In the grim months that followed the collapse of Lehmann Brothers and RBS, men's style pages were suddenly swamped with bearded models, boots and chunky knitwear announcing the return of the 'real man' - everything evoked the physicality of manliness; rough, rugged, unflinching. Masculinity was back, no more preening, there's work to be done to fix things, precisely what men are for!
In film, out went the soft, indie male stars; Michael Cera was too twee, too sensitive for the world of The Hurt Locker, Invictus or Inglorious Basterds that dominated the Oscar nominations at the same time as the beards dominated men's fashion.
However much film proclaims to influence our lives, this new love of the physical man, good with his hands and focused on the job, didn't quite mesh with the seeping away of manufacturing jobs in the US and much of Europe. Doubt began to seep in. Men could no longer revel in the image of Michael Douglas and Wall Street as bankers were told to quietly celebrate any bonus but, in the urbanised landscape, most men found themselves plumped in an office within the services industry where steel toe-capped boots don't really have much purpose. We, the modern Western male, found that we had more in common with Frank Wheeler from Revolutionary Road than Tyler Durden in Fight Club.
As the world has continued to teeter on the brink, the role of man has wobbled further. No longer are we the breadwinners, there's too many unemployed for that. No longer are we the masters of the universe, as institutions have crashed and governments toppled. No longer are we in control as dissent spreads across the world. Too many things conspire against us to make us masters of our own destiny. This is quite different from our modern construct of a 'real' man. Being a man is suddenly a very lonely place.
As the Oscars approach and we reflect on another year of filmmaking, has cinema reflected the loneliness of modern man?
I think for the most part, the films of the last 12 months have. We've been confronted with ambiguous male characters who we can never truly admire or denounce. The nominations for this year's Oscars have ignored this though and in the process amplified modern man's loneliness by ignoring the more ambiguous characters for films and male leads that evoke more sure-footed times. When the Oscar nominations were announced in January there were a few omissions that I struggled to comprehend. Where was Michael Fassbender and Shame? Ryan Gosling and Drive? Leonardo DiCaprio and J Edgar?
One film present in this year's list of nominations represents Hollywood's dissatisfaction with the male ambiguity. The Tree of Life sees Sean Penn wander round the desert, barely sharing the screen with anyone else; lost and alone, looking for an answer. His plight in the purgatory of the film's narrative is at odds with Brad Pitt's role, who is surrounded by characters as he teaches his young sons how to be a man. He is never lost, rebounding from every hit life brings him, forever foraging, fighting for his family. It's a film that showcases the two different men that we have on display in cinema this year and also which one the Academy prefers. Sean Penn, with his soul-searching and questions has been forgotten, while Pitt with his tough-mindedness is remembered.
It's why Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is in the nominations for best film and not Drive. In the former, Tom Hanks plays the old narrative of being a man, providing love for your family and helping them through the harsh realities of life, even if no longer present, unlike Ryan Gosling in Drive, who strives to do right but can only do so by abandoning those he has attachment to. It's why we have Moneyball but no J Edgar. We can applaud Brad Pitt for his determination and control of the baseball team he manages because he is striving towards a greater goal, unlike Leonardo DiCaprio's determination and control as he tries to run from his own secrets as the oppressive FBI director. It's why we have George Clooney in The Descendants, giving himself up to those who depend on him, but no room for the self-absorbed Michael Fassbender in Shame who can't connect with the others in his life, too involved in himself to help his sister.
Some will probably think this is a big leap but the film choices of awards season are a reflection of wider trends and this year makes no exception. While the world seemingly spirals out of control, we're back to using the words of equality, morals and tradition when talking about banking and social justice. We have no time for shades of grey any more, we want everything to be back to how it once was; those simpler times that are only simpler because we can look back on them and everything but the polar opposites have dissolved from view.
It seems that the academy have lost their craving for men on the periphery of society; the ones drowning in paranoia, narcissism, indulgent self-fulfillment or wrapped in secrets, who consume everything and everyone around them with little regard to their destructiveness. Instead we've been asked this year to choose from the men who fight with a strong moral compass for what is right, who care for the safety of others and are dependable, the man of a bygone era who suffered his doubts in silence as seen with front-runner The Artist. The man, in short, that has always been the fiction of Hollywood.
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