Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Treatise in Defense of My Man Card

Note: I am dipping into ‘the file’ again this week. This is an essay I wrote following a coffee break discussion with my co-workers about a year ago. Since I am likely in the midst of a string of film posts, it seemed appropriate.

I recently lost my ‘man card.’ There are a few factors at play here but the primary complaint is that I prefer ‘chick flicks’ to ‘action movies.’ Now let’s frame the issue precisely. Braveheart and Fight Club are my favorite movies. Pulp Fiction and the Matrix are in my top 10. On the other hand Jerry Maguire and Garden State are also in the top 10. I prefer well made movies with subtle but emotive soundtracks, good acting, philosophical themes and redemptive characters. It is immaterial to me whether these are shelved in the action or romance sections at Blockbuster. The problem is that only a couple of movies fit this description come out each year and I watch more movies that that. So the real issue is that if I am going to watch a mediocre or bad movie I would prefer a story about relationships to one with guns, fast cars and explosions.

Why I Watch Movies

I love story. Humans are fundamentally story tellers. Story has been at the center of human culture for millennia. This is actually one of the tragedies of the emergence of visual media as our culture’s dominant choice of entertainment; we have lost much of the narrative nature of our evolved and/or created race. Particularly as our sensibilities grow more postmodern and we reject meta-narrative, the quality of individual narratives seems even more essential. However, there are some in the visual arts that are actually fine story tellers, and I am interested in being involved in the narratives that shape the cultural and moral sensibilities of my society. So I watch movies.

It is therefore my contention that the prevalence of shooting, fast driving, chasing, exploding, punching and other ‘action’ sequences are usually departures from narrative. They are visual stimuli and seldom actually move the story forward in a meaningful way. If 40-70% of a 100 minute movie is comprised of action sequences that only leaves 30 to 60 minutes of story. I feel ripped off. And I think it is fundamentally a lack of imagination and symptomatic of a poor story or story teller.

As inane as chick flicks often are,[1] they do not have the option of shortening their narrative arc by a third or half through choreographed sword play or motorcycle chases. Each scene has to move the characters forward. Dialog is not optional. Relationships must happen (even if they usually happen badly). I prefer this.

Some Thoughts on Manhood

Admirable manhood is a specialized condition of true personhood.[2] My favorite quote on what it is to be a man was written about 1800 years ago by a man name Ignatius.

“I am not yet perfected in Jesus Christ, indeed I am now being invited into discipleship. At last I am well on my way to being a disciple. May nothing seen or unseen fascinate me so that I may happily make my way to Jesus Christ. Fire, cross, struggle with wild beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crunching of the whole body, cruel torments inflicted by the devil – let them come upon me, provide only that I make my way to Jesus Christ. Once arrived there I shall be a man. Allow me to be a follower of my passion, of my God.”

Ignatius believed that passion was the heart of manhood. Being passionate enough about something[3] that life itself (as well as the intact nature of one’s limbs) paled in comparison. This theme emerges in both Braveheart and Fight Club (see inset) in nearly opposite ways and plays significantly into why I particularly appreciate these movies.

Hebrew Scriptures define the marks of manhood as humility, mercy and the love of justice. Since the thin themes of many action films often thrive on the principles of self reliance and revenge they actually depart from my fundamental principals of manhood and there is nothing intrinsically masculine in a preference for them.

Passion and love of justice are immaterial to the enjoyment of watching things blow up. And if the latter rather than the former is the requirement for holding a man card I gladly relinquish it.

Post script: I wrote this ~ a year ago. Then approximately a month ago I found this cartoon on the very good that made a similar observation and an opposite conclusion:

Post post script: For those keeping track at home, that is 2 Firefly/Serenity references in 3 posts. My man card might be in danger but my nerd card is untouchable.

[1] And they do not get a free pass. Romances need an obstacle to keep the couple apart for 80 minutes. In the vast majority of these movies, this obstacle is miscommunication or some one else (often a husband or wife!!!). These are tired and dysfunctional obstacles and also symptomatic of a deficient story teller. Art should ennoble and inspire to the beautiful and heroic. I would be 10 times more likely to watch a movie about trying to make a marriage thrive (something I, with a significant portion of the American population, am currently trying to do) than another movie about falling in love (which was great fun, but I don’t really plan on doing again).
[2] This is a dense and dangerous idea that I am throwing out carelessly. At the heart of feminism is the question of, to what extent, masculinity and femininity are specialized forms of personhood. I am not qualified to speak to this with any authority and my language here is vague and sloppy. I’d ask my deconstructing friends to overlook my imprecision.
[3] In his case and mine, Jesus.

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