There are currently five films in theaters that, to greater or lesser degrees, ponder the state of modern manhood?Fight Club, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Boys and Boys Don't Cry. They range in tone from sardonically amused to mournful and bewildered. But in writing about them, it is important?crucially important?to understand that they describe their own versions of masculinity and its ongoing identity crisis. (The emphasis is on white men; the emphasis in movies, and in the culture at large, usually is.) Describing a predicament in a dramatic context and interpreting it in a very broad, provocative way is not the same thing as encouraging an audience to be horrified by all the changes taking place; nor is it the same thing as saying that everybody should lament the fact that in the late industrial era, men are being denied the chance to act manly (i.e., aggressive, decisive, free). Many film critics appear to have misunderstood this distinction?particularly when writing about Fight Club and American Beauty; as a result, they attack the films for doing something that they in fact do not do. More on this in a moment.
What's going on in these films, exactly? An awakening of sorts?a belated realization that the old ways of thinking about manliness don't do the trick anymore; that complex matrices of social changes have combined to render long-cherished, stereotypical notions of manliness irrelevant; that when men attempt to superimpose old, outmoded attitudes and impulses onto their lives?to stand up or lash out like "real" men, in other words?they destroy themselves, their loved ones and their society. To some degree, all the movies contain elements of absurdity and tragedy.
The Boys, an arty domestic tragedy from Australia now playing at Cinema Village, is set in and around a household that stands in for a newly feminized Western society. A tough, taciturn felon named Brett returns home from prison to discover that his once-hardcase brothers have conceded control of their destinies to the women in their lives?their girlfriends and their mom, to be specific. One brother has a pregnant girlfriend and is becoming domesticated?as close as a hardscrabble blue-collar Australian chap can get to domestication, at any rate.
The other brother is seeing a self-possessed career woman who keeps him completely cowed. The mom has remarried a half-Aborigine man whose decency cannot eclipse his otherness in the eyes of his stepsons. Even the hero has woman troubles; he's still sexually sparked by his girlfriend, Michelle, who waited for him while he was in the joint, but their relationship is clouded by hints that she was unfaithful to him, as well as Brett's lingering resentment that Michelle never came to visit him, just as all the other loved ones in his life didn't come to visit him.
It is possible to read Brett's character as a repository of stereotypical masculine qualities. He's a warrior, a leader, an aggressive go-getter, a territory-marker and a seducer. But The Boys suggests that in modern Western society, these qualities are not only less useful than they were in earlier centuries, they might actually be a hindrance, even a destructive force. The implication, made explicit in an argument scene late in the movie, is that nobody came to see Brett because nobody really missed him; nobody missed his aura of bad-boy mischief, sullenness and free-floating rage because those qualities disrupt the new order.
In anthropologist and NYPress columnist Lionel Tiger's book The Decline of Males, he posits the rise of what he calls "the bureaugamy"?an infrastucture of social workers, lawmakers, law enforcers and bureaucrats who effectively displace men from their traditionally manly roles and render them irrelevant. Though the bureaugamy's main function is to make it economically possible for women to raise children without men, its secondary function is to keep men under control. Its duties include the containment of male rage (sexual harassment, stalking, abuse of women), the punishment of male irresponsibility (such as failure to pay child support) and the minimal easing of men's economic distress (unemployment payments) now that blue-collar, physical jobs have dried up and been replaced with feminized or "service" jobs. Tiger's bureaugamy is a variant on the notion of a "nanny state."
The Boys in no way suggests that the bureaugamy is not necessary; the film does, however, note its existence and describe its functions. As an ex-felon, Brett is subjected to drug tests and has a number of social workers he must report to; he and his brothers are all unemployed and taking government payments; and whenever Brett or one of his brothers taps male rage in order to frighten or control women, the cops show up at the door threatening arrest. Again, none of this material is presented in a loaded way, as it might have been in a Paul Schrader movie from the 70s. We're not supposed to think, "Oh, poor Brett?his balls have been cut off by women and the state." The man is a dangerous and ultimately monstrous person, and the climactic, anonymous lashing out by him and his brothers is in no way presented as justifiable or worthy of our sympathy. But it is still remarkable to see so many components of modern male distress laid out so geometrically in a single feature film.
The Boys could be an unwitting companion piece to recent books on the subject, like The Decline of Males and Susan Faludi's Stiffed?both of which present a panoramic view of how maleness and men have changed in the past half century, but mostly avoid cheering or jeering the state of things or predicting what the future might hold. There is a sense in both books that something distinctive and defining has been lost, but this awareness rarely crosses over into editorial wistfulness.
Fight Club is another encyclopedia of male distress, but it's a comedy?so clearly a comedy that I'm frankly stunned that many usually perceptive critics, notably The New Yorker's David Denby and New York's Peter Rainer, have misread it as some sort of lament for the passing of a hairy-chested society that let men be men. While acknowledging the movie's satiric element, they overlook the fact that the filmmakers view the hero's odyssey with bemusement and incredulity?in other words, as an absurdist spectacle. The Narrator, an insurance adjuster, is a man who wishes he felt more like a man; "feeling more like a man" means fulfilling consumer society's fantasy image of men who consume instead of build, knuckle under instead of fight and wallow in self-help and self-pity instead of living in the world.
This society?caricatured by director David Fincher into a sci-fi landscape as clearly abstract as that of an adult comic book?has dismantled most of the outlets for male aggression and self-determination. The Narrator's generation of men, the post-boomers, was raised mostly without fathers; the hero's best friend and doppelganger, Tyler Durden, speaks explicitly of a generation of men raised by women, and the hero expresses a desire to fight his own absentee dad. Fight Club, where disenfranchised men escape from the feminized world to beat each other bloody and discover their inner brute, is not intended to be cheered or emulated. Its existence is a rhetorical provocation; in effect, the men who participate in Fight Club are acting out a variant of that timeless teenage threat: All right, mom?if you're so convinced I'm a thug, then goddamn it, I'm going to go act like one. See how you like it. It's like Lester Burnham's strategy in American Beauty: treated like a child by his wife, his coworkers and the world at large, he regresses into adolescence, finding false bliss in the total abdication of responsibility; it isn't until his final instant on Earth that he catalogs the things that are really important to him?his home life, his loved ones and his memories.
Fincher and his collaborators are well aware of how ridiculous, adolescent and destructive this strategy is. That's why the preposterously brutal Fight Club sequences are shot like a Kenneth Anger fantasy, and staged in a basement with leaky pipes that looks like the kind of place where fratboys might conduct homoerotic hazing rituals. The fistfights are a literalization of what the men are already doing to each other and themselves emotionally, in lieu of meaningful relationships and meaningful work. It's no accident that when the Narrator lashes out against his weaselly boss, he does it by beating himself up and blaming the guy who signs his paychecks. (The beaten-down white-collar dad of American Beauty has a similar scene, but his lashing out is verbal rather than physical, and he hits his enemy rather than himself.)
Fight Club urges men toward destruction rather than solution, regression rather than transformation. The acting out of repressed, aggressive impulses is a reward in itself. That's why so many of the film's terrorist acts are directed at fairly minor sources of annoyance, like corporate art and chain coffeehouses?because a real revolutionary campaign waged against the nanny state would be too risky and too serious. For a movie that some critics have claimed endorses fascism and terrorism, it has an awfully skeptical view of such activities. The final destruction of credit card companies is seen in the background behind a man and a woman who no longer have any clue who they are, what they stand for or where society is headed after this.
If the film is making any sort of cosmic statement, it's that if there's a life beyond the old models of manhood, we haven't figured out what it is yet. (Again, it is primarily descriptive rather than prescriptive.) Absent a clue of what the future holds for men, men fall back on old, typically destructive behavior patterns, like the brothers in The Boys. Fincher finds the spectacle of men self-consciously acting out masculinity extremely funny and a bit pathetic. He knows that Meat Loaf's character, a steroid abuser who has grown enormous male breasts, is lashing out at the world with a rage disproportionate to his own predicament, and that his stereotypically feminine "sensitivity" in the early part of the movie is funny because it's a substitute for real introspection, not because it's a chick thing.
Another recurring and related theme in these endangered manhood movies is sexual identity?and identity, period. In Boys Don't Cry, Teena Brandon, a boy trapped in a girl's body, reinvents himself as Brandon Teena, a perfectly plausible straight boy, and is murdered by the biologically genuine article. The film suggests that a large part of the local straight teenagers' anger stems from their feeling that Brandon negated one of the few things in life they could depend on?their confidence in their own gender and sexual orientation, and the alpha-male privileges that go along with both. Brandon shows us another way to live, unshackled by biological constraints and social conditioning, and is murdered because "real" men are scared by him.
In its own more clunky, obvious way, American Beauty gets at some of the same ideas. Its hero is killed at the precise moment that he articulates a state of nihilistic bliss and perverse self-invention as a fortysomething teenager; he is killed by the homophobe he rebuffed, a twisted, lonely man who would rather take a life and ruin his own than admit to himself that he might be something other than straight.
I'll cede an extended analysis of Being John Malkovich to my colleague Armond White, but it's worth pointing out that it has an emasculated hero who finds temporary happiness by projecting himself into the identities of others?his puppet characters and, later, John Malkovich, a rich and famous celebrity whose soul can apparently be accessed by anybody for 15 minutes at a time. The 15-minute time length is no accident, and there are several scenes of deadpan, Andy Warhol nuttiness that depict ordinary people feeling most alive and most important when they are either pretending to be a celebrity or spend time with one. The celebrity-crazed popular culture has turned all discourse on popular culture into fan gossip, and all Americans into starry-eyed, girlish groupies.
But the movie does not confine its consideration of identities in crisis to the theme of celebrity and its fascinations. It's much bigger and more complex than that. One of the more brilliant aspects of Charlie Kaufman's script is how it extends the sense of identity distress to include women, and stirs in other complicating factors, including virtual reality, the Internet and a rise in general knowledge of homo- and bisexuality. It's not enough to say men aren't men anymore and women are changing too; it seems that nobody is anything in particular, and society as a whole is becoming as fuzzy as snow on a tv set. In the warped funhouse world of Being John Malkovich, there appears to be no identity anymore?just various forms of projection and escape. Yet the yearning for comfort, happiness and certainty persists, and it must be satisfied by any means necessary, even twisted ones?the worst opportunities for contentment are better than nothing. Structured in the form of a fantastic journey, and strewn with poetic asides and archetypal allusions that intentionally don't fit together exactly, Being John Malkovich is like an interior, emotional reworking of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And like Kubrick's film, it ends on a note that could be utterly vague or utterly certain. It is, at the very least, an image of a transformed (or at least transported) identity. In the final shot of Malkovich, as in Space Odyssey, the repository of human consciousness is a child: an ever-evolving species born yet again. But into what?
Framed Last week at the office, I noticed that a NYPress receptionist was reading The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, about the novelist's years in Soviet prison. I mentioned that this was one of those works that many different people over the years had implored me to read, but for some reason I hadn't got around to it. "How is it?" I asked. "It's good," she said. "It makes you sad, but in a good way. It's important that people know about this stuff, otherwise you might forget."
That's a good argument for seeing Punitive Damages, a film from New Zealand about the murder of 20-year-old New Zealander named Kamal Bamadhaj, who was shot in 1991 by Indonesian troops while protesting the occupation of East Timor. It is more than a portrait of Kamal and his mother Helen Todd, and a record of her attempt to sue the Indonesian government for the murder; the film is also a chilling and important explanation of what's going on in East Timor, and why the occupation has drawn the attention of activists from all over the world.
Punitive Damages builds its case calmly and precisely, knowing that the facts of East Timor's occupation are so heinous that there is no need for hyperbole. Director Annie Goldson understands that there are few filmed images as riveting as the sight of a person's face in closeup, talking about something that haunts them. She also avoids implying that Kamal's fate is of interest because he's an outsider; his death is placed in the context of hundreds of thousands of killings committed by the Indonesian government since the occupation began in 1975. "Their lives are very tough," Helen Todd says of the East Timorese. "They're a lot tougher than mine." This film makes you sad in a good way.