Our protagonists have a remarkable, rare manliness about them, however inconsistent, which renders them naturally incapable of being productive American citizens with regular lives; their triumphs & defeats, such as they are, owe much to chance. How do these guys end up? One finally starts acting like a good father–at least, he stops disappointing his daughter; the other gets a respectable job.
What does it mean to call these kinds of guys in this kind of story nice guys? They’re not pious about any number of laws & they seem to make their money out of the ugliness of human things. For protagonists in an action movie, they also have an unseemly attached to money. They also seem to have more than a little foolishness hampering them. They are the protagonists, however, & they eventually do well & do good. Perhaps their problems are to a large extent typical of men in a society that despises manliness.
Their vulgarity is some kind of defense against these unmanly conventions: There is nothing more directly opposed to manliness than talk of niceness. The leap from hero to nice guy is not just a joke, however: Consider that just about every character in the story not only underestimates our protagonists, but misunderestimates them… Consider, too, that the girl around whom the plot is woven has no idea who to trust!
The story does a lot of work to rehabilitate manliness, & it is as much work to show it is needed as to show how it might be tamed. The essential thing has to do with the problem of freedom: If men are supposed to be protective, serious limits on individual freedom will follow.
The prettier of the two detectives seems blinded by beauty & inclined to heroism. He also cannot hold his liquor. This is another form of self-importance that’s repeatedly mocked throughout the story, mostly by emphasizing the element of chance. In his moment of enthusiasm, the fellow concludes he’s become invincible! It’s tough for a poet to point out necessity in such circumstances. Even his reasoning is impaired by his love of beauty–he wants things to be a little too pat.
The poetic teaching developed by this constant mockery of self-importance is twofold: It reveals a misunderstood, concealed manliness at work in the conventions of the times; & it educates men as to their weaknesses. This is not merely the education a master plotter offers people interested in plots. It is a necessary corrective to moralism & to the paranoid tendency in claiming rights. This requires balancing careful thinking about what’s really dangerous about our freedom against the self-loathing typical of neglected manliness. The name for that which does that work is prudence.
The plot organizes America into a kind of hysterical conspiracy theory. The Big Three car companies in Detroit, while advertising luxury to America, are murdering people to keep their great crimes secret–pollution–because they’re stupid about being greedy. Never fear: Foolish hippies who organize meaningless protests about how the birds cannot breathe anymore are organizing some kind of secret whistle-blowing resistance to this oligarchy. Manly men figure somewhere in-between. Are they partisans of democracy or oligarchy?
This kind of politics is obviously insane. But how can people who start from a personal experience of danger & injustice, like our detectives, detach enough to think of a political arrangement as something else than their problem? These are men fallen on hard times who have to face ugly things. In their situation, government is more of an enemy than a friend. Meanwhile, they’re supposed to have rights, too.
Remember the predicament of Watergate. While it’s true that Nixon’s enemies were loathsome traitors to their country, people felt betrayed, & soon after his landslide re-election. Who are you going to believe in a situation so shockingly undemocratic? Comparatively, Ford & Mr. Carter, however inept, at least were not thought to be crooks. The price paid was the end of talk about the future. American confidence collapsed.
So what you get here is a kind of reflection on the double meaning of plot. The poet has to come up with a story, something to interest the audience, & the detectives have to detect some crime. We seem to be led by a natural suspiciousness that lies at the origin of both meanings. Maybe democracy is far from being the erotic release we advertised, not infrequently by characters who range from the exploitative to the fearful. Maybe every last citizen who knows his rights is paranoid that the world is out to get him.
There is another thing to consider here, too. We all know the world is really run by conspiracies, but we call the ones we like associations or friendships. The more the distinction between the successful & the unsuccessful looks like the distinction between different such groups, the more conspiracy theories spread–they’re the only theoretical replacement for personal experience in a world where abstract statements dominate speech fully compelling belief.
This is where the crucial importance of manliness comes in: Everyone needs loyalty to some group or another, but that leaves people in a situation where making sense of the world. Politics is so far away from citizens, secretive & complex: No one decides anything, but then rivers catch fire because of pollution or the sky disappears. The more politicians promise to reward citizens, the more the incompetence of government looks like malevolence & citizens feel powerless.
A strange hippie girl, Amelia, brings together, unwittingly, two losers, Jackson Healy & Holland March. Healy beats people up if they make trouble for other people. His job is a necessary correction to American freedom. He has an immediate experience of the shockingly immoral character of eroticism: He wastes no time on disquisitions, but cuts to the core–there’s incest in the land. Democracy is turning the world into a circus, it would seem.
March is not this kind of guy–he does not have a moral conception of his job as a private detective. Healy–there’s a name!–is way too moralistic for his taste & too direct. He’s fat, tough, & unrelenting: These are not qualities revered or useful in modern times. March is thin, tall, handsome, & has a way with women, young or old. He has wit, to put it all in one word. But of course this is not a job in America.
Instead, he used to help the retributive justice of divorce, but then Californian freedom put him out of work by instituting no-fault divorces. Breaking contracts is the future & the future is now in America. He should be happy about this, as he is not particularly faithful, not to say pious. He is not. His sarcastic attack on conventions is more at home in his father’s America.
Now, March helps old people deal with the freedom of their children & their general cluelessness. If the government practically wants to destroy the family, it’s up to private organizations to help the old find the young. Obviously, he lies, cheats, & steals whatever he can, but he’s basically harmless. It has never occurred to him to exploit people confused by this new freedom. His crimes are small, but it is not clear whether that is because of self-loathing or because of stupidity.
The two men come together as enemies first, then as friends. This girl that brings them together has to be found. They have stumbled someone onto something serious. Men are men inasmuch as they protect the weak; latter-day America may contemn manliness, but people do need protection, even when they don’t know it. Who’s going to help out people who have moved from privacy to anonymity in the collapse of American communities?
So this girl turns out to be a kind of oracle. What is the future of America? She blindly leads them on a strange ride through LA–one ugly, tawdry, dangerous, & borderline insane adventure after another, chance & nature confused. What’s going to happen with kids whose parents do not understand them once the silly ideology of progress of the hippies collapses? Does anyone really believe anymore in the old verities about the good protecting the weak?
The new Shane Black action-comedy. The most fun you can get out of Hollywood this year.
At the end of the story, Nameless is murdered. Qin assents. His corpse receives great honors. Is that the end of heroism? Is that manliness judged? The assassin, like his teacher, chose for himself. Sacrifice follows from heroic pride, which demands & asserts freedom from necessity. But empire depends on obedience & men who cannot live on their knees cannot live at all. Manliness is supplanted by ruthlessness. Ruthlessness can use the progress of the arts & sciences, which are perfectly compatible with slavery.
The installation of empire follows the confrontation of two rulers. The scholar persuades his students to die with dignity: They cannot overcome necessity except by writing. The emperor teaches his servants that he is necessity or above necessity: He is properly treated with awe: All crimes are legal in his name. The warrior-scholars are examples of civilization in man & their failure suggests that freedom is an unlikely thing, both unpredictable & frail. The moment where the greatest natures grow is the greatest danger for the country.
These heroes live by beauty & are properly comprehended within stories: They are brilliant & they are superb. The emperor is merely splendid. He rules by terror. The stories about the heroes are a silent undermining of political life, especially of court intrigue.
The emperor’s defense of the lives of his subjects shows a vulgar willingness to sacrifice whatever might make life worth living for them. This is security. The heroes are a reminder of the highest capacities of human nature. This is the identity of calligraphy & swordsmanship: Both reveal being–what it is to be a man, truly. But a race of heroes remains impossible.
Why does heroism brings about the end of the age of heroes? The single-mindedness of heroes seems to be opposed to the production of children. This would seem to be connected with the freedom of heroism: It includes women. Heroes are not peace-makers, because they believe in war, not nature. This is why they do not exert themselves to end war at any price. Instead, they wish to preserve human dignity at any price. They have a preference for the noble over the advantageous. As a lived experience, this aims to beautify suffering through ceremony. This prevents the use of reason to relieve man’s estate.
At the same time, the insistence on man’s dignity privileges the study of human capacities & denigrates the curiosity about the world in which we live which is required for the devising & improving of useful things. One wonders whether the emperor’s offer of rewards is a serious plan to end heroism. Does he hope to buy death by money, as he pays soldiers? Or does he hope to show that money is not afraid of heroes?
Have you noticed how many popular spectacles aimed at children are telling them they are living in a world where the adults want to drink their blood? That this has stayed secret suggests to me that the madness openly advertised to kids lies concealed in the parents. The popular spectacles now treat the young as orphans by right & heroes if they manage to cope with their situation.–The natural consequence of this madness.
Marvel’s new spectacles lead the way to the therapeutic future. Even Captain America is therapy for a young woman of no importance. She is terrorized by the world & has strange, incomprehensible, uninteresting powers. The more boring she becomes, the more the heroes of this world fight each other to figure out how to accommodate her anxieties. Resenting parental authority & a desire to break the law are trotted out in the most childish way, which is typical of Marvel spectacles–they are basically aimed at children because they’re childish. The novelty is the focus on a ten-minutes-of-movie-time character…
The other child is Spiderman, also a stand-in for the audience. He gets none of the affection–he’ll get a reboot, which trumps dignity. He gets the condescension reserved for small, white boys. He is unprespossessing; shy does not begin to describe him. Unlike the girl, he has a moral confidence & a practical attitude that make him a perfect fit for action movies. Of course, he is utterly neglected.
This was supposed to be a story about men who avenge their fathers: They’re important characters: Iron Man, the silly villain, & Black panther! Marvel has managed to concoct a psychotic murderer villain who’s boring. In Marvel stories, when someone starts murdering people, the way he’s treated is, heroes tell him they feel his pain–he must be a victim at heart.
Then, the black guy from Africa. A man who made a career playing heroes now plays Black panther, the most pathetic attempt to patronize the civil rights struggles–he even has kitty claws. How do black people like that, I wonder! Of course, he alone learns the exotic wisdom of not avenging his father, instead achieving peace.
Finally, Iron Man had his dad murdered & when he learns who done it, he goes crazy. He has to have his technology destroyed before he stops attempting murder. There is something castrating about being powerless without electricity… No wonder that silly girl who does hand gestures takes up more time than the quest to avenge fathers. The patriarchy is over because the men are unmanly. Every feminist detail in the movie is as silly as the titillation of alluring little women outrunning & outfighting men twice their size, but feminism wins by forfeit.
Liberals & conservatives on Americans as a race of heroes
Iron Man says the young kids at MIT deserve all the money he can throw at their projects, whatever they are. That’s faith in the institution that picks & supervises them: Faith in science. The tech oligarch is paying comparatively poor pale imitations of him. That’s class solidarity: The future is libertarians paying for technology. His America is a land of heroes: They rise to the challenge, they scientifically solve the problem of human nature. It’s FDR & Reagan.
These people will relieve the estate of mankind: They’re working for poor people. One wonders, what do poor people deserve? A black woman checks Iron Man’s privilege: Is all this generosity born of guilt? Is this class or race that’s browbeating him? Stark feels guilty for the death of a black kid, who apparently matters because he was a great science student building housing for third-world poor people. How about those of us who are not such scientific-educated heroes? Are we human?
We do not matter–this martyr of do-gooder liberalism & the racial privilege-checking teach the libertarian billionaire a lesson: Obey liberalism. He folds like a chair. Iron Man shares his feelings about wife & father, his failure to know & love people. Is this a manly man getting in touch with his feelings? Only if you think scientific power equals manliness. Otherwise, it’s just another guy who knows in his soul that liberals are right.
Then comes conservatism Marvel can believe in: Captain America, previously a liberal poster-boy. He wants American power free, unfettered by committees & international institutions. He cannot say, proudly: Most countries are tyrannies where the regime terrifies the people. Marvel heroes cannot believes in America enough to say that.
Iron Man is ok with putting heroism on a leash–he’s always trying to do that–he never learns from provoking catastrophe. Iron Man’s close to a politician: He knows the ugly truth about the people–the only way they will stop blaming him is if they blame themselves, which means they have to vote. Getting people to consent, however, would mean rule by fear: Whenever they’re terrified by strange enemies, they’ll throw themselves on the mercy of heroes. In the clothes of American democracy stands the old Roman dictator.
Captain America is far closer to American politics. He gets that people need to trust their president in war. He defends American sovereignty. He also believes Americans are a race of heroes, not because of technology, but because Americans will fight tyranny–they will fight for the right cause. But America has a treason party that prefers to lose wars just in case American power is unjust. That does nobody any good & makes it impossible to have any presidents, including liberal presidents.
In Marvel stories, the cowardliest liberalism triumphs. The American government is looking to throw heroes in jail because they save people’s lives & destroy villains. The problem with that is that there are victims. In a liberal world, it is preferable to have villains murder & tyrannize. America used to throw terrorists into jail & there were whispers of torture. Now, certified American heroes are jailed. Manliness have become so counter-cultural it’s illegal.
In Marvel stories, liberalism worships in the temple of the UN. No one mentions the tyrants who gain legitimacy at the UN. There are no Muslims & Jews in the UN: There is only the unanimity of moral authority: America is wrong & must be stopped. You would think that in this universe, civil war happens because there are some Americans who think America is a pretty good thing & shouldn’t be jailed for their willingness to fight evildoers.
Not quite. The plot is not about Captain America, who is marginal. It’s about Iron man, because he’s so popular. He’s supposed to be the libertarian prince of liberal America. Is he going to be stopped? Is his moral authority going to be removed? Not quite–the guy who loses on everything is Captain America. His insistence to think for himself & be a slave to no foreigner’s will or whim–that’s what makes him an outcast.
So the story mostly seems to be therapy for Iron man. He was neglected by his father & lashed out; his parents were murdered. Now, new virtual reality technology can give him the therapy he needs, if liberals are right & you just have to cope with grief. It turns out, Iron Man’s worship of power has some seed of manliness in it–besides class privilege, beyond political irresponsibility–there is a son who will avenge his father. He’s no weakling.
Iron Man thought he could buy therapy by creating new scientific powers. That science could give him power over his own soul, to cut himself from his father. But blood is stronger than science, it turns out. What has this to do with civil war? Nothing in the slightest. It only barely has anything to do with heroism: It shows that all legitimate manliness starts in righteous anger against injustice.
In Marvel stories, when someone tries to say something about the friendship between men–Captain America & the Winter soldier grew up together & fought a just war together–there is just embarrassing silence. Nobody knows why manliness might be important; no one is manly enough to speak up for it. So Captain America becomes an annoying obstacle in his own movie–he’s uninteresting. The guy who talks about processing his emotions & whose marriage is falling apart takes center stage.
This is the poor man’s Batman v. Superman. Far worse villain, plot, & details. All you get is amazing fights & there are very few. You’re better off reading the wikipedia page & my essays. This is further proof that Marvel is aggressively mediocre while DC has the really good, really interesting directors.
Son is told by his mother that his father is dead. She’s not attending his funeral–the new wife & family claim the right to lay him to rest. Son & his brothers do attend: They deny the man has a right to rest in death. Funeral beautifies too ugly a life: They’re there as a reminder of the evil the man had done. Nobody will be living down this past, because it’s flesh & it’s blood.
Son learned bitterness from his mother, but now he’s a man with the powers of a man. His mother looks weak & stupid; maybe that’s a kind of innocence–she certainly does not seem to want to bring about a catastrophe–one wonders whether she is capable of understanding what was once her family. His pride makes him defend his brothers, ruin his marriage, live with a dull hatred of the world, & hate the ghost that was his father.
He is married to a woman who cannot put up with his pride anymore. One wonders what could have possessed her to marry him. Not that he has no attractions, but it is hellish imprudent to wed a man who hates the world. He is a gambler sure that he’s going to beat the system at some point. He seems to have turn to unearned gains because there is not much to do by way of earning anything in his town.
His two brothers, Boy & Kid, are in some ways dependent on him. Their very names recall the father–the other boys, who at least look like a normal family, have real names. One’s looking to get married, & to a girl who seems like his chance at a happy life, while living in a tent in Son’s backyard. He has no idea whether he is in love or whether love’s worth living for–Son tells him that love is the only thing he should be considering. The other’s living out of a car & prefers to stay alone; he seems a coward; he teaches black kids basketball. Son plays father to him, too.
It doesn’t take any beauty or success to love something; Son loves his brothers despite all his & their failures; he has no intention of ever breaking faith with them. It’s just not clear how they could even make a living–except the younger, for whom marriage might be the freedom it was not for Son.
It’s the weakness of the city that turns family to tragedy, which seems natural. These men do not seem any more prudent or authoritative than the boys, who are ruled by anger & shame, in case they should seem cowardly. Women are trapped & no help. Even jobs, class, & family make little difference.
Director Jeff Nichols’s debut film–it is a story of revenge & murder among the rural poor. It is a harsh, unsentimental story, but which never hides the danger of the hardening of the heart.
This is the sort of thing an American Ingmar Bergman might film. The relationship between manliness, family, & the Christian faith, apparently director Jeff Nichols’ continuous study, is faced with the end times in this story. We do not live lives with any grasp of the mysterious part of human being. We all think we know who we are & we know we’re worth something–we’re important somehow. Who knows why or for what purpose?
Revelation comes to Curtis as an attack on his identity. His manliness turns into a trap & an illusion. He sees his manly attitude to danger turned against him in dreams. His fears are marshaled against him as some kind of divine punishment for having dared to think himself the protector of his family. This then is supposed to be the necessary prelude to the work he has to do to protect his family.
One wonders what dangers could beset rural Ohio. The way we look at the world, worst comes to worst, it’s cicadas. But this is not how Curtis sees it–he knows what it means to be normal, but he can no longer do it. He begins to lie to his wife & conceal himself. This man had thought himself a man of few words because none were needed–he was an obvious or uncomplicated man whose deeds were open to all around him to know.
Now he has secrets–he has turned into the kind of man he would never have befriended; he has ceased to understand himself; he turns to fighting against his dreams; that is one necessary step toward fighting the fight that the dreams are announcing. Gradually, he loses his job, his friend, & maybe his family is next. He does not feel privileged but cursed. But he cannot change.
Curtis devotes himself to his work silently, preparing for his family either a shelter or a tomb, depending on how you think about divine providence. Curtis obviously doesn’t think God has anything to say to him. He has the manly man’s reluctance of doctors & fear of what psychiatrists mean & do in America. He has no interest in priests. His judgment may be correct.
The self-loathing of the proud man turns him almost entirely away from love. His manliness is revealed gradually, as much by his work as by the fear he inspires in his wife, who gradually learns that normal life has ended & that now she has to think of her life as a chaos. If we admit that Curtis is not merely willful & his wife is not merely whimsical, then we should turn around to consider the relation between love & the protection we expect from divine providence.
Curtis is a construction worker; he has a wife, Samantha, who takes care of their daughter, Hannah, who is deaf & has to be taught sign language, which they must also learn, & who needs rare medical care. Curtis leads a small team, is friendly with his coworkers, has the working man’s habit of drinking a beer or two before coming home sometimes, & his quiet manner is mostly confidence or self-reliance.
But if he had to say something about his life, would he be able to speak? One part of manliness is aloofness, a desire to be oneself by oneself, apart from others. One reason for it is the sense that the world is somehow deceptious or that one cannot find the words to say that which he believes he knows. To be oneself might mean to be trapped. This is a story about what freedom would mean in such a case.
What’s it like to be Curtis? What’s it like to feel you need to take a shower to deal with a moment of contemplating where you stand to the world? There is a storm coming. There is a dirt that arouses a shocked disgust. Man cannot persevere in face of necessity–he can neither understand his world nor protect himself. It’s like a dog on a leash, barking madly. These dreams somehow depend on two sorts of things, the fears & dangers that echo when Curtis watches scary news on TV, & the shame he feels for lacking self-control.
Meanwhile, the women feel differently–they joke about the progress from ape to man. It’s very uncertain. Savagery can always return. There’s reason to fear that the good is not lasting. When the wife sells beautiful ornaments, the husband thinks of caging the dog. This man’s love of his wife & daughter, who needs so much help, more perhaps than his job can pay for, leads him to silence.
He has a mother his family abandoned to the doctors. She’s insane. How to live with someone who is a danger to the world around her? Curtis comes to fear he, too, is crazy, because of her. He has a brother, but no father. One wonders what in his experience or education might prepare him for the terror & disgust now descending upon him?
His friend says, Curtis, you’ve got a good life. It’s not warning–don’t screw it up, you hear! It’s not envy, either–it’s admiration. It’s offered as praise & it is praise, but how can you know if someone is happy before they’ve died? Things might change. Curtis concurs in his friend’s judgment, although he is embarrassed to say so. He must have always been quiet about the good things in his life.
This is the only really strange & objectional of director Jeff Nichols’s movies. It is nevertheless a good way to think about manliness & family for those who are not persuaded of the moralizing effeteness of the times.