The Film Geek’s Guide to Men

This post comes at the request of a reader. Or rather, THE reader. She’s pretty much the only one who reads this blog consistently, as far as I can tell. She’s the only one who leaves comments, anyway. So, dedicating a post to her only seems fair.

My task? To compile a list of 10 movies for girls to watch to help explain men (straight men, anyway; I think she understands gay men pretty well already). This was a tricky one, because while there are PLENTY of “guy” movies out there, we’re looking for films from which we can actually extrapolate something significant. A James Bond film, for instance, is not really going to tell you much besides, “men like hot chicks and guns,” which I would hope everyone has figured out for themselves by now. But where do you draw the line between escapist entertainment and more revealing material? It’s a bit of a crapshoot.

In general, though, I’ve found “meaningful” guy movies to fall into three basic categories: 1) How Guys Relate To Each Other, 2) How Guys Relate To Women, and 3) How Guys Relate To Themselves. All three combine to form How Guys Relate To the World, so you’ve got to watch them all if you want the most complete picture. Gals, enter if you dare.

Warning: Sweeping generalizations and faux psychology lie ahead.

10. Diner (1982) Category: Each Other, Women

Barry Levinson’s Diner offers possibly the single most critical piece of information on this list: for men, adolescence can (and will) stretch on far beyond the teenage years. Besides granting an eternal infatuation with pro football and pop music, this state of arrested development can leave the man permanently terrified/mystified by women (mainly because he remains too self-absorbed to even contemplate the female point of view). A man’s circle of friends thus becomes his source of refuge and support: they stand in direct opposition to women, who become the Other, those people who for some inexplicable reason do not share the man’s love of football. Men won’t really start understanding women until they grow up, and that can take a while.

9. Beau Travail (1999) Category: Each Other

Claire Denis’ baffling, primal adaptation of the Herman Melville novella Billy Budd (and the Britten opera) demonstrates the flip side of Levinson’s buddy film. In Denis’ depiction of the French Foreign Legion, the soldiers are caught in a paradox: they simultaneously rely on each other, and are each other’s primary competition. Competition for what, you may well ask. Attention, affection, sex – it’s all much the same. Here, Sergeant Galoup’s heads down a path of self-destruction because of a perceived “threat” from one of the younger soldiers. This jealousy and suspicion is a natural piece of the way men relate to each other; they constantly must re-evaluate other men with the question: friend or foe?

8. Field of Dreams (1989) Category: Themselves

Look, you don’t have to like sports. But it’s important to consider WHY it is that sports are so engrained in the traditional male psyche. Part of it is, of course, that competition aspect mentioned above, the quest to prove oneself worthy of attention. There’s the connection between father and son, if father and son did indeed ever bond over sports. But there’s something a little more to it, which Field of Dreams captures better than most other sports films. Hell, it’s right there in the title: dreams. Pay particular attention to the Moonlight Graham subplot of Field of Dreams. Sports, for a man, often symbolize dreams sacrificed or lost. It’s ultimately for the best that most men end up becoming doctors or lawyers or engineers or whatever rather than playing pro baseball; but still, they can’t help but wonder what could have been. And so they watch, and obsess.

7. Fight Club (1999) Category: Themselves

***Spoiler Alert – skip to next entry if you haven’t seen this***** (though I don’t know who could possibly be left out there who doesn’t know Fight Club’s twist)

The escapist violence of the actual fight scenes are irrelevant here. As are the attempts at sort-of endorsing anarchy and anti-materialism, which are entirely a product of modern capitalist society. The insight into the male psyche provided by Fight Club lies in the concept of the doppelganger. Like in Dostoevsky’s The Double, Edward Norton’s protagonist is so insecure and unsatisfied with himself that he summons a physical manifestation of the man he wants to be (or, at least, who he THINKS he wants to be). Every man has his own Tyler Durden, the doppelganger who can do everything we can’t. Of course, as Fight Club teaches us, you really probably don’t want to be that guy, but that insecurity remains.

6. Rear Window (1954) Category: Women

No director ever depicted the universal male fear of impotence so simply and ingeniously as Alfred Hitchcock did with Rear Window. Stuck in a wheelchair and requiring assistance from both a nurse and his lover for the most basic of tasks, Jimmy Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries itches to prove that he still has power to exercise; investigating whether his neighbor is a murderer lets him do so. Note that the fear of impotence is not merely physical, but emotional, as Stewart continually rebuffs Grace Kelly in an effort to maintain control over the relationship. That fear of a loss of power and control never completely goes away, but some learn to live with it.

5. High Fidelity (2000) Category: Women, Themselves

Rob Gordon is scared of being rejected. He’s scared of not being satisfactory in bed. He’s scared of his competition. He’s scared of being a bad person. He’s scared there’s something fundamentally WRONG about him. It’s difficult for people under 30 to get this messed up: clearly, Rob’s situation comes out of years of experience in being insecure. But there’s a general maxim here that applies even to younger men: they don’t know what the hell they’re doing, but they feel like they should, so, simply, they act like they do (some better than others).

4. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) Category: Women

Girls should be required to see this movie so that they can see, and understand, that they DO have the power to completely and utterly shatter a man’s entire worldview. In Robert Altman’s masterpiece, McCabe is a haughty, confident gambler and businessman. He’s mysterious and charismatic and he knows it, exploiting highly calculated mannerisms to gain power. Then Mrs. Miller shows up, and proceeds to break his expertly constructed public and self-image into little pieces. She forces him to confront a side of himself he’s clearly not well in tune with: that legendary “sensitive” side. And once he’s exposed…well, I don’t want to give it away, but…SHE DESTROYS HIM. Not on purpose, per se, or maliciously, mind you; but she chooses to cut herself off from him, leaving him to die, alone and unloved, in a snowbank. It’s one of the most tragic, heart-wrenching conclusions in film history, and every man knows, deep down, that it could happen to him. And girls wonder why men are terrified of them??

3. The Hustler (1961) Category: Themselves, Women

The Hustler is a stark, entrancing depiction of one of the most dangerous issues that can consume a man: an absolute obsession with achieving a single goal. Fast Eddie Felson is determined to beat Minnesota Fats, nominally the best pool player in America; will this desire to show up the veteran player destroy everything he has? Will he choose to live in reality, or in dreams? Does he win by losing, lose by winning? This is the dark side of that obsession with sports and dreams I spoke about earlier. Some men aren’t content to wonder what they could have been; some must know exactly who they are, and will go to any length to find out.

2. The Wild Bunch (1969) Category: Each Other, Themselves

I had about 10 Westerns duking it out for a spot on this list, most saying generally the same things; I went with The Wild Bunch because its violent conclusion contains every principle that holds the genre in such wide male esteem. As I mentioned in the High Fidelity paragraph, men generally don’t have a clue what they’re doing; but one of the things that lends them a sense of purpose and direction is to have a set of principles, a code of honor to live and, if need be, die by. The Wild Bunch walk willingly to their deaths, in an attempt to rescue one of their own that they know will fail. But, according to their unspoken code, betraying their friend is a fate worse than death. Now, do most men actually live like this, according to unbreakable bonds of fraternal loyalty? ‘Course not. But they want to. They want the world to have such clear-cut rules, to make sense in black-and-white terms, because they’re afraid of being left to create their own fate.

1. The Godfather, parts I and II (1972, 1974) Category: Themselves

Every sense of duty, loyalty, responsibility, desire, ambition, guilt, frustration, pain, impotence and fear that Ā a man ever felt is echoed somewhere in the first two parts of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. That code of principles is there, but so is the confusion, the ambiguity; is that really how we want to live? Men are afraid that there is no one in control, or worse: that there is someone in control, and it isn’t them. Just who is pulling the strings? Our emotions? Our desires? Our fears? Our responsibilities?

I hope this list at least gives some food for thought. I know I for one am kind of confused now and have possibly talked myself in circles, but I think I got across the points I wanted to make. And if I didn’t, hey, just watch the movies. Then maybe you’ll get it.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Film Geek’s Guide to Men

  1. Elaine

    First of all, I love you. But you already knew that, list or no list. Second of all, I am so flattered and honoured right now. Years and years and years from now, when I am an old peon in a wheelchair somewhere forlorn and lonely, I’m going to tell anyone who will listen (which won’t be many) that the great film critic Ethan Gates once dedicated an entire post to me to help me understand those utterly inexplicable, fickle creatures we call men. I’m serious! Though I would hope that you would still be visiting me in that wheelchair. šŸ™‚

    Now, that said, I think I need to respond.
    10. This is my greatest fear in life. Thank you for confirming it. But what if they never grow up, Ethan? What do I do then?
    9. I did not know that. At all. Thank you for shedding light. Fascinating.
    8. I will try my best to keep this in mind next time you’re all excluding me from the conversation at the dinner table. šŸ™‚ Dreams, dreams, dreams. Just keep telling yourself this, Elaine.
    7. I love the Dostoevsky reference. šŸ˜€
    6. This was also highly informative. Though why someone would turn Grace Kelly away is beyond even me. Guess the male need for control is really that strong, eh?
    5. Men just act like they know what they’re doing, but they don’t really. Okay. Alright. Will remember that. And this movie will always remind me of you. šŸ™‚
    4. This movie has now been added to my to-watch list. Just the description makes me happy, which might indicate a serious problem with my life. A woman destroying man and completely altering his worldview. I must see this movie. I’m obsessed with getting to the infamous “sensitive” side. This movie is mine.
    Are ALL men terrified of women? I think women have more to be afraid of. Men are crazy.
    3. Wow. I’m afraid.
    2. If nothing else, this explains a question I’ve never understood: the appeal of Westerns. Thank you, film critic Gates.
    1. First thing I want to say is that all three films I predicted made it on the list. Win for Elaine! At least I understand guys that much, eh? But you pointed out a completely different appeal of The Godfather than I would have guessed, so very effective. šŸ™‚

    I may have to reread this when I’m more awake tomorrow, but my conclusions are that men are insecure and confused. Mostly insecure. And afraid, but more afraid to let on that they are.

    I now want to compile a similar list, but for women. I may just do so. This will take a while. Can you take a guess at some films that would be on it?

    Oh. And if I hadn’t said it yet, thank you. And it means a lot to me. šŸ™‚

    LOVE!
    -me

    P.S. Just because I don’t comment doesn’t mean I don’t read them. I read every single post. Yes. I need help. šŸ™‚ Or maybe a life.

  2. Elaine

    On second thought and review, maybe the fact that I’ve only seen three of these movies (two completely and two halves to make the third) is my fundamental problem in understanding men.

  3. Alison

    So, I do creep on your blog, I just don’t comment because I have nothing remotely constructive to say. However, I do love this list, and will totes get on watching a bunch of those.

    I’m also now pondering the opposite list. Hm.

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