(Pt II. Critics and the “masculinity” question.)
What’s intriguing is that Kate and I formed such similar ideas about The Revenant having studied in the same film class. Time can’t be undone, so there’s no way of saying for sure whether we would have come to the same conclusions in second year, separately, not knowing one another and not having studied under the same film aesthetics tutor. Our correlated responses prove that intersubjectivity is always held ransom, at least a little, by previous experience. In that George St. Odeon cinema auditorium, we were like everyone else: we wanted to know whether Leonardo Di Caprio had a shot at winning his first Oscar, and were interested in seeing whether Iñárritu lived up to his. We were also avatars of our own complex past engagement with ways of seeing and responding to cinema, some of those “natural”, others accessible only because we had been disciplined or “schooled” to process cinematic information in a certain way.
But what Kate and I certainly weren’t in that auditorium, were “women”. At least, not the kind of women whom notable film critic Jeffrey Wells tried to warn off seeing the film back in November. Following a pre-release screening, Wells observed the reluctant reactions of a few of his female colleagues towards the film, and extrapolated from this some advice for a whole gender. To somewhat paraphrase: stay away, ladies — The Revenant is not for your delicate constitutions.
Hmm. If Kate and I (and, more prestigiously, writers like Manohla Dargis) are an indication of anything, it’s that women can sit through onscreen violence of The Revenant‘s scope and scale, and come out of it fairly unscarred, perfectly capable of forming an opinion on the film which hasn’t been wholly disturbed out of our systems by bearing witness to the repeated ravaging of Leonardo Di Caprio’s body by metal, claw, and weather. While I didn’t necessary like the repeated animal slaughter — while, indeed, I felt uncomfortable — I’m not sure that was a discomfort I felt only because I’m female; or that such discomfort, if it is indeed supposed to be felt by everyone, should only be felt by men.
While I think Wells probably meant relatively little harm by his comments (and indeed there may even have been an element of misapplied chivalry in them), he did end up inciting plenty of furore amongst certain online communities. Clunky arguments in poorly-delivered prose help no white man in a position of authority; not on the internet, at least. I’m less interested in dismantling Wells’s position with feminist rhetoric — it’s easily doable, but for more talented feminist writers than I — than I am in observing a trend in film criticism more generally: recently, while the idea of “women’s cinema” has faded away from critical perspective, the notion that there is such thing as a “men’s cinema” (and that, somehow, it alienates the female viewer) has witnessed something of a renaissance.
Kyle Smith’s hapless retrospective ‘Women are not capable of understanding “GoodFellas”‘ (New York Post, June 2015) was just as incendiary as Wells’s. It managed to confuse the inability of women within the fictional world of the movie to sufficiently access the wise-guys’ inner circle, with the inability of all women everywhere to “get” Martin Scorsese’s seminal film. In his piece, it’s as though women both real and imagined are the same species, and neither have idea of the toxic internal stratification that arises within a pack (I can’t tell if he’s just never watched Mean Girls). For Smith, it’s as though subjectivity’s limits build their most impenetrable walls out of the hegemony of masculine experience. Men apparently know the goodfellas’ particular branch of camaraderie — presumably they also know the psychopathic bloodlust of Joe Pesci’s character Tommy or the neurotic greed of Robert de Niro’s Jimmy as well, and have all experienced the cocaine-fuelled paranoia of Ray Liotta’s Henry following a botched heist and a murder spree. Oh, and Smith bases the thesis of his article on a declaration made by a single girlfriend in the early nineties (her expansive verdict: “boy film”).
The poor prose quality and problematic reductivism of Smith’s article aside, what’s fascinating is how these professional film writers — both men — have internalised the concept of “masculine cinema”, and to what ends the definition of that has been skewed and manipulated to suit a semi-conscious purpose it was never really designed for. Because men’s cinema is not something they’ve conjured from thin air or subliminal misogyny: no, it’s legitimate critical terminology. When critics like O’Connell describe The Revenant as “masculine” they aren’t doing it simply to preserve the movie as a plaything for a worldwide fraternity; they’re tapping into a deeper comprehension of the implications that gendered language has for cinematic style.
Stella Bruzzi’s brilliant academic book, Men’s Cinema: Masculinity and Mise-en-Scene in Hollywood navigates its way through a nuanced reading of major blockbusters like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and asserts that it’s not so much themes as aesthetics which shade subconscious coding of what makes movies “manly”. In a complex interaction of camerawork, positioning of the character within the composition of the frame, minute sequencing and broader editing, “men’s films”, Bruzzi suggests, rely on an a complex cinematic configuration of stylistic elements which “evoke” masculinity rather than simply “represent” it. So in The Revenant, when we talk about men’s cinema, we don’t just mean that it features two burly leads (Leonardo Di Caprio, Tom Hardy) grunting and fighting it out (vaguely homo-erotically) to the death on the mountainside. We mean that there is a complexity of cinematic behaviours which play with gender mythologies by intersecting semi-identification with the protagonist with a visual and sensory distance from them; it’s subtle, and barely registers in the general audience consciousness, but it’s potent enough to let Glass (Di Caprio) transcend the ordinary and become our “star”. Men’s cinema, at its most basic level, gives us our heroes by showing us men who are recognisable yet strange, near yet far.
Obviously, this is no major interrogation of The Revenant‘s masculine aesthetic; that requires a book of its own, and after being so blown away by the film, I look forward to seeing one written. But that Bruzzi is a woman doesn’t prevent her from pioneering such a credible theory of screen masculinity. So why, in more general discourse — say, in articles written for newspapers, magazines, or on the internet — does “men’s cinema” seem to translate, not as something up for women to assess and debate and examine, but as something which simply excludes them from the conversation?
It’s not a stretch to see a relationship between this culture of male critics chirpily telling women there are films which are simply not meant for them, and the exclusionary climate of the critical profession at large. In The Atlantic, an article was recently published called “Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?”, investigating how a profession once propped up by women as industrious and prolific as Pauline Kael and C.A. Lejeune has now diminished their presence to a mere twenty percent of bylines. One of the possible reasons for this, posited by article journalist Katie Kilkenny, is that the machismo culture of Hollywood has so inflated in recent decades, it has generated a response dialogue which beckons men’s opinions more than it does women’s; the other is that reluctance to employ women on the part of big publications has generated in direct correlation with the increased recognition of film journalism as a legitimate, and even prestigious, kind of cultural commentary. I will add that while “machismo Hollywood” is a shorthand term for the male dominated industry, “men’s cinema” and its affiliated terms have seemingly become a way to preserve certain movies for a critical boys’ club. This totally misunderstands the phrase. It’s supposed to simply present a mode of filmmaking which is up for analysis; it’s not supposed to serve as a rulebook for who can and cannot interact with a movie.
It’s ironic that even as we observe feminised terms like “chick flick” dropping out into obscurity when movies are reviewed — surely for the better — those kinds of films which, a decade or so ago, would have warranted that phrase, can be reviewed by a whole host of male critics who are hardly ever told they don’t “get” a movie because of their gender; and even if they are, it’s is hardly symptomatic of a wider mistrust which ousts them from the profession. Men with a skilful eye and a talent for words can remind us why film criticism is great. Critics like Roger Ebert have given the world glorious insights into movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral or Bridget Jones. Can the same not be said for women who want to write critically about Die Hard?
Yes, not every woman will enjoy movies like The Revenant or GoodFellas, and some will write their complaints pretty stridently, a la Cadwalladr, or Emma Brockes (who concurred somewhat with Smith, and derided the violence of movies starring Robert de Niro and Al Pacino in another Guardian article this year); but nor will some men, and there is little sense in advising women out of the auditorium before a film has even had a mainstream premiere — how do we raise a new generation of Pauline Kaels if we’re always setting up perimeters around certain films? It only compounds the pressure on women to define their response to a movie in relation to their perceived alienness when that movie is repeatedly tagged as “masculine”. Or, more precisely, too masculine for them to engage with “correctly”, as if subjective cinematic response is overridden by the homogenising effects of bi-polarised gender constructs.
It’s as though there is some uncrossable threshold for women which dispossess them of a necessary ability to identify with certain characters in in certain films the “right way”. And this is hardly fair, since women have already proven they “get” film criticism — before male critics accorded the medium its current prestige, they were the ones who recognised its magical potential in the first place.