like hot dogs?

This is Part I of a four part series. Stay tuned for The Male Appetite Part II: Sex, The Male Appetite Part III: Altered States and The Male Appetite Part IV: Accessories and Acquisitions

Monday, February 10, 2014

Male Competition, Isolation and Paranoia in The Thing

The only female in John Carpenter's The Thing isn't human. It is a digital voice issuing from a computer game and its purpose is to inform MacReady (Kurt Russell) that he has lost. In response to defeat, MacReady destroys the machine. Yet what follows for MacReady is a much larger and more complex game of strategy. MacReady is in a world of men. It is a small world, isolated and remote- it is located in a scientific research facility in the frozen Antarctic. The work these men do isn't really expanded upon because the focus shifts pretty rapidly to a dangerous and invisible threat that they become contaminated with after exploring a nearby base.

This film, like most action movies, is concerned with a battle amongst Alpha males. However, unlike most action movies, it is largely a battle of wits. Of course, there are explosions, and fist fights and shootings in keeping with all the action movie traditions. Nevertheless, the tension in this movie is unlike that featured in other action films. The paranoia in this film is omnipresent, it is almost a living thing and it it is far more unsettling then the alien which is hunting, or rather, residing inside some of these men. The remote nature of the base heightens it as does the close quarters and the relentless cold and snow. In many ways, the events of this film seem to be occurring on another planet. It is an alien world, in which an actual alien is attacking humans, but the behaviors of the humans within it are rather typical.

Though much was made of this film's groundbreaking special effects in the early 80s, its strength lies in its subtlety. It is the fear these men experience and the uncertainty over who is and isn't the enemy that makes this film. Unlike other action films, all male bodies are covered by heavy winter clothing. Of course, this is a necessity due to the frigid temperatures, yet this concealment adds to the sense of dread and paranoia. It reflects the hidden nature of the threat and the way in which each character has no way of knowing the true nature of the other. That these men are fully clothed also confirms that this film is a matter of brains over brawn. If they are to be victorious over the alien, they must use their intellect rather than brute strength.

Once the action begins, there are no longer any daylight scenes. All is dark and cold. This intensifies the sense of mystery and the unknown. Furthermore, The Thing's brilliant conclusion leaves the viewer with a sense of uncertainty. The final sequence of this film is wonderfully understated. Childs and MacReady are the only men left. They contemplate their situation in a conversation that is as subtle as the scene itself. There is, however, a danger beneath it- a veiled threat. The camera alternates the close up shots of their faces and the back and forth volley of their conversation reemphasizes the male competition theme of this film. It is unclear whether Childs is really human at this point (though there are some signs that he may not be). MacReady watches him and Childs glares back as the haunting soundtrack begins quietly. This scene solidifies the unsettled feeling that has been evident throughout the film and that feeling persists long after the film is over.

The original 1951 version of The Thing and the dreadful 2011 remake all featured a female character in the cast. I suspect this is the reason neither film is as effective as the 1982 version. The presence of a woman changes the entire dynamic of a situation. Doubtless, sexual tension increases and male competition becomes largely about impressing or protecting the woman (regardless of how tough and resourceful she proves to be). And also how revolutionary to eliminate female characters? For what is an action hero without at least one woman to bring the sex and the tits and the mussed up hair? (Although Kurt Russell's hair is looking pretty amazing in this film.) I can't think of a modern action movie with a cast of all men. Men are usually the major players in action films but there's always a girl or two in a movie to nag or cajole or flirt or just hang around looking hot and vulnerable (or as in the case of the 21st century film, a woman to play the action hero too). The Thing doesn't allow the viewer that comfort and it is weirder and scarier for it. There is no nurturing, maternal presence here. There is only a monster and a group of men fighting it and each other. By placing the characters in an environment that is sterile, that is a purely male situation, a specific dynamic is created. The conflict becomes about territory and self-protection. Alpha masculinity is distilled to its most ancient as a kind of primal survival instinct comes into play. As a result, this film is not just about a battle with an alien, but is ultimately concerned with the endless competition among men for primacy and dominance.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Glitz, Glamour and the Glorification of Violence in 80s Film

The endless fight scene in Lethal Weapon
The 70s film maintained a grim realism and an unflinching view of violence. Contradictorily, the imagery in these movies was often ugly, the fight sequences clumsy and the blood and gore was often an obvious technicolor fakery that was nevertheless gruesome and also, oddly, real. The 80s film used advances in special effects to make violent sequences hyper-realistic, well-choreographed and also strangely glamourous. Villains are thrown through windows in an explosion of sparkling glass, the texture and color of the blood is much more accurate and gun fights and fist fights are edited to heighten dramatic tension. In these films, violence becomes a kind of stylistic choice rather than necessary to the narrative. In this way, the 80s film ceases to critique violence and instead celebrates or even fetishizes it.

This is not to suggest that all 70s action films were noble attempts to attack the violent behaviors of humanity. They weren't. They were, however, more responsible in presentation. The fight scenes and gunfights in the 70s film appear to be almost normal. They occur without fuss or fanfare and therefore have an un-elevated status. The 80s film becomes an expression of hyper-masculinity and along with this exaggerated maleness are sequences of over-the-top violent masculine activity. Moreover, many 80s films use music to heighten the exhilarating aspects of the many violent scenes. The violence, then, becomes a source of arousal and excitement in these films.

While the editing in the 80s film is much more careful, the fight scene itself is longer. The conclusion of nearly every 80s action film is a drawn out display of hyper violence. The confrontation between the good guy and bad guy is accented with dramatic music, flashing lights, driving rainstorms or occurs in an obviously male oriented place such as a warehouse. Moreover, though the characters throughout these films have always used weapons (whether guns, knives or explosive devices) in their confrontations, the concluding fight scene almost always involves fists- the combat must be physical, intimate. In some ways, the action is almost sexual, the previous violence a kind of foreplay and the conclusion the sex scene. That many action films are devoid of sex sequences is telling-- the violence becomes the only physical expression of sexual tension. Further, the visual and musical dramatics of the scene only accentuate this aspect of these films.