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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Icons of Cool #3

Tom Waits is an American original no matter how you slice him. His music is bold and eclectic, with influences as far reaching as Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Bob Dylan, and Howlin' Wolf. Waits himself crafts songs of boozy intelligence with no discernible direct influence; no one else can sing Tom Waits' songs but Waits himself (as Scarlett Johansson deftly proved on her ill-advised Tom Waits cover album). Whether his gruff voice is crooning over a soaring trumpet (Somewhere) or whispering over a jangly samba (Jockey Full of Bourbon), Waits is 100% always no one else but himself. It is a testament of Waits' uncalculated coolness that he is the only artist who could fuel an all night bender with aplomb (a lot of his songs are about drinking...) and just as easily lay the soundtrack down for the morning after: full of regret, unfulfilled wishes, and some broad you met at a bar, took home, and you passed out before she took off her coat.

Tom Waits' new album Bad As Me is out now, and good gravy, its terrific. 

Monday, 24 October 2011

It's a Man's World

So what is it exactly that makes a man a man? The definition has seen widely varying criteria throughout the ages, filtered through the media and presented to the population via radio, television, and advertising. Movies in particular have offered us what the ideal man should be, how he should act, what sort of clothes he should wear. And especially how he treats a lady. Several films come to mind when I think of how the ideal man is portrayed. Keep in mind that these are simply one blogger's humble opinions

Firstly, there is North by Northwest, Hitchcock's 1959 grand adventure starring the imitable Cary Grant. Plot mechanics aside (which would take a half dozen paragraphs to elucidate anyways) Grant's Roger Thornhill is the distillation of what a man should be: beyond handsome, quick witted, cool under pressure, ready to jump into a situation no matter how dangerous, and incredibly suave with women. Imagine taking Don Draper (Thornhill is even part of the Mad Men himself, working as an ad executive on Madison Ave), injecting him with a dose of reckless courage, stripping the psychological complexities, and throwing him into one dangerous situation after another replete with beautiful women, international intrigue, and a shake or two of murder. In fact, that's what makes Thornhill such an effective pillar of masculinity: he has zero backstory. He is 100% surface, and that surface is shaped so expertly that viewers cannot help but succumb to that old adage "women want to sleep with him, men want to be him. " You can of course apply this to the obvious film character, the one who really comes to mind when you think of masculinity: James Bond. The very name itself practically bleeds testosterone. But the crucial difference that makes Roger Thornhill more of a distillation of masculinity than James Bond is one of viewer relatability. You see, James Bond is a spy with access to a wondrous array of gadgets, cars, and a seemingly endless bank account. The average viewer can fantasize, but not relate. The genius behind North by Northwest lies in Hitchcock's classic wrong man scenario: Thornhill is thrust into the world of intrigue quite against his will, forcing him to react to the situation in ways we may be able to identify with.

For a more contemporary example of masculinity in cinema, we needn't look further than two releases from this year, both coincidentally starring Ryan Gosling. The first film is Drive, where Gosling plays a taciturn auto mechanic/stuntman/getaway-driver-for-hire who gets involved with a woman, some gangsters, and a big bag of money. Gosling's character, known only as the Driver, is cool, knowledgable, efficient, and prone to incredible outbursts of violence. He is a doer, not a talker. When the woman he loves is in trouble, the Driver springs into action without a hint of selfishness, single-mindedly acting as her protector at any cost. There is never remorse for any of his actions, no matter how extreme, and the viewer accepts this since the Driver is acting solely out of concern for his girlfriend (and to further boost viewer empathy, her child). The Driver is sharklike in his quest, continually moving forward to reach his goal, and leaving bodies in his wake. So can such a violent character really embody masculinity? In a word, yes, since his actions are for a sympathetic cause.

Another film finding Gosling portraying "the ultimate man" is Crazy Stupid Love. Not a great movie by any stretch, but in it Gosling plays a womanizing lothario who happens to be incredibly charming and well-heeled. Throughout the film, we are given zero backstory about him (much like the Driver), adding to his mystique. The movie doubles back to then deconstruct this mystique while Gosling teaches Steve Carell's character what makes a woman want a man. Being mysterious and never talking about yourself makes a man mysterious, therefore more intriguing to a woman. Gosling's character knows how to dress, walk, talk, and can make a mean Old Fashioned (there is a point in the film where he gets Carrel to chant I'm better than the Gap! repeatedly) He is confident but not arrogant, knowledgable but not a know-it-all. He seduces countless women into bed, though; he has impeccable taste but is a serial bachelor. As the film progresses, cracks begin to show in his steely facade. Gosling begins to embrace monogamy and values quality time with a woman rather than a one night stand. He realizes the emptiness of a life without true love and decides he is the marrying type after all. By embodying both the suave sophisticated worldly type as well as the down-to-earth, one-woman-man, Gosling makes his character, in my opinion, the perfect man for the 21st century woman.

Taking three examples of characters from movies over fifty years apart is by no means a scientific analysis of what masculinity is defined by the lens of society, I admit. I just thought it was interesting seeing as I watched all three of the aforementioned films quite recently and found myself thinking I'd really like to be this guy, or at the very least possess certain aspects of each of them. Coincidentally, my wife thought that these characters were all in their own way embodiments of desirable masculine qualities. There are lots of women who wouldn't be attracted at all to any of these types, which is obviously understandable, different strokes for different folks, as they say. But to me, and what I strive to be in a man, these three examples stand at the forefront of what masculinity is and can be, warts and all.