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Man's role in contemporary cinema.

posted by Paul on 6/04/01

Cinema's "golden age", typified in the 1940s and 1950s, was largely responsible for perpetuating ideas of femininity and masculinity. Taking a functionalist view, the media reflected societal viewpoints. However, Marxists argued that the media shaped society, influencing the members of it. Movies such as "The Big Sleep" consisted of limited depictions of gender roles. Usually, men were depicted as strong, dutiful and dominant, while women existed merely in perfunctory roles or to play "femme fatales".

With the rise of feminism, ease on censorship, and the passage of time, gender portrayals began to broaden. For many years, men had been portrayed as the cliched "strong, silent type" - dominant, lacking nuance and betraying little emotion. Those movies were filmed in black and white, an almost metaphorical commentary on their characters. Black or white, good or bad and displaying little variation. It would be inaccurate to say that the gender roles have been completely reversed, but with the increasing proliferation of feminist-themed movies ("Erin Brockovich", "Bad Girls" and "Boys on the Side" to name just three of the more recent entries ), it would be fair to say that cinematic characterizations have evolved. And in many ways, this reflects the changing face of society, as more and more women are being employed in so-called "men's jobs".

With all of this change and reformation, the conventional stereotype of man has been altered. Maybe even diminished. And this is especially true in the cinema. To a large extent, man's role in the modern world is confused. Issues have come to the fore, and there are no new theories on what it is to be a man in contemporary times. Because of this, many movies now feature vulnerable men, frightened men, emotional men and men who are articulate about their inner fears.

These broader depictions are exemplified in the movies of Martin Scorcese ("Taxi Driver"), Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia") and David Fincher ("Fight Club"). Applying the Auteur Theory, it would be reasonable to say that each director has made his own movie, with minimal interference from the studios. The Auteur theory cited that filmmakers with strong, distinctive visual styles and themes could be considered authors of their work. Many auteurs wrote and directed their movies, but this was not the only criteria. While Anderson writes and directs his movies, Fincher and Scorcese, rather than create the stories, shape the scripts they use to meet their requirements. Each director has an idiosyncratic visual style, and each has captured the essence of their male protagonists very profoundly. The movies "Taxi Driver", "Magnolia" and "Fight Club" are indicative of this, each movie provoking heated debate amongst critics.

In "Taxi Driver", Scorcese weaves a story of a lonely, insecure Vietnam veteran (Travis Bickle), slowly losing his mind as he witnesses the depravity in New York City. Dull lighting, grimy locations and the use of "authentic", earthy dialogue capture the mood of the piece - downbeat. The onscreen colors darken as Travis' mood deepens into depression. David Fincher uses similar lighting in "Fight Club". Both movies offer us lonely men as protagonists. Jack is "Fight Club's" duplicitous protagonist and omniscient narrator. Like Bickle, he is lonely, and unsure of his place in the world. While Bickle, repulsed by the squalor all around him prays for a rain to "wash all the scum off the streets", Jack vents his frustrations in bare-knuckle fighting.

Both movies were heavily criticized for their unflinching levels of violence, but the point could be that man eventually succumbs to violence, especially if it is unnaturally restrained. Inside both characters, a rage boils. Bickle keeps it subdued, scribbling his personal feelings into a diary, while we hear his innermost thoughts via voice-over. Later, his repressed aggression escalates into a bloodbath of violence. And we also hear Jack's inner thoughts, aggravated by the superficial excesses of modern society. Jack appears innocuous, but it is eventually revealed that Tyler Durden, a charismatic man he meets on a business flight, is actually an extension of himself. This plot twist emphasizes the duality of man. On one hand, many men feel they must conform, but by doing this, they're denying their "true" selves from shining - anger needs a healthy outlet. On the other hand, it could be argued that modern man has a lack of definition, anyway. And this would certainly be true of the protagonists in the aforementioned works.

It would be particularly true of the brash Frank T.J Mackey character in "Magnolia". The ensemble movie centers around a host of characters, each suffering their own pain and insecurities. The Mackey character is a chauvinist who preaches to men on how to acquire women. He's a motivational speaker, but his own motivations seem somewhat sinister. Lacking a strong sense of identity, he distanced himself from a past he wants to forget (denying a relationship with his dying father). This denial amplifies his persona as a shallow womanizer, which is revealed to be a fallacy anyway, since we later see him as insecure and vulnerable. In more traditional movies, men were generally not imbued with qualities such as self-analysis or self-awareness. But Mackey presents a facade. And Bickle and Jack are also without a strong sense of self. Jack has a sinister alter ego and Bickle cruises from street to street, anonymous, unsure of his purpose.

Contemporary man is best analyzed with reference to contemporary woman. Each of these movies has its fair share of female characters, and this sheds a new light on man's relationship with himself and with other people. "Taxi Driver" 's Bickle obsesses over Betsy, a woman to whom he has an enormous attraction. He sees her as the cure to all his ills, but when they date and she is disgusted by his anti-social behavior, it drives him deeper into a well of self-loathing ( "I've known loneliness all my life" ). Bickle can't relate well to women, as he enjoys the isolating experience of dingy pornographic theaters and stumbles frequently in everyday conversation with the opposite sex. But he has strong desires. Throughout the movie he is without sex, so it is clear that what he really seeks is companionship, since he rejects the advances of prostitutes.

The Jack/Tyler character sees his mask of happiness ruined by Marla, a woman he simultaneously loves and hates, depending on which persona he adopts. Jack sees her as the enemy, a woman impeding his relationship with Tyler (his charismatic alter ego), while Tyler sees her as an equal, but actually just uses her as a sex-object. This certainly raises intriguing questions, but it seems that Fincher's hidden message is that women can halt man's road to self-discovery. Obviously, this is an indictment of women, but many modern men actually see women as rivals, so it's an accurate depiction of male angst. As is the Mackey character, who ironically teaches men how to " get " women, but doesn't seem to have much respect for women himself.

"We are a generation of men raised by women. I'm beginning to wonder if another woman is what we really need." - Tyler Durden - "Fight Club".

Again, this would confirm the long-standing suspicion that many men are intimidated by strong, dominant females. Mackey only wants women for selfish reasons ("Tame them " he barks to his rabid followers), and there are hints that it is really a power issue. He does not want to be equal with women, for he really just needs women to be subservient to him. His eyes reveal a hatred for the opposite sex; steely, intense, and fixed. And Scorcese lets his camera focus on Bickle's eyes, which shift considerably, suggesting a fraught mind behind the shadows. Jack's eyes are equally shadowy, cold to the world around him. It doesn't hurt that three of Hollywood's finest actors - Robert De Niro, Tom Cruise and Edward Norton - and three undeniably "strong" men are portraying these characters, but the directors and the scripts used are great complements to the characterizations. In many ways, the auteurs represent personas, and a deft skill helps make their movies more palatable.

In this world of changing values, there is no questioning that gender roles have been reversed. Research has proven that women are making significant strides in society, venturing into "men's jobs" and actually bettering their male counterparts in many ways. And suicide is statistically most prominent amongst men, with the theory being that men take their own lives because the gender role is less well defined. Indeed, in these three works, suicide plays a part. Travis Bickle, a morbid man anyway, admits to having feelings of taking his own life. This is due to the sheer desperation that has engulfed him, and one that many men, uncomfortable with relating their feelings, can attest. Indeed, in "Magnolia", an older character named Jimmy Gator tries to take his own life. Gator, a gameshow host with an unseemly past and dying of cancer, finds he cannot live with his past sins (including infidelity and abusing his own daughter). But his attempt at suicide is thwarted ("The book says, we might be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us" he says dejected). Nevertheless, the point is clear: the past eventually comes back to haunt us. Men, moreso than women, are more susceptible to suicide, since stereotypical man (particularly a staunch, traditional man like Gator) is unlikely to admit his weaknesses or inner turmoil. And so, death is presumed to be a better option.

"The days go on and on... they don't end. All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don't believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people." - Travis Bickle - "Taxi Driver".

I feel that many men could certainly relate to the characters in these movies. Which is strange, because the characters are not presented as heroes. If anything, they are anti-heroes. There were actual fears that these movies would lead to copycat violence. "Magnolia" is exempt from that criticism, but the other two movies certainly depict violence in a unique way. The target audience for all these movies is the 18-35 demographic. They are adult movies, and intended for mature audiences only. But "Fight Club" has been accused of glamorizing violence. With the popular and conventionally handsome, Brad Pitt, in the lead, it is easy to understand the fears. He himself is seen as very masculine, and tagged by the media as "cool" (many men are therefore injected with the view that they should aspire to be like Pitt). This is taking a hypodermic view of Hollywood, that the viewers just accept what is presented to them but it is interesting to note that "Fight Club"'s characters are critical of people who just accept what is being fed to them - the so-called "sheep" of society. However, with Pitt's Tyler Durden character (himself a charismatic leader) expounding upon the benefits of fighting ("How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?" he asks rhetorically), it would be easy to imagine people seeing organized fighting as viable.

It is very common for men to give into the baser instincts of violence. In "Taxi Driver", Bickle's angst spills into a deep rage. He can no longer cope with the demons in his mind; he buys a gun; he dresses in a disguise(perhaps to disguise the man he really is); and he decides to exact some revenge on society. He is, at best, a vigilante (he murders a thief and several pimps) and, at worst, a raging psychopath. But he's only able to feel better about himself after unloading with violence. The same can be said about the "Jack"/Durden character. As the rather gentlemanly "Jack", he feels empty. Then when Durden introduces him to fighting, he feels "alive", as though his beating of and by strangers somehow gives him a purpose in life and makes him feel more like a man. This is not merely the work of Hollywood fiction. Many men do, in fact, only feel worthwhile when they are engaging in violence. It is a rather primitive characteristic, but one which is not uncommon. In the past, hooligans have accounted for their actions by explaining that, for them, violence was an enriching experience.

The Auteur filmmakers are personalities themselves. Just like the stars of the movies, the directors have a distinctive voice which shines through. Scorsese is renowned for his movies about the individual struggling in the modern world. In movies such as "Raging Bull", he has captured the essence of difficult men coming to terms with their own demons. His movies are, in many ways, a parable about man's feelings about himself and the world around him, and there is a similar desperation in each of these men. David Fincher, on the other hand, is known for being a visual stylist. Each of his movies have a very unique look and appeal, but the protagonists in his movies have tended to be seemingly successful men struggling with inner turmoil. Fincher does not have as varied a body of work as Scorsese, but the themes are evident throughout each movie. He loves to play mind-games with his characters, and he has a tendency to show people at their worst, when the masks have slipped. Paul Thomas Anderson is a new director, but he is closer to Scorsese in terms of style and content. His movies, including the critically-acclaimed "Boogie Nights", show what happens to people when they lose touch with themselves. He shows the potential dangers of being a man in the modern world - the temptations and vices which provide a constant threat.

In all three movies, the men characters are battling against the dominant ideology. Particularly in "Fight Club", where the general thrust is opposing control and being an individual. They talk about the "rules of Fight Club", which are taken to be an extension of their views on life. Basically, the creators of "Fight Club" are discontented with the state of the world and their role within it, and they feel they should cause as much chaos as humanly possible in an attempt to claw back their dignity and sense of identity. This is interesting: the view that we have descended into mindless consumerism and are just slaves to the system.

Tyler Durden says "you are not the car you drive". In this day and age, many men are defined by the car they drive and the clothes they wear, but Durden disputes the validity of that. He feels that man is becoming less involved with his true being by surrendering to commercialism and not questioning the system. I think the movie resonates because the points are so valid. The fact is, the world has become incredibly materialistic, and the men who were once considered to be above that, are now very much a part of the vanity cycle.

Traditionally, a man was defined by his family and his role within that. Nowadays, however, the nuclear family is less prevalent and new living arrangements are in place. The men in these movies tend to not only be flawed individuals, but they seem reluctant to settle down and produce a family. In fact, it does not even enter into the equation. The only fathers in any of the works appear in "Magnolia": Earl Partridge and Jimmy Gator. Both are older men. Both are dying. Both have regrets. And both are, by their own admissions, lousy fathers. They both worked in the entertainment industry, and used that position to be unfaithful in their marriages. Partridge abandoned his son, the aforementioned Mackey, and cheated on the love of his life ("I'll tell you the greatest regret of my life: I let my love go."). These are older men, who are emotionally aloof, but it could be argued that they have the same regrets that the younger characters would likely have when they get older. The regret stems from the inability to relate when it matters,and the repercussions of not being a good father or moral man are evident here: tortuous regret and emotionally damaged children.

There is an old expression that the "clothes don't make the man", and that is an underlying theme here. Bickle's "Taxi Driver" does not look like the disturbed veteran his voiceover reveals. Indeed, many modern men feel defined by their job description. Bickle taxis people from place-to-place and encounters a variety of people. This helps shape his negative view of the world, but since he is working a traditionally man's job, you wonder how that influences his views. If a woman was driving around New York City would she feel as bitter as Bickle? It is unlikely. Bickle is required to be subservient and, in many ways, he has to act as an emotional sponge, as he has to listen to everyone's problems and personal views. It is a female-free world. Just like "Jack"'s job in "Fight Club", where he works in a mundane office, feeling that he is losing his touch. There is a character in "Magnolia" called Jim Kurring, who is a caring policeman. He, too, feels the loneliness of living in the modern world. He is divorced, feels a failure for an ended marriage and cannot find true love amidst the cynical excesses. Yet, unlike the many other characters, he is not chauvinistic and he does seek female companionship. It is just that, while he enjoys helping people, he feels that he lacks something as a man - proving that many men are having difficulty coming to terms with the world, regardless of their job description.

"But this is my job and I love it. Because I want to do well -- in this life and in this world, I want to do well. And I want to help people. And I might get twenty bad calls a day. But one time I can help someone and make a save -- correct a wrong or right a situation -- then I'm a happy cop." - Jim Kurring - "Magnolia".

We have become a very secularised society. "Fight Club" reflects the nihilism. These men have decided to become their own gods. Durden, himself, transforms himself into some God-like figure, who tells people how to live their lives and treat the world. He has, like Mackey, his own devout followers. So it is ironic that while he talks about not conforming and questioning the establishment, he is encouraging the men (in his own roundabout way) to follow him blindly and not question his purpose. They may believe they are not conforming, but Durden's "Space Monkeys" are devoted to his increasingly sinister cause and fail to question why they are involved in "Fight Club". It is this lack of self-analysis that plagues many men. They do what they think should be done, but they neglect to ask whether it is beneficial to them.

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