It’s always nice when the media I consume develops any sort of thematic coherence. I figure if you read enough books, watch enough movies and listen to enough music, the three will sync up eventually and then you can write a post stitching them together into something that means something. This week and last, I happened to read, see and listen about one thing: masculinity.
Last week I watched two documentaries which both ended up being about the same thing, despite starting in diametrically opposite places. The first was Bigger, Stronger, Faster made by former competitive weightlifter Chris Bell. The movie centers around Bell’s brothers, Mark and Mike, neither of whom have abandoned their dreams of stardom, whether in weightlifting or pro wrestling. Both Mark and Mike take illegal steroids and the ostensible purpose of the documentary is to investigate why they both ended up using while Chris ended up behind a camera. BSF is very well made and the director refuses to come to easy conclusions. He wants to know why his brothers wanted to do steroids in the first place, so he turns to American culture. I won’t try to summarize his analysis too much, but his basic conclusion is that steroids are dangerous because they’re too American. His brothers’ masculinity exists in a precarious place, threatening to deflate with failure or a decrease in bicep size. The struggle to keep up the illusion of fame and fortune right around the corner stretches both subject-brothers to their breaking points. The cultural emphasis on winning at all costs and domination is oppressive and leaves these men leaving stunted lives. The movie’s on NetFlix instant view and definitely worth a watch. It’s always exciting when an arbitrary movie turns out to be enjoyable, but I’m always a bit sad that it didn’t get wider distribution or more buzz.
The second documentary I saw was The King of Kong which is about Steve Wiebe’s challenge to classic arcade game legend Billy Mitchell’s Donkey Kong record. King also takes on the subject of victory at any costs, with Mitchell and his cronies – seriously, he has cronies – doing whatever they can in order to invalidate Weibe’s assault on a record that was supposed to be unassailable. Wiebe is an unemployed father who had consistently showed promise in a lot of areas but never reached his potential at anything. That is, until he took up Kong with the expressed intent of topping Billy’s record. The realm of classic video games just happens to act as the backdrop for the classic story of how the big fish in a small pond acts when another big fish shows up. The fact that the subject is something as stereotypically nerdy as classic video games creates a tension between the game’s infantile simplicity and the hyper-masculine power struggle. Wiebe and Mitchell’s need to hold the top score strips the game of any independent meaning and it becomes an empty vehicle for pure competition. Also on instant view, also worth a watch.
Shifting gears, has anyone heard the Kid Cudi album yet? I like his mixtape stuff, but the album is a whole different ballgame. He eschews a lot of rap conventions, both lyrically and musically. His beats and samples are ethereal and spacey – fitting for a CD called Man On The Moon. But what interests me most are his lyrics. Cudi is probably the only MC I’ve ever heard cop to being shy. His verses are full of pathos and alienation, and not in the one-“sensitive”-track-out-of-16 way. Take these lines from Man‘s title track:
“They can’t comprehend/They even come close to understanding him/I guess if I was borin’ they would love me more/Guess if I was simple in the mind/Everything would be fine/Maybe if I was jerk to girls/Instead of being nice and speakin kind words/Then maybe it would be ok to say then/I wasn’t a good guy to begin with.”
He’s so alienated that he refers himself in the third person. Cudi’s most repeated theme in his lyrics is his existential distance from other people – he is the man on the Moon, orbiting the Earth but not of it. His lamentations wouldn’t be out-of-place in nerdcore, but Cudi doesn’t have any of the irony that characterizes the genre. He also lacks the self-conscious indie status of someone like Murs. The refrain of “No No Yeah Yeah No” in “Heart of a Lion” sounds like something John Cage would write if he was feeling particularly ambivalent. Instead of the stereotypical hip-hop aggression, Cudi seems to have an underlying fear of other people that he’s not afraid to voice. But his cerebral and introspective material doesn’t take away from his masculinity, he makes no apologies for being thoughtful. Cudi is a living argument that getting stoned and thinking about your place in the universe is just as manly as dealing drugs and threatening people. (Not that I’m done with music about dealing drugs and threatening people). Man On The Moon is getting hyped all over the place and well within the mainstream, so his 8th-grader-on-Kierkegaard rhymes don’t seem to be hurting his commercial viability. I’m not arguing for any sort of bogus trend, but if the album goes big, look for it to have some serious influence.
And now to the literary world. As part of my ongoing quest to read all of Percival Everett’s seven-dozen or so books, I read Grand Canyon, Inc. It’s the story of Rhino Tanner, a big game hunter and entrepreneur living the American dream. After making millions on a bet with the Sultan of Brunei, Rhino starts his plan to own the Grand Canyon. Rhino’s almost autistic devotion to a stereotype of masculinity leads him to succeed in a country that seems to value things like that. He builds an empire based on braggadocio, aggression and momentum until he gets in far over his head – literally at the bottom of a canyon. I couldn’t help thinking of our 43rd president, who shares Rhino’s insecure playground bully conception of what it is to be a man. Like the Bell brothers, Billy Mitchell and the U.S. economy, Tanner inflates himself into a hyperbolic vision who he is and must then maintain the perception. I won’t give away the ending, but we all know what happened with the economy…
Finally, I return to the silver screen with the film Big Fan which I saw with my dad at E Street this week. Patton Oswalt stars as Paul, a parking lot attendant who lives with his mom and lives for the New York Giants. He writes out his sports radio rants – the funniest moments of the film might be (for anyone who’s ever listen to sports radio) the fake intros for his favorite show – before reading them live nightly. Things take a turn for the ugly when Paul and his friend Sal (the always hilarious Kevin Corrigan) find themselves following Paul’s idol and Giants enforcer Quantrelle Bishop, who ends up putting Paul in the hospital with serious head injuries. Paul must struggle between the self he sees as part of the Giants organization (as in, “We really kicked ass on Sunday”) and the corporeal self that’s lying in the hospital. But as the movie develops, it becomes about much more than sports. When Paul’s family and the media start using racially charged insults at Bishop (thug, animal, monster, etc.) he angrily rejects them. When his brother the personal injury lawyer wants to sue, Paul refuses even though he could sure use the money. Paul’s mother asks him why he doesn’t have what his siblings have – a normal suburban life with a family, house and career. He shouts, “Because I don’t want that! I don’t want that! I don’t want that! I don’t want that!” His sports addiction is more than pathetic hero-worship, it’s the only way he can find true community outside structures of racism and greed. At the same time, it’s reliant upon artificial conflict, his nemesis is fellow radio caller Philadelphia Phil who seems like a slightly more vindictive Paul. Once again I don’t want to give away the ending, but Paul makes the audience aware that he understands that it’s a game, even if it’s not just one. The movie is written and directed by Robert D. Siegel, the writer behind last year’s best movie, The Wrestler. It’s his directorial debut and I’m looking forward to seeing more from him.
Like I said, I’m not asserting any sort of trend toward alternative forms of masculinity in our media or anything, but I thought it was interesting to see the different portrayals that popped up in my life over the past week or so. But normatively, I think it’s time America left the Bell bros/Billy Mitchell/Rhino Tanner masculinity behind. After the economic crisis and the fall of the hedge fund managers bragging about their 10 foot cocks, maybe it’s time we looked to Cudi’s introspective model or Paul’s collectivist solidarity as alternatives.