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Manliness Fails to Impress at the Oscars
How about cinema in the age of Trump? We do have some movies that try to explain what it means to men to lose their sense of dignity and what fierce pride this brings out of them. This manly attempt to reclaim a sense of dignity is important in politics as much as in society. After all, the recent gains of the GOP in every office in the land and Mr. Trump’s own victory have a lot to do with the desperate hope that there’s some future ahead for people who have been suffering in an economy that’s been bad for almost two decades. 2016 was not a year of American confidence or contentment—instead, a sense of betrayal that implies a sense of dignity led people to do something they had never done before. The party system, much shaken, now gives the look of restoration, but American society is not done shaking things up.
There’s more awareness of this in the press than in the movies. In 2016, the American press did start to pay attention to many neglected stories. It started covering the horrible suffering of the white working—or formerly working—class. The opioid and heroin crises got more coverage than previously. The shocking fact that white men in lower social classes are dying younger than they used to do, which is unknown to America, also became a part of public discussion. The terrible rate of suicides for men is still neglected, but that, too, might become part of public discussion.
So maybe it’s time to pay attention to the few stories that take seriously the crisis of manliness. Unknown to the blockbuster-loving public, America has produced movies about anguished manliness faced with dying communities, a lack of opportunity for self-betterment, and no way to get a sense of personal dignity. The best director for such stories is a young man from Arkansas, Mr. Jeff Nichols. I’ll talk about him in an upcoming essay in my ‘Oscar movies you should watch’ series, because his new movie, Loving, is also nominated. Right now, I’ll talk about 2016’s anguished manliness movie, Hell or high water.
One problem for this kind of cinema is apathy. Hell or high water made $27 million in the US on a $12 million budget. It opened small and gradually worked its way to a short-lived total of 1,500 theaters showing it across the fruited plains. It’s marginally profitable, but these numbers are a mere nothing in the age of blockbusters. They might as well not exist! America’s good luck in such cases is, strangely enough, the festival circuit: Hell or high water opened in the most prestigious film festival in the world, Cannes, along with other all-American stories that do not get much play in America. It then tried to get a second life out of prestige during award season, including four important Oscar nominations: Best picture, a supporting actor nomination for Jeff Bridges, a writing nomination for Taylor Sheridan’s original screenplay, who also wowed with the script for Sicario, and one for the editor, Jake Roberts, who also edited the last-year’s loveliest Oscar-nominated movie, Brooklyn. It won nothing.
So you can look at popularity or you can look at prestige, but I’m here to tell you the markets are wrong and the critics are right. It’s not often that conservative America owes a debt of gratitude to French movie festivals and out-of-touch movie critics, but 2016 was full of that. Follow my series of essays on movies and you will see that America really does have on offer very good movies about Americans—it’s just that the way the distribution system works in Hollywood, most people never learn about these movies. At the same time, the conservative press makes almost no effort to spread the news and to convince Americans to support those artists who try hard to bring American stories to local multiplex.
Now, let me try to convince you that this is worth watching. I don’t think the following will spoil the surprises of the movie, but you’ll learn a bit more than you would glean from the trailer. Hell or high water is the story of two brothers, Toby and Tanner, who grew up on a small ranch in West Texas, in poverty. They hatch up a bank-robbing plan when the bank wants to foreclose on their small property. Things do not get better from there. You see what the prospect of losing their dignity does to men and how men take out their suffering on the world around them. You see how little faith people who have long suffered without relief have in the system. Their American pride is to a large extent a wound, not a source of strength. They cannot abandon it, because they’re Americans, but it threatens to turn the men mad and the women bitter.
They show two sides of American manliness and its failure. Toby is divorced from his wife and is not too close with his son, either. He took care of his dying mother, which in a certain sense is easier: whenever he sees his wife, they have fights. Family, whether looking backward to the dead or forward to the young, means failure to him. He’s trying hard to avoid going down that despairing path. Because he is handsome and soulful, women take to him. This brings up another problem: his sense of pride will not allow him to take just any job offered him, but it is also what does not allow him to take advantage of women, even women who want to be taken advantage of, so to speak. One good thing about manliness is a sense of restraint. Self-restraint might seem useless or harmful while times are good, but what else is to prepare people for dealing with bad times?
Tanner is savage. Never had a wife nor kid, because he comes from a family where he learned that the weak suffer instead of being protected. He acts as though the laws have no claim on him, because they were never there to protect him. His, not Toby’s, is the position that corresponds better to American youth. America to him is a humiliation—there’s wealth and morality out there, always denied him. He knows, like his brother knows, that he made wrong choices. He doesn’t feel he can change. Nobody ever made it worth his while and it’s probably too late. That mindset is not rare anymore. In fact, both brothers are worth thinking about as carefully and respectfully as possible, because they show sides of America unduly and irresponsibly neglected.
There is no happiness on display here. All the ugliness in the movie shows how hard it is to rehabilitate what I call the redneck virtues that are split, within the movies, in-between the two brothers: Defiance and self-reliance. One seems undemocratic, the other uncivilized. They are nowadays called backward, they really are unfair to women, and they are also too confrontational for any large society. What’s the point of being so angry or defensive? Don’t we live in a win-win world?
That’s all to one side, but notice too what’s on the other side. The only people who can still be publicly humiliated in America are rednecks. The argument against them seems to come down to progress: the future, which is bound up with intelligence-based productivity, has already left them behind. To some extent, this is an economic truth–but it is of course a cruel thing to say. Why should people who are part of the future be cruel to those left behind, with whom they have no association anyway? Most people who mock rednecks do not know rednecks. It is not some experience of redneck America that moves them to mockery. It’s as though sharing the name American with people of whom they disapprove is offensive to them. But if you think that some experience nevertheless has to be found which accounts for the habits and opinions of people, I believe it is tied up with manliness. Rednecks are far manlier than people who work for facebook. They live with less fear and have some way of providing for themselves. They are not at the mercy of invisible decisions that do not take into account their humanity.
‘Hell or high water’ is a good title for this reason, that it states the redneck virtues admirably: standing one’s ground, refusing to be moved by events or opinions. That is the most obvious part of manliness and it recalls the anger and defensiveness obvious in so much of country music and Southern music. The title is meant to suggest that the criminal activities of the brothers are all tied up with self-defense. That’s true, by the way, even if they break the law…
Is there any place left in America for manliness in pursuit of excellence? A way for men to achieve some kind of freedom? The story suggests, sports, specifically football, America’s newer, more savage pastime. Tanner is savage enough to have moved into loneliness as a way of life, but Toby has a son in whose future he is interested, and he plays football: that’s his chance to make something of himself without being a danger to anyone. Manly protection means providing, as Americans say. But it also means protecting the world from the boy who might resemble the men of his family too much. (Notice that the military is not an option in this story.)
Another exemplar of manliness and how politically incorrect it is in latter-day America is the retiring Ranger played by Jeff Bridges, who is tasked with catching the bank-robbers. He is full of jokes that today would be called racist. He likes to dare people to think of him as racist. He likes to teach them that there is a great difference between the abstract outrage-at-words typical of America and the experience that grounds respect for people who actually serve the community. The hardship of life in America is something altogether harder than a nasty joke. He does not give up his mission to do justice in the bank robbery case after he retires. Partly, he has nothing else to do with his life. But partly this proves that his dedication to justice was part of his manliness, not something you can put in a man by giving him a job and take out of him by taking away his job. This goes together with another fact about law: it can punish, but not reward. He is one of two men shown willing to give up their place to women, because he believes manliness has not much future in America.
Finally, if you’ve seen the movie and would like to see the parts of the plot put together in very sophisticated ways, you can read my more esoteric thoughts here.Published in Culture
Well, a couple of Oscars did go to the very manly Hacksaw Ridge.
When complaining about the Oscars, keep one thing in mind: The awards only go to movies which have received a theatrical release.
Ticket sales for films that aren’t giant CGI blockbusters are at a serious low point. Most people who are interested in well-made, well-written, thought-provoking cinema are far more likely to seek it out on the small screen in the privacy of their own home. This sort of filmmaking is feted at the Emmy Awards, not the Oscars.
The Oscars suck because fewer people see movies in theatres anymore, not because people aren’t interested in good filmmaking at all.
The movies that win Oscars are those which appeal to two sorts of people: 1) The tiny subset of the population which still goes to see movies in a theatre. b) The subset of the population that gets the screener DVDs for free because they are members of AMPAS.
The “problem” isn’t the Oscars, per se. The “problem” is that the MSM can’t get it through it’s head that the Emmys have become a far more important cultural barometer than the Oscars.
(Hell Or High Water enjoyed a 125% profit margin, and that’s before it gets any iTunes or Netflix revenue. Most businesses in America can only dream of such margins, and it did get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. If that’s considered “failure”, woe be to us all.)
Very technical awards. Arrival also won one such. There are four big acting awards, two for writing, one for directing, another for the producers, & one each for cinematographer & editor. I’m glad the awards weren’t simply swept, but it’s not hard to see how good movies were utterly neglected. Other winners in technical categories? Suicide squad. Fantastic beasts. Ho-hum. (One of these is not a real movie…)
So I’ve been writing throughout awards season because of the importance of awards to the industry & the importance of prestige to what movies are ever talked about. These things matter.
I’m also for all the people who, I guess, are paying attention to the Emmy Awards. Hope whoever’s job it is writes about them!
They’re getting better, like my friends says, as they’re less relevant in America.
I’m not sure if you know how to count the money. Whoever had distribution rights in America got half the loot. Half stays in theaters. So they covered production costs & made a bit more. That’s the calculation people who actually pay to make movies make! How’bout advertising/marketing costs?
Testing the Hypothesis: Can we divine some deeper meaning by comparing the winners of the Emmy Award for Best Dramatic Series (and/or the nominees in general) and the Oscar for Best Picture (and/or the nominees in general) since 2000 ?
Way more manliness at the Oscars, for one thing!
Something Titus says in passing should be highlighted: if and when Hollywood actually does make something that reflects conservative values, rest assured that most conservative outlets will ignore it. If there are signs of hope, they will be overlooked. Then we can all go back to whining and moaning about how the Alinskyite overlords have filled America’s minds with vice and slime, etc. etc. and we are sooo helpless…
Exactly. It’s hard even to frame public writing about this without someone trying to slant it as an attack on liberalism. I dislike that. We should give them credit when it’s due. Really, it’s our side that’s reaping all the benefits when such movies come out.
I’ll say about this Hell or high water movie, too: I’m fairly sure everyone involved is a liberal. All the festival glory it’s getting is liberal. But it’s good for our side.
Also: I don’t think our Romanian friend and our Canadian friend are at odds here. It’s true that arty TV has taken much of the place of prestige filmmaking, although it’s been around long enough now to acquire tiresome cliches of its own. The media world has changed in just the way Misthi says.
But what Titus is getting at is, who or what is our cultural arbiter? Who sets the standards? As of now it’s still the movies, and not entirely out of force of habit. Streaming video and TV documentaries yearn to be in the Oscars. You don’t see makers of ambitious feature films cross their fingers and hope they get invited to the Emmys. It might be the distinction of having to go to a theater, but I think it’s also a function of the format. Look at symphonies and novels; there’s a certain length, a certain heft that after centuries of tinkering seems to feel about right. 90 to just under 180 minutes has a certain cinematic feel; it’s a complete world in itself.
By contrast, there are things that ninety hours of “Mad Men” can do that a feature can’t.
Also, The Sopranos was robbed in 1999, 2000, and 2002; Six Feet Under was robbed in 2001; Deadwood was robbed in 2004; House was robbed in 2005; Boardwalk Empire was robbed in 2010; and don’t get me started on 2011, 2014, and/or 2015.
Meanwhile, I have little-to-no passionate opinion about the Oscars for any of those years.
Well, maybe 2004 and 2005 …
Yes! Except six feet, which is, well, your cuppa tea…
Ackshully, not a huge fan, but when compared to the competition in 2001 …
But really, the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t care one way or the other when it comes to the Oscars for Best Picture, but I do care about who wins the Emmy, even when the winner is not my first pick, because the Emmys matter to me and the Oscars don’t.
I really look forward to seeing how the Emmys do in the ratings when they’re broadcast on September 17th. If they kick Oscar’s butt it’ll be an indication that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
(Also, if The Walking Dead and/or Vikings and/or Doctor Who get shut out of the nominations again in favour of freaking Homeland, then I’m gonna … I’m gonna … well, do nothing about it, let’s be honest.)
Incidentally, the Emmy awards for Outstanding Limited Series/Outstanding Miniseries and Outstanding Comedy Series can also be extremely maddening.
Five times in a row for Modern Family? Preposterous!
But, again, it’s merely more evidence that the Emmy’s matter more. I wouldn’t get so upset if they were as devoid of meaning as the Oscars.
Meanwhile, the Outstanding TV Movie category is now kinda silly, since the difference between a TV movie and a theatrically-released movie has become such a trivial distinction.
e.g. Grace Of Monaco wasn’t produced as a “tv movie”. It had its premiere at Cannes, for cryin’ out loud. It’s simply that Lifetime just so happened to offer them the best distribution deal in the US market.
Modern Family is “responsible” for a spate of single-camera (no live audience) comedies that are not, in fact, very funny as a rule. Supposedly other stuff makes up for it. “Life in Pieces” and “This is Us” are among this year’s Modern Family wannabes. They are generally arch, fey, ironic and wink-and-nodding to a fault. “The Mindy Project”, though livelier and noisier, conforms to the pattern.
Obviously, with a multicamera, live audience show, a laughing audience affects the way you experience a show. You’re one of them; you just happen to be sitting at home. A rarely noticed and realistic habit of Chuck Lorre’s shows: just like in real life, sometimes the characters crack jokes and know they’re cracking jokes; there’s a reaction shot of the others laughing. By contrast, on the single camera (film style) shows, the central character is in on the joke, and you, being so hip and cool, are in on the joke, but the dimwitted, painfully limited and un-hip people around her are not aware that their very banality makes them funny. Poor deluded fools. They should get their own shows if they don’t want to be the butt of a superior person’s wit.
I do hope they get their own shows!
I have been pondering this. I can’t help wondering if this is a cart / horse issue.
People in my immediate circle just do not go to movies anymore, and it is not solely because “all Hollywood movies are liberal” or other similar excuses. As often as not they do not attend because they just do not like the theater experience, and do not find it worth the money regardless of the film. 2 tickets + concession costs = $35-$50, so you can sit in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers, wait through 20 minutes of commercials while you have your eardrums assaulted, get retinal burnout and a stiff neck from an overly large screen, while you gamble on a movie that you can’t even pause so you can use the facilities.
Now I know theaters have changed – they have changed to larger and more comfortable seats, serve booze, maybe have better quality concessions, but the experience is still costly and still requires anywhere from 2 to 4 hours of blocked out time.
So you wait for it come out on DVD or a streaming service, but then it has to compete with the millions of other offerings and distractions of home in a soundbite culture.
Maybe we should reconsider how we’re creating and distributing this stuff before decrying how conservatives won’t support it.
Continued thoughts from above.
Let me cite Scott Adams here on another look at the problem:
I would add that this is largely my experience with Netflix now too. I pull it up, hunt for 20 minutes through the 99% of garbage it suggests I might like, then turn it off without watching anything because its search function is also garbage.
And mind you I rarely have uncontested command of the remote, so what time I have to watch something is rare.
I think the technology issue is real, just like the social issue.
That said, conservatives do very little useful stuff when it comes to the movies. While there is a culture, an awards season, & such, promoting the worthwhile stuff is important. Writers trying to persuade people to get involved in paying for movies through independent-of-Hollywood financing & getting the movie online would be smart. Writers who just ignore the movies or don’t even understand what’s going or don’t care are not doing conservatism any favors. Nothing against them, but this is an issue.
As for the kind of writing that might be useful to conservatives who deal with Netflix, again, conservative writing sucks. Why aren’t there useful guides that can spare you the fruitless wasted-time nuisance? I would have no problems coming up with recommendations by genre, nor yet by mood. This, too, can help bring people together, if they have similar tastes & might want to talk or read about similar things. It’s not a lot, but it’s not nothing & people really are happy to watch something they enjoy, to discover stuff, & to leave behind the mind-numbing Netflix search.
So neither in the old nor in the new mode of movie watching does our side have much to offer. That’s a problem even before I get to the fact that conservatives’ kids come up in pretty much the same culture as everyone else’s… That’s another discussion…
I virtually never have a difficulty finding an interesting show/movie online either via Netflix or iTunes or Google Play.
If I limited myself to one service exclusively, I concede I would have more difficulty.
It also frustrates me that Amazon doesn’t let me buy their shows a la carte. I don’t want to sign up for Amazon Prime just so I can watch The Man In The High Castle.
That’s a pretty apt description of Adam Sandler’s deal with Netflix.
Adam Sandler? Conservative?
Unabashedly, religiously, Jewish. Unabashedly family-oriented. Unabashedly traditional American morality. Plus fart jokes.
Yes to all that! I’m not sure Netflix did well: His first Netflix movie was fairly funny & all-American; in the second, the comedy ran away with everything in the worst direction. I’m not sure how to measure success here. I still like the guy. But creative freedom may be catastrophic for him…
Titus, I try to read your essays, am impressed with your style and argumentation.
I just cannot get excited about movies any more. Hell, art in general does not excite me. There is some escapist fare that I enjoy for the entertainment, but I can’t see any reason to pay to watch “anguished manliness” for two hours.
Most of the books I read are technical work related to my job – even the ones I read for fun are refresher textbook. The last normal movies I saw in theater was The Avengers.
I know this means I am destroying the culture or being a barbarian. I’m just so damned burnt out of any interest in art.
Sir, I’m loath to give you the impression I look down on or abhor your kind of man. I think it’s natural for American men not to take an interest in arts in their maturity, as a matter of fact, & may have said it umpteen times, so that I do not mind saying it again.
Of course, I am not satisfied when you say you mostly read technical stuff to do with your work. Work is dignified & work involving learning is also intellectual. But men need to do more than that. In my experience, American men, past the half-point of their lives, begin to read history. Even there, their taste is for the technical & for the facts, but it speaks to their deep concerns which jobs conceal.
I am fully ready to concede that my recommendations tend to be for young Americans, but you would concede, I’m sure, that they need all the sense they can get, & for them it often comes easiest through the arts. This is because they are both young & American: Impatient, easily offended, taking sleights like pros in argument–often eager to show their cleverness by contradicting instead of looking for insights. Interested in making their mark more than anything else, or nearly. This is also what allows them to deal with stories with more innocence than they would with people. Often, their competitive equality is silent for a while & they are wide-eyed.
If any of this makes sense, I hope you see some good, next to the enjoyment you take in reading my pieces. I’d be grateful for your vote, as it’s my only real chance to publish this stuff & try to make a difference.
Now, is it the art’s fault, or is it simply that most people naturally become less interested in movies as they age, and that this correlates with the natural tendency for most people to become more conservative as they age?
There’s something to that, but if there is a problem with spectacles in one’s age, well, what’s taking up the time & why? What’s it mean to be conservative in that sense?
Well, before you can get quality you need to build volume.
According to Wikipedia, just under 50 American feature films were release in 2016. Very few were hits.
Going through the list, there are quite a few that can be described as “conservative” and/or “manly”.
Incidentally, I’ve only seen four of ’em, I didn’t see any of ’em in theatres, and I used to be something of a cinéaste. Heck, I own not one but two 16mm movie cameras! If I’m not going to the movies anymore, what hope does the average aging conservative bloke have?
A man with a Canon Scoopic is a man to be reckoned with.
They are heavy, and could make a pretty lethal club in an emergency.
Well, someone’s going to theaters. It’s just mostly to blockbusters. You lose on ticket numbers, you can still make up the money, mostly, on prices.
I’ve been meaning to write about this, but I’ll have to wait till some editor somewhere bites.
But it’s probably the case that there’s money to be made should anyone turn out to be a very clever distributor & start figuring out how to market, for example, to conservatives.