Monday, January 31, 2011

Masculinity and The Hopeless Romantic

"I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, 'cause we're resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I'd be an idiot if I didn't marry this girl she's so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option... 'Oh he's got a good job.' I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who's got a good job and is gonna stick around."

Dean, Blue Valentine

In the chaotic final scenes of Blue Valentine, our male hero Dean (Ryan Gosling) wears a worn t-shirt with a large print of a bald eagle. He himself is worn-out, a pudgy disintegrating version of the spry young man who once fell head-over-heels for Cindy (Michelle Williams), the seeming epitome of the girl-next-door. In that eagle t-shirt Dean finally comes to terms with the dissolution of his marriage and the despair into which he has led himself. Dean leaves behind the only happiness he has ever known, and walks off into fireworks and American flags.

Derek Cianfrance's film is visually and conceptually complex in a way you don't really expect romance films to be. But therein lies the rub: Blue Valentine, in case the trailer didn't clue you in, is not a romance. It is a film about the very idea of “romance,” the idealization of marriage, and how these things influence interactions between men and women. It is particularly interesting in its dissection of masculinity in relation to widely held ideals of love. Dean says in the beginning of the movie, “men are more romantic than women,” and the rest of the picture will attempt to both prove him right, and then uncover the true meaning of that statement.

One such scene, which occurs just as Dean is about to meet Cindy for the first time, involves him helping an elderly man move into his new room at a nursing home. It, whether intentionally or not, references Gosling's role in the sap-tastic The Notebook, which only serves to deepen its commentary. We watch Dean as he delicately recreates the glories of this man's life, displaying his items in his new room to reflect only the very best of his past. His military uniform, a picture of his wife and nick-knacks from his worldly travels. It is the picture of the wife which seems to especially affect Dean. In this one brilliantly staged scene Cianfrance establishes his character as one that, almost stubbornly, finds romance in the everyday.

Yet as we traverse back and forth between the beginning and end of Dean and Cindy's relationship, the fuzzy texture of the transitions into the past give them an other-worldly feel – as if they are bonafide dreams, rather than memories. Thus the romance is immediately called into question, immediately challenged to prove itself. And over the course of the film it will repeatedly succeed and fail to make itself real.

Dean is not exactly living the life when he happens upon Cindy in that nursing home. He works for a moving company and is lonely in a big city. He is looking for someone, or something, to rescue him from the boredom and seeming inevitability of his life. He finds everything he wants in Cindy and does not hesitate. It's as if now he can forget about having to contribute to society in any other way, as he will later so passionately defend, because he is on the road to being a loving husband and father. An all-American man. What more is there?

This is perhaps the film's most biting observation: the allure of American male heroism is rooted in self-consciousness, a hint of laziness and an overwhelming need for power to justify living in fear. Virginia Woolf once more eloquently observed:

Without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. "

In one of Blue Valentine's climactic scenes, which takes place at a surreal sort of love shack, Cindy attempts to push Dean to pursue something new in his life – to try and be something more. She not only encourages him but genuinely seems to believe that he has real talent and possibilities. But this support in the eyes of the perpetually insecure man feels like an affront to his masculinity and his ability to control, which is so central to his persona. Thus the immediate reaction is defensiveness, and then later, sexual aggression.

Dean is not an abusive person – at least not yet. He, on the contrary, takes some pride in the way he treats his wife. When she seems ambivalent to his sexual advances he shouts “do you want me to rape you? Do you want me to hit you?” in order to make a comparison between that extreme and the extent of his love for Cindy. He would never hurt her, because he is the American gentleman. Of course the film contrasts that idea with the actuality of the images – drunk, decayed Dean towering over his wife laid out limply on the floor of this shady motel room. We are terrified that he just might do something. The truth is, Dean has been taking advantage of his wife for a long time now, and for Cindy, giving up her body at this moment is preferable to having to spend another minute pretending to love.

Dean justifies his lack of ambition through the idealization of the “sacrifice” he made years before. He stuck with the girl, raised the kid and got married. He was told this would equate not only happiness, but acceptance from the outside world. He now has neither and, instead, anger has seeped into his life. This pent up frustration begins to manifest itself more and more often. He reverts to the most basic response to the seeming attacks on his masculinity. Indeed, near the very end of the film, as he physically lashes out at his wife's co-worker, he says “be a man,” as if pleading with his own heart.

This scene is especially powerful as it takes place between Dean and a doctor at Cindy's workplace (she is an aspiring nurse there) who has just recently revealed that his adulation for her work is based on sexual desire and not actual regard for ability. There are no positive male figures in this film – no one who seems to really look at Cindy and see her as a complete person. It paints a sad portrait of our society: the frustrated woman surrounded by males unsuccessfully, and at times violently, trying to be “men.”

Cindy has been duped, tricked into this life. How was she to resist prince charming in her hour of peril? She is such a young person when she becomes pregnant and subsequently decides to keep her child. And in such an agonizingly vulnerable moment, Dean is the one who holds her and makes her feel strong. He, in comparison to her horrible jock boyfriend and raging father, is nearly perfect. Even sexually, Dean wants to please her while her ex was only concerned with himself. It's a no-brainer. Thus she jumps into what we are taught to believe, especially women, is the ultimate happiness: love, marriage and parenting.

Yet there were signs, even then. In the face of love, we often overlook certain things. It is the brilliance of the feeling really, that it can allow us to look past fear. There is Dean punching a wall, then threatening suicide in order to manipulate her, but it is not enough to dissuade her. After all, picture-perfect scenes like the one outside the abortion clinic, where Dean commits himself to Cindy, don't just happen everyday. We are told, these are special moments in our life, worth more than all the rest.

Throughout the film Cindy stands, sits and lays lifeless as Dean attempts to hug or caress her into caring for him, but there are two amazing scenes in which Cindy shows us just how horribly things have turned out. Once, as they are driving to the motel, Cindy stops the car and runs into the forest. She tells Dean she has to pee, but in reality she just hides behind a tree. She is struggling to breathe – Dean suffocates her. And then once they are at the motel, after she has locked him in the hallway, screaming for her to let him in, Cindy leans against the other side of the door and franticly looks around the inside of her motel room. As if looking for an escape route.

The commitment – the marriage – is what traps her. Beyond that, everything that the marriage represents. The institution that it is. The force that it is. Do we dare disturb the universe? To walk away from this relationship is to walk away from supposed perfection. This was everything that they wanted, wasn't it?

Of course, Cindy is not powerless, and in the end, she will remember her own agency and escape. Despite none of the men in her life taking her seriously, Cindy is still able to see her own value. This is a testament to her will power, and her care for her daughter (who floats in and out of the story), but it's devastating that it takes her so long to get to that point.

Dean asks his buddies if they believe in “love at first sight.” One says that he does not, but Dean – big surprise – does. He is reflecting on his first meeting with Cindy and he claims “I know her. I know I don't, but it felt like I did.” He isn't convincing, and again I want to say that it is a stubbornness that existed from the very beginning, not romanticism, that led him down this path. It is so much easier to believe that love is easy like that - destined - than to actually work at it over the course of a lifetime (Grizzly Bear provide the soundtrack and poignantly their heartbreaking tune "Easier" is used to reinforce this point). Dean is intentionally opting out of his life at that moment.

The final scene then, in this context, is especially harrowing. Dean walking away into the flags of July 4th, his daughter running after him – still worshipping him. Is this America? The cycle of hopelessness. Romantic hopelessness. Who or what will save us? In our laziness we answer: Only love. Never ourselves. Never each other. Only love.

The end credits appear over a series of images of Dean and Cindy at the beginning of their romance, decorated with fireworks. It's a challenge to the viewer. Of course the idea of it all, falling so desperately in love in the American heartland, is still appealing. We can't deny it. These end images are pretty, they make our hearts leap and in some other movie, they make us cry tears of joy. But here, can we still glorify this stuff when we know it can lead to all the trauma we just witnessed on screen? Can we continue to avoid living our lives, pretending that this is all we want? How do we reconcile it all?

Blue Valentine is a remarkable film that asks tough questions, and it's a film we'll still be talking about years from now.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Social Network's Stance on Women

In response to claims of sexism in his script for The Social Network, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin had this to say in a blog comment,

“It's not hard to understand how bright women could be appalled by what they saw in the movie but you have to understand that that was the very specific world I was writing about."

What is the specific world, the real social network, Sorkin sought to depict? Is it computer geeks? Harvard men? Something more?

At the start of the David Fincher directed film, which has become the consensus “film of the year," is a scene in which protagonist Mark Zuckerberg, future founder of the world's most popular social network, creates "Facemash" a tool to rate the attractiveness of women at Harvard. He does this immediately after a debate over the importance of exclusive all-male “final clubs” at his school ends with him insulting and subsequently being dumped by then girlfriend Erica Albright. Zuckerberg returns to his dorm and drunkenly (and vengefully) creates the website that will soon crash the servers of the most prestigious university in America. First he finds time to call Ms. Albright a “bitch” and make comments about her bra size on his public blog.

He ultimately arrives at the idea of ranking the looks of girls after rejecting an initial idea of comparing women to farm animals. The shots of Zuckerberg writing lines of code for Facemash, which introduce us to the seemingly uncontrollable nature of his genius, are intercut with a college party where women are bused in (like farm animals) on something called a “F*ck Truck” (1) to compete for the attention of men via the removal of their clothing. The sequence, shot with the same visual panache that made Fincher's man-tastic Fight Club a hit, begins with a Roots Manuva song titled "Man Fi Cool."

No one is mistaking this film for The Hours. It's as testosterone driven as the aforementioned Fight Club, and is consistently filled with the kind of imagery we've come to associate with American films about heterosexual men, college and their entrepreneurial spirit. Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, the film utilizes familiar tropes of Hollywood cinema to tell its tale of ambition and greed. Yet the filmmakers, more so than Mezrich's awkwardly-written novel, make a statement on this specific masculine world, and the role of women in it, that is more obscure, and, by all accounts, more interesting than what we are used to.

Zuckerberg doesn't create Facemash to demean women - no, his misogyny is much more deeply ingrained. The website is a means to an end, the women who are being compared are simply functions - literally lines of code - which serve his purpose of garnering the respect and attention of "important" men. Similarly, the beautiful women who are invited to that party at the Phoenix club are simply proof to the men there that they are indeed in an exclusive and significant place. Men who aren't important enough to be invited to these parties, are now huddled over their computers rating those same women on Zuckerberg's website. They exercise power over women to gain the respect of men, meanwhile at the party girls make out with each other surrounded by hootin' and hollerin' club members reveling in this confirmation of their manhood. Throughout the film men are in competition with one another for recognition from other men, and the women are objects which get them noticed.

Exhibit A: When Zuckerberg and his best friend Eduardo Saverin hook-up with two beautiful classmates in the bathroom of a restaurant after being outed as the founders of Facebook, their proudest moment doesn't come upon completing the act in the stall, but later, when another man totally random, but someone who looks like he could row crew gives them affirmation at the door with a simple “cool.” As in, it's really cool that you two just had sex in the bathroom with groupies. You are now accepted by people like me.

Exhibit B: When Sean Parker first enters the restaurant where he will meet Zuckerberg, Severin and Christine (one of the two groupies from the bathroom), he flirts with a series of anonymous attractive women. Then he flirts with the waitress and Christine. Zuckerberg is mesmerized by the “Sean-a-thon” as Severin puts it, but especially the sexual prowess that Parker displays.

In that opening debate with Erica, Zuckerberg laments how difficult it is to stand out in a place where everyone has perfect SAT scores. The Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron, complain of the time commitment needed to maintain a 3.9 GPA, row Olympic-caliber crew and still invent something on the magnitude of Harvard Connection. In the cutthroat world of college, the men are all attempting to differentiate themselves, and for many, the idea of an elite club with limited membership promises the kind of social relevance they so desperately seek. For others, like the Winklevi (as Mark refers to them) who already belong to the club, it is through further affirming the desirability of heterosexual Harvard men on an internet site which will further cement their status. Zuckerberg pinpoints the brilliance of their Harvard Connect idea to one word: "exclusivity" (you can't help but hear echoes of Fight Club here), and he understands that this comes from both access to the clubs and to the women. Both are key interrelated ingredients in proving oneself, as a man, in the social world of Harvard.

As portrayed in this film, “the entire social experience of college,” as Zuckerberg calls it, is a sexist, hyper-competitive and largely unfair place. He creates Facebook as a way in - to the girls, and then to acceptance - for the people who aren't attractive enough to just be in already, or rich enough, smart enough, or "anything" enough. He doesn't make the world a horrible place, he just exposes the structure that already exists and replicates it online. Only this time more people can gain access (namely, himself). Though, since Zuckerberg's genius is the result of a desire to be a part of rather than reject a society that apparently holds him back, his new company still looks very caucasian, well-to-do, and most notably, male.

In fact, the more success he has with Facebook, the more his life begins to resemble that initial final club party. Women move further and further to the periphery, playing games in the background or making dramatic gestures just to be noticed. Parker, the founder of Napster who Zuckerberg idolizes as the epitome of rebellious youth, is in fact just another righteous status-seeking womanizer using everyone around him to augment his own sense of manhood. He is Zuckerberg's inner Tyler Durden. He ends up falling for Sean's spell, and his life becomes "the social experience of college" he once spoke so dreamily of. Except, somehow, he still doesn't feel welcome. He is literally sitting in the office, at the end of the film, while others, Sean included, have their own final club party.

The other character noticeably not at that party is Eduardo Saverin. The co-founder of Facebook has been cut out of the company, and following a dramatic exit, we are inclined to sympathize with him. Yet in many ways Saverin is just as ruthless and weak as Zuckerberg. It's not just that he time and time again gives in to Zuckerberg's increasingly troublesome requests, but he is equally dismissive of the women around him. His girlfriend Christine, who beyond the initial tryst near a toilet, is never shown any kind of compassion, is a trophy to show off and occasionally a tool to gain access to important meetings. She is easy enough for him to get rid of when she, predictably, has a jealous freak out. What's easy to lose in this scene though, amidst the hyperbole and somewhat manipulative comedy, is the parallel between Christine's actions and Saverin's. He just pulled all his money out of Facebook because his best friend has decided that Sean Parker is cooler than he is. Both he and Christine are desperate for the attention of a self-involved man, and neither have enough respect for themselves to realize they don't need it.

Same goes for the Winklevoss twins and their partner Divya Narunda quibbling over their rights to money, but more importantly, prestige and recognition. All these men stuck in a courtroom suing each other for denting their manhood. You almost feel proud of Zuckerberg when he goes on a tirade against them, espousing his own brilliance and the actual work he and his colleagues are doing at Facebook.

Why doesn't success make Zuckerberg happy though? Is it because he loses Saverin? Maybe. But the final scene finds him sitting in a boardroom, making a pass at a lawyer who pities him, and then obsessively seeking re-connection with the girl he used to date. He isn't refreshing Saverin's Facebook page there. Zuckerberg is incapable at this point of connecting with anyone, but especially with women. This is because he has, for the majority of his adult life, completely ignored them.

Earlier in the film Parker tells Zuckerberg a parable about the founder of Victoria's Secret, Ron Raymond. He wanted to buy lingerie for his wife discreetly, and so Raymond created a high-end brand where he and millions of others could do just that. He sells it for a fortune, but for far less than it will eventually be worth, and when he finds this out, Raymond commits suicide. What isn't mentioned in Parker's story, is how any of this made Raymond's wife feel. Or that she eventually left the guy after his second business failed. To Parker, any information about the wife is irrelevant.

So when he describes the suicide as "all for a pair of thigh-highs" he's actually being facetious, truth is, the founder of Victoria's Secret killing himself, according to Parker, had nothing to do with the woman for whom it was started, but everything to do with being robbed of status, "manhood," and cash. Meanwhile he is sitting there with a Victoria's Secret model who is as equally irrelevant to him; none of the girls in his past matter either, only success and not being someone who misses out on the next big thing. That ultra-competitive spirit, born in the environment of college (which Facebook is now replicating everywhere), is blinding these men to the original motivations for what they do. It wasn't just sex, but a need for connection and love. Perhaps Zuckerberg realizes this in the end, but when he asks Sean if he ever thinks about the girl who he once built Napster to woo, Sean bluntly replies, “of course not.”

It's easy to despise the privileged men of Harvard who openly dehumanize and degrade women at secret parties. It's even easier to spite the Sean Parkers of the world who are unabashedly misogynistic and profoundly self-centered. We are used to demonizing these kinds of characters in film (even while we idolize them). But we are not typically asked to look at a character like Mark Zuckerberg with the same lens. He is, after all, a man of ambition and genius. Like John Nash in A Beautiful Mind asking a girl if she wants “intercourse” minutes into their first date, it's supposed to be cute when he fails with women. Zuckerberg shows bits of compassion and hints of humanism (Trent Reznor's magnificent score, with the reoccurring piano melody in the middle of chaos, never lets us forget this). He ignored the sexism, casually participated in it, but he didn't cause it, and it was in the pursuit of a greatness which he has, for all intents and purposes, achieved.

Yet in the context of this film, and what is finally its most powerful point, the ends do not justify the means. The character of Zuckerberg and the type of man he represents, warrant closer scrutiny and greater criticism than they are typically given. Since The Social Network pounds us over the head with the idea that this is a male world, how sad is it that in creating his new version of the world online, Zuckerberg does nothing to change the inequities of the real one? Or more importantly, that he doesn't want to. His brand of rebellious youth is rooted in presumptuous entitlement. The social system that exists promises ambitious white men success: he is owed that and could care less that others are from birth more hopelessly excluded. This is what potentially makes him, contrary to the last line in the movie, an actual asshole.

The films critique isn't specific to modern young men though. As Sean Parker puts it (while preparing to do a line of coke) “we lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're going to live on the Internet.” At each stage in the development of human society, genius, up-start, privileged, revolutionary young men just like Mark Zuckerberg and his friends at Harvard made a series of conscious decisions to replicate the systems that already existed, rather than push for something better and more inclusive. Ultimately the film is attacking this specific competitive and blind American maleness which seems to continue to control the general direction of our society.

Does this mean women are helpless in this specific world? Not exactly. Sorkin, in the same blog comment, writes,

"I invented two characters--one was Rashida Jones's "Marylin", the youngest lawyer on the team and a far cry from the other women we see in the movie. She's plainly serious, competent and, when asked, has no problem speaking the truth as she sees it to Mark. The other was Gretchen, Eduardo's lawyer (in reality there was a large team of litigators who all took turns deposing witnesses but I wanted us to become familiar with just one person--a woman, who, again, is nobody's trophy.)”

This explanation isn't completely satisfactory. And there is definitely another story lurking behind the one portrayed in The Social Network, that of the women who, despite the limiting environment of this male world, managed to succeed at Harvard, do their own great things and even contribute to the innovations that actually made Facebook the most popular social network around.

Yet one has to acknowledge that Sorkin and Fincher have, in what is already a widely seen film, released an all-too-rare critique of American male elitism and misogyny. And for that, they deserve at least a "like," but an Oscar or two as well.

1. The Accidental Billionaires, p. 72, by Ben Mezrich, Anchor Books (2009)

Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie