Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 21, April 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kenneth MacKinnon

 

The Trouble with _The Trouble with Men_

 

 

_The Trouble With Men: Masculinities in European and Hollywood Cinema_

Editied by Phil Powrie, Ann Davies, and Bruce Babington

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004

ISBN 1-904764-08-8

x + 253 pp.

 

The bulk of _The Trouble With Men_ is composed of texts which were papers originally offered to a July 2001 conference, 'Exploring Masculinities and Film', organised by The University of Newcastle upon Tyne's Centre for Research into Film and Media. _Sight and Sound_'s Mr Busy complains about this sort of book in the November 2004 issue: 'Gone . . . are the days when a single person wrote a book about films; that's too labour-intensive, too mono-focused. So collections of essays are the rage, driven by North American academics' need to publish to keep their jobs, and a source of over-complex, half-baked ideas unmatched since the days of medieval pedants.' (8) Even allowing for that periodical's oft-exhibited hostility to academic work, let alone to its complexity (it is always '*over*-complex') and for its apparent unawareness of the effects of the Research Assessment Exercise on UK scholars, this would be a largely unfair verdict on the present book. Largely.

 

After a first read-through, I have to report that I found Calvin Thomas's contribution, constituting the 19th and final chapter, so complex as to merit the prefix 'over-'. While Lacanian psychoanalysis has never been pellucid to this reader, at least despite a decade and a half of earnestly trying to come to terms with it, 'scatontological anxiety' seems somehow more persuasive in relation to _Seul contre tous_ in the previous chapter by Phil Powrie than to _Batman_. It should be noted that there is no intention here to raise accusations of 'half-baked ideas'. What was over-complex to me may well prove clear as day to a more confident Lacanian/Freudian.

 

Perhaps the factor that needs to be considered in this relation is time. I have been using weekends in particular to do my read-through (and the interstices of teaching and administration to write this review). That task was largely pleasurable and productive despite the final stages of the volume. If I had had the time to read Thomas's essay at the snail's pace that I once devoted to my first reading of Laura Mulvey's 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' or to Steve Neale's original (1980) book on genre, perhaps the good sense of chapter 19 would by now be obvious. I had not, though. Present-day students seem on empirical evidence to ration their reading time more severely than I do. Where many essays could be safely recommended to hard-pressed students, I at least would not expect them to cope with chapter 19.

 

While most essays in this anthology can then be lauded for their intrinsic interest and their fresh ideas, consideration has to be given to the book as a whole if this review is not to turn into nineteen brief addresses of the separate articles. The catchiness of the book title is in its favour, but perhaps the more pedestrian conference title is truer to the enterprise. As the editors clarify in their Introduction, the less recent study of masculinity owes much to feminism. Nevertheless, just as feminist anti-pornographers of the 1980s habitually claimed an unenunciated patriarchal bias to less moralistic research on pornography, so this title seems to suggest a greater unenunciated feminist bias than the essays themselves warrant. Indeed Andrew Spicer's chapter on Hugh Grant seems to suggest that the trouble is not with the man but with the critical consensus against taking him seriously. (Incidentally, the reason for this consensus is surely not just patronising attitudes to romantic comedy, but suspicion, in the UK at least, of what could appear as the touristic 'Englishness' of Grant as this is deployed in his Hollywood vehicles.) The subtitle is less tendentious even if the collection's European-ness is largely confined to France, Spain, and Italy, with a trip to Germany thrown in. (Also, film stills and posters are often a nightmare for authors and editors in terms of copyright clearance and allied costs. Here, they provide more than pleasant decoration, being largely helpful illustrations of writers' points. One essay, Bruce Babington's, takes the trouble explicitly to draw the reader's attention to the relevance of his chosen still which acts as a springboard for consideration of his argument at this point about Ernst Lubitsch's authorial control.)

 

The publication as a whole is persuasively justified via its Introduction as built on a history of the development of Film Studies' interest in masculinities -- from feminism, gay and queer studies, through social studies, to Butlerian issues of 'performance'. Landmark publications following this trajectory are also identified. Where the book-as-a-whole is less sure-footed is in its division into four sections: 'Stars', 'Class and Race', 'Fathers', and 'Bodies'. Obviously, any anthology has to make sense by categorisation of whatever contributions are chosen by the editors, on criteria that may not even be precise at the time of that choice. It happens, though, that the essays of 'Class and Race', by their concentration on working-class males or the Jew and the Beur, for example, could leave the impression that the white, middle-class gentile is outside the section's categories for a reason more significant than that there were no analyses of him on offer -- just as gender studies seemed at one time to concern only the female, leaving the male to pose as unconstructed.

 

This may be simply an unintended consequence of the particular subject matter of the submissions to the Conference. Yet, there are placements within the categories here that seem slightly capricious. The case for including Babington's 'Herr Lubitsch joins the Corps Saxonia' in the 'Fathers' section would seem to rest on the Student Prince's relations with Dr Juettner and possibly with the Corps Saxonia as well as the actors' relations with author Lubitsch. Nevertheless, there is an equally or more cogent case for placing the essay in close proximity to Michele Aaron's contribution, by reason of the film's representation, albeit covert, of Jewishness. One of Babington's footnotes actually alludes to her essay (n. 7, 133). Again, the case for Mary Wood's essay being placed under 'Fathers' seems to rest on her analysis of Amedeo Nazzari as representing, in Giuseppe Gubitosi's words, 'a concentration of qualities felt to be typical of the Italian male -- handsome, brave, honest, a good worker, father, husband, lover' (136), and because Wood points out that he consistently played fathers or stood in that relationship to groups. Not only does the essay go on to consider actors (Vittorio Gassman, for example) not customarily identified with fatherhood or paternalism, but its focus seems very different from Paul Sutton's consideration of Nanni Moretti and Silvio Berlusconi as actual and metaphorical fathers, where the categorisation is of cast-iron appropriateness.

 

One conclusion suggested by the editors is that the screen male is even more damaged than ten years ago (12). However, one wonders whether that conclusion is able to be generalised beyond some of the current French films analysed by Phil Powrie or the catalogue of 'dead penis' examples marshalled by Peter Lehman. Do we in fact have to keep looking for new depictions, or rather do we have to conclude that a new depiction or new emphasis 'ousts' previous depictions/emphases? Pamela Church Gibson's essay talks about Travis, the blond male Calvin Klein model, and calls his image extraordinary 'for it captures all the contradictory desires that encircle and confuse the contemporary young man' (186). This prompts the question whether what is termed apparent contradiction is really just different aspects of the mass market's provision of multifarious images from which consumers can select. If this question is valid for the essay in the context of consumer capitalism, could its equivalent not be asked for the book about images of men in general? Are they 'competing'? Does one oust another? Or are they not just part of a large variety of possible performances of the masculine? No quarrel though with the statement that the volume as a whole tries 'to locate . . . the interstitial moments which undermine fixed ontologies, as cinema attempts to come to terms with change' (14).

 

If there is no reason to despair with Mr Busy about the possibility of a 'mono-focused approach' in a multi-authored volume of this sort, there are -- as well as recurrent problems of approach -- moments where one essay feels as if it might have been a useful corrective for another. For example, Timothy Connelly's text would have benefited from a greater awareness of the relevance of the performance of the masculine (such as Steven Cohan links to Gene Kelly's stardom). Moreover, it is in this essay by Connelly that a useful, persuasive point is made: 'Gable repeatedly offers a version of masculinity that recognises and shares in the suffering caused by sexual desire' (38). This is then marred by the too easy assumption that the explanation for this is the genre of the woman's picture. Surely love stories should not too quickly be assumed to belong only in 'women's pictures'. They permeate popular narrative, being a feature of _From Here To Eternity_ and _Bonnie and Clyde_, two of thousands of possible examples. Neither is straightforwardly a woman's picture. Feminised men appear wherever love is experienced by male characters. We might recall that Roland Barthes claims that the only way that a lover can love is 'precisely insofar as he feminises himself' (126). It is a pity that there is no sign in this book of an interrogation of the closeness of melodrama to the woman's film (a seriously under-examined assumption, questioned by Michael Walker, Steve Neale, and Barbara Klinger for instance), or of the next step, a belief that melodrama, qua species of women's picture, enables us 'to gain access to the 'problematic' of masculinity', as the Introduction claims (4).

 

Another area that could have been productively explored somewhere in this volume is the nature of the homoerotic. Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas, for example, discusses Paco Rabal as 'displayed for a female -- or, indeed, homoerotic -- gaze' (56). The context suggests that the second gaze is male but homosexual-male. The ease with which gazes might be identified by gender or sexual categories has been rendered problematic not just by queer theory with its disturbance of these categories. As early as 1981, Laura Mulvey argued that the socially female gaze at narrative movies might just as well be thought of as male, since the only identification point recognised by her in her 'Afterthoughts' paper seems to be that of the male protagonist. If the gaze can only be male, then any erotic objectification of the male on screen has to be homoerotic. The question raised by this is whether there can be a hetero-erotic male object at all. In any case, what exactly differentiates the female gaze (which Mulvey does not recognise but Jackie Stacey does, within certain limited contexts) from the homoerotic gaze if both gazes involve erotic objectification of the male?

 

I hope I may be forgiven -- as one who has felt called on to defend _Billy Elliot_ from frequent attack for apparently distancing itself from working-class struggle in favour of individual social mobility -- for spending a moment doing this again in this review. John Hill's discussion of the film, in his largely admirable 'A Working-Class Hero is Something to Be?', takes the end of the film, on which my defence would largely rest, as one of utopian desire 'for a more socially and sexually inclusive sense of belonging' (108). While I'd agree that 'the portrait of working-class culture is emptied of virtually all positive values and must endeavour to transform itself' (108), reviewers of _Billy Elliot_ habitually under-read the bleakness of Billy's departure and the uncomfortable formal balletic sequence which Billy's father and the one clearly designated homosexual character from Billy's hometown watch. It is not only his brother and friends who are stricken with a sense of loss as Billy take the bus out of town. It is Billy himself who appears to sense that his big chance means a serious rupture with his family, something he must already suspect, with his father over-awed at the Royal Ballet school audition. Unusually, too, the viewer is taken back to town away from the bus departure to watch Mrs Wilkinson dispiritedly returning to ballet teaching, the talent in the class having been nabbed by London. It is as if Billy's departure has taken hope from the town.

 

In my view this hope is not restored to Billy's father at the end. The ballet dancer's foot does not seem to belong to the lad any more, not just because he is now a man but because, as Hill rightly observes, 'the dancing of _Billy Elliot_ has much more in common with tap and Irish' (104). than with ballet proper. The analogy that insistently impresses itself in relation to Mr Elliot at the end is literary -- Joe Gargery's visit to Pip, now grown up and cut off from his humble roots, a resident of London, in _Great Expectations_. Mr Elliot has the same qualities of benignity and respect as Gargery in this section of the Dickens novel. At the same time, he seems to be *distanced* from high-culture performance and from the newly poised and confident principal dancer in a way that must also suggest his polite distance from the admiring friend. The ending is not an altogether happy one, surface appearances to the contrary. Hill is persuasive, though, when he says that, through such devices as the non-balletic dancing of the earlier sections, the film 'signals its own reluctance to depart too radically from the very ideologies of masculinity and virility that it is otherwise questioning' (105). Billy, though, does depart radically from these at the end -- which is why the claim of utopianism is not wholly persuasive.

 

There are no dud essays in this collection. There are also some outstandingly interesting ones. Steven Cohan's 'Dancing with Balls in the 1940s' is not only fascinating in itself, its influence ought to be felt more widely throughout the collection. His analysis of Gene Kelly's reassuring image of 'dancing in the right way' (18). brings to mind the more contemporary phenomenon of Tap Dogs and their determinedly 'non-sissy' tap dancing. In effect, this is philistine and even homophobic in relation to all the other dancing and dancers which run the risk of being viewed as 'dancing in the wrong way'. Cohan's essay also suggests that Kelly manages to incorporate body display and narcissistically tight clothing under the licence of his regular-guy image. More broadly, it draws useful attention to the importance of performances of the masculine precisely in the otherwise 'threatening' context of male erotic objectification. Paul Sutton's analysis of Nanni Moretti's _Aprile_, and its dissection of the Berlusconi persona, has particular appeal in an age when the general public so-called, to whom star images were once a revelation, has become so aware of spin in New Labour Britain. It has also become aware, I'd expect, of the cruciality of 'image' to the political success of Tony Blair, the best mate of George W. Bush but also apparently one of Silvio Berlusconi's pals. The awareness shown by Steven Cohan, Timothy Connelly, Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas, and especially by Robert Shail of the value of working-class 'status' as an important ally in permitting a certain kind of specularisation through disavowal is commendable. Any more of this particularisation, however, clearly risks being taken as suggesting that those not so picked out have written inferior essays. Not so.

 

My personal favourite -- for appropriately personal reasons that have to do with my own research and teaching interests in particular -- is Ann Davies's 'The Male Body and the Female Gaze in Carmen Films'. She poses one of the essential questions, 'what an authentic female gaze might actually consist of' (188). When she draws attention to the way that the character played by choreographer and flamenco dancer Antonio Gades gains access to the sexual pleasure represented by Carmen, by performing 'and presenting his body as the object of the female gaze' (192), this is not too much of a surprise. What is a revelation, though, is Davies's focusing on the inadequacy of the performing male body instead of the usual concentration on patriarchal punishment for female usurpation of male privilege. 'Antonio's frenzied stabbing of Carmen', she writes, 'arises not from a desire to punish, but from a pressure on the male body as inadequate performing object that has become unbearable.' (194) She modestly qualifies the insight that this represents by reflecting that the diegetic Antonio is choreographed by the non-diegetic Antonio. Thus, 'the challenge always takes place within the domain of patriarchal power structures . . . The powerful female gaze has not yet dislodged these.' (194) No similar qualification seems to apply to the frenzied stabbing of Teresa, the heroine of _Looking for Mr Goodbar_, by a 'closet case' who feels called on to perform the sex act by his own sense of inadequacy rather than by Teresa. Davies's statement makes perfect sense in relation to the 1977 Hollywood movie and has opened up a new field of speculation for me as a result.

 

Has the book changed me? Not that I know of, but it has certainly augmented my awareness of examples of male objectification and confirmed my awareness of the cruciality of disavowal in that process. Ann Davies's observation about consequence from the inadequacy of male performance remains for me a valuable contribution to theory. It will, though, be of frequent and positive usefulness to students of masculinities in film representation.

 

London Metropolitan University, England

 

 

Bibliography

 

Roland Barthes, _A Lover's Discourse: Fragments_, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978).

 

Barbara Klinger, ''Local' Genres: The Hollywood Adult Film in the 1950s', in Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook and Christine Gledhill, eds, _Melodrama: Stage/Picture/Screen_ (London: British Film Institute, 1994).

 

Kenneth MacKinnon, _Love, Tears, and the Male Spectator_ (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002).

--- _Uneasy Pleasures: The Male as Erotic Object_ (London: Cygnus Arts, 1997).

 

Laura Mulvey, _Visual and Other Pleasures_ (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989).

 

Steve Neale, _Genre and Hollywood_ (London: Routledge, 2000).

--- 'Questions of Genre', _Screen_, vol. 31 no. 1, 1990.

 

Michael Walker, 'Melodrama and the American Cinema', _Movie_, no. 29/30, 1982.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Kenneth MacKinnon, 'The Trouble with _The Trouble with Men_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 21, April 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n21mackinnon>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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