August 25, 2008

A Personal Entry: Cinema of Contemporary Western Masculine Frustration

I mentioned Michel Houellebecq's novel Platform here last week. That book devastated me. I feel like it was a straw on the camel's back pushing me towards deep cynicism. Now I'm reading his The Elementary Particles. It's even worse.

I thought Bergman's Cries & Whispers had scared me away from cynicism. Maybe it did and I'm just going through a phase, but I don't know.

What am I saying?

The books I read, films I love, albums I adore, are really hateful lately. I don't mean heavy metal or teenage melodrama, or anything like that. What I mean is that I read and then re-read a John Steinbeck (the guy in the picture) short story called The Murder. Let me ruin it for you.

It's about a man in early 20th century California who marries an east-European girl. At the wedding the bride's father gets drunk and tells the groom: "Don't be a big fool. Beat her once in a while." The man is disappointed to hear that from her father. And of course he doesn't beat her. He's a good, strong, gentle man.

As the years pass he finds his bride to be a good wife. An excellent wife. But he feels no connection with her. No depth. Just kindness. And so he periodically goes into town and visits the whores. Nothing crazy. Just a little relief. And then he goes back home. He copes with the pain.

Then in the climax of the story he catches his wife cheating with a dimwit cousin of hers. He finds them in bed together.

So he shoots the man through the head with a riphle. Then he walks out of the house and lets the wife sit there wallowing in that filthy experience. The police come. They pick up the body and explain that it's an open and shut case. No murder charge. He did what any good husband would do.

When the police are gone the man goes into his barn where his wife is hiding. He takes a bull whip and calmly beats her to within an inch of her life. Then he tenderly cleans her wounds and gets ready to go out to the fields to work. As he's getting ready to leave his wife gives him a warm, loving smile that provides him -even in that small moment- with the kind of depth he'd been wanting from their relationship all along.

The end.

I think it's the best short story I've ever read.

That's what I mean. The stuff that resonates with me lately is stuff that is easily accused of all the worst sins: misogyny, racism, sexual abuse, violence, general misanthropy. Hate hate hate. Or, rather -indifference.

This is not the me I've known.

Here are some films in this vein. Lots of old faves. Maybe this is nothing new for me.

Taxi Driver (1976 - Martin Scorsese)

Distant (2002 - Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Five Easy Pieces (1970 - Bob Rafelson)

Alice in the Cities (1974 - Wim Wenders)

Pickpocket (1959 - Robert Bresson)

Punch-Drunk Love (2002 - PT Anderson)

The Return (2003 - Andrei Zvyagintsev)

Last Days (2005 - Gus Van Sant)

The Fire Within (1964 - Louis Malle)

The Man Who Wasn't There (1999 - Joel and Ethan Coen)
Straw Dogs (1973 - Sam Peckinpah)
The Conversation (1973 - Francis Ford Coppola)
would it be redundant to mention Mike Leigh's Naked again?

I've got some half-formed notions that the West stalled at the 1960s. We're fighting the same battles repeatedly, and no one is offering a way forward, except the reactionaries, who say "go backwards" to go forward -which is not a satisfactory answer for me. Everyone is forced to choose which camp they belong to; they are either in favour of the goals of the 1960s or opposed to them. There is little room for middle ground.

But I think there is a way forward that acknowledges the accomplishments of the 1960s, without rejecting Western values from before that time. The key -or one of them at least- lies in facing up to the value in our "worst" behaviour; finding the good in things we think are purely, solidly bad in this post-60s world.

When someone can admire the misogyny in that Steinbeck story, or the racism in Taxi Driver (and I mean honestly admire it -no equivocation), and even think that it provides a good moral compass, without fear of being labeled a philistine, then our society will have progressed beyond the 1960s.

One of the reasons I continue to support Barack Obama is that I think he offers a glimpse into that kind of a future for the West.


Leif Pederson said...

I never considered Punch-Drunk Love in that light before. I always see it as emotional repression being lived with and dealt with through any means necessary. Certainly he gets violent around repressive forces (sisters and thugs), but his desired way for emotional release is through his musical expression. (My take of course.)

I think I need to watch it again.

-BTW I just downloaded all of your music off the 4 albums on myspace. Including your movie soundtrack I now have 5 Matthew Wilkinson albums, which makes me a rich man indeed.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Yeah, Punch-Drunk Love is an abundantly optimistic film -so that sets it apart from most of the others on this list. But Barry Egan is maybe the purest expression of the kind of frustrated, confused Western masculinity that this list is filled with, and which has -I think- been responsible in large part for the cultural stagnation of the West since the 60s.

jon said...

sheesh, i wish i knew what to say. i'm still not sure what to admire in the misogyny or the racism, but i'm not sure i'm getting exactly how you are using the word "admire". i am connecting with your idea of looking forwards though. of course, i think we need to look forwards by pulling from what is behind, and worth tearing with us.