“Don’t call me chicken” screams Jim Stark (James Dean) when confronted by bullies in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause. On the surface he is just responding to their taunts, which aim to provoke him into a physical response, but there is a deeper meaning at play. To Jim the term “chicken” is not just a sign of weakness, but also a stark reminder of the daily emasculation that his father, Frank (Jim Backus) endures at the hands of his mother Carol (Ann Doran). If you have any doubt about this, the film makes it obvious by showing a meek Frank, wearing a flowery apron no less, cowering in fear after spilling a tray of food and hoping Carol does not find out.
While viewing Rebel Without a Cause, which is marvelous by the way, for first time last week, the thing that struck me was the way it interpreted masculinity in 1955. For all the machismo I was expecting, after all the film stars James Dean who was immortalized as a “Bad Boy” based on this film, it lacks many of the masculine archetypes one would expect. The men in the film are divided into four groups: 1) The man who rebukes the tender display of affection from his teenage daughter, such as peck on the cheek, for fear of it arousing any sort of sexual feelings; 2) The man who bullies not to display dominance, but rather because he has nothing better to do; 3) The man who spinelessly succumbs to the overbearing women in his life; and 4) The man who is sensitive and struggles to not only express his emotions, but also cope with the world around him.
The weird thing about this is that the film, despite being released in the mid-1950s, actually feels right at home with many of the male figures that dominate cinema today. Looking back on 2013, the men who fill my memory are not the pumped up Riddicks (Vin Diesel) or risk taking Captain Kirks (Chris Pine) of the cinematic landscape. Rather it is the tortured and sensitive souls the likes of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey) that seem to have left the biggest mark. Men who, as if a combination of Rebel’s Jim and Frank Stark, suffer an inability to express themselves effectively due to being emotionally crippled by the women who once inhabited their lives. This inability to move on from past romances even found its way into blockbusters like The Wolverine and Fast and Furious 6.
Even those who seem to have it together are not immune to this. For all the commentary on youth and excess, one of the most intriguing things about Spring Breakers was the almost childlike way in which Alien (James Franco) succumbs to his three muses. Despite his thug-like demeanor, the allure of his lethal vixens reverts him to a love sick puppy who sings Britney Spears ballads on the piano. Even those who start off from a seemingly sensitive place, reveal deep-seated darkness that can be linked back to being unable to mentally deal with certain women no longer fitting into their lives. One only needs to explore the daring, but flawed, psychological thriller Trance for an example of this. In Prince Avalanche we witness a man who prefers the solitude that comes with repainting traffic lines on a desolate country road rather than confront the issues and pain that comes with his marriage.
The fascinating thing about the introverted form of masculinity that has become a staple in cinema recently is that it is a direct, and frankly refreshing, contrast to what we saw from their female cinematic counterparts. While studios tried their best to justify why we are not supposedly ready for a solo Wonder Woman film; audiences were smitten with female characters who were consistently proving that it was time for the “old boy’s club” studio mentality to finally be retired. The women we followed on screen this past year were a revelation. They were kicking ass and taking names (Fast and Furious 6, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and The Hobbit), exploring their sexuality (Blue is the Warmest Color), proving it is okay for women to be awkward (Frozen), taking the lead on daring science fiction journeys (Upstream Color, Gravity), indulging in their criminal desires (Spring Breakers, Side Effects) and scared the crap out of us (The Conjuring, Stoker).
Is it merely a coincidence that as females were asserting their many facets on screen, males found it tough to cope with their emotions regarding both women and change? Perhaps. However, it could simply be an accurate reflection of the world we live in. With the exception of a few cultures, the patriarchal way of life no longer carries much weight. Men are not really needed the way they used to be as gender equality has taken centre stage. Without the pressures of having to live up to the macho male stereotypes of the 70s and 80s, a more introspective man has taken flight both in real life and on film.
I think this is why I fell asleep during a film like A Good Day to Die Hard, but was fascinated by the somber Inside Llewyn Davis. Of course there are exceptions to the rule, many would point to The Wolf of Wall Street for example. By all accounts that film is as testosterone driven as it gets. As much as I enjoyed The Wolf of Wall Street, which I did a great deal, people give me a perplexed look when I compare it to both Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and The Hangover. Is it really that far off?
Wolf features men behaving badly with all the sex and nudity you could want. However, in a year when the sensitive and tortured man reigned supreme, the exploits of Jordon Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his cronies comes off as juvenile and at times misogynistic. It is as if they were teenage boys who just got a hold of their first pornography DVD and then made it their goal to be like the “real men” in those films. Belfort and crew, for all their exploits, were simply grasping at an image of masculinity that does not really exist today.
As everything in film seems to move in cycles, there will no doubt be those, mostly studio executives, who cling to a faint hope of the return of the “manly men”. It is why films like The Expendables 3 will be bulldozing into theatres later this year. Despite these blips, I do not see the pendulum shifting anytime soon. Heck, even many of the comic book films are embracing the emotionally complex man over straight brawn. Two years ago we watched Batman take an eight year break to mourn the loss of the woman he loved, and last year we saw a more sensitive and conflicted Man of Steel. Looking at the slate of films set to come out in 2014, including the ones I have already seen like The F Word, Joe and Enemy, the era of the conflicted sensitive male is alive and well.
This is not necessarily a bad thing mind you. It is just a reminder that as women and the world in general evolve, men too must embrace change and the unknown. Don’t call them chickens, just men trying to sort stuff out.