Men in Films
A film can be both a work of art and a commercial product. As a commercial product, a film can follow formulas that reflect and reinforce traditional images and stereotypes of men. On the other hand, as a work of art it can express elements in men's lives that remain unspoken, or even denied in those formulas and stereotypes.
This website concerns itself with men’s feelings about each other“male to male feeling.” Through the medium of film this page explores male to male feeling through two sets of films, each of which touches on a major theme in men's feelings:
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Friendships Between Men
Friendships between men can be both intense and important. This intensity can exist between men, regardless of how they define their sexual orientation. Male to male feelingfriendship, intimacy, love, and sexual feelingcan express themselves in different permutations and combinations in the lives of men. There is no single formula that holds for everyone, and -- as the research in "Male to Male" shows -- men’s feelings about each other are not necessarily restricted by “identity” as our culture has conceived of it.
Although the permutations of intimacy, love and sexual feeling between the male protagonists in these films differ in various ways, the scenes from each of the three films in this set have, as their focus, intense feelings between men.
The clips from each of the films are preceded by a brief outline of the plot line to which the excerpted clips are related. The clips from each film can be seen by clicking on the underlined title of the film or the poster image after the text for it has been read.
Director: Youseff Chahine
The time is WWII in Alexandria. The Germans are almost at the gates of the city, and many Egyptians are strongly anti-British, even though some understand that the Germans will be no better. Adel Bey, a very wealthy Egyptian aristocrat, has paid to have a British soldier kidnapped. As a gesture of patriotism, he will kill him. Tommy, the kidnapped soldier, is first seen, very drunk and making a scene in a cabaret, bawling out “The White Cliffs of Dover.” A couple of toughs working for Adel seize him and rough him up; Tommy passes out almost immediately and is delivered to Adel Bey.
WOMEN IN LOVE
Director: Ken Russell
The film is a faithful cinematic adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s 1917 novel of the same name. There are four main characters: Ursula and Gudrun, who are sisters; and Rupert and Gerald, who are good friends. Both men express their doubts about the place of love in their lives. Near the beginning of the film Gerald asks Rupert, “Have you ever loved anyone?” Rupert says, “Yes and No.” Gerald muses that he has never loved anyone either.
A pivotal event in the story take place at the company picnic organized by Gerald, who is the son of the wealthy owner of the town’s coal mine. Gerald’s sister, who was only recently married. drowns in a swimming accident with her new husband. When the water in the pond is be let out by opening the gates of the dam, the young couple are found on the bottom, naked and clinging to each other. Gerald remarks to Rupert, “She killed him.” Yet, just before this tragic event, Gerald had told Gudrun that he loved her. At around the same point in the story, Ursula and Rupert become lovers.
In “To Live and Die in L.A.” the relationship between Chance and John is one of partners, with all the implications of loyalty and mutual support that such a relationship implies among law enforcement officers. There is no suggestion of any erotic feeling or even love between them. Yet, when Chance is killed in the gym locker room, John appears to be frantic with bewilderment and shockand his last words, “You can’t do this to me,” imply a profound sense of abandonment. In the last scene of the film, we see how John has handled his grief at the loss of Chancehe will take his friend’s place in the relationship with Ruthseemingly in every sense. At the very end of the film we see an image of Chance that is both sexual and tender. In choosing this image, is the the film’s director leaving open the possibility that this image of Chance is also lodged in John’s heart?
In “AlexandriaWhy?” Adel begins by intending to kill Tommywho symbolizes the British that he hates. But he relents, seemingly touched by his vulnerability and youth. He later recalls that, after he brought Tommy back to his home, he spent the whole night looking at him. In the scene at the poolside, it seems that they have developed a close and intimate bond, and by implication, that they have become lovers.
In “Women in Love,” Rupert’s desire to have a “perfect” friendship with a man seems both emotional and ideological. It complements rather than excludes a similar relationship with a woman. Would such a relationship include a sexual component? It seems that it might, although such a component would be no more than a natural extension of the intense one-to-one bond that Rupert wants with Gerald. For Gerald, however, the relationship with Rupert is close friendship, but without the deeper meaning that Rupert would like it to have.
In 2004, My colleague Marty Wong, Ph.D. and I presented a program on the theme of fathers and sons in film at the convention of the American Psychological Association. Below is the program, as we presented it, including the introduction to the program, the excerpts from the three films that we selected, and, at the end, the commentary on the theme of fathers and sons. Just below are the introductory comments that Marty and I made before showing the films. At the end of this page, there are summary comments about the films.
The theme of this part of the program is something that every man who has ever lived a sentient life has felt but seldom talked about. Like the Fisher King, each bears his own special wound that cannot be healed until the right words are spoken or the right deed done. It is a theme that has lived in the myths of our lives since the Prodigal Son and Parsifal--whose sword could only be repaired by his father--enthralled us for reasons we may have not known.
Motion Pictures are a sometimes unconscious reflection of what people feel. Most movies, even to this day, are made by men. In some conscious or unconscious way they have often tried to express their feelings about this wound because it expressed their own longing and certainly that of their viewers. Movies such as “Citizen Kane” and “Shane” flirted with the theme, and it comes to us unhidden in “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Field of Dreams” and “Star Wars”although in Star Wars it takes three movies to work up to the healing moment.
I suppose you are wondering what all these movies have to do with each other but most of you have already discerned that what I am talking about is the longing of a son for his fatherperhaps a father he never even knewand the longing of a father for his sona child he may have hurt or perhaps abandoned in frustration long ago.
Ed and I have surveyed between 20 and 30 films and with an agonizing blue pencil brought the number down to three that would exemplify aspects of the theme well enough, and still allow us to stay within our time frame.
As you watch short segments of the three that Ed and I DID choose, we hope you will think about the sometimes unfelt and sometimes unnamed longing that is in every son and every man who is a father. We hope you will think of the disconnection that occurred in many of us as we became men, the sometimes unfelt and unexpressed pain that went with it, and the longing and hoped for connection that probably was part of your life if you are a man. Too often the dark side of fatherhood is overemphasized, and we haven't left that out, but we hope you'll also think about the joy that can come with vulnerability that brings a second chance for forgiveness and reconnection.
Marty mentioned the “dark side” of fatherhood. The "dark side" is that part of the father who wounds his son deeply by rejecting, abusing, abandoning or even hating him. It’s a name we adopted from Star Wars. You remember in Star Wars Darth Vader was the former Jeddi knight who was turned to the "dark side" by the evil emperor. He was also the father of Luke Skywalker, who was the hero of the series. The first episode of Star Wars came out in 1977, three years after the end of the Viet Nam war. We think that was more than coincidence. During the Viet Nam war many young men saw the “dark side” of the father in the president and the whole older generation of fathersand sometimes in their very own fathers toowho sent the nation’s sons to face death in war.
In the past couple of years, we've been seeing another side of the father both in foreign and American films: the father who loves his son and needs him. In several recent films we see the father grieving over his dead son: In “In the Bedroom”an American movie, and “The Son”a Belgian film, the son is murdered. In the “The Son’s Room”an Italian movie, he dies in a scuba diving accident. In The Road to Perdition Tom Hanks plays a hit man, who loses own life saving the life of his son. The theme of the surrogate father or surrogate son also comes up, as in Antwone Fisher. Denzel Washington plays a childless psychiatrist who finds a surrogate son in his patienta fatherless young man that he comes to love, and who loves him and who finds in him a surrogate father.
In the end, we settled on three American films for today’s program. But as we did that we noticed something. In these and other American films we considered, the fathers were in roles that American culture stereotypically tags as “masculine”which was not so true for the European films. ( In The Son’s Room, the father is a psychoanalyst.) In Antwone Fisher, the surrogate father is a psychiatrist, but a military psychiatrist; in The Road to Perdition, the father is a gangster. In the three films we are showing today (Monsters Ball, Frequency, City by the Sea) the fathers are: a corrections officer, a fire fighter, and a police detective.
Of these three movies only “Monsters Ball” is explicitly concerned with the idea of masculinity. It's in fact a pretty psychologically sophisticated film. But in contrast to the trend I've just been talking about, it shows the "dark side” of the father; but not in a semi-mythic form, as in Star Wars but in a brutal one-on-one way. And it shows what the “dark side” can do to a son, in a way that's also brutal and accurate. But in the rest of the film, after the scenes you'll see today, a gradual transformation takes place in the father. He's able to reject the brutal concept of masculinity that he had internalized from his own father, is able to grieve for his son, and for the first time in his life as a man, to truly love.
Director: Mark Forster
Director: Gregory Hoblit
Psychologist Neil Chethik, in his book “Father Loss,” said that a quarter of the men he interviewed whose fathers died when they were still children never recovered from the loss. That seems to be the case here. John Sullivan's father died 30 years ago when he was only 6. It seems as if he has been depressed all his life. As the movie opens, John's girlfriend has left him, saying that she had been leaving for six months and he never noticed.
The plot “gimmick” in the film is that due to the extraordinary effects of a brilliant and prolonged Aurora Borealis, a time warp occurs in which, via his father’s old ham radio, John receives a message from his father, a fire fighter who died in the line of duty.
CITY BY THE SEA
Director: Michael Caton-Jones
PLOT LINE: The father, Vincent LaMarca is a New York City detective and the father of Joey. In self-defense, Joey inadvertently killed Picasso, a low level drug dealer who attacked him with a knife. Joey is also suspected of killing the detective who was his father’s partner. (The partner was actually killed by Picasso’s boss Spider.) Joey has a girlfriend Gina, from whom he is estranged, and a little boy, Angelo, who is about one and half years old. Joey has not seen his father since his parents separated many years before, when Joey was a child.
Although masculinity isn’t explicitly mentioned in “Frequency” or “City by the Sea” these movieswhich both feature major Hollywood starsare clearly saying something about men, as are other recent films with father and son themes. They’re saying that part of being a man, part of being a son or a father, is needing love AND showing it. As in Antwone Fisher, these fathers and sons not only love each other, they SAY so.
We think that these films are reflecting a movement already underway in our cultural lifewhich is not only recognizing the emotionality of men, but also the unique importance of the father-son bond in their lives.