What the Movies Say About Being a Man in 2010

August 3rd, 2010 by Ben

Christopher Korbel is one of those New York Writers who lives in Los Angeles. When he is not writing or watching other peoples writings, he run’s ceremonial toast advice service, at Make-A-Toast.com. Connect with him on Jinni here.

Spoiler Alert…

The 2010 Oscars may be old news, but their cultural significance lives on. The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air, Crazy Heart: The Best Actor nominations from these films are emblematic of how men see themselves, as people and professionals, in 2010.

All three stories are about men with established track records of success in professions of high risk and reward. These are men of conflicting impulses: Preferring to work independently, yet excelling as mentors; abjuring recognized authority, yet rigorously adhering to a personal code.

The most unsettling of unanimously shared values is that they all reject their homes due to a strong desire for the Open Road. They all delight in living hermetically in the most estranged of environments.

These are deeply flawed men, self-indulgently burying themselves in sex, alcohol and possible annihilation of the body and/or soul. Similar anti-heroic figures have been around since the 1950s and while the settings of these three films appear modern, you could easily substitute trains for planes and Japan for Iraq. Crazy Heart could have taken place sixty years ago with the most minor of alterations.

What are up-to-the-minute in these films are the attitudes and beliefs of these men. They are outwardly charming fellows with highly articulated rationalizations that serve as both coping mechanisms and justifications for why they defiantly live in opposition to accepted social values. They are proud of their apparent self-knowledge, enthusiastic about living by their own lights. They appear to take responsibility for the downside of their talents. These particular embodiments of contemporary masculinity could only come-of-age in a world of Bill Clintons, Tony Robbins and Mark McGwires.

These protagonists are the opposite of Romantics in every sense. They establish their reputations in working worlds that are predominately male. What few women they interact with fall into the categories of neutered co-worker, transactional sexual encounter, or exemplar of domesticity. When these men attempt to make a meaningful romantic connection, to embrace their essential humanity, they inevitably meet with failure. The deficiencies in their personal development due to a lifetime of self-centered choices make any other outcome unrealistic.

In the end, they return to the solace of their careers; maybe wiser, maybe more open to others but also knowing that their professional success will always be their greatest point of self-definition. (“I am my work, nothing less and nothing more.”)

By contrast, consider three other critically acclaimed Leading Man performances from equally popular films of 2009. First, in District 9, newcomer Sharlto Copley gave a heart-breaking portrayal of a nebbish middle manager who gets in over his head and literally loses his humanity. In I Love You Man, Paul Rudd experiences all the joy, confusion and anger of a budding friendship while also trying to come to terms with marrying his longtime girlfriend. Finally, in Up, Ed Asner offers one of the best performances in any animated film, using only his voice to depict an embittered man who has loved, lost and is driven by guilt to complete a lifelong quest. He is constantly being forced to transcend his pain and longing for the sake of a young stranger.

All three roles are equally authentic observations of contemporary masculinity, but instead of dealing with professional ambition, they treat matters of the heart. Maybe these men were overlooked because their performances forced them to deal with qualities of emotional vulnerability that are off-putting for our society to directly address.

I offer two reasons why these nominated icons of contemporary masculinity seem to resonate more with the Academy. One, I think half the people who enjoy these films see these protagonists as idealized versions of themselves: “Yes, I am a failure in marriage and family, but it’s the sacrifice I make as a Brand Manager.” Two, I think that living in an era of vocational uncertainty, some viewers enjoy indulging in the Schadenfreude of these cautionary tales of misplaced ambition.

Who knows if in a decade the sensibilities of such films as Up in the Air, The Hurt Locker and Crazy Heart will appear dated or ahead of their time? All I know is, I found these three characters journeys to be revealing of the perceived emotional reality of today’s man.

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