Imagine if movie heroes could be vulnerable and emotional.
There’s a fascinating feature in this month’s UK edition of Esquire magazine that bemoans the “paucity of real heroes and real men in Hollywood today”.
There are, according to the Irish author Kevin Maher, only two actors left who “are staging a brave last stand for masculinity at the movies”: Denzel Washington (60) and Liam Neeson (61).
Maher fears the credits are set to roll on the “old school, analogue, macho man” as he makes way for one of his less masculine successors, such as “the geek fantasy heroes (comic book stars) or touchy-feely, geek protagonists” played by actors like Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne.
He isn’t the only person to have noticed the gradual evolution of masculinity in the movies and for some men in the film industry, the change can’t happen soon enough. I recently met the Colombian film director, Andres Dussan, whose latest film, Down Dog, tells the story of an emotionally stunted father, learning how to connect with his teenage son.
Dussan would love to see a little less action from stereotypical movie heroes and a little more authentic conversation please. He says:
“I was watching the other day a film called Noah and the role models of manhood that it’s sharing in that film is just horrible. It’s just this man who’s absolutely in control of everything. He is the provider of everything to his family, he’s violent, but because it’s well intentioned, all bad behaviour is forgiven.
“I think in real life that’s not how it works. We need to portray men who are way more relaxed, men who are not just the bread providers, but also provide emotional support and nurture.”
According to Dussan, the tale of the all-conquering, adventure hero, remains a popular film formula because of its proven track record.
“It’s not the formula that is a problem, because it works, but the problem is that because it works we do it too many times. I think somehow the brain works in a way which makes that familiar hero’s journey popular.
“We store information in the brain in a very similar way as this story is structured. We identify with the key characters; we identify with the tension in a situation; we identify a mission point; something makes that world unstable; then there is a reaction from all the characters involved; there is a confrontation because change has to be made; there is a resolution and there is climax.
“That event is captured and stored in our brain. Later on in life, we use those events to react to a similar situation. That is how the brain works. The problem is if you are constantly being presented with the same story and the same angle then it’s more likely that you will react in that way.”
As the father of two children including a thirteen-year-old son, Dussan is concerned about the messages that movies send to young men about masculinity.
“When you grow up without a father then those alpha males become your role models,” he says. “And then you have these young men behaving in such an aggressive way because they think that’s what they should be when every time they watch a movie that’s there.
“When you are presented with a situation you will draw on your resources and will say ‘ok I have to be aggressive, I have to be violent, I have to come up with a solution, I have to be alone, I have to solve this myself’ and then ‘boom’ and we’re into a lot of trouble.”
Dussan believes it is essential for Hollywood to change these narrow portrayals of masculinity in movies and is positive that change is happening.
“For a long time I thought the alpha males who control Hollywood were the obstacle and then I saw Avatar,” he confesses. “Avatar destroyed my theory. On one hand it’s pretty much the same story but on the other hand it’s absolutely revolutionary in the idea that the industrialised world becomes the enemy, so it turns things around and shows we can use Hollywood to help us in this transition.
“I think it’s important to make content that is different, that shows that there can be a mutually beneficial relationship between a man and a woman, that you can trust a woman and that a woman can trust a man, that there is communication etc, etc.
“And I’m sure the audience is ready for that because there are lots of examples that are starting to come about right now, but I think we have to create more and more content to get rid of this alpha male stereotype because I think that’s the big, big problem.”
Both Maher and Dussan reference the explosion of comic book hero movies in recent decades as an example of the changing nature of Hollywood masculinity.
Neeson and Washington “effortlessly exude more masculinity than the entire Marvel Universe put together” says Maher in his Esquire article. Maher believes we “confuse muscles with masculinity” when considering the “pretty boys and buffed-up comic book Marvel men in the Tinseltown gene pool”. He quotes the director behind action movies The Equalizer and the new Magnificent Seven, Antoine Fuqua, who directed Washington to a Best Actor Oscar in Training Day (2001). “How many guys am I going to see in spandex who are flying around and saving the world as 23 years old?” asks Fuqua. “I don’t believe them. I don’t believe they have the life experience to do one per cent of the thing that they’re doing.”
Dussan takes a different view. He believes that when we look beneath the superhero’s macho persona, when he takes off his mask of masculinity, we are beginning to see an authentic vulnerability that is a truer representation of contemporary manhood.
“Nowadays you see these superheroes and they make movies that mock a little bit, because when they really have to connect with their loved ones they have to change,” he says. “They cannot be the hero anymore, they have to be vulnerable, they have to listen to the other person, they have to lose control, they have to share control of the situation and that’s great, everybody benefits when we disengage from that behaviour.”
Dussan is keen to point that there are times when it helps for men to be assertive and take actions that make a difference.
“I’m not saying we should completely forget about it,” he explains. “There are moments in life when you have to be effective, but the violent path is still seen by many people as the viable solution. Violence usually never solves a problem, it usually just pushes it away.”
The action that solves our problems, more often than not, says Dussan, is seeking help—a simple, vulnerable act that defies one of the key masculine stereotype that Hollywood reinforces, namely that men should be strong, independent, heroes who solve their problems alone.
In Dussan’s new film, Down Dog, he tells the story of the heroic struggle that a father faces, to build a relationship with his teenage son, after his ex wife tricks him into believing that he only has a year to live.
Dussan was drawn to the film because it reflected some of his own experiences of fatherhood, which he recently spoke about at insideMAN magazine. In particular, he drew on his own experience of using counselling to help him reconnect with his son.
“I like the fact that the key character is allowed to be vulnerable,” says Dussan of the tragi-comic hero in Down Dog. “He’s allowed to cry, he’s allowed to ask for help and then he gets help. I think that’s amazing. I love the fact that children should be watching more films where that happens, where it’s absolutely normal for a man to break down, to cry, to feel sad, to ask for help and to get the help.”
In the run up to Down Dog’s UK launch, Dussan is launching an online campaign to raise awareness of some of help and support that is available to men. He says:
“I hope we can generate that space where men, especially young fathers, are in distress and trouble and thinking they are a failure because they’re not a perfect father, they just can relax and find the support and find other people to share and get the advice and the inspiration to do whatever they have to do to be the person they want to be and build the relationship with their children that they want.”
In his Esquire article, Maher laments the lack of “good men” like Neeson and Washington who can make movies about old-school, masculine heroes who “accomplish stuff and behave decently and with honour”.
Dussan, in contrast, thinks we should celebrate the fact that our definition of what constitutes a “good man” in life and in the movies is evolving.
“I think men, we are more then ready to change,” he says. “There is so much to gain from opening our hearts to new possibilities because we want to be the people we want to be—not what other people want or other people expect but what we want to be. And Hollywood is very pragmatic. They will make the movies that sell, so as soon as men get used to watching authentic portrayals of masculinity, they will start producing more movies like this.”
* Down Dog is released in selected cinemas in the UK on 14 February 2015. For more information see www.downdogfilm.com
Photo: McKay Savage/flickr
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