“How do norms move on cat’s paws, silent and unthought?” Ken Corbett
I’ve been trying to articulate what I want from aesthetic experiences; usually I don’t think about it, I only know I like them and seek them out, but the thought came to a head after seeing Drive. It’s gorgeous. The colors are lush, the music hypnotic; electro-pop voices coo about “Real Human Heroes.” The movie hit each of one of my hot spots. It was totally seductive and for the most part I was absorbed in this post-modern dérive of LA Contemporary Cowyboy-Yakuza. But. Here is the thing: There is no transformation — even further, there is no possibility of transformation in Nicholas Winding Refn’s cinematic frame. At the end of the movie you’re just as stuck as you were in the beginning, you just happened to go for a scenic drive.
While not often achieved, I want to find myself at a different spot at the end of an aesthetic experience. I want to see my house and life differently. I want a moment when my expectations were not fulfilled because they were destroyed and in being destroyed are surmounted by a new recognition — you see, here it is — the moment of transformation. Where old expectations are confounded and unforeseen consequences ensue, consequences that challenge prior convictions. Such paradigmatic shifts have happened before — consider the Copernican Revolution, or the discovery of a non-Euclidean geometry, wherein the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line (suggesting that space is not flat but fundamentally curved). Obviously that’s a lot to ask of a single work of art, but it’s also worth reaching towards as an artistic agenda and, to my mind, the best work does so.
When I interviewed Irina Botea for Art21, we spent a long time talking about reenactment and what it was for, why it was important: reenactment is a construct, but it presents an original point of view. That contemporary-present-view layers on top of our learned perspective of historical events. By reenacting a history, we embody the past, and enable new possibilities latent in historical events. Recognizing those new possibilities highlights other new possibilities in everyday life. I don’t think a civil war reenactment is anything necessarily different from genre writing. Within genre certain expectations must be fulfilled. Drive is a genre film and like many films meets the expectations determined by its genre. But it does not expand beyond those expectations. If anything it reinforces them. It is still just a Yakuza movie and, look, I love Yakuza movies, but I tend to give the old ones (c. 1960) certain leeway because of their age: they’re grandfathers and great great grandfathers, and whether or not nostalgia is dangerous in its capitulation, I forgive its offense. I cannot do the same for contemporary work, at the very least because it falls short of its highest potential: to transform the genre it inhabits.
In Drive the gender roles remain fixed — the mother figure (Carey Mulligan) is helpless, virtuous and needs protection against the dangerous world around her. Hero, Ryan Gosling — her only salvation — is trapped in the obligations of his auto mechanic/moonlight-race-car-driver life. He is a loyal man of few words. He wants to protect the innocence of the virtuous mother’s son (like his alter ego or anima). Protecting them (the idea of a nuclear family which he might then endear himself into) he appears justified in doing great violence. Aside from a flock of bare breasted strippers who lase about in a mirror-addled waiting room, the only other woman in the film (Christina Hendricks from Mad Men incidentally) serves as a bad girl-foil; there is a perhaps-too-pleasurable sequence where Gosling, with the gloves on, beats her in a hotel room. She dies shortly thereafter.
The most interesting moment in the film occurs when Gosling’s profile fades into the figure of a stripper. In the ensuing scene he forces a mobster bad guy to eat the bullet said mobster gave to the movie’s son (of the virtuous mother). The whole scene marks a defining point in the Gosling’s character, because he has determined to take matters into his own hands. Its preceding fade, where Gosling and stripper blend into one another, is the sole challenge of normative gender throughout the film, and even while it’s fleeting, it suggests Gosling’s character is not so much a self-directed hero, but a cog in a performative machine. Suddenly there is a visual parallel between the “Driver’s” hero complex and a service industry job. While the moment was too brief to bear the weight of the film’s purpose, it underlines an otherwise scarce possibility for transformative thought.
The careful cinematic style of Drive reminded me of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Here too, we see the study of an inherited, male paradigm that remains in tact and Romantic at the end of the film, despite its intended study of that paradigm’s imperfection. Brad Pitt stands at the helm : a 1950s patriarch with a beautiful wife. He calls her naive often enough to make the audience uncomfortable; similarly his reactive sons highlight the limited harshness of Pitt’s aggressive upper lip to remind anyone in the audience that he is an anti-hero. (What is likely enhanced by the overall nostalgic decadence of the work as seen through a boy’s eyes). The critique however falls short of catastrophe. Nothing actually falls apart. The characters continue, and continue to suffer. The mother never finds her voice and in ever instance wherein one of the family members tries to speak out against Pitt, we see him overcome (and forcefully suppress) their efforts.Pitt’s flaws become a testament to his humanity. He is forgiven despite himself (thus echoing larger Christian themes in the film). Beyond that, from the glimpse of Pitt’s grown son (Sean Penn), the paradigm has only continued. Penn is a chip off the old block — a professionally successful man with a beautiful wife whom he seems alienated by/from.
Both films are unusual Hollywood blockbusters (Malick takes this insane side tour visual montage wherein he tries to explain the meaning of life, beginning with the an astral-vaginal slit that leads to the big bang, that focuses on lava explosions, into amoebic life forms, into secreting canals of live-giving fluid and seems to peak (after ages) with the grace of a benevolent dinosaur (wherein, I think? we are supposed to intuit the grace of God). That part is amazing: I mean, what?!). Both films are crafted with such deliberate love for the medium of film. They are incredibly seductive. The music, in both cases, is mesmerizing. The performance of its cast is also spot on. The shots themselves are almost so saturated as to feel drowsy and heavy with color. They are totally luxurious films, Romantic and romanc-ing. Nevertheless the allure of craft and aesthetic pleasure only reinforces predominant and historical archetypes of male machismo.
But of course all of this raises the question: is there a need to rethink masculine archetypes? Certainly paying audiences seem to applaud our familiar white middle aged patriarchs. Alec Baldwin has made a career out of cameo appearances where he knowingly espouses power — he’s 30 Rock’s favorite CEO. Don Draper and Tony Soprano are also beloved portraits of masculinity; we enjoy the spectacle of their self-interested and often misogynist behavior, either pitying the women who put up with them or applauding the strength of their female counterparts for surviving a constant barrage of infidelity and sorrow. Indeed we may even critique these leading ladies for the shallow pleasure they take in material compensation. Both Carmelo and Betty enjoy the status of a husband’s material success. Perhaps one might suggest (with fair reason, given the proliferate examples of cowboy heroes) these binaries are Natural. The Oedipus Complex has been repeated again and again, an intrinsic propaganda, in an attempt to derive access to some universal meaning, i.e. all men are essentially driven (unequivocally) by x. Unfortunately, women tend to suffer from this paradigm. But what is to be done, if in fact, it is the natural and inherent consequence of humanity? The tragic flaw of our species, if not Nature In General. (We can at least wait for the end of days when, like Malick’s cast, we’ll frolic on the beach of redemption).
As one who assumes a great length of time between now and the end of the world, I am unwilling wait for a seaside picnic. Ken Corbett’s book, Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, writes at the length about how the common expectations of men and male psychology exclude and limit not just women but men as well. Differences in male psychology are glossed over in contemporary society. “Culturally ordered masculine ideals corral the emotional landscape called masculinity. The fantastic underbelly of masculinity is pinched and policed. The complexity of masculinity goes largely unrecorded; the variety that makes for complexity is only recorded as pathology” (p.9). Corbett examines the foundation of this “corral” before going through a series of case studies — from his own psychoanalytic practice — that defy traditional stereotypes (and in their defiance create friction with their affiliated family units). In the first chapter he examines the source of the Oedipus Complex, “Little Hans,” pointing out Freud’s subjective conclusions that are, themselves, based on a fantasy of masculinity.
“…the failure to include consideration of the intimate family surround is to leave Hans an oddly romanticized boy, one who is untroubled by the intrapsychic vagaries of relations, other than those that occur in his pursuit of phallic sexualized relations. The flavor of this romance seeps into Freud’s proud description of Han’s ‘energetic masculinity with traits of polygamy,’ a boundless heterosexual desire that Hans ‘knew how to vary…with his varying feminine objects — audaciously aggressive in one case, languishing and bashful in another.’ Hans pinned as a cad. This problematic romance results in Freud’s underilluminated general theory of masculinity: men and boys are cast as desiring, but the relational yearning that shapes their desires goes unexplored,” (42).
Corbett goes on to pose new interpretations of the very dream (belonging to Hans) that established the Oedipal complex in the first place. The implications of such a discovery are huge, in so far as they would tip a number of foregone conclusions, conclusions deep at work in popular culture and family mythology. (One of the threads in Tree of Life, for instance, depicts the oldest son wrestling with the desire for his mother and his recoiling efforts to undermine his father). “Hans is the Ur-boy, and through his construction and acts of consciousness the psychoanalytic construct of masculinity is endowed with meaning” (p.19). With new evidence having come to light ( Letters and interviews from Freud’s case files were only recently made public), speculation about the mother who, “Freud [did] not position as a speaking subject,” (p.35) and the dynamic life of their family, Corbett suggests that then is that Hans is responding primarily to an unpleasant and unstable home life — something specific to his family structure, not necessarily intrinsic to his sex.
What happens, then, if we reexamine these archetypes? What happens to the stories we tell ourselves? Tree of Life is an homage to an American masculine identity. Brad Pitt is the hard-edged father, with a nearly silent but supposedly naive wife and three sons. The sons are competitive with one another for their father’s affection, just as they are competitive with him for their mother’s primary attention. The moment of Pitt’s paternal failure is also fleeting: He admits to his son that he has nothing, that all his life he focused on the wrong things (wealth, not family). But his offspring seems to have learned nothing from this admission. Gosling’s character admits, in some way, that he isn’t a hero: he has to put on a mask stolen from a Hollywood make up both in order to shoot up all the bad guys, but he doesn’t seem to accomplished anything between sacrifice. If anything, Gosling seems even more hemmed in at the end. Both Tree of Life and Drive seduce the viewer into an empathic relationship with the film’s subjects without providing any transformation in contemporary views of gender and heroism. Of course, that’s not an easy task. It’s probably the hardest thing in the world to rethink archetypes, but that’s also what good art does. It makes the impossible seem easy. And, I’ll be honest, I want to see new heroes, new paradigms, new shifts — there is a popular push for this reexamination in the air. Occupy movements are pressing against the organization of wealth and rogue millionaires are storming congress asking for higher taxes (can you imagine?). We all know there will be no social security in our futures. We know that student debts are too high. It seems fair to assume that addressing these concerns properly requires we also reexamine the underlying social expectations that engendered our present system, open them up and give them new light. Why wait for a glory bream redemption if we can build its foundation now?