So. Career musings aside, I’ve been methodically posting a few arts-and-culture entries I’d begun but that sat unfinished for a while. Interestingly, if I look at the subject matter, they make an interesting triptych: sex, lies, and videotape, Purple Rain, and, finally, Alex Garland’s most recent, somewhat divisive offering: Men.
The common thread of course being masculinity of the pernicious variety. (We all have our artistic fixations and this is clearly one of mine. As I’ve written before, I think it’s because I was so clueless about it for so long – meaning, as a kid and young adult, I saw it in my face constantly and didn’t quite realize what I was seeing. That, plus I’ve always been a somewhat marginal character myself, and it is uncomfortably easy for me to see how isolation and craving can deteriorate into something harmful without intervention.)
I am wholly serious when I say that two of the most impactful bite-sized morsels of common-sense feminism I’ve ever seen can be found in two SNL sketches from recent years. In “Leave Me Alurn”, women pretend to be carrying dead relatives’ ashes to put off the unwanted advances of strange men; in “Woman from HR”, a workplace trainer, nearly insane from having to instruct men ad nauseum on common office decency, spastically declares that the hypothetical, skirt-clad employee on a flashcard is “living her g-d life, and IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU!”
To me these sketches handily slice to the heart of the problem. As a woman, you can just be sitting there, absently fulfilling a duty, indulging in a hobby, or mourning your dead guinea pig, and certain men view your mere existence, at best, as uncharted territory they are entitled to explore, and, at worst, an open invitation placed there especially for them.
Which brings us to Men, a film that has inspired much (overblown) hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing. As usual, I am not aiming for comprehensive coverage here, just nailing down my most pressing observations.
-Harper, with her cropped haircut, utilitarian fashion sense, and somewhat androgynous name, is a powerful illustration of the fact that no hyper-feminine, ostentatious (“slutty”) display is required to inflame/enrage certain men. It truly is just the fact that they know there’s a vagina in there.
-Harper’s no action hero, but an every-person. An empathetic, probably introverted character with gears behind her eyes incessantly grinding. On one hand, the fact that she isn’t some sort of cartoon makes me care about her more. At the same time it’s hard to stomach how long it took for her deliberation to translate to forceful self-defense. For much of the runtime, the takeaway impression of the character is one of reticence or complacency, and this no doubt drove a lot of people crazy. I’m not proud to say, though, as a neurotic over-thinker, this, too, was relatable to me, even if infuriating. And, really, her empathy and cautiousness are inextricable from one another.
-Related to the above: She has a lot of unwarranted guilt to get over. Now, that is one thing I personally can’t relate to – feeling guilt when you’ve been subjected to that sort of abuse – but, easy for me to say. Though I’ve been very lucky, I know it’s a thing that happens often. And I truly can’t speak for what would happen – or especially what would have happened when I was younger – had I fallen for someone who seemed perfectly normal at the outset, and then their behavior escalated in this way.
-The movie’s far from amazing in my opinion, but one thing it does superbly is show that when Harper “dares” to exhibit hints of intrepid curiosity – she pokes, prods, penetrates her surroundings – she is ultimately punished for it. She is denied the right to sensually enjoy her environment and just “be” (or “live her g-d life”, as it were). Of course, the tunnel scene is more effective than the apple-plucking one, simply by virtue of being less heavy-handed.
-I was Skyping with a co-worker recently, and we somehow ended up reflecting on how, as younger women, we walked alone at night, discombobulated or spaced out, and felt no danger. We agreed that physical danger is more tangible to us now than it was then. For me, these days, this translates into wanting to be inconspicuous rather than showy in public, at least when I am unaccompanied.
To that point: if one thing about this film should be captured and studied, it’s the vicar’s speech during the movie’s climax. “The power you wield” – he says, chillingly – meaning, the power of being someone he desperately wants to enter. Essentially, he resents her for the power he erroneously thinks her p*ssy has over him.
For many of us, there was a time in our youth that we became aware of this “power”, and with our underdeveloped brains and hormone cocktails and music of choice as a churning soundtrack for it all, we felt invincible enough to relish this “power” and wield it recklessly. (Don’t misunderstand me: I am not in any way suggesting that if someone had done something terrible to us, it would have been our fault. I am simply standing at a remove, admitting to something I now can recognize as a sort of hubris that my old-person brain is no longer capable of.)
-Screw the body horror, which escalated to the point of comedy. The best and most horrific part of the film was THE MICROAGGRESSIONS – ! There are few things more awful than not knowing if the malice you think you just perceived was real. (Especially if your tormentors all have a similar face, Aphex Twin-style.) There’s also the sickening seepage of hints becoming certainties when antagonists finally tell you what they really think.
-The film is more nuanced than people are assuming and screaming about. Arguably Garland’s message is ambiguous, implicating both men and women. The vignette where Harper is dismissed by men in the village pub, including a lackadaisical cop, and also the sequence in which an apparent intruder is revealed to be a wounded crow, seem crafted to breed in us at least a fleeting mistrust of our protagonist. Maybe this is to cause us to question our own biases? Should I give Garland that much credit?
-The one attaboy I’ll give That Infamous Sequence is this: it evoked something I had said to DP the same week about how “It seems like men who don’t understand the science of sexual biology should be dying out – but no, more and more of them keep getting born!”
All that said:
-In my opinion, this movie ultimately undermines itself. The ending is completely over-the-top… which would be fine if it led to something clever. As is, it’s just excess that ends in a sigh. This could be a smart/deliberate choice (its multiple regenerations implying the futility of the situation), but the movie seems to think its concluding thought – that the man just wants love – is somehow revelatory, which it isn’t. And emphasizing that conclusion risks de-emphasizing his culpability.
I’ll close with a memory I think about often.
The better part of a decade ago, I was returning to my car from the ABC store. It was a summer night, so still broad daylight. There were plenty of other cars and probably a few people about, since the parking lot was shared with a Kroger. I was picking up Stoli and Kahlua for my then bf, a former bartender, to make us White Russians. I was wearing sandals with rainbow rhinestones glued to them.
“Hey,” said a young man, approaching, but also maintaining distance.
“Hello,” I said back, agreeably, afraid to ignore him.
“You got a man?” Literally the next thing he said.
“Yeah – so happens I do.” (I’m no shrinking violet.)
“I don’t see no ring.”
“We’re not really the marrying kind.”
“Don’t mean anything if you ain’t got a ring.”
“It means something to me.”
I can’t remember how I finally wiggled my way out of the situation – only that, though (thankfully) he didn’t come any closer, he sounded increasingly resentful and continued to mount his audacious philosophical offensive.
I also recall that later, at the bf’s apartment, the hinges of my brain loosened by the vodka, I thought back on the exchange and began to cry. I remember not feeling traumatized, afraid, or angry – just frustrated and sad.