Tuesday, May 27, 2014

How We Love Now: Don Jon and Her

 It’s time to say goodbye to old-fashioned ideas about love. Gone are the days when society deemed love acceptable only when it ended in marriage and procreation. Finding a partner is becoming a far more tailored affair. Not too long ago (and still prevailing in some cases) the idea of two people of the same gender falling in love was deemed wrong simply because it didn’t end in procreation.

Nowadays, the family unit has become a different thing. Women have entered the workforce, resulting in an enormous upheaval in the way society as a whole works. The family unit is not the only structure that shapes our lives anymore. It’s a fact - for better or worse. And I’m certainly not decrying the shake-up of the traditional family structure. It’s fine. Whatever works! But it does beg the question, if we’re not falling in love because we are socially conditioned to, then why do we? And with the male-female dynamic in society so monumentally altered, where does that leave men? 

Two recent films have raised this very issue. Both take a look at the changing world and also how our increasing reliance on the internet as a social tool can give us a warped view of who we and more importantly who other people, are.

Don Jon was received with a lukewarm shrug as it swaggered on to our screens last year. Marketed as a bit of a lads flick, or a rom-com, neither of which were accurate, there is undeniably an air of smugness about this film that could potentially make it difficult to like. However, this film, more than any other film I saw last year, has stayed with me. Possibly only due to my frustration at the lacklustre reception but I feel it needs defending.

Don Jon introduces us to a typical douchebag Jon and his douchebag friends. Jon takes pride in his pad, his ride, his girls, gym, his family and his church. He likes things to be perfect, he takes care of himself and he judges everybody else by his own high standards. When he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johanssen) she is “a ten”. Beautiful, no-nonsense, ready to whip him into shape and make him man enough for her to marry and build a life with. She sends him back to college to better himself and lays the ground rules about internet porn. Here’s the thing. Jon likes porn better than sex. Less hassle to whack one out to a video than the real thing. Women look better on camera than flat on their backs anyway, right?

As we wait for this rom-com to predictably see them break down at his weaknesses then regroup because he realises the error of his ways, something strange happens. Jon realises that he doesn’t need her and decides to get to know himself better and become comfortable with who he is before trying to allow a woman to decide what’s best for him.

Not since Fight Club has there been a film that discusses masculism and the crisis of modern masculinity in such depth.

Jon is a man, like so many others, who doesn’t know his place in the world and starts to ask himself questions about what it means to be a man. As a result of these questions, he engages in a relationship with Julianne Moore who teaches him something nobody ever really bothered to before. Sex is about love. About emotional connection. Otherwise it’s just mutual masturbation. 

Joseph Gordon Levitt has crafted a film here which discusses the place of the modern man in today’s shaken up society. In all the ways that for years films and music and books have screamed at women that they need to love themselves and not allow a man to become the centre of their world and to be who they are, etc, this is a film that allows men that indulgence. Don’t always feel pressure to “man up”, to prove yourself. Learn to love yourself and let go of your vanities and those walls and figure out what works for you!

A small but vital part of Jon’s character which is never addressed is his tendency toward obsessive compulsive behaviour. Though it is never driven home, Jon’s penchant for extreme neatness and routine and perfection does indicate some mental health issues. Not to mention issues of Catholic guilt and pressures to conform to traditional family values that stem from his family.

The softer, warmer Jon we see towards the end of the film is a man who is happy being himself and who has figured out how to love; by letting yourelf indiscriminately care for someone.

Another film that looks at the way in which love is changing is Spike Jonze’s delightful oddity Her. Set in a not too distant future where hipsters have seemingly taken over the planet, Her tells the story of lonely Theodore Twombley (an extraordinary Joaquin Phoenix), recently separated from a wife he adores and employed as a proxy writer of love letters, the online equivalent of a Cyrano De Bergerac. A hopeless romantic and a man in dire need of connection, Theodore sets up the new operating system on his phone, a kind of Siri idea, a very connected, very sophisticated artificial intelligence that exudes warmth, curiosity and humour not previously found in an OS. Over time, and they show us this in excruciating detail, allowing us time to see that this is a genuine love affair and not some perversion, we see Theodore and Sam slowly become genuine companions, laughing together, being kind to each other, helping each other grow, all the things one could ever want in a real relationship. They are in love.

Spike Jonze is asking us the question, in this day and age when social pressures are gone and we are left with nobody to please but ourselves, can we indulge such companionships? What does artifical mean anyway when technology is so advanced. Spike Jonze is a forward thinker, leaving us room to entertain the questions and ideas being presented in a non judgmental fashion. This is not science fiction. This is romance, pure and simple.

The end of the film doesn’t leave us with any simple answers either. Jonze is forcing us to look at ourselves and what we want in life and from relationships and question the time we spend with our computer each day. To my mind though, he’ not lecturing us. He is asking us to think about it.

Both films are doing a straight-forward thing. They are showing a man’s journey through love: both completely opposite men. One a brazen man-child, the other an old-fashioned romantic. But their journeys are similar. Jon’s is certainly more fulfilling than Theodore’s. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say Theodore doesn’t go on a journey, we do.

It’s about time we start to think about how the world is changing. There are still people getting married, having babies and buying houses in the suburbs but more and more, the traditional two-parent one bread-winner pattern is being upended. So, if not out of habit or out of necessity, why do we fall in love? Why do we marry? Now that the working world is becoming more of an equal playing field how does this affect the male-female dymanic in society?

What does it mean to be a man? Fight Club discusses this in a very extreme way. Edward Norton’s “Narrator” is a ghost in a world that doesn‘t know what to do with him. Jon in Don Jon has built a world of which he is very definitely a part, but he has built it out of habit and he is only now asking what he really wants.  Theodore is a man who needs a companion to feel complete. He is finding new ways to love in the absence of a physical companion. Again, if we’re not coming together to make babies then what is it that we REALLY want?

Two films that ask questions as a form of comment but in a completely non-judgmental fashion; Don Jon and Her are first and foremost character studies. They present us with very well realised men with very well thought out neuroses and psychological nuances. Perhaps these filmmakers aren’t the male equivalent of The Spice Girls yelling “Girl Power” but they are a call to action to men to look at themselves and know that you don’t’ have to  be your father, you just have to be yourelf.

My Favourite Films of 2013

It was agonising to cut this list down to ten from an original list of thirty-five brilliant films. I've changed my mind a hundred times and no doubt I'll change it again. I tried and failed to put this list in some kind of order but I jut couldn't figure it out so let's just enjoy each film for it's own merits and not worry about choosing favourites.

Django Unchained
Quentin Tarantino has olways been admired as an audacious filmmaker, sometimes deservedly, but more often than not (in my opinion) he is just being violent/flashy/weird/bad/controverial/obnoxious. To me, Django Unchained is his first really important work since Pulp Fiction. While it is similar in tone to Inglorious Basterds, I thought that film felt kind of phony whereas this film really had something to say. While it was just as flashy and obnoxiously aggressive as his other films, Django took a rather mature look at the complicated mess that was slavery in America in the 19th Century. Samuel L Jackson's character of Steven was probably the most important character in cinema this year. You have to hand it to him, not many filmmakers would have the balls to present a character like that to the world. Fair play!

The Place Beyond The Pines
It was a love it or loathe it kind of film and it seemed to me that the balance lay in your opinion of the third act. Many felt the final act of the film was a bit meandering but in my opinion it was what made it special.  All three layers of the plot worked for me. The story was woven together so beautifully and the crisis of masculinity, in the form of fathers and sons was laid bare for all to see in the most lovely, poetic way. Now, I'm certainly not a fan of Ryan Gosling. I'm one of the few ladies who just doesn't get it but I have to say he was utterly magnetic as the dumb, down on his luck biker. Likewise, Bradley Cooper was magnificent as a cop struggling with his sense of morality. A truly unique film, Derek Cianfrance knocked it out of the park with his second feature. Can't wait to see what he does next.

Iron Man 3
Finally! A comic book movie that really did it right. Hilarious, emotional, clever and full of great action sequences, Iron Man 3 brought this franchise back in a big way! Feeling very much like vintage Shane Black, RDJ is as charming as ever and it goes to show that the answer to a great blockbuster lies very much in having a whopper script! Best Marvel film ever.

A Hijacking
Although A Hijacking was outshone by another excellent high seas pirate movie, Captain Phillips, it was by far the better of the two films. Written and directed by Tobias Lindholm, writer of last year's The Hunt, A Hijacking spends half its time on the boat and half its time in the boardroom with the corporation who is negotiating with the pirates. Completely non-judgmental of the negotiators yet pointing out the very clear differences between classes, this gut-wrenchingly tense drama left me in tatters with a subtly brilliant final shot that really hit home the films central thesis.

The Kings of Summer
Again, a film that was overshadowed by another similar film, The Kings of Summer unfortunately fell under the shadow of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon's inferior The Way Way Back and the also excellent Mud from Jeff Nichols. But it was The Kings of Summer for me by a mile. The sense of effortlessness that this films easy charm portrays is doubly incredible given that this is a first time director, Jordon Vogt-Roberts. The young cast are amazing and the film manages to make the "McLovin"-esque weird kid utterly believable and not even annoying! Everything about this little film worked for me. It had a sense of wonder and passion that is rarely captured by films about kids and made me long for those lazy, hazy days and hope against hope that there are young men like these out there somewhere. A true snowflake of a movie.

I'm the very one who is constantly banging on about pointless remakes and on paper a remake of William Lustig's grind-house masterpiece is about as pointless as they come. But on screen Franck Khalfoun has created something quite lovely. Contemporary and different from the original in all the ways it needs to be, Maniac, sees a very likeable Elijah Wood stalk the streets of L.A. scalping young women and making mannequins of them. How is that likeable you ask? Well, therein lies the alchemy at work in this film. Elijah Wood's doe-like face make you want to mother him and hope that he'll find a better path. Of course, that's not going to happen and therefore the film gives you an emotional "in" that is rarely found in horror. Also, the music and cinematography are as handsome a you'll find anywhere this year.

Blue Jasmine
When he's great, he's great. And this time, he's REALLY great! Woody Allen hasn't made anything this good since the 80's and this modernised Streetcar is both funny, insightful and packs a serious emotional punch in the form as the ever-fading Jasmine, played splendidly by Cate Blanchett. The final scene on the park bench is worth your tenner alone. 

This truly magnificent thriller from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is a sad dissection of the ways in which we (often badly) deal with pain. The title ties the films themes together so nicely that it almost makes it's theses sound simple. But they're not. This is a complex look at the evil that men do and the places that these evils come from. They're not from a god or a devil, they're from pain. I wouldn't call it anti-religion but it is certainly dismissive of ideas that anyone is responsible for your actions except yourself. Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman and the rest of the cast play a stormer here with material that must be the stuff of wet dreams for actors. And Roger Deakins does a phenomenal job as per usual.

Short Term 12
Brie Larson...where did you COME FROM? Hands down, breakout of the year! This very simple tale of lovely young people who work in a home for young tearaway teenagers is surprisingly fantastic. Mostly due to the central performance by a heartbreaking Brie Larson who plays an intelligent and resourceful care-worker whose own tragic issues bubble under the surface. I know, I know, this doesn't sound great but really it is. 

Don Jon
I know this wasn't exactly revered upon release. I wasn't too sure about it myself the first time I watched it. I liked it, thought it was charming and interesting but on second viewing I really thought there was some phenomenal stuff going on with this film. A film about connections and expectations and what it means to be a man. I'd go so far as to say there hasn't been a discussion this deep about modern masculinity since Fight Club. Some have accused the film of being shallow and accused it's central character Jon of being a cartoon. And he is. But he's only a cartoon until he starts to become an actual person. Quite clever script-writing actually I think.