Pop Stuff: The Divine Masculine
If work that reveals the softer side of manhood shines so brightly in the pantheon of cinema, surely the qualities it relies on from the directors, actors and protagonists who embody them, are qualities worth elevating
The Harvey Weinstein scandal was merely the tip of an iceberg so laden with transgressions that even Placido Domingo might seem a mere snowflake in the final analysis. Men stepping out from the rafters, aware that the wait for the last shoe to drop might be an eternity, face the challenge of how to ‘be’ in a world that seems against them. Wielding power, showing strength and exercising force – once pillars of the ‘How to Be a Man’ playbook, are now the medieval relics of Incels barking from the web’s dark corners. The cultural ideal of masculinity emerging from the wreckage is softer. It’s embodied in young men like Timothée Chalamet and Harry Styles embarking on their twenties with dimpled smiles and soft curls, cutting lithe figures in unisex tuxedos, screaming tenderness. But it offers little recourse for men who came of age in an era of Terminator and tougher jawlines and are wondering how to be their best selves in a new landscape.
The cinema of the moment has some answers. Whilst the movie ecosystem has made championing female voices the long-overdue order of the day, a parallel shift in a male gaze that has directed much of cinematic history, is evident. Male directors, perhaps moved to ponder their identities more deeply are looking inwards to themselves. Roma, last year’s awards darling was Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal film. This year’s standout films also saw auteur directors searching their souls. Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is at its core a dissection of what the movies mean to the man and Bong Joon-Ho’s social satire Parasite was borne of the director’s unshakeable memory of walking into an opulent home as a poor student tutor. Whilst the personal elements of these films are sparks to the fire of the stories, in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story and Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory the personal is pervasive. Heralded by critics as their best work, these two films signal that making yourself vulnerable is key to crafting a modern, habitable version of manhood.
Pain and Glory, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s twenty-second film is a dialing back of the tragi-comic high drama and sexually charged energy of much of his past work and paradoxically his richest offering yet. The film centers on Salvador Mallo, an aging film director struggling through a creative crisis in the throes of physical afflictions, recovering from spinal surgery and grieving his mother’s death. Almodóvar opens the film with a montage of an ailing human body as Mallo introduces himself, ‘I got to know my body through pain and illness. I lived my first thirty years with relative abandon but I soon discovered that my head and what was inside it, as well as being a source of pleasure and knowledge also carried with it infinite possibilities of pain. I soon became acquainted with insomnia, chronic pharyngitis, otitis, reflex, ulcers and intrinsic asthma, nerves in general and the sciatic in particular and all kinds of muscular pain. But not everything is so visible, I also suffer from pains of the soul such as panic and anxiety which add anguish and terror to my life and naturally I’ve dealt for years with depression.’ The master director, in his seventieth year, is exposing his own frailty by using Mallo to lay himself bare.
Salvador is played by one of Almodóvar’s most frequent collaborators, Antonio Banderas. A poster child for the tall, dark and handsome action hero, Banderas has built a career on an acting style undergirded by virile machismo and seems an unlikely choice. But by their telling, Almodóvar detected a change in the actor in the time following Banderas’ heart attack two years ago and it was something he knew Banderas would bring to the role – the sensitivity of a man who has had to come to terms with weakness. For his part, Banderas was ready. He recounts a time while working with Almodovar on The Skin I live In, when the director asked him to leave behind everything he had learned during his meteoric rise to fame in America at the service of something more visceral and raw. Banderas admits that this was difficult for him to do but the transformation sparked a reflection on humility, trust and forgoing resistance that he poured into his performance in Pain and Glory.
For Almodóvar, the film was an exercise in submission of a different kind. He let go of using colorful characters as shadow puppets for his feelings and instead created a character whose experiences are a close composite of his own. The film is a beautiful dance between Mallo’s present life and flashbacks to his past. Mallo takes us to scenes of childhood, memories of young adulthood through the vehicle of a play he has written (the staging of which occurs in the film) and to the passing of his mother. Almodóvar says that he has taken poetic license in drawing on his own experiences and those of friends but admits that Mallo is very much himself. Mallo’s home in the film is a replica of Almodóvar’s own, the scenes preceding his mother’s death are conversations that Almodóvar has had with his own mother and the loves lost and found in the film evoke the bittersweetness of a memory, not the theater of a made-for-movie romance.
By opening themselves to each other and to the audience, Almodóvar and Banderas create a character in Mallo who won Banderas his first best actor award at Cannes and garnered Almodóvar some of the highest praise of his career. In a case of art imitating life, Banderas has recounted how Mallo’s illness was an accurate portrayal of where Almodóvar was himself when they began to talk about the film. Much like his character Mallo, who eventually finds catharsis, Almodóvar found renewal in the course of making the film. Banderas has said he could see his friend and director becoming lighter as the shoot progressed and that by the end of it had never seen him happier. The Almodóvar and Banderas that shine through in Pain and Glory are not what we would expect from a bad boy director with a reputation for boldness and an actor with a macho streak. In allowing us to see their softer sides, they find a kind of healing, surpassing their reputations and our expectations and finding greater success in surrender.
The openness of heart that is so crucial to the film transcends the screen. The final frame sees Salvador Mallo as a child exchanging a glance with his mother. As Almodóvar pulls back the camera, allowing us see to see the lights, grip and framing of the shot, the meta-reality that the boy on screen, the man he becomes and the man behind the camera are inextricable settles in. In this moment, it seems that we are seeing a version of ourselves, the most authentic version that is found in childhood and in the bond between mother and child. In bringing us from the opening image of an older Mallo submerged in a swimming pool, scar lining his back, back to this young boy and revealing the intimacy of his own struggles, Almodóvar has wound back life’s exigencies to the simplicity of childhood for us all.
If Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory is testament to great work being borne of a willingness to show and share yourself, Baumbach’s Marriage Story echoes this quality in spades. Where Almodóvar broke the mold of his prior work – an intoxicating world of campy melodrama and transgressive characters, Baumbach has conversely made mastery of putting the urban elite under a microscope, rooting out the dysfunction lying under the veneer of normalcy. With Marriage Story, Baumbach’s eleventh film and resoundingly his best work, he too discards his familiar structures to serve us something closer to his heart.
The film is the story of a marriage, a love, as told through its dissolution in the course of two people coming apart, literally through divorce and physically through a transition to life on dual and dueling coasts in New York and Los Angeles. Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play Nicole and Charlie, an artistic Park Slope-living couple with an eight-year-old boy, Henry. Nicole is an actress from L.A. who was born into a family of performers. She meets Charlie during an ‘it’ girl moment following her role in an indie film and moves with him to New York becoming the star of his experimental theater company and putting her desires to pursue television and film aside. Her sunny bordering on feisty temperament is a perfect foil to his cerebral but absent-mindedly narcissistic nature. In Marriage Story as in Pain and Glory, an opening montage sets the stage. Voiced over by the couple listing the idiosyncrasies they love about each other, the opening is a backdrop to the jarring present moment where they find themselves as we find them, negotiating their divorce via a mediator.
That the film is tied to Baumbach’s personal experience both as a child of divorce and as a divorcé with a son himself is undeniable. Moreover, Baumbach, a native New Yorker who has felt the tug of L.A., was formerly married to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh who, like Nicole, grew up in Hollywood, the child of an actor father and screenwriter mother. Baumbach, now fifty years old, initially explored the subject of divorce, from the child’s eye perspective, in 2005’s The Squid and The Whale receiving his first Oscar Nomination. With Marriage Story he tackles the ‘Whale’ head-on, sharing threads of his own adulthood.
Baumbach is astute enough to know that a truthful exposition of love and loss cannot be based solely on his own experience, not least because loving is a dual occupation. He shoulders the responsibility admirably. He only began to write the script after casting and discussing it with Johansson (who had been through two divorces herself), Driver (whose parents divorced when he was around Henry’s age) and Laura Dern (also a child of divorce) who plays Nicole’s lawyer. The process involved numerous conversations with his cast, with friends who had been through the experience and with the mediators, lawyers and judges who are part of what Baumbach terms the ‘Divorce Industrial Complex’. Baumbach tells the story through the twin perspectives of Nicole and Charlie, the camera quite literally behind either one or the other for each shot. He describes it as a take on the picaresque journey, one that sees his leads winding through the world of divorce, bumping up against the creatures that make it happen and the emotions that make it seem surreal.
The result is something that is poignantly balanced and assuredly honest. The notion of taking sides is implicit in the word Divorce. The husband or the wife, the father or the mother, the cheater or the instigator, his ambitions or her dreams, her city or his, the blame must lie somewhere, WHERE? This is the journey we assume we are being led on, the thread we must unravel. And for a while, as their characters unfurl on screen, we feel we are closing in on answers. Nicole instigates the divorce and, temporarily at first, moves herself and Henry to L.A., taking a television role and putting Henry in school, almost hoodwinking Charlie into a lop-sided custody battle. But has he just been blind to subsuming her ambitions to his, ignoring the pull home exerts for her and having a casual affair to cap his oblivion? We soon discover that finding answers is an exercise in futility. What’s really on display is each one’s humanity and the idea that in this as in most situations no one is at fault when you truly see both sides.
Baumbach’s genius lies in the way he divides our sympathies making the heartbreak visceral. It feels like the divorce is happening ‘to Charlie’ as he navigates beige hotel rooms, hard-charging lawyers and a dismal Halloween ‘driving’ Henry trick or treating through L.A.’s highways. Combine this with the fact that Driver feels like a heftier, taller stand-in for Baumbach himself and that historically most relationship dramas are really a male take on a female perspective and it’s easy to assume Charlie will have our sympathies. But we don’t know what we haven’t seen and Charlie doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. In a symphony of great writing and one breathtaking six-minute long take where Nicole tells her lawyer, her story, we begin the see-sawing ride on the emotional playground of Marriage Story, calling in to question every time we’ve ever failed to account for the other side of the coin. In Baumbach’s words, a marriage is in essence ‘your versions of your each other’. But the only reason we see the ‘other’ is because Baumbach has done everything he can to grasp it himself.
Eventually, as the couple move from amicable mediation towards a more hostile face-off, Charlie and Nicole find themselves in his newly rented apartment in L.A. exhausted from lawyering-up and searching for a way back to a reasonable and less expensive split. In another almost operatic piece of cinema, the couple’s conversation heats up building to an epic climax where all the unsaid tensions and insults that were ferreted away to protect the marriage are spat out like daggers – Slob! Dictator! User! Philanderer! We watch these two draw closer, louder and more animated, sparring like boxers and eventually defeated as they reach peak cruelty. Charlie’s anger turns to tears. Spent, he kneels and wraps his arms around his wife’s legs in a moment that is more true than beautiful, more real-life than filmic drama. The tears are ugly, the embrace clumsy, the exhaustion palpable. The awkward and un-pretty intensity is familiar to the most intimate moments in our own lives. And Baumbach is making a statement that hits far harder than a feminist think piece as we witness what happens when a woman discovers she has choices and a man discovers that the leverage he barely noticed, because he felt entitled to it, is no longer his.
Baumbach creates three other unforgettable characters in the lawyers, played by the aforementioned Laura Dern who has a slinky-vixen, power-feminist vibe, Alan Alda cast as a jaded father-figure who plays Charlie’s first lawyer and the ferociously sharp, loud-talking Ray Liotta who plays his second when Charlie realizes that the soft-touch won’t cut it. Their interactions are the strong arias, gentle refrains and powerful percussive notes of a script that is perfection, each brief on-screen but expansive in-depth. Dern’s speech to Nicole about the different expectations people have of mothers versus fathers is a hilarious instant classic and Alda’s first meeting with Charlie could be its own short film about the rarity and necessity of male empathy. Where expounding equality often falls short in helping both sexes navigate the real world, Marriage Story manages to address these dynamics in a way that strikes a chord. What’s radical though is that in taking on these issues, Baumbach does what male directors rarely strive for and almost never nail.
The style of the film, which ticks many boxes but fills none is emblematic of Baumbach’s willingness to stretch his mind in search of all the perspectives that make a truer whole. Where his previous features fit into a tidier niche, this one has disparate elements working in unlikely harmony – banter reminiscent of 1950s screwball comedies, Hitchcockian tension, Bergman-esque soul-searching and even horror in a bloody and unexpected knife scene. If this isn’t enough the film sits between an indie and a blockbuster, steeped in elements of theater and even musical. The penultimate scenes are built around songs from the Stephen Sondheim musical Company whereas emblems of their separate lives, Nicole performs You Could Drive a Person Crazy at a party with her sister and mother and Charlie sings Being Alive at a bar with his theater troupe. This yin-yang perspective on the singular truth, that love is not always enough, leaves the audience chastened by Baumbach’s willingness to see beyond his own perspective.
If traditional archetypes of femininity have been damaging to women, the ideal of ‘a real man’ all brawn and bluster hasn’t done men any favors. Masculinity is much talked about these days but in an environment where men are increasingly being called out as aggressors, it’s more often than not perceived to be toxic. This needs to change and part of this change is the culture putting forth new, positive imprints of what manhood means, imprints that don’t require men to reject sensitivity as weakness.
Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory and Baumbach’s Marriage Story do much towards this end by depicting mature men going to places of vulnerability and insecurity to understand themselves and the world around them. Mallo navigates his creative crisis and Charlie his emotional one, by embracing defeat and extending empathy to the people and events that challenge them. They emerge heroes in the game of life. Driver once referred to as ‘the original man’ and Banderas, an emblem of virility, have been exalted for an opposing virtue – leaning into their own fragility. That the protagonists hew so closely to their real-life creators is testament that these ideals stand up in fiction as much as reality. If work that reveals the softer side of manhood shines so brightly in the pantheon of cinema, surely the qualities it relies on from the directors, actors and protagonists who embody them, are qualities worth elevating. Toxic masculinity has found its antidote.
Soleil Nathwani is a New York-based Culture Writer and Film Critic. A former Film Executive and Hedge Fund COO, Soleil hails from London and Mumbai. Twitter: @soleilnathwani