Image Credit: Carlos Cancio
In 1993 I wrote a column that appeared on the op-ed page of Santa Barbara’s local daily newspaper. Titled “Exposing the Men’s Movement’s Dark Side,” it gave joy to local feminists, many of whom were my friends. Someone must have sent it to Robert Bly, the poet and author of Iron John: A Book about Men, because he wrote to me about it. I knew about him from the buzz of his men’s-movement celebrity and from a vignette in Susan Faludi’s book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, in which Mr. Bly, in a men’s retreat, seemed to advocate violence against women. I had worked this vignette into my column. His letter was neatly typed on cream half-sheet stationery with his letterhead at the top. It read:
August 4, 1993
Dear Tim Walker,
I was surprised by your piece in which you end up throwing everything at me except the computer and the refrigerator. I don’t agree with most of the men’s rights people, and it’s not proper to belabor me with their words or the opinions of loonies who believe that male circumcision and female circumcision are comparable.
Certainly the men’s movement has a dark side. But there’s something in your piece that wants to insist that it only has a dark side. It’s as if you have compassion for women but none for men, and you seem to have a longing to beat up any older men who speak up.
In the fullness of my combative pride, I was delighted that he had written; I found the whiff of underdog in that last phrase to be especially delicious. My riposte was much longer than his letter, and not charitable. After that Mr. Bly would not to correspond further, which was kind of a letdown.
1993 marked a turning point for me in many ways.
Having researched the men’s movement, and written about its dark side, I could not help being aware that it also had a side that was helpful, even healing, that deserved some respect, no matter how grudging. At first, I feared that I had been touched by what Mary McCarthy calls a contagion of ideas, in which bad ideas are thought to be somehow more potent than good ideas, and drive them out. But I gradually began to think I could do a better job coming to terms with male identity. I felt there was some truth there that, if I ignored it long enough, would come around and bite me on the ass.
As I had explained to Mr. Bly, I was not a Young Turk, but a man in his mid-forties with a son of my own. In fact, my son was born a few weeks before the date of Mr. Bly’s letter. My son Dana (note the gender-neutral name), both in prospect and in his colicky, insistent presence, was another beginning—and a constant source of anxiety. For, among other reasons, I had to ask myself if it was really sufficient to be a mensch when you are raising a boy. Shouldn’t I also be able to give him some cues to help him see what it is to be a guy, to grow up comfortable with his male identity and with the company of other guys? Would that mean faking an interest in team sports? (It would.) Was there anything authentic I could do that might have the same effect? (There was.)
My stance on gender politics had deeply personal roots. I like the company of women and, since my teens, have always had more female than male friends. My lovers and wives have all been women, and I just plain like them, with the same instinct that made me choose female cats as being less trouble than males, less likely to spray on the furniture or go out and raise hell in the neighbors’ yards. So it was friendship, first and foremost, that led me to consider myself a feminist.
In 1989, when the Supreme Court decided the Webster case in favor of abortion restrictions and seemed poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, I was alarmed. Two of my closest friends had had abortions, and I felt that they, and all women, should be able to make that choice. My wife Pat and I attended an organizational meeting to form a new chapter of the National Organization for Women in Lompoc (sounds like MOM-poke), a small town in northern Santa Barbara County where we lived at the time. The talk turned to electing officers for the chapter, and I guess the irony of having a guy as secretary was irresistible. It seemed everyone (except me) was thinking the same thought, and I was quickly nominated and seconded. I was taken aback—Why me?, I protested—but accepted when Pat offered to share the office with me. So she became the recording secretary and I became the corresponding secretary. I was soon churning out op-ed columns and letters to the editor, signing them with my name and my new title.
Advocacy for this cause ruled my life and thinking for the next four years. I served not only on the NOW board but on the North County Advisory Council of the Planned Parenthood affiliate headquartered in Santa Barbara, and I also represented the North County on the Planned Parenthood board. After the birth of our son, I soon realized I would have to moderate this heavy schedule of activism. Other changes were in order too. My wife and I were stuck in a commuter’s hell, driving twice a day between Lompoc and our jobs in Santa Barbara, with one of us in the back seat, often trying to sooth a baby screaming with impatience at being constrained in a car seat. I knew that to save our marriage we would have to sell our house and move into a rental in the pricey environs of Santa Barbara, closer to where we worked. In short order we were resettled, and since all my volunteer offices were predicated on residence in the North County, I resigned from them all. I did this with a clear conscience, because in June 1992 the Supreme Court had decided the test case Planned Parenthood v. Casey in favor of abortion rights.
The era of the feminist stalwart was over for me, my son was a toddler, and I was ready to restore some balance to my thinking about gender identity. Getting in touch with my inner guy would, inevitably, take the form of slumming. Like a tom cat, a guy is inherently more troublesome and less refined than a girl, more inclined to go out and get into scrapes, disturb the peace, follow the scent of a female in heat into the next county, and eventually come home with a piece missing from one of his ears. But I didn’t want to end up in jail, the hospital, or divorce court. In real life I abhor fighting; and in my youth, surrounded by peers who seemed always ready to mix it up, I was by choice a noncombatant. No, like many a red-blooded American male, I craved vicarious thrills.
I had long felt a nagging subliminal awareness that I was missing out on several decades’ worth of movies about vigilante cops, cyborg assassins, Kung-Fu duels, cannibal zombies roaming post-apocalyptic wastelands, alien invasions, and deadly warfare both historical and in the distant future. As a guy, these movies were my birthright. But I had been too highbrow to pay much attention. When Dirty Harry was released in 1971, I skipped it, and the next decade of sequels, eventually catching up with the phenomenon by reading the New York Review of Books, where Robert Mazzocco (1982) explained that, in the Nixon era, against the background of “the collapse of the Great Society and the presumed exhaustion of liberalism,” Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character represented the fascist reaction to “a city of crazies, full of black militants and dope addicts, counterculturists and leftist revolutionaries,” and the craven capitulation of liberal civic leaders in the “‘permissive’ milieu” of San Francisco.
I was and am an unreconstructed liberal with a history of leftist and counterculture tendencies, so this assessment assured me that I hadn’t missed much. But still, the feeling persisted that I had missed something, for Mr. Mazzocco also wrote:
“Eastwood has a patrician grace; every inch that of a ‘star’ in the old sense… The taut, lean, powerfully built body, the sensitively chiseled, unsmiling face, a voice surprisingly soft… the famous ‘squint’ and glacial eyes which nevertheless can seem terribly vulnerable—these unusual physical endowments couple with Dirty Harry’s meager psychological background to produce a certain inarticulate melancholy.”
Still, I abstained from that class of movies beloved of guys.
It’s not that I didn’t care for movies. Far from it. In the 1960s I was a teen living in suburban New York, and I often spent a Saturday taking the New Haven Line commuter train into Manhattan, riding the Lexington Avenue subway downtown to Greenwich Village, and going to the Bleeker Street Cinema, a little art movie house that showed classic and European films. If I had made a list of the movies I saw there, it would include:
- Jules and Jim
- Hiroshima Mon Amour
- The Blue Angel
- Wild Strawberries
- Rules of the Game
- Ivan the Terrible
- Black Orpheus
And many others of the same quality. I religiously read Dwight Macdonald’s highbrow movie criticism in my parents’ copy of Esquire.
I was never a leader in anything in high school, except for that one day in my senior year, when my class had a field trip in Manhattan that we could safely cut, and I rounded up some other students and took them to the Bleeker Street Cinema to see Citizen Kane. I had seen it before, and on the way downtown I lectured them on its significance as a milestone in the effective use of the integrated movie sound track. I was intrigued by the image of the auteur, the visionary artist who writes, designs, and directs a personal statement on film.
Fast-forward to 2002. I have meningitis, and spend my time in a darkened room, enduring a rotten headache.
When I’m sick, I usually give my mind a rest and read genre fiction by Arthur Conan Doyle and other 19th century authors—the kind of now-obscure mystery novels you find in Dover reprints. It’s a form of slumming, it’s restful, and in a house where there’s no television, it’s one of the more mindless things you can do. In 2002, though, we did have a TV—but no cable: it was just for watching the occasional video. The usual fare was my son’s Thomas the Tank Engine videos. As my headache gradually abated, I started to haunt the local video-rental store and work my way through my backlog of guy movies. My new list looked something like this:
- The Terminator
- The Bourne Identity
- Dirty Harry
- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
- Fist of Fury
- First Blood
- Mad Max
- Black Hawk Down
And many others of the same quality. It was an orgy of action/thriller/sci-fi/fantasy movies, a releasing of the flood waters, spreading lowbrow guy-itude into all the low-lying terrain. I loved it, and I still love it.
It helps that a movie can be formulaic and popular, and still be very well done. Dirty Harry is a case in point: a neo-noir police procedural in which loose-cannon homicide detective Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, battles a deranged killer who calls himself Scorpio. It can be read as a vigilante revenge fantasy, and that is a large part of its appeal. But director Don Siegel wanted to maintain a critical distance from Harry’s “dirty” deeds, and used distinctive camerawork, and Lalo Schifrin’s innovative and influential “acid-jazz” score, to construct a viewpoint that is repulsed by Harry’s brutality.
In the opening scene, a young woman is seen in a swimming pool on apartment building rooftop in San Francisco. The camera pulls back to a high-angle wide shot, and the sniper on the neighboring rooftop comes into view. As he aims and shoots, we hear the “Scorpio” theme: jumpy, disjointed jazz percussion with discordant broken piano chords and eerie, wailing vocals.
These techniques are echoed in a later scene, in Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park. Harry has shot the fleeing Scorpio in the leg, and interrogates him about the location of a girl he has kidnapped. Scorpio won’t tell; he just babbles that his rights are being violated. Determined to find the girl, Harry grinds his foot into Scorpio’s gunshot wound. As Harry tortures Scorpio, the camera pulls back and up to an extreme wide shot, accompanied by the disjointed percussion and discordant broken piano chords, as in the opening scene, with moaning saxophones in place of the wailing vocals. In effect, the viewer’s eye recoils from the scene in disgust, while the “Scorpio” music suggests that Harry and Scorpio have become moral equivalents.
In the final sequence, after Scorpio hijacks a school bus full of children, Harry disobeys orders and hunts him down, corners him in a gravel quarry, provokes him to reach for his gun, and shoots him dead. Police sirens are heard in the distance, and again the camera pulls back to an aerial view, revealing not the arrival of other police, but Harry alone in the stark wasteland of the quarry. All tension is gone from the music; but the wide shot, and Harry’s ambiguous last act of throwing away his badge, underscore the isolation he has brought on himself by acting outside the law.
These subtle devices introduce an ambivalence toward Harry’s actions that for most viewers is just below the level of conscious awareness. They raise the film, from one that was very popular for all the wrong—that is, “guy”—reasons, to one that has achieved considerable, if belated, critical acclaim.
My son is more of a video-game guy, but we have common ground in those classic guy attributes: stubbornness and reticence. His mother hopes these are awkward teenage traits that he should outgrow, and the sooner the better. I know they only need to be moderated a little to make him a perfectly acceptable male adult.
I used to love reading aloud to Dana. When he was an infant, I would read him books like Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and nonsense poems by Edward Lear. Later, he would sit in my lap and help hold the book so he could see the pictures. One of our favorites, Harvey the Carpenter, was about a beaver in overalls who goes into his woodworking shop and makes a toolbox, then—a nice touch—fills it with the tools he used to make it.
Inspired, I set up a woodworking shop on our patio. The endgame was to build a real sailboat. I never got there, but I did some nice finish carpentry and burnished my guy credentials. When he showed an interest, I taught Dana to use hand tools and make his own toolbox—it was on the pattern of the one made by the beaver in overalls: a rectangular box with a dowel handle running its length—and gave him some tools to fill it. But, true to guy form, what he really wanted was to use my power tools. When I felt he was old enough, I let him use relatively safe tools like the band saw without supervision. Later, in high school, Dana took the Stage Crew elective every semester, and helped build the sets for all the school plays.
One of the key ways to pass along useful information about how to be in the world is “The Talk,” or what used to be called the facts of life. I knew that Dana had received some “age-appropriate” sex education in grade school, but I had no idea what was taught or what he had learned. Adolescence was still a few years in the future, but I sensed that he had questions and some confusion, and it was time for The Talk.
I approached it as I might any other subject, telling him what I knew about sex and what I thought would be good for him to know. When I was a teen, the mechanism of sex was clear to me, but emotional intimacy was difficult to even imagine, which made the whole thing seem kind of surreal. I knew it would be the same for Dana, so that’s what I stressed: how emotional intimacy is a difficult challenge for us guys, but physical desire and the need for companionship motivates us to get the hang of it eventually. I told him it would be hard for him, but it would be worth the struggle. The alternatives—loneliness, and one or another form of crummy sex—are not attractive.
In addition to wife and son, my household currently includes one cat, and he is a joy to behold: a big grey tom with a white chin and tummy and big white rabbit’s feet and a long bushy tail. After living with both male and female cats, and watching how they interact, I have decided that the females can be bitchy and hard to please, while the males are uncomplicated and, when not on a playful tear through the house, just want a little peace and quiet.
We all like to think that our lives are of a piece, that the opposites we embrace not only create balance but meet and become one. My balance between feminist and guy attitudes, and between intellectual and guy tastes, developed organically over a lifetime, so I don’t feel like a mass of contradictions. But maybe I should.
I am a life-long highbrow, deeply influenced by the late Dwight Macdonald, one of the most acerbic critics of mass culture that America has ever produced. I still have my copy (the 1962 printing) of his Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture, the copy I pored over as a teenage intellectual. How do I reconcile this with my love of Hollywood blockbusters, Hong Kong action films, and spaghetti westerns?
Even worse, how can I enjoy Dirty Harry knowing that picketers carried signs like: “Dirty Harry is a Rotten Pig” at the 1972 Academy Awards? Or that the distain of feminists led Clint Eastwood to complain in a 1976 interview that he had been falsely labeled a male chauvinist? I believe I am still a good feminist at heart, and hope to be perceived as one too.
I do what most people do with cognitive dissonance: I usually ignore it, and when that doesn’t work, I can rationalize it. These movies are entertainment, for chrissakes! I concede that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a pig, Tom Cruise is an imbecile, and Mel Gibson is a bigot. Their sins far exceed those alleged of Mr. Eastwood, but that’s not stopping me from enjoying their films. So lighten up, already!
In a less defensive vein, I might note that action/sci-fi/fantasy movies often contain, as their patron saint Samuel Taylor Coleridge puts it, “a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
Or I could refer to another of my teen idols, Susan Sontag, whose “Notes on Camp” was the most celebrated part of her first book, Against Interpretation (1966; I still have my first-printing copy). Camp sensibility shuns seriousness and pretentiousness, embraces the playful, stylized, and extravagant; it is the aesthetic of “it’s so bad, it’s good.” Ms. Sontag’s examples of pure camp are all “found” objects, like the original 1933 King Kong film or old Flash Gordon comics. She frowned on deliberate camp, but underestimated its possibilities. She defined camp as esoteric, a minority taste; but events have also outrun her in this. In the Age of Irony, camp taste has gone mainstream, and its objects are manufactured at great expense and with consummate skill. Peter Jackson’s over-the-top 2005 remake of King Kong was a resounding critical and popular success.
Despite the predictable surging tide of sequels and remakes, much that is fresh and innovative in movies today is embodied by the renaissance, propelled by rapidly-advancing CGI technology, of fantasy movies—a movement that has its visionary auteurs, like Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro—and movies based on graphic novels that incorporate the visual design sense of the cartoonist, like Sin City, 300, Watchmen, and Dredd, to name a few. It’s not that the cartoonists’ visions are particularly original, but that every scene in these movies is a feast for the eyes, lit and composed with a lapidary deliberation reminiscent of early cinema pioneers like Russian director Sergei Eisenstein.
Many guy movies are far removed from what Dwight Macdonald would have considered mass-culture sensibility. They can be subversive, genre-breaking, and thought-provoking. The moral dilemmas faced by Peter Parker aka Spider Man are compelling, despite their coexistence with the superhero formula that dictates he must battle a series of psychotic super-villains. The X-Men films are exemplary for their social relevance, with their themes of prejudice, discrimination, and genocide. Movies like Matrix and Blade Runner challenge us with their brain-teasing take on reality and illusion. So what if these films depart from realism? It can be said of many guy movies, as L.A. Times critic Jan Stuart (2008) wrote about The X-Files TV series, “[it] was a load of malarkey. But it was thoughtful malarkey.”
Any way you rationalize it, action/sci-fi/fantasy movies are a guy thing, and guys are most apt to embrace the poetic faith requisite to enjoy them. Even Dwight Macdonald was a guy, who if he let himself go a little would have loved spectacle, star ships, explosions, decapitations, bulging biceps and awesome martial-arts moves.
Well, maybe not, but he probably did like the poetry of Philip Larkin. A dour and witty poet of disenchantment, Mr. Larkin deftly presents the guy point of view in many of his poems. Even when writing from the female viewpoint, he brings in the stubbornness and reticence of the male; as in “Deep Analysis”, in which an archetypal priestess/healer asks him: “why was all/ Your body sharpened against me, vigilant,/ Watchful, when all I meant/ Was to make it bright, that it might stand/ Burnished before my tent?” More typically, he addresses la différence in his own voice, as in “If, My Darling”: “If my darling were once to decide/ Not to stop at my eyes,/ But to jump, like Alice, with floating skirts into my head,” she would expect to find:
tables and chairs
mahogany claw-footed sideboards
the Tantalus filled
the fender-seat cosy
the shelves stuffed with small-printed books for the Sabbath
and much else of similar quality. But she would be disappointed. The list of stuff she would really find in there is:
the creep of varying light, monkey-brow, fish-grey
a string of infected circles, loitering like bullies, about to coagulate
delusions that shrink to the size of a lady’s glove, then sicken inclusively outwards
the unwholesome floor, as it might be the skin of a grave, from which ascends an adhesive sense of betrayal
a Grecian statue kicked in the privates
the incessant recital intoned by reality, larded with technical terms
a swill-tub of finer feelings
and much else of similar quality. In short, she would find not order and comfort, but gloom, squalor (sticky floors—eew!), inchoate criminality, mundane obsessions, annoying jargon, obscure wounds, a taint of paranoia, and mockery. She would have penetrated to the inner sanctum of guyhood, and it would be revealed to her why he is so reticent.
Much better that she remain outside his head, from which vantage point, like Dirty Harry, he projects only a certain inarticulate melancholy.