Streaming Showcase: Men Dealing with Women (Poorly)
Being a man is, for the most part, incredibly easy. This Y-chromosome of ours is a laminated backstage pass to most of Western civilization’s default advantages and Easy Streets. In the unlikely event that despite all possible breaks, thumbed-scales, and legs-up we still manage to fail at something, we also have the gifts of ego and poor self-awareness, so we either don’t notice or it rolls right off our backs.
The problem is that the male sex has held power for so long that until the medium of film provided a high-power mechanism for self-reflection, we had grown complacent, unable or unwilling to understand our new role in battle of the sexes, which had been re-armed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Filmmakers and other artists had the necessary perspective to understand the nuances of language and human psychology which could allow one gender to start from such an elevated position in the physical, geopolitical, and economic contests and still manage to seem outclassed in the only games that matters: culture and romance.
The onset of the Golden Age of Hollywood coincided with a general realization that the battle of the sexes deserved significant and diligent emotional attention in order to ensure that we built the kind of world that we wanted to live in. Male-female relationships in film start to acquire grit and substance, and are represented not as forests of lollipops but rather brambles of licorice and brussels sprouts coated in dews of tortured metaphors. Sometimes, believe it or not, romantic love is not inevitable or worth all the hassle, and the culture had finally matured enough to be able to admit that fact in its art.
Fortunately for screenwriters, this opened a rich vein of stories involving men who are not outmatched by nature or society or technology or other men, but by women. And unlike in all those other conflicts, the writer cannot (from a moral standpoint) simply demonize one side or the other and expect to tell a story that is True. The conflict must start as appearing to be between man and woman but ultimately turn out to be about how we each relate to ourselves. Other genders become avatars for our own incompletenesses.
Here are five films which feature men trying desperately, and accurately, to hold their own in game they thought was fixed in their favor, but wasn’t. Taken collectively, they form a brutally educational film festival about the male perspective on learning how to “lose” the battle of the sexes in such a way that everyone actually wins.
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This film is about many different kinds of clashing: the past versus the future, biology versus technology, data versus the creative process, and, naturally, male against female. The point of the whole thing, of course, is that these apparent opposing forces in the world are not actually in opposition, but instead are simply different forms of energy which combine to produce a certain result. It is our egos which assign these judgement-laden narrative poles to what would otherwise be just another of the universe’s binary systems.
In this film, a research department’s fact-checking does not cock-block the creation of television fiction, but rather makes it better by allowing the real world to act as the growth medium of storytelling. The giant computer was never intended to replace the human workers but rather to assist and augment them. And Spencer Tracy‘s affection and dedication to the EMERAC machine, rather than providing an obstacle to his relationship with Katherine Hepburn, is actually a key facilitator of it. The lesson becomes that our (men’s and people’s) tendencies towards conflict are not necessarily based on objective reality but rather an emotion- and pheromone-drenched version of it.
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So which woman is Tom Ewell “dealing with,” his wife or the sexy new neighbor? Or is he actually dealing collectively with all of the women that live in his head, internalized symbols of feminine power, judgement, and sexy sex-sex sexuality?
Sometimes men misunderstand the game. They imagine the sexual battlefield as populated by windmill-giants requiring massive doses of androgenical histrionics to slay. Our “hero” imagines himself in one skirmish after another, his repressed hormonal savagery yoked to a perceived societal mandate to be a gentleman-provider. In clash after clash (in his mind), the ovary is beaten back by the testicle, but there is always another salvo on its way and he must stand ready.
This is, of course, a mental illness. This vision of the societal and biological world is utterly deluded, and unless tempered with ego-neutralizing forces such as children or religion, it will promote spiritual decay of the subject and everyone around him. This film does as good a job as any of showing the ludicrous truths of the masculine mind. Or at least a masculine mind. “Richard Sherman” is by no means a worthy Everyman, but even though his cynicism and lack of self-discipline are at the extremes of the typical male experience, his inner processes and patterns of thoughts are uncomfortably familiar.
Either Everything Must Go
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Or The Beaver
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For reasons of redundancy I do not recommend that both of these movies be included in any one streaming film festival. Both are concerned with late-middle-aged men who turn to drastic yet plot-unifying gimmicks when their struggles with alcoholism and familial alienation become too much for their souls to bear. They could perhaps be lumped in with American Beauty and The Weather Man as some new dramedy subgenre: “Dad’s Wackadoodle Mid-Life Crisis”.
It sells these films short to look at them strictly through the “battle of the sexes” lens, because the point that they’re making is about the whole gestalt of adult malehood breaking down, especially in the face of (or perhaps as a trigger for) the disease of alcoholism.
But the “romance” thread is still an interesting one to pull on, because then you see these stories as men rejecting the masculine molds of their fathers in favor of. . . well, essentially anything else. These characters know no alternative narratives by which to be in love with a woman other than the one that has spectacularly failed, and they have no emotional mechanisms to allow them to make organic, incremental changes to the way they relate to their wives (and everyone else).
And so instead they just bust out and do something weird, and by doing so they rediscover the agency that they mistakenly thought they had to relinquish when they fell in love. It’s kind of a ruby-slippers, you-always-had-the-power-to-go-home kind of thing except now an entire family is at stake.
Global ranking: 162
Wins 52% of its matchups
1838 users have ranked it 30215 times
4 has it at #1
72 have it in their top 20
Rounding out our little festival of testicular ineptitude is a film about the primary artery of all relationships between men and women: change. Here our femme fatale works her fatal and unconscious magic against three different men nearly simultaneously, all of whom hold differently-wrong understandings about how to expect Laura to change once they fall in love with her. More significantly, none of them expect themselves to change.
One man tries to mold Laura into his perfect companion, only to have her suddenly turn out to have needs and desires of her own. Another is too dimwitted to understand women beyond their status as pretty baubles to look at, constantly underestimating the richness and complexity of their inner lives to the point of committing needless felonies. The third man, our “hero”, finds nothing more alluring than when a woman is already dead and is guaranteed to not do anything like “change” or “be complicated” that would make his brain hurt. He’s much too preoccupied with day-drinking and being terse.
Laura is a film that reminds us not to fall in love with a person but with a person’s “way of being”, their own personal tao of change. If we can love how a person is different from one moment or day or year to the next then we have found the right eyes with which to see all the dimensions of their true personhood, which is what we all want out of romance: just to be seen.