Let me be clear: I love women. I’m an outspoken, Bechdel-reading feminist writer. I believe diversity of representation is vital in the arts, and I don’t endorse nor tolerate bigotry and exclusion. I resent the male-as-default cinematic status quo, and have no interest in ‘defending’ a privileged demographic. But I have a confession to make:
I kind of love watching men.
There’s a certain unique experience that comes with being a female viewer of male-dominated cinema. When we talk about male-dominated films, we often focus on their problematic elements (which I agree with) – they are unrealistic, they under-represent gender diversity, and so forth.
When a film is incidentally male-dominated, it’s definitely a problem – evidence of ignorant, thoughtless writing, a missed opportunity for diverse gender representation. But when a film is intentionally male-dominated, it can be interesting. This is the kind I love to watch – films that are filled with men specifically because they are about men, about their fears and their brutality, about the horror (and sometimes tenderness) of their relationships to
each other, and to the world.
The strange intrigue of all-male narratives is that they offer a glimpse into a world that I (and other women) can never know. I’ll never be able to experience the interaction and conversation that goes on when no women are in the room – because I am always the woman in the room. My experiences with men will forever be coloured by their gendered perception of me. I will never know how it feels to interact with them as complete “equals”. But in watching films that are dominated by – and about – masculinity, women are presented with a unique opportunity of complete voyeurism into a world that we are so often barred from.
(An obvious tragedy here: the intrigue doesn’t go the other way. Women’s rich inner lives appear to be of little interest to male audiences. In fact, as Helene Cixous tells us, many prefer the idea of us as unexplorable continents, Medusas that cannot be looked at directly. We are characterised as enigmas, beings so apparently “unknowable” that it’s not worth trying… But I digress.)
Take the example of Andrew Neel’s Goat (2016). The kinds of men that populate this film are the very kinds of men I espouse an angry-feminist loathing for in my day-to-day life: belligerent, patriarchal gatekeepers, purveyors of brutality and humiliation. But when I watch Goat, a film about a despicable fraternity, I can’t look away. Somehow, I am moved. Perhaps this is because the film doesn’t shy away from the brutal reality of its characters’ community. As a viewer, I revel in that that horror, that sadness, because I know it to be true. It affirms my own feelings; reminds me that they are not unfounded.
For comparison’s sake, consider a film like Neighbors (2014), a vastly different perspective on male college culture. Neighbors barely acknowledges the powerful role that the patriarchy has in perpetuating frat culture (and vice versa). Phallic obsession is rife in large groups of immature heterosexual men (a.k.a. fraternities), and Goat uses this to create discomfort: the pledges have to pick up raw hot dogs with their mouths; Mitch (James Franco)’s phallocentric jokes are not funny, but violent and Freudian. Neighbors, on the other hand, seems unconscious of its own phallic fixations – actually playing penis jokes for humour. Both films also feature scenes in which men delight in watching two women kiss each other – but again, framed in entirely different ways. When Kelly (Rose Byrne) kisses a girl at the Neighbors’ house party, the music immediately switches to Fergie’s ‘London Bridge’ – oh shit!, the vocals exclaim. The film expects this reaction from us, too. Her husband, Mac (Seth Rogen), mouths “holy shit” as a
shocked smile grows on his face, whilst Pete (Dave Franco) giggles and gawks. This film normalises these reactions, never criticising the men’s gleeful gaze at the same-sex spectacle, because it simply doesn’t see the problem. The rituals of patriarchy are glorified under bright lights and upbeat music.
In contrast, the same scene in Goat is bleak and pathetic. Chance (Gus Halper) sits alone in a quiet bedroom of a house party, watching two girls make out. There is no music. The colour palette is muted and dull. Brett (Nick Jonas) enters, adding his gaze to the scene, followed by the film’s protagonist, Brad (Ben Schnetzer). Chance whispers, giddy: “I didn’t even fuckin’ tell ’em. They just started doing that. I didn’t even fuckin’ tell ’em anything.”
When the girls break off, Chance says, “Why’d you stop? What are you doing?”, reminding us whose benefit this is for. Brad, unmoved by the spectacle, exits. End scene. There’s nothing pleasant about it, and the audience is not encouraged to join in on the voyeurism. The men in Neighbors are terrible, and the men in Goat are terrible. The difference is, Goat knows it. Male-dominated narratives work best if they are self-aware.
Which brings me to John Cassavetes. Here is a man whose oeuvre is filled with great examples of horrible men. It’s hard to tell if Cassavetes wants us to resent them or not –we don’t get the clear condemnation we get from Goat – but that ambiguity forces us to actively and critically evaluate the behaviour we’re seeing. Take Husbands (1970). The premise is simple: in a crisis of mortality, three middle-aged friends take a holiday to cheat on their wives. This is a film about “the swaggering but futile effort of American men to perpetually remain boys”. A story that claims to be “a comedy about life, death and freedom” soon transforms into horror.
When the men pick up Harry (Ben Gazarra) at his house, he’s hurling abuse at his wife. He makes her kneel on the ground and say she loves him. Cassavetes makes us sit through this horror in full, and then follows the men as they walk out the door. Unfazed, Harry’s friends reassure him: “You’re not the first guy to ever punch his wife… Harry,
you’re a fantastic man, but you can be violent.” The abuse is never remarked upon again.
Women are a passing thought in the lives of these men. For a film about infidelity, sex really doesn’t seem to be the characters’ main focus. Sleeping with women is more of a bonding exercise for the men than anything else. “Like I’ve been telling my wife for years,” Harry says, “aside from sex – and she’s very good at it – God damn it, I like you guys better.”
Patrick Gamble commends Husbands “for its honest depiction of male chauvinism”, but also accuses it of often “pandering to the shameful activities of its trio of male leads without ever really displaying any sense of moral retribution. At points, it feels like these exhausting scenes of domestic abuse and male bigotry have been used to merely shock rather than scrutinise, with these vilest elements of male behaviour doused in stale alcohol and a
pathetic sense of despondency.”
I agree with Gamble. The film suffers from “far too much drunken debauchery and backslapping and not enough depth and contemplation”, but “the director’s ability to delve into the unfathomable dark, concealed issues which lurk behind the picket fences of suburban America” make the film a worthwhile, if troubling, watch. Amongst Husbands’ uneven storytelling, we can find an exposé of “the pathetic nature of the male mid-life crisis”; “an impenetrable examination of the male psyche”.
Cassavetes and Falk united again in 1976, for Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky, to play the eponymous leads. Mikey (Falk) and Nicky (Cassavetes) are best friends, and the film is filled with moments of homosocial tenderness and affection between the two men. Their bond is strong, intense and long-lasting.
That kindness vanishes, however, when the men come across anyone who’s “different” – that is, not a heterosexual white male. As Cole Smithey writes, “Mikey’s and Nicky’s ethically feeble relationship to the world around them presents a racist and sexist cocktail of public menace… The male-centric parameters plant disturbingly uncomfortable episodes of racist and sexist abuse at the hands of the characters with whom we are led to empathise.” Much like Husbands, May’s film oftentimes feels alarmingly uncritical of its characters’ misbehaviour. A sign of the times, or a poorly executed attempt at a morally ambiguous narrative? Perhaps both. Either way, their offences leave a bad taste in our mouths. Yet we cannot deny that such men exist.
These stories are uglier, rougher, perhaps, than Goat, and many women may be divided on their merits. But we can glean a similar message from all of them. C.M. Velazquez’s review of Husbands says it best: “all the effort put into acting like a “real man” is all bullshit; it leaves you emotionally stunted, and spiritually poor.”
However, male-dominated films do not have to be scathing indictments of the patriarchy in order to be meaningful. They can, in fact, be very tender, less focused on what is, and more on what could be. In a world where men are expected to repress their feelings (or express them solely through violence), shamelessly gentle, sentimental stories about men can act as inspiration – blueprints for the masculine love and emotion that could be possible in our own world. Optimism is powerful, and sorely needed right now.
The films that do it well are often homoerotic (what better backdrop for masculine love?), such as Marco Berger’s Taekwondo (2016). Entering its country-house setting, we are welcomed into a world that flirts with the borders of believability – a sun-drenched, shirtless, exclusively male idyll, where ‘straight’ men share homoerotic friendships of ancient Greek proportions. They dedicate most of their time to draping their bodies over one another and soaking in the sun. This is a film for gay audiences, but I want to discuss the straight characters for a moment.
In the real world, straight men are stifled by their insecurities. The quiet, private intimacy of their homosocial relationships is often stifled by the boundaries they construct to avoid stepping over into homosexual territory. In Taekwondo, Berger presents us with a world of straight men who are freely intimate with each other, and says, hey, it’s okay. It’s not a world that exists, but it could be. As a viewer who suffers under the patriarchy, it feels good to see men being capable of that kind of affection. It feels like opening up a copy of Non-Threatening Boys Magazine – an escape from our patriarchal, heteronormative reality.
Sometimes, the “secret world of men” is sentimental, sometimes it’s appalling, sometimes it’s brutally misogynistic. But the prevailing feeling of seeing it, in my experience, is always that of discovering some unseen truth, pleasant or otherwise – and that is perversely satisfying. If the door to the “man cave” is shut, these films are a peephole. I know I might not like what I see. But I have to look.
By Ivana Brehas
Categories: Anything and Everything