Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Real Men Eat Ibex

Perceptions and definitions of masculinity vary from time to time and culture to culture. Throughout history, popular concepts of masculinity have been reflected in paintings and sculptures. Some are commissioned portraits, others created from inspiration

From Chinese scrolls depicting heavily costumed warriors to sculptures like Michelangelo's David, masculinity has often been seen in the guise of an athlete or soldier.

A classic piece of beefcake art by the French artist, Stefan

The ancient Greeks gave us heroes like Achilles and Odysseus. Following the invention of the printing press, novelists were able to create fictional heroes ranging from The Scarlet Pimpernel to Tevye and Tarzan; from Jean Valjean to Zorro and James Bond.

The advent of film and television went a long way toward shaping the public's visual perception of masculinity.  From Rudolph Valentino to Ralph Kramden, from Robert Young's starring role in Father Knows Best to Hugh Jackman's characterization of Wolverine, men have been celebrated whose appearance spanned a wide range of virility, hirsutism, courage, and sophistication.

A militaristic image created by the French artist, Stefan

How men idealize other men has long been an inspiration for homoerotic art. The following image is a tame gateway to the intense work of Sadao Hasegawa, who was noted for his erotically-charged drawings of muscular Asian men in bondage.

A drawing by graphic artist Sadao Hasegawa

Much the same could be said for Tom of Finland, whose aesthetic has long been the backbone of the leather subculture.

Poster art for an homage to Tom of Finland's work

Many men are drawn to bodybuilding as a way to combat their low self-esteem. For years, Charles Atlas marketed his products to teenagers who felt like the stereotypical "98-pound weakling."

As bodybuilding became perceived as more of a sport (and, to some, an art form), it triggered new levels of fascination. The growing popularity of bodybuilding magazines, musclebound superheroes in comic books, the sexual revolution, anabolic steroids and other "diet supplements" -- combined with images from films like 1976's Rocky and 1977's Pumping Iron -- helped to build a much larger audience for muscular men with pumped-up pecs, bulging biceps, and chiseled abs.

As men's fashion advertising moved from the staid images seen in the Sears catalog to showing more skin and attitude, the concept of "manly men" split off in many directions. Some chose to adorn themselves with piercings and tattoos; others opted to express themselves through their wardrobe.

From Castro clones to big old bears, men seemed intent on celebrating the variety of body types. There were, of course, some notable exceptions.

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On November 27, 1929, just four weeks after the Wall Street stock market crashed, a new musical entitled Fifty Million Frenchmen opened on Broadway. The score by Cole Porter (which included "You Do Something To Me") inspired Irving Berlin to call it "the best musical comedy I have seen in years."

Libby Holman recorded one of the show's hit songs, "Find Me A Primitive Man," which is used as the background music for the following montage of clips from Johnny Weissmuller's old Tarzan movies.

Several months ago, while doing some research for my review of Lavinia Currier's new African adventure film (Oka!), I started to read about a movie she released in 1998 entitled Passion in the Desert. Based on a short story by Balzac, the action takes place in 1798, shortly after Napoleon began his invasion of Egypt.

Poster art for Passion in the Desert

When I finally had a chance to rent Passion in the Desert from Netflix, I was bowled over by the experience. Aleksei Rodionov's gorgeous cinematography and José Nieto's original score provided a rare exotic foundation for one of the strangest love stories you'll ever see on film.

The story concerns a French soldier (Ben Daniels) who has been assigned to escort and protect an artist (Michel Piccoli) as he sketches famous Egyptian sculptures and monuments. The artist is an eccentric old coot.

After Mameluk tribesmen attack the French military encampment, the soldier and artist become separated from their comrades and wander alone in the Sahara. After Augustin goes off in search of help, the artist commits suicide by drinking his paints. Starved and nearing death, Augustin is miraculously saved by a leopard that attacks a Bedouin intent on killing the exhausted soldier.

Filmed on location in the ruins of Petra, Jordan and the caves of Moab, Utah, Passion in the Desert is a feast for the eyes. More interesting, however, is the transformation in Augustin's relationship with the leopard.

In order to stay alive, Augustin learns how to eat raw meat from the carrion of a freshly killed ibex and drink from a pool of water (just like a leopard does). As loneliness and the company of a big cat start to eat at his mental health, the soldier begins to fall in love with Simoom. Upon seeing Simoom playing with another leopard, he starts to become jealous.

Much of Passion in the Desert involves Augustin's slow but steady disintegration until he has reverted to a more primitive form of man. The following clip gives a solid feel for the movie's physical beauty -- as well as its raw honesty about the necessities of nature.

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While Passion in the Desert shows a man discovering his more primitive instincts, Mark Pellington's new film, I Melt With You, examines the consequence of wasted masculinity. Following in the footsteps of such soul-searching reunion films as 1983's The Big Chill, I Melt With You takes top honors for one of the worst marketing decisions in Hollywood history.

Apparently some fool involved with this movie thought that Christmas (the time of year when people are most vulnerable to suicidal ideation) would be the perfect slot for releasing a film in which four aging party boys execute a suicide pact. Ironically, that's the least of this film's problems.

Richard (Thomas Jane) and Jonathan (Rob Lowe)
are the last two standing in I Melt With You

Minus the presence of a black man (who is usually the first to die at the hands of a monster, ghoul, or serial killer), it is the gay character in I Melt With You who is the first to succumb. But let's not quibble about such a tired cliché for, besides being emotionally rancid, intellectually bankrupt, and stupefyingly unnecessary, this movie is far too pathetic to even be called a cliché. In his writer's statement, Glenn Porter explains that:
"I Melt With You was more of an emotional state I hoped to purge from my psyche with some form of therapy than a dramatic piece I expected to be seen by anyone. Specifically, it's a story about anti-heroes who never lived up to their own expectations and come to believe, over the course of a drug-fueled weekend, there is one way they can honor the men they failed to become.  It's the ultimate escapist fantasy. Generally, it's a story about men and their failures, lies, rationalizations, and the games of Peter Pan self-delusion they play and have to reconcile with in mid-life. We all dream big, but reality is usually less thrilling. The film, I think, also captures the joy of friendship for many guys born around the mid-1960s, which was often accompanied by music and altered states."
Christian McKay, Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe and Thomas Jane
reunite for a weekend in Big Sur in I Melt With You

Originally conceived as "an existential horror film," I Melt With You was shot in sequence over 18 days on a bare-bones budget. As Pellington explains:
"I Melt With You was designed and conceived as an allegory about male friendship and failure, set inside the powerful bonds of memory and promise.  It is a tale, on the surface, of old friends being confronted by their youthful promise, and shifts into an exploration of the dark side, the weakness of the male psyche and men who ultimately hide from themselves and their responsibilities. I was interested in exploring how middle-aged men become far different creatures than they imagined they would be, and how they deal with it. The film asks a lot of questions about the real life experiences of males. Questions like: How do we, as men, come to terms with not becoming what we set out to be? How do we handle the powerlessness and guilt connected to failure?  How do we cope with the fear of losing our identity?
I was looking to make a raw, visceral, music-driven film that expressed where I was in my life, to take the creative process back to a more intuitive place of directorial freedom, and get out and shoot something down and dirty, yet meaningful -- quickly. I worked on the script with its creator, the writer Glenn Porter, and we received input and support from executive producer Neil Labute. This is a film that loves music and understands the role it plays in the highs and lows of life. We kind of embraced the punk rock spirit of 'Fuck it, let’s just do it ourselves.'”
Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Christian McKay, and Thomas Jane
in I Melt With You
"The movie has aesthetic influences in 1980's new wave/punk rock, and the aggressive cut-up poetics of William Burroughs. It was inspired by the likes of Cassavetes' Husbands and Mike Leigh’s Naked. It is quasi-experimental, intense, and personal film for me, a 180-degree turn from my last work. We were all a team, a small band of actors and crew who took our collective influences and life experience and threw it into a harrowing experimental blender, exploring the vagaries of friendship, regret, shame, failure, greed, and the desperate search for hope.
At the end of the day I Melt With You is just a movie. However, it is not for the squeamish. It's the type of film that is going to generate controversy and garner deeply felt polarized reactions. I very much look forward to yours."
Let's start with the obvious. I Melt With You is a loathsome, overindulgent piece of egomaniacal shit that would never have been produced without some star names attached to it. As one critic correctly noted, "By the end you feel nothing, not even contempt."

Rolling down the side of a sand dune

With those points as psychological landmarks, let's look at the four middle-aged white men whose misfortunes propel this film to its easily-anticipated end.
  • Richard (Thomas Jane) is a failed novelist who supports himself as a disillusioned schoolteacher. Determined to remain a bachelor, he is content to have lots of flings but no lasting relationships with women.
  • Ron (Jeremy Piven) is the unhappy dickhead who, even when screwing people over in college, always had enough money to bail his friends out of jail. Nicknamed "Rat Ron," he is now an investment banker who, although he genuinely loves his wife and two daughters,  knows he is in deep shit with the Securities & Exchange Commission.
  • Jonathan (Rob Lowe) is a failed physician who focused his practice on accepting bribes to write prescriptions for wealthy addicts. Proud to announce that "The doctor is in," he is hardly the poster boy for managed care. Always ready, willing, and able to supply party drugs for his friends, Jonathan  arrives for the weekend with an arsenal of pills and enough cocaine to give a horse a seizure. Thoroughly debauched and spiritually dead, he has no trouble swallowing fistfuls of pills while trying to numb the emotional pain of being a divorced dad whose son barely knows him.
  • Tim (Christian McKay) is the most sensitive of the four men (even if his negligence killed his sister and his boyfriend). His three-way with a local swinging couple is, at best, laughable.
The four assholes of the apocalypse

Although Carla Gugino has a thankless role as a local cop, much of Pellington's movie is at least visually impressive. There are beautiful coastal shots of Big Sur, plenty of nice angles within the quartet's impressive rental house, and lots of jagged motion action meant to capture the distorted sensations of a weekend fueled by too many drugs and too much booze.

A drug-fueled moment from I Melt With You

If there is anything to be gleaned from the psychological trainwreck of I Melt With You, it's that for all of their hedonistic bravado, none of Bellington's antiheroes has the courage to seek professional help. These are men who were assholes in college and have remained assholes well into middle age.

Perhaps that statement is too harsh and suggests that Richard, Jonathan, Ron, and Timothy haven't evolved. They have evolved -- from angry, idealistic assholes into sarcastic, self-destructive scumbags for whom death is the only logical way to respond to their college-era "blood brothers" oath.

I don't doubt that this loathsome film will find a following (fans of its four male leads will want to see their idols getting down and dirty).  Unfortunately, it has the dramatic impact and entertainment value of an extended bout of explosive diarrhea. Here's the trailer:

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