Register Sunday | December 16 | 2018

Reconsidering Brass Balls Cinema

The phrase “guy movie” stirs up a familiar cluster of on-screen images. You know: films that use explosions for exposition; films that scatter bullets, shrapnel and T-shirt slogans in equal proportion; films that star paragons of masculinist fantasy with nicknames like The Duke, The Italian Stallion, The Austrian Oak, The Muscles from Brussels, etc. Just as the (admittedly more derogatory) “chick flick” almost always refers to stuff like Bride Wars and almost never to stuff like Terms of Endearment, “guy movie” seems more likely to refer to Die Hard than Glengarry Glen Ross, despite both essentially being about how being a man requires, in one way or another, brass balls. And yes, in a post-Viagra climate everyone knows that the (mostly very bulky) bulk of male depictions of masculinity are as one-dimensional and arbitrary as the size zero supermodel expectations suffered by women. But this shift in attitudes towards issues of masculinity—and 99.5% of contemporary action cinema being either digitally-matted kiddie fare (again, I blame Michael Bay) or sloppy “high-concept” crap (c.f.: the trailer for Gamer)—has opened up avenues for a different kind of guy movie, two examples of which I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in the past week.

First is The Hurt Locker, an impeccably taut Iraq war thriller from Kathryn Bigelow. The film is outstanding for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it’s about three or four scenes short of being flawless. Besides her brief marriage to James Cameron (which I guess makes her the first lady of American action cinema), Bigelow is likely best known as the director of the cyberpunk classic Strange Days, the Soviet submarine setpiece K-19: The Widowmaker, and the goofy cult favourite Point Break. The Hurt Locker has the most in common with this latter film.

Though perhaps wont for panoramic shots of Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves hanging ten, its depiction of a U.S. Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit (EOD, a fancy acronym for an Army bomb squad) shares Point Break’s central tension: the male struggle between a life of dull, dutiful maturity and one of adrenalin-seeking abandon. To this end, the film gravitates around a hotshot IED handler (Jeremy Renner) whose casual death wish is articulated most pointedly in his chain smoking, and his by-the-book Sergeant (Anthony Mackie).

Remember that last scene in Point Break when Swayze surfs into the deadly storm, knowing he likely won’t survive and not really giving a damn? That’s how Renner’s Staff Sgt. William James approaches bomb disposal. The difference (besides the bearing on actual events) is that James has indulges this suicidal thrill-seeking impulse on more of a daily basis, where Swayze’s fateful paddle towards the most incurable of wipe outs posed a more decisive conclusion, despite talks of a sequel that have been churned through the rumour mill since 1991.

But the Renner/Mackie (Swayze/Reeves) dynamic is troubled by Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), whose apparent lack of any war-making instinct render him especially susceptible to the sundry traumas engendered by the battlefield. That a male soldier would not only suffer the repercussions of his actions in the field, but sheepishly seek help from a shrink was a prospect unthinkable circa The Sands of Iwo Jima (despite The Duke’s own spotty military service record). It now seems a somewhat inevitable upshot, considering the troubled dialogues of both warfare and masculinity, post-Vietnam, post-Stonewall, post-Brokeback, etc. And kudos to Bigelow for tastefully slow-playing these cards, sidestepping the sort of Oliver Stone-indebted, flag-burning vitriol that is just as propagandistic as John Wayne’s most openly anti-commie tracts.

Indeed, kudos to Bigelow for eschewing politics almost entirely. Unlike other recent films about Iraq II (Haggis’s laughable In the Valley of Ellah, DePalma’s marginally better Redacted), which err like so many war pictures in their instrumental use of the trappings of combat as a stage for political filibustering, Bigelow offers instead a rich, pointed character study. Though it slips up in the last twenty-or-so minutes by having its characters lapse into didactic speeches where they reveal what the film is about (again, something that ensnares even the best of war films), Bigelow leaves all the upturned Old Glorys and provocatively black-out eyelines for lesser filmmakers.

Premiering in Montreal at Just For Laughs last week and opening across Canada July 24th, Lynn Shelton’s Humpday also poses a couple of interesting questions about male identity. Described by Scott Tobias at the AV Club as “Old Joy by way of Judd Apatow,” Humpday has two estranged college buddies striking a drunken deal to have sex with each other and video tape it as part of an “experiment” for a pornographic film festival.

I’ve never really been much for the no-budget Slackavetes films that Humpday takes its cues from. Granted, the whole mumblecore movement in American indie cinema possesses no shortage of “let’s make a movie!” charisma, but my general impatience towards “issues” such as post-collegiate ennui and the “quarter-life crisis” have frustrated previous attempts to like the films of Bujalski, the Duplass brothers and Shelton herself. It’s not that I’m entirely insensitive to these thematics. But weaned as I was on the nineties’ slacker cinema wave (Stiller, Smith, Linklater, Zwigoff), I’ve become all but anesthetised to aloof twenty and thirty-somethings bellyaching about their strained relationships with friends/parents/lovers, regardless of how refreshingly handmade the aesthetics may be.

That said, Humpday charmed the pants off me.

The dialogue, which seems to be screaming “this is how people talk,” is still over-eager and the initial conceit of two “straight” guys sleeping together is more than (bi-)curious, but all this is excusable. Humpday isn’t about the more committed forms of male bonding or the nature of art or anything else the film’s characters pretend to be concerned with. It’s about two former friends attempting to reconcile what they perceive as the other’s competing lifestyle. The tongue-tied reunion between drifting beardo artiste Andrew (Joshua Leonard) and married middle-classer Ben (mumblecore mainstay Mark Duplass) engages the familial responsibility v. Kerouacian romanticism opposition with sophistication and a good deal of humour. Seeing the two men refuse to back down from their homoerotic wager expresses their shared macho instincts, while also being funny (especially as the debate how topping and bottoming differently ruptures their assumed male identities). There’s also a handful of poignant scenes bound to resonate with anyone who has ever been alienated by the surroundings of, say, a Mile End potluck/poetry reading turned stoned polyamorous love-in.

As a “guy movie” Shelton’s film may be the harder sell. After all, The Hurt Locker functions chiefly as a terrifically exhilarating war flick, including likely the finest sniper standoff sequence ever filmed. But Humpday is more than worthy of your indie cinema buck (even if, for my money at least, Kirk and Spock’s is still the bromance of the season). As movies for men, and movies about masculinity, I can’t recommend both enough. In an era when all the decent action movies are being made by the French, both The Hurt Locker and Humpday inject something innovative into the well-worn paradigm of the guy movie.