Male Love Through Female Eyes

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

While by no means torrential, there has been – over the decades – no shortage of male-directed films dependent on and driven by a central relationship between two or more women. In the last year or two alone I can name several notable, high profile pictures that fit the bill, from Clouds of Sils Maria to Duke of Burgundy to Queen of Earth to Our Sister’s Sister to Mistress America to Carol, to name but some.

It seems that – as far back as George Cukor’s 1939 feature The Women, if not further – men with access to a camera and actors have been periodically compelled to (at best) explore and (at worst) distil, even reduce, the dynamics that may or may not influence the way in which women relate with each other within various social contexts. And seeing as the two genders have harboured a deep mutual curiosity (and perhaps an even deeper mutual frustration) for as long as Mars and Venus have been planets, these male-driven cinematic investigations of womanhood and femininity are understandable, and at times even forgivable in their desperation for clarity through simplification.

Unfortunately, so many of these films do succumb – in one way or another – to that innate human tendency to schematise, with female relationships often feeling like interactions not so much between individuals but between types, or fragments/subsets of a figurative female psyche; and not simply the classic, clichéd mother versus whore showdown. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is perhaps the archetype – the poster-child – of the male fascination with the idea that women straddle a multiplicity of roles and mental spaces, whether by nature or social necessity, and that these are often present and in opposition within the same individual (often represented onscreen as several). Possibly arising from Man’s desire to rationalise his utter inability to grasp that which he believes he should, it’s a cinematic tradition that did not begin with Persona and will likely not end with Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, for example.

So if – despite however many spirited attempts – the idea of ‘elucidating’ the nature of Woman through cinema is an asymptotic, fundamentally fraught enterprise, the converse must be true. Can it be expected of women filmmakers that they, through cinema, shed light upon the more elusive or inexplicable aspects of male nature; shed light upon man’s propensity for violence, for example? How about the prickly relationship the Western male has with simple platonic intra-gender affection? Whereas in some cultures hand-holding and kissing are wholly normal, unremarkable means of conveying friendship and affection between males, Western straight male-bonding exhibits a certain aloofness, however subtle, to the extent that the term ‘bromance’ should be coined as an expression of the apparent remarkableness of two men shamelessly displaying mutual affection.

For this video essay, I looked at five films (The Hitch-Hiker, Mikey and Nicky, Point Break, Beau Travail, and Old Joy) by five women directors (Ida Lupino, Elaine May, Kathryn Bigelow, Claire Denis, and Kelly Reichardt respectively), each picture deeply male-centric, honing in on primarily platonic relationships between men. For purposes of drama and narrative momentum there are of course inevitable sources of conflict that strain and frustrate the films’ core relationships. That being said, it’s curious that these pictures seem to focus on the elements that disrupt earnest male bonding, whether physical, emotional or philosophical. And while these works cannot necessarily claim any definitive breakthrough with regards to a Unified Theory of Masculinity, their existence proves a necessary alternative to the aforementioned male tradition, at the very least for their undeniable artistic metier.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

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