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[Note: This piece is more of a short essay than a review. As such, it contains spoilers about the movie.]

When I watch most of the movies that might be my favorite, I don’t tend to notice the director’s hand too heavily. I enjoy a good Tarantino or Scorsese flick, but whether it’s because of the strong “filmmaker” point of view or . . . something else they coincidentally lack in common, those movies tend not to be my absolute favorites.

That’s why I was surprised, when I watched Drive again for this series, both to notice a lot of directing going on and to find that it only sucked me in even more and heightened my engagement this time. Maybe I’ve just been looking to the wrong auteurs to connect with. Maybe Nicolas Winding Refn is more my speed.

Drive opens with a sequence that immediately grabs us. Ryan Gosling as The Driver is on the phone, giving instructions and permitting no questions. He’s a hired driver for criminals who need to get away from the scenes of their crimes. He’s obviously good at what he does. We seem him complete this introductory job masterfully, with a combination of extensive preparation, extreme driving skills, and pure balls. By the time he delivers his clients to safety, we see that everything that happened along the way–including close calls and unforeseen police movements–was all accounted for and the chase ends just how the Driver planned. (I’m not an expert at parsing movie making, but I enjoyed this clip breaking the set piece down.) The insane level of competence on display (by both character and director) makes you almost forget about Ryan Gosling as a pretty boy. You think to yourself, do I secretly want to be Gosling? Is he up there with James Bond?

In Refn’s hands, the answer is yes. The Driver is skilled, quietly brooding, capable of extreme violence, has a very cool jacket, and wants has a soft spot in his heart for people who need his help. It’s no secret by now that my favorite movies are filled with men confronting their inner darkness. I’m sure you can draw some psychoanalytic conclusions about me from that. The thing is, we all have to deal with that to some degree, but our culture increasingly demonizes that process, or worse, pretends it doesn’t exist. There’s a reason The Sopranos is an all-time great show and I have a hard time finding TV shows anymore that can even hold my interest lately. It reminds me of popular men’s fragrances today all seem to make you smell “fresh” or “clean”–like shower gel that scrubs the masculine odors from our bodies and along with it any masculinity remaining in our souls.

I will admit that Drive can exaggerate real life and drift almost into the cartoonish. In that way it’s like a super hero movie, but one with a main character I can relate to for a change. The other main scene here that wears its filmmaking loud and proud comes when The Driver confronts a thug sent to kill him in an elevator. After taking a moment to maybe imagine kissing but maybe actually kiss the woman he likes, he brutally kills his would-be assassin. He ends up stomping his face quite a few times more than necessary, unleashing reserves of fury far beyond the current situation. The maybe-just-kissed woman is horrified by the violence she just saw and the bestial look of The Driver’s face and body. And isn’t that what we all fear deep down? That if someone–especially our woman–were to see the full extent of our inner capacity for rage she would be scared away, and likely with good reason? No, just me?

We get to that point in the elevator due to some, you know, plot. The Driver first meets this woman who will later be with him in the elevator, Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, by coming to her rescue, helping when her car breaks down. Spending time with Irene and her son, the Driver starts to feel some actual purpose in his life. (If you want to tell me it’s a cliché to have the man rescue a damsel in distress and that Irene’s presence in the story is merely instrumental to the Driver’s point of view, I’ll concede the point. But look, clichés don’t stick around because there’s nothing too them. It’s true that men find meaning in solving problems and seeing gratitude and admiration in a woman’s eyes in return. How do you think we got washing machines and birth control pills, and, well, civilization, basically?)

Turns out Irene’s husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac!) has been in jail and is getting out soon. When he shows up we see some masculine rivalry between the two men, played deliciously more through alpha posturing and subtext than in the actual dialogue. The three become friendly, however, and it’s when the Driver, channeling his gentlemanly restraint to help Standard for the good of Irene’s family, decides to help the him with “one last” criminal job and free him from that life that the movie really gets going.

And as it goes along, we get fun performances from a lot of actors we love to love: Brian Cranston, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendriks, and Albert Brooks. Who, along with Isaac’s Standard, all die. (I gave a spoiler alert up top!) Violence is a big part of the Drive world. It’s in our nature–at least some of our natures. To make sure we get the point, the Driver’s jacket displays a large scorpion on the back. The Driver himself recounts the parable of the scorpion and the frog. You know the one, where the scorpion stings the frog while being carried across the water, even though the scorpion kills itself along with the frog. It’s the scorpion’s nature.

And, instead of showing growth or change in its characters, Drive emphasizes that unchanging, scorpion part of our nature. The movie ends with the Driver barely escaping the death-fest everyone else succumbs to. He doesn’t get the girl. Despite the purpose he found in coming to her aid, his very nature that saved her is what got her in trouble in the first place. Even if she could get over her fear of his savagery, his nature would only bring more danger to her in the future if they stayed together. So he moves on. Nor does he take what appears to finally be a strings-free million dollars at the end. But we haven’t seen that money has motivated the Driver in the least, so that’s not a change for him. If anything, his experiences in the story seem to harden his character as a man living by his skills, destined to be alone with his violence, reminded that indulging in feminine and other human companionship gets people hurt, even when his intentions are to help. Perhaps more than that, even though he never showed more humanity and life than when he was playing a sort of surrogate husband and father, he realizes his propensity for violence will never let him have that in the end.

Of course The Driver is an extreme example of our inner darkness being at odds with society or human interaction. Maturity means finding a way to integrate our natures into real life. But we all have that dangerous part of us that we hope comes out when necessary but doesn’t do too much damage. Pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it’s not there. Artful journeys into our darkest human depths hit on something profound. And that’s why Drive might be my favorite movie.

Christopher Lasch: The Culture of Narcissism, Preface

Even before I finished A Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, I knew it would make room for itself on the list of books that reflect and shape my view of the world. I am frankly in awe at how Lasch, writing in 1979, understood and explained society so well that his work seems somehow even more relevant today than I imagine it did 40+ years ago. He identified trends that have only grown in influence, and not usually for the better.

Therefore, instead of a normal book review, I’ll be writing about A Culture of Narcissism as a series of posts that combine my abundant notes with my thoughts and reactions. (It will be similar to my Camille Paglia project in that way.)

Lasch opens with a salvo of observations about contemporary society. He reminds me of how civilization is described as decadent by both Camille Paglia (society no longer believes in itself) and Nietzsche (we’ve lost the capacity to solve the problems we face). Here are some things he says:

American confidence has fallen to a low ebb. 1

Bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas. It has lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that overwhelm it. 1

Liberalism . . . long ago lost the capacity to explain events in the world . . . ; nothing has taken its place. 1-2

[S]ciences no longer provide satisfactory explanations of the phenomena they profess to elucidate. . . . Academic psychology retreats from the challenge of Freud into the measurement of trivia. 2

[S]ciences no longer provide satisfactory explanations of the phenomena they profess to elucidate. . . . Academic psychology retreats from the challenge of Freud into the measurement of trivia. . . . Philosophers no longer explain the nature of things or pretend to tell us how to live. . . . Historians in the past assumed that men learned from their previous mistakes. Now that the future appears troubled and uncertain, the past appears ‘irrelevant’ even to those who devote their lives to studying it. 2

Lasch doesn’t think all is lost, though. We can pull out of this downward spiral:

“[B]ut we also find another side of the picture, which . . . suggests that western civilization may yet generate the moral resources to transcend its present crisis.” 3

We’re only in the preface at this point, but it sounds like the solution will be found in that that the masses are ultimately ungovernable and skeptical about relying on experts or a governing class. Modern bureaucracy, he tells us, has undermined traditions of local action, but their revival is the only hope that a decent society will emerge “from the wreckage of capitalism.”

It’s basically a populist, anti-centralizing message. To be honest, it reminds of me of Steve Bannon’s views on how the large, aggregating, bureaucratic systems in the world make life worse for regular people. Lasch and Bannon both have a similar praise for an inherent goodness and decency in non-elites that flourish if it weren’t being constantly beaten down by national and international structures that have been built up. It’s a little romantic, and it might be Rousseauian for me. But it’s hard to argue that something vital is being drained out of us and that it has something to do with the systems that were originally intended to make our lives better.

The preface climaxes in an absolute tour de force of cultural criticism describing the narcissism that has taken hold on us culturally:

[T]he culture of competitive individualism . . . in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self. 4

Strategies of narcissistic survival now present themselves as emancipation from the repressive conditions of the past, thus giving rise to a ‘cultural revolution’ that reproduces the worst features of the collapsing civilization it claims to criticize. 4

Many radicals still direct their indignation against the authoritarian family, repressive sexual morality, literary censorship, the work ethic, and other foundations of bourgeois order that have been weakened or destroyed by advanced capitalism itself. 4

The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own uncertainties on others but to find a meaning in life. . . . [H]e finds little use for dogmas of racial and ethnic purity but at the same time forfeits the securities of group loyalties and regards everyone as a rival for the favors conferred by a paternalistic state. His sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. . . . He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. . . . [He] demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire. 4-5

[T]he cultural devaluation of the past reflects no only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. . . . [P]eople today resent anyone who draws on the past in serous discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present. 5

Lasch concludes with a defense against charges that he is merely a traditionalist who wants to return to the past:

I see the past as a political and psychological treasury from which we draw the reserves (not necessarily the in the form of “lessons”) that we need to cope with the future. Our culture’s indifference to the past–which easily shades over into active hostility and rejection–furnishes the most telling proof of that culture’s bankruptcy. 6

Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke

Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker, is like a literary documentary film, in that it gives us scene after scene that is presumably accurate but highly curated to project a particular point of view. In that sense it is true, but not, perhaps, anything approaching objective.

Not that I intend to bring up a discussion about the role or possibility of objectivity in history or journalism. I’m just saying that, like with many documentaries, Baker’s interpretation of the facts comes through quite clearly and unapologetically.

I’m interested in military history. I wouldn’t say I’m exactly an expert, but I’ve read and watched a lot about World War 2. I love war movies, I’ve read several books about that time, and I find myself intrigued by YouTube videos every so often about the war. Even so, I learned several surprising things from Human Smoke.

The book’s biggest target is undoubtedly Winston Churchill. My somewhat-informed impression of Churchill is, I think, the common one. He was tough, resolute, and just what the British and the world needed to stay strong in the face of Hitler’s Nazi war machine. Sure, he engaged in the nasty business of prosecuting the war, but it was war–to win we need someone with a strong stomach for the unpleasant parts. Baker wants us to face those unpleasant parts. He shows us how Churchill leaned into them and even seemed to enjoy it all more than maybe he should have. Churchill had a track record of attacking civilians from the air to crush the motivation of an enemy. He supported it in Britain’s colonies before the war, and his direct aim against Germany was to cause enough general suffering that the German people lost their will to keep fighting. He actively pursued a program of poison gas just in case, even though there was little indication Germany was going to use any. Churchill also rejected multiple peace offers from Hitler. He was set on unconditional surrender–and propounded the myth that Germany was dead set on conquering the world, which it wasn’t. Churchill was usually first to escalate bombing into civilian areas, using incendiary bombs, and so on; Germany’s attacks were often retribution. Churchill’s associates regularly commented on how much he seemed to love the war and all the killing.

Baker wants us to confront the fact that Churchill was not what we could call good. Sure, he was maybe the third-worst world leader in a war that included Hitler and Stalin, but not being as bad as the two biggest butchers of the 20th century isn’t exactly high praise. Baker’s pacifist mission is to get us to rethink the idea that it’s possible to be on the “good side” in war at all anymore, if it ever was.

I didn’t realize how much the US was actively selling planes and tanks to China and England before entering the war. There was quite a bit of American training that went on too–especially for Chinese pilots during their fight with Japan before the US officially got into the war. I also get the impression that probably the majority of English bombers in use were American made in the year before Pearl Harbor. I was already familiar with the concept of lend-lease, obviously, but in all the material I’d been exposed to before now, it was mostly just an afterthought or a footnote. Baker makes a stronger case that Japan and Germany had every right to be upset with the large amount of support their enemies got from the US.

Franklin Roosevelt had ostentatiously promised not to enter the war unless the US was attacked. Behind closed doors, though, the image we get is of a president doing everything he could to fine provoking an attack. More even than just the large degree of material support, we’re given documentation that the US knew its provocations were working and moved to mitigate damage from the impending Pearl Harbor attack.

Gandhi, of all people, is a recurring character in the book. In my mind he seems almost from a different time and place, and this book helped contextualize him for me as contemporary with WWII. He obviously had a lot of pacifist-sounding things to say to the combatants, reinforcing Baker’s argument.

Hitler obviously treated German Jews quite poorly from the beginning. The holocaust wasn’t known before the war, though. This isn’t a huge revelation. As one example among many, the HBO series Band of Brothers has a scene where US soldiers happen upon a concentration camp and are surprised at the severity. Still, the holocaust seems to come out as justification for the war in public conversation. As a post-hoc argument, there is something to that, but if the world didn’t know about it then it can’t be used as support for the decision to join the fight against Hitler at the time. Especially, as Baker points out, when the US and UK were not at all eager to accept Jews fleeing Germany. Churchill even rounded German refugees–including Jews–into his own version of a concentration camp on the Isle of Man to prevent any potential spying or sabotage activities. Based on contemporaneous knowledge, Hitler was maybe dialed up a few clicks on the poor treatment of German Jews, but it would have been a difference of degree and not of kind. Again, Baker doesn’t defend or absolve Hitler in any way; he just wants us to know that the Allies were also bad.

Human Smoke does feel a little propagandistic. Baker’s bias is towards pacifism, it is quite clear. But I learned a few things even though this is far from my first book on World War 2. I’m not sure I’d call myself a pacifist, though I’m no fan of going to war if avoidable (and far more wars than we actually avoid are in fact avoidable). If my perspective has been shifted somewhat, though, it now accounts for the fact that the Allies may not have been the worst participants in the war, but they (we) weren’t exactly what I’d call the good guys either.

Bret Easton Ellis: The Rules of Attraction

Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction is it about college students at a fictional liberal arts college in New Hampshire in the 80s, and all the indulgence and personal drama that setting entails. It seems reasonable to believe that many of the students mentioned would spend significant parts of their lives in class or doing homework, but you’d barely know it from reading the book. Instead, Ellis focuses on the plentiful partying, drug use, and hooking up.

I’m coming to this book, let’s see, thirty-four years after it was written, and times are different now than they were when it came out. I pulled up Michiko Kakutani’s NY Times review from back then, and she seemed to feel . . . defensive, maybe, like she thinks it’s intended to shock her and those like her and she has to put the book in its place. She’s probably not wrong.

In 2021 we’re a little more desensitized to the shock value of excessive and risky behavior. In fact, high shock value seems like default setting in a lot of pop culture these days. There are some moments in the book that still made my stomach drop, but the perspective of time also helps look through that sensationalism and see that there is more going on.

Ellis writes from rotating first-person perspectives. Quite a few people get their own short sections, but we primarily read from three points of view in particular: Lauren’s, Paul’s, and Sean’s.

As the book begins, we meet Lauren telling a story about losing her virginity. It’s the first of several hammer drops in the book. It’s disturbing, but what’s most disturbing is how non-consensual it is. (I say that as someone who feels that contemporary conversations about consent are too simplistic to contain everything essential involved in sex.) And actually no–what’s most disturbing is how nonchalant, or even happy, she is about what sounds like a truly regrettable first time. “I always knew it would be like this,” she says. It’s a clue that however free-spirited, liberated, and eager for pleasure these characters may be, the internal motivational dials somehow aren’t set quite right.

Another central character is Paul. He’s supposedly bisexual, in that he apparently once dated Lauren, but he seems pretty much gay by now. He has more than one lover throughout the book, but the main thing about Paul is that he really wants to be with the third main character: Sean.

Sean, for his part, doesn’t seem to think about Paul much in return. This becomes clear when, after reading relatively early on the same events one evening described first by Paul and then quite differently by Sean, we realize that not only are our narrators potentially unreliable but at least one of them is either completely deluded or straight-up lying. In any case, Sean has eyes for Lauren, though he asks her at one point, not apparently out of some modern view of open relationships so much as out of sheer psychopathy: “Since, like, when does having sex with someone else mean, like, I’m not faithful to you?” But Lauren doesn’t really care about Sean anyway, or even seem to like him much. She really pines after another student, Victor, throughout the book. Sean also tries to kill himself three times–once by hanging himself with a necktie that breaks under his weight, another time by trying to cut his wrists with a too-dull razor cartridge, and finally by overdosing on Sudafed of all things.

In and around the plot points of unrequited love, there is a lot of sleeping around and drug and alcohol use. Although The Rules of Attraction was written when those things were becoming more common but still shocked a lot of people, they’re even more prevalent today. There’s an obvious appeal to the strong sensual pleasures they bring. If I’d read this book when I was in college, I suspect I would have completely glossed over the fact that if ever there were a document showing that pleasure-seeking might not bringing happiness, this is it. I can certainly recall a younger version of myself that would have been drawn to those experiences without considering any possible downsides.

And what downsides are there? If I refrain from resorting to puritanism or squeamishness in my analysis, maybe I’d admit that some experimentation and recklessness is just fine for young people to indulge. Adventures and intense experiences can help us figure ourselves out, even if some people’s tolerance for such things is higher than mine. And let’s be honest: casual sex and drugs haven’t gone anywhere and don’t seem likely to anytime soon. Ideally, young people would grow out of making them the central feature of their lives and start focusing on something more important. Not everyone does that–especially in our heavily permissive, narcissistic culture, but maybe that’s just part of me worrying who’s getting old.

With that concession granted to those more libertine than I, there is still something here Ellis is asking us to look at. Maybe there is a perfect amount of hedonism to bring excitement to an otherwise sober life, like an occasional cheat day on one’s diet. Ellis is not moralist enough to suggest what that might be, but he’s not glorifying this level of indulgence, either. The suicide attempts (one of them successful), the casual references to failing classes, the unrequited love, the abortions, and the unhappy family lives are all there in this world.

I can’t quite get to the point where this level of unsupervised, youthful exploration seems like it would be good for someone, whether myself or, heaven forbid, a potential child of mine. On the other hand, we also get the sense that most of these characters will make it out of college without ruining their lives, whether that’s due to family wealth or other advantages. The message, if there is one, is therefore hazy. Is there a point? Maybe no point is the point, when it comes to Ellis. But I don’t think he would want us to feel like everything is going perfectly well, either.

A History of Violence

[Note: This piece is more of a short essay than a review. As such, it contains spoilers about the movie.]

David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. What a movie. I love a flick that explores inner, dark impulses like, well, violence. This one is really rather Freudian, as well: violence is a part of all of us, it tells us–and especially a part of men. It’s human nature. We can run from it or pretend it can be eradicated with education or poverty reduction or even with good old-fashioned repression, but if we’re not aware of it it’s likely to catch up with us, and we’ll have to descend into our own psychic depths and confront it if we want to adequately deal with it.

Denying his own violent nature is the project Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, is working on as the movie begins. We meet him as a gentle and caring husband, father, and local businessman. His wife is still really into him after a couple kids, and everyone else seems to like him too.

But we’ve already been made suspicious of finding comfort in an apparently calm setting. To remind us that there’s violence in the world that can inflict itself even on those of us minding our own business, the opening scene gives us the casual, brutal, and pointless murder by two thugs of three people, including a child, at a motel.

When these same two thugs show up at his diner and seem intent on hurting or killing the people there, Tom’s life gets more complicated. They prove themselves unwilling to be sated by the offer of all the money in the register, so Tom springs into action, channeling an inner Jason Bourne to deftly dispose of the attackers.

Tom is rightly hailed as a hero for his bravery, but even though he killed to protect others, now that this violent side has been revealed, however briefly, it brings on consequences he can’t control.

The first consequence is that his face is now on the news and seen by Philadelphia gangsters who show up in his small town, certain he’s not Tom Stall but actually Joey Cusack, a past criminal associate of theirs.

This middle part of the movie plays out as a well-crafted mystery. Tom is highly convincing at first that he’s not Joey. But little clues begin to put doubt in our minds, and at some point we start to think maybe he really could be this Joey we keep hearing about. He finally unleashes his Jason Bourne abilities for a second time and shows us that his first feat was no fluke. At last he confirms what we already know by now and tells Fogarty he should have killed him back in Philadelphia.

In the meantime, as a second consequence of Tom’s violent outburst, his family has been questioning his identity too and losing faith in him as the perfect husband and father. For example, we’ve seen Tom’s son, Jack, bullied several times by this point in the movie. After learning that his father countered violence with violence, Jack responds to his bullies the same way, going further than he has to and sending them to the hospital. It’s part standing up for himself, part acting out in response to his father, and part, perhaps, finding within himself the same natural talent for violence his father also clearly has.

Tom complicates things further by lecturing Jack that in this family we don’t hit others to solve problems. As if to prove just how hypocritical he is, Tom even smacks him for talking back in the middle of his we-don’t-hit speech.

Despite these mixed messages, it’s Jack who ends up shooting and killing Fogerty and saving Tom’s life.

Tom’s wife, Edie, also reacts strongly to at first suspecting, and then learning for certain, that he has a secret criminal past. She’s understandably angry at being misled by the man she’s created a life with. In fact, we’re not sure she ever gets over her anger by the end of the movie.

But that brings us to another fascinating topic explored by A History of Violence: the connection between violence and sex. There are two sex scenes in the movie. The first is early on, before we have any reason to suspect anything dark going on beneath the surface of idyllic small town life. The sex is loving and “equal.” It begins with roleplay and a cheerleader costume and ends with sixty nine. Everyone seems to enjoy it and to be satisfied. No complaints to be had.

The second sex scene is much different. It comes after Tom’s identity has been revealed and while Edie is quite angry. He pursues her to the stairs, and manhandles her down under him. It starts to look and feel close enough to rape that Tom himself hesitates for just a second, and in that instant Edie grabs him and urges him to continue his ravishment, which he does. It’s primal, animalistic, and exudes passion and lust lacking in the first scene. Afterwards, she’s still mad at him and she storms off. The link between sexual arousal and danger may be messy, but it’s clearly there.

What does A History of Violence say, in the end about these dark impulses? So far we’ve seen that a man can use violence both to protect others and to turn on women. Of course, society can’t–and shouldn’t–stand for men going around killing and ravishing whoever they like whenever they like. As Freud would tell us, civilization requires that we keep our capacity for violence under an appropriate measure of control.

In Tom’s case, running from his violent past clearly didn’t work, so he tries a different (now more Jungian, perhaps?) approach: confronting his dark side. He goes back to his old neighborhood, descending again into the criminal underworld, where he faces his brother–his metaphoric other half, along the lines of Mufasa vs Scar. Like in The Lion King, these two counterparts will be forced to choose one winner through violence. Unlike The Lion King, this time it’s the more sinister brother who is killed.

Having confronted and, we hope, defeated his violent past. Tom returns to his family and sits down to dinner, already in progress. His children signal their somber acceptance of him back into the family. His wife is still undecided. And this is where A History of Violence ends, showing that as inevitable and as human as violence may be within us, that does not mean can fit neatly within our lives or that things can necessarily go back to how they were before. Tom was right to worry that he might be rejected by his family or his community if he revealed that side of him. And the movie ends with that question not entirely answered. Yeah, it really might be one of my favorites.


[Note: This piece is more of a short essay than a review. As such, it contains spoilers about the movie.]

When looking at the movies I love, a common thread in them is that strong–maybe too-strong–characters really seem to do it for me. You know the ones–where you get the sense that if they dialed down their intensity from 11 down even to 10 their lives and the lives of others would be improved but they find themselves unable or unwilling to do so. You could call it a hero’s tragic flaw, but it’s not limited to heroes.

In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, the most glaringly flawed character is who we might call the story’s villain: Terence Fletcher. And he’s also the biggest reason Whiplash might be one of my favorite movies.

Fletcher, man. The guy is superhuman. We meet him in the first scene, when he both appears suddenly and disappears just as quickly, both instants unseen. But in that brief introduction, we learn that in addition to this unnatural mystique, he’s single-minded, uncompromising, and a ball buster. As the movie progresses, we will come to see that he he also has no hesitation to intimidate, demean, or even sometimes physically strike his students. We eventually discover that Fletcher believes his methods are necessary to find, or build, greatness in his students.

Fletcher is like the authoritarian, perhaps borderline abusive father some of us may never have had but I suspect most of us can channel as an archetypal voice in our heads. In my opinion, whatever inner Fletcher people hear these days, the volume is actually turned down a little low for too many of us. Life is just so comfortable at 80% effort. Sometimes it’s easy to coast. I’m speaking for my own proclivities, but anyone with eyes can see that many people have the same mindset. A more demanding authority figure, even one in our own minds, pushing us to be just a little bit better would, in my view, lead to better people and, dare I say, a better society. And Fletcher, played by JK Simmons in an Oscar-winning role, confronts us with that. Maybe I’m alone here, but I find him both frightening and thrilling.

Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller, is also compelling as a student jazz drummer in Fletcher’s band. He’s young, talented, and is already developing some accompanying delusions of grandeur. If you’ve ever thought especially highly of yourself before proving it to the world, you’ll relate a little bit to Andrew. He practices until his fingers bleed. He breaks up with his girlfriend because one day, down the road, she might resent him for putting his drumming aspirations before her, so better just to end things now. In a fantastic dinner-with-family scene, he gets all high and mighty about his own trajectory towards greatness being superior to his cousin’s Division III football activities and other bourgeois distractions like, you know, friends and like living past age 34. In other words, Andrew is basically an insufferable prick. (But haven’t we all been there? No, just me?)

Now, I feel like I should say a little about a major component of the movie: jazz. Listen, I love jazz. Back when I was a music major in college, I made sure to sprinkle in some jazz piano lessons and jazz history classes. I saw the occasional live jazz show when I lived in New York. But here’s the thing. Jazz really is on its last legs. It peaked in the 40s and 50s, was still great in the 60s, declined in the 70s, and by the 80s most if it was either dumbed down on one side, or so sophisticated on the other that the average listener couldn’t appreciate it on the other. (@me if you must.) I’ve tried to get into contemporary jazz trends and styles, but it’s just too much work and not enough enjoyment. When I want to listen to jazz these days, I go back to the 50’s, give or take a decade. I’ve come to terms with it.

Point is, by focusing on Jazz in the 2010s, Whiplash is talking about a very insular musical community. Jazz musicians were never competing with Elvis or the Beatles in popularity, and these days, the best jazz musicians are neither particularly rich or famous at all. It’s a tremendously small pond to be a big fish in. So just how great are the greatest 19-year-old jazz drummers today, when the potential competition is at best producing hip-hop tracks instead, or more likely numbing themselves out with video games and porn? I know it’s a wildly unfair comparison, but it reminds me of, say, preparing the best pastries in cooking school (which in my case was the best in my state and probably had a talent pool about as large as the one for conservatory jazz drummers), as opposed to, say, winning a large trial against an opposing top-tier law firm full of talented lawyers bringing everything they have (which is not something I’ve done on that scale personally, by the way).

While we’re talking about aspects that make me doubt whether Whiplash is one of my favorite movies, I also want to spend some time discussing the ending. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like I’ve completely known what Chazelle was getting at here. The movie finishes with Andrew playing drums for Fletcher a final time in concert. Fletcher had asked him to show up for a big performance, talking up Andrew’s drive and skill. Right as the concert starts, Fletcher whispers that he knows Andrew spoke to the authorities about Fletcher’s ways and helped get him fired. The first song starts, and it’s one Andrew doesn’t know, and he looks foolish. Fletcher is clearly getting his revenge. Andrew angrily walks off the stage.

But a moment later, Andrew returns. We’re reminded of how Fletcher said that the next Charlie “Bird” Parker wouldn’t let anything discourage him, if he really were the next Bird. Andrew seems to remember that too, and marches back on stage to the drum set, determined to prove that he’s not not the next Bird, at least by that standard. Andrew then starts drumming on his own, out of the blue. He convinces the bass player to follow his lead, then the piano player, and then Fletcher himself.

We ask ourselves, would this hard-ass Fletcher really let Andrew take charge of this situation? Fletcher has proven himself absolutely ruthless in keeping control of his music and in cutting down any who oppose him. And I have to confess that this moment requires a little suspension of disbelief to get through, even at my most generous. That said, it does make a certain amount of sense if we take seriously Fletcher’s earlier comments about how what he always wanted was to have someone prove they wouldn’t be daunted by any obstacles on their way to greatness. Andrew’s return to the stage echoes the story of Bird coming back better than ever after being driven from his own stage after having a cymbal hurled at him–the movie’s oft-repeated story that proved how great Bird was. I choose to believe that Fletcher was so excited by the idea that someone might pass this mythical Bird test that he was seduced into going along with it.

By the end of the song, we see Andrew and Fletcher actually collaborating rather than working at cross purposes, culminating in what we are led to believe is a truly tremendous performance. (Let’s be honest–it’s not always easy in movies to tell how good the performance is supposed to be without the movie signaling to us what it wants us to think.)

The credits roll after this musical triumph. What is the victory about, though? Is this really about greatness? Well . . . it’s certainly about determination not to give up and resilience in the face of tremendous oppression. Those things admittedly matter. But there is something more that neither Fletcher nor Andrew seem to spend much time thinking about, though. And that is artistry. It would be one thing if this movie were about the Charlie Parker of, say, running the fastest 100 meters or designing a spreadsheet. Truth be told, there’s probably even a difference between run-of-the-mill sprinters and office workers and those with the soul of an artist. But how much more important then is artistry in music? Especially in freaking jazz, which is improvisatory to its very core?

When it comes down to it, I can’t think of anything this movie has to say about artistry, or even beauty. Is there something about being a great musician that can’t be taught? Or does it all come down to determination and practice? It’s not that Whiplash falls on one side of the question or the other so much as it seems not to have even thought about it.

So we’re left with a great movie with fabulously complex characters I can’t stop thinking about. And simultaneously with a movie that sidesteps a seemingly crucial question, and even does so in a slightly contrived way. Which is why I say it might be one of my favorite movies.

100 Boyfriends

I read Brontez Purnell’s 100 Boyfriends after hearing an interview with him on a podcast I listen to. From the conversation, I got the impression the book had a lot to do with the aesthetics of our era of decadence and hedonism. In other words, it sounded right up my alley.

It’s a rather short book–177 smallish pages. That makes it a breezy read, easy to take in and enjoy without getting to that part in some books when you begin to rely on resolve rather than pleasure to push through to the end. It consists of barely-connected chapters with narrators as the main characters, many of whom must be different people to make the timelines and characters add up. The through line mainly consists of the dual themes of an abundance of plentiful sex and a dearth of commitment or intimacy, but also of the narrators’ revealed inner thoughts overflowing with wit and apt descriptions of a dynamic emotional inner life. The characters Purnell speaks through make charming guides through the ups and downs of their experiences.

As I said, there is quite a lot of sex, most of it casual. On the face of things a hyper gay-man sort of energy prominently comes through. There’s a lot of sex to be had for those willing to go out and get it (and who are perhaps not too strict with their requirements in a partner). And yet, as I also said, the feeling that comes through the pages more than any other is loneliness. We might say that 100 Boyfriends holds up a mirror to our short-term-focused society in that sex has taken the place of intimacy. (Except that if the reports are to be believed, people in real life are having less sex too these days. Somehow we find ourselves in the worst of both worlds.)

But that’s the thing about sex. However much of it we’re having, it’s something most of us would like to have more of, in principle. In our minds “more sex” of course means “more good sex.” Purnell makes the terrific case that, as with everything else, there are diminishing returns even to sex. Reading 100 Boyfriends is a strong argument that we can hedonistically adapt even to tremendous amounts of sex with ever-rotating lovers and lose some of the thrill in even that. At some point, having more sex means having marginal sex and, if pursued even further, sex we regret. Purnell describes secret sex with a coworker’s husband that makes one narrator call himself “a horrible person.” There is the time one of them is asked to leave because his companion’s actual boyfriend is returning home unexpectedly. There is another who is rejected by a hippie who just can’t give up his life of following jam bands on tour, with the casual yet funny line: “I can’t follow you back to Babylon. . . . It’s like Jerry said, man–short time to be here, and a long time to be gone.”

The men whose perspectives we’re given are mostly bottoms, which in a mostly past time might have been called the more “feminine” role. I don’t bring up the comparison to impugn or too-broadly label women (or bottoms), but instead to highlight in the protagonists a burden also commonly attributed to women: that they can find that they generously accommodate themselves to the wishes of their men without receiving in return the emotional appreciation they hope for. It’s a constant shadow that hangs over the book’s characters. In the very first vignette, for instance, one of them fantasizes about an injured man he’s just been with potentially becoming his boyfriend. He quickly realizes that’s not realistic, but that doesn’t stop him from saying, and perhaps even partly meaning, “I’ll come back whenever you want me to.”

The thematic culmination is a passage that describes those who achieve their conquests. “Polite lies are how men conquer, saying empty things while psychically cutting their opponent’s throat through unseen actions.” This is the one part in the book that struck me enough that I underlined and dogeared it. This is the lament of the seduced, not of the vanquished in open battle. But the final result is death just the same. Where there are men/tops who get all the sex they want, those they get it from can feel they’ve been murdered, in a sense. Though the book is particularly about gay men, it echoes into society at large. As casual sex becomes easier for many straight men, some willingly participating women increasingly consider themselves victims of this figurative throat cutting at the end of it.

I may be getting old and crochety, but I consider this a rather sad way for the book to end. I find it, at heart, if not quite a morality tale, at least a cautionary one. If a life of promiscuity is what you want, or if it’s all you have available, Purnell shows us that the reality of that life may well have significant drawbacks. In that, it’s not so different from most lives. There does in fact exist too much of a good thing.

Freud: Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex

This isn’t a comprehensive treatment or a deep reading of Sigmund Freud’s Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. It’s basically the notes I took on things that stood out to me during my reading, to provide a context and something to refer back to. I have the 1995 Modern Library Edition of The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, which is a compilation of several works. Page numbers are from that.

The first topic we read about is “inversion,” which seems to be Freud’s categorization of same-sex attraction, whether absolute, “ambiguous” (or “psychosexually hermaphroditic”), or occasional (page 522). Some of Freud’s takes are no doubt out of fashion, but to be honest, many of his views are similar to mine as I have them today, if I can admit that. Not that I’m an expert, of course. But he says that “inversion” doesn’t seem to be “degenerate,” mainly because it quite often shows up in otherwise completely “normal” people and can vary in other cultures where it sometimes serves important functions (523-24). So far so good, for the most part.

When Freud gets to the question of whether same-sex attraction is innate, I find his analysis reasonably sophisticated. He notes that many people report never feeling anything but their “inversion,” providing some evidence for it being congenital. He also notes that many such people have had certain experiences, early or later in life, that may have affected their sexual development, though it’s hard to use that as definitive evidence because many with similar experiences don’t turn out “inverted.” He does say that treatment “may remove the inversion,” which would cast doubt on it being congenital. In the end, though, Freud concludes that “the alternatives congenital and acquired are either incomplete or do not cover the circumstances.” (524-25). I share that conclusion, at least. My view is that just because being gay may be at least partly acquired, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily something that someone chooses.

Moving on to other topics, we get to one of Freud’s themes: the struggle of between our inner and outer selves. That the sexual instinct is natural (Camille Paglia might call it chthonic), but its natural chaotic energy is channeled by society and culture towards “accepted normal limits” via shame and loathing before maturity. This struggle is necessary for society to function, but it sometimes results in the side effects of neuroses or “perversions” (540).

Our adult sexuality is the result of aspects of our nature that are influenced by our environment, leading to “perversion” or “normal” sexuality, and to varied sexual desires. There is something congenital in our perversions, but it is something congenital in all of us, and only goes sideways when our predisposition is met with certain influences (546).

Sexual inhibition: During our sexual latency period (beginning at around maybe 5 or 6 and through puberty), we develop the psychic forces of loathing, shame, and moral and “esthetic ideal demands” that are reinforced by education, but education only “imprints” what is organic more deeply (551).

Sexual inhibition leads to sublimation of sexual aims to other aims, which furnishes “powerful components for all cultural accomplishments” (552).

Young children who witness sex between adults will see it as a “maltreating or overpowering”, or that it “impresses them in a sadistic sense” (564) This is called the ‘primal scene” by Freud according to google and maybe Paglia, but he must use that term elsewhere if at all.

Masculine and feminine: the “libido” is part of the masculine nature, whether in a man or a woman; the sexual object of libido can be either “male or female” (580).

There are three ways senses in which we can distinguish “masculine” and “feminine.” First, in terms of activity or passivity. Second, biologically: meaning both the primary and secondary physical characteristics. And third, sociologically: everyone shows a mix of masculine and feminine traits, activity and passivity, and biological characteristics–no one is purely masculine or feminine, speaking sociologically. The sociological sense seems very much like what we talk about as gender these days (580n3).

An interesting note: a central position in analysis for the Oedipus complex is the “shibboleth” that distinguishes Freudian psychoanalysis from other approaches, Freud says (585).

Girls may respond to the conflict between a need for affection and the “horror for the real demands of sexual life” by either idealizing sexual love or displacing their libido as affection by clinging to family members as the object of their affection (586). Truth be told, I’m not entirely sure what this means. My best guess is that girls who don’t develop a proper relationship to sex may either become promiscuous or devote more attention to the nonsexual love of family members?

Since boys and girls are friends with the same sex while young, why isn’t everyone gay? For one, sexual attraction to the opposite sex. But where being gay is not “a crime,” many people are gay. For a man, the tenderness of his mother and other female caretakers help in being attracted to women, and “sexual intimidation” and “rivalry” with the father push the boy away from same-sex attraction. For the girl, “both factors also hold true.” What does that mean? That girls would naturally like women like boys do? Also, boys brought up by boys “seems to favor homosexuality”, for examples see the Greeks and the nobility (587-88). If Freud was coherent in his own mind here, he didn’t express it perfectly. But I’m happy to forgive him, since we don’t have answers that are much better even today.

Sexual “perversions” seem to arise from inhibited development, or becoming fixated at an infantile level of sexual development (588).

More on sublimation. It can often lead to great artistic activity and enhanced mental capacity, which also means that highly productive artistic people will be more likely to show sexual perversions and neuroses (593).

A large part of a person’s “character” is sublimation of various aspects of sexuality, for example being anally fixated can go along with “obstinacy, stinginess, and orderliness,” and ambition can signal being “urethral”, which some googling says is also called being phallic (593-94 and 594n1).

Sexual development and its character effects are the result of a combination of “constitutional predispositions” and “accidental experiences” in childhood and later (594). A mix of nature and nurture.

“Sexual prematurity” is an early, probably too-early, sexual experience and can run with premature intellectual development and productivity, in which cases it may not have pathological effects (595).

Looking for Mr. Goodbar

It’s a strange thing to read and write about a book like Julie Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar in 2021. It had a far different political and social context when it was published in 1975. What’s more, I’m sure that some will find my perspective as a man–a view I will be leaning into quite a bit–to be less relevant than others. But I’m working with what I’ve got, here.

Mr. Goodbar takes us back to the early 70s, which is practically the 60s, except that by then the sexual revolution wasn’t quite as avant-garde anymore. More and more regular people were joining in by then.

We discover first thing that Theresa, the book’s protagonist, has been murdered. That revelation is clearly meant to hang over everything we learn about Theresa’s childhood, her first fling, and her subsequent romantic and sexual adventures. How do they lead to her murder, we are invited to wonder?

Theresa’s first real sexual relationship is with a (married!) college professor of hers, Martin. It seems so scandalous today. It’s hard for me to know what it might have seemed like in the 70s to read about it. An older man with a young mistress he’s in a position of authority over feels like a very plausible scenario, in terms of what would both participants might find attractive. It’s a very #metoo situation in this day and age, however. It’s probably a bad idea for all concerned, but that doesn’t make the intrinsic appeal go away. A lot of things that are kind of hot are . . . a very bad idea.

She has complicated reactions to sex after that. She learns her sister Katherine and her brother-in-law are swingers, and that Katherine has had an abortion. She does not approve of either discovery. As her hookups increase, however, she reveals to the reader that she is certain she will never get pregnant, and so doesn’t worry about birth control. That might also be a reason she says she’ll never get married.

Certain she’ll never get pregnant. There’s something about that line. We never get an explanation, but it turns out to hold true. Is there a medical explanation, or is this a fairy tale of some sort? An allegory? It reminds me of gay relationships, which are different from straight ones, due in no small part to that very impossibility of becoming pregnant. It certainly makes a young woman’s casual encounters less complicated.

I didn’t count, but Theresa’s total number of sexual partners seems to be around a dozen, maybe, and possibly less. Nothing earth-shattering by today’s standards. And after the numerous early pages devoted to her time with Professor Martin, the main two men in her life during the second half of the book are Tony and James. Tony is appealing for sex but not for much more. James is a very nice, stable man who doesn’t turn Theresa on.

I will cop to being made uneasy, especially when she played James and Tony against each other. I felt it deep down. I know it’s not cool these days to say a woman’s behavior makes me feel uncomfortable as a man, but Theresa’s did. The idea that a woman might think about choosing me for security without having sexual attraction to me–we call that “settling” for someone, right? And we do not mean it flatteringly. And then, the idea that a woman might give in to her carnal desires with me but not take me seriously as a potential husband has some animal appeal, but it’s similarly emasculating in its own way. I’m not supposed to admit–and I’m not trying to control Theresa or anyone else–but if I’m honest it makes me feel a certain kind of way. Which I mean as a high compliment to Rossner’s writing.

And if I–a reasonably (I think!) open minded man, writing this nearly 50 years after the book is set, feel uncomfortable, how much more of disruptive would men have reacted back then! It would be easier to go through a dating career imagining former lover just has some vague, subjective, idiosyncratic points-total rubric and that it just didn’t add up to a high enough score. Theresa’s evaluative processes are terrifying in their pronouncements of masculine worth. Even though they seem fairly casual. Of course, she did manage to provoke the animal nature of one man to anger and murder. So maybe Rossner didn’t think I’d be alone in my reaction. Am I being called out, or people like me? It’s hard to say entirely. I mean, I relate to the reactions of James and Tony far more than I do Gary’s murderous rage. (Her murder is obviously horrible and in no way condoned.) Maybe I just need therapy. But I think there is something deeper going on.

Theresa flat out admits that she’s often terrible to the men she’s dating. Sometimes she act that way hoping it will provoke some kind of anger. One time, Tony even strikes her and knocks her down, and Theresa doesn’t think of it as the worst thing in the world. She even fantasizes about being hit in the same way later in the book. She’s looking to be murdered, but she seems to know what she’s doing in her attempts to tap into men’s anger, aggression, and even violence.

Is Mr. Goodbar a morality tale? Theresa does have some pull towards danger and maybe even self-destruction. Maybe she brings her fate upon herself according to the book’s inner logic. Something like period of personal disappointment or maybe a biological clock that winds down before she realizes it would seem a more appropriate and realistic end for someone like Theresa, at least in real life. But not so fast. As we learned in the introductory section, she’s murdered by a one night stand gone wrong. That is obviously dramatic–few women are actually murdered by a hookup, though other violence is not unheard of.

Still, what I find unsettling and hard to dismiss is the ugly side of human nature Rossner taps into. Theresa’s murder can’t be justified, but neither can her behavior be fully dismissed as harmless and innocent, either. And by that I’m not talking about having multiple casual sex partners–I mean her nastiness towards the men in her life. I can confidently say I’d never murder a woman if I found myself in Gary’s shoes. But glimpsing Theresa’s actions–and even more, her mind–stirs something dark in me that I can’t explain and that I don’t like. It reminds us that our natures do have murky, unexplainable facets to them. That, as Norman Mailer is quoted to have said, “there is nothing safe about sex.” Reading Mr. Goodbar as a literal cautionary tale that casual sex will get a young woman murdered is a silly distraction from a deeper commentary: that we fool ourselves by pretending sex is devoid of deep emotional meaning, or even in some ways of danger. Sex is and always has been something that can bring out the worst in us.

Taylor Sheridan: Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse; Those Who Wish Me Dead

Those of us who are fans of Taylor Sheridan’s movies have been lucky to have two of them come out already this year. The screenwriting phase of Sheridan’s career began in earnest just 6 years ago with Sicario. Most of his stories have been original, but this year’s duo are both adaptations.

It’s not hard to find throughline’s in Sheridan’s writing. In essence, he tends to take classic Western themes and use them in contemporary situations. Sicario and Sicario: Day of the Soldado are centered around vigilantism and the lawlessness of the US-Mexico border. Hell or High Water involves desperados robbing banks in Texas. Wind River and Sheridan’s TV series Yellowstone are both about frontier justice, involve indigenous peoples, and are set in the harsh Western mountains. Any of those themes could be found in a mid-century Hollywood western.

Another thing that comes through in most of Sheridan’s work is that it is largely, though not entirely, about the hardened men that survive–or don’t–in these extreme circumstances. He does sometimes have main characters that are strong women who also know what they’re doing (Sicario, Wind River, and to some extent Yellowstone), but for the most part the ones braving the frontier and settling scores without regard to the law are men.

We live in a time of expansion of traditional roles and images. Sheridan therefore puts himself at some risk of seeming hopelessly behind the times by mostly writing men into these roles, even though historically and archetypally they would almost all have been men. I will confess that I may be likewise unfashionable, in that I myself respond aesthetically and viscerally to men acting at the edges of their capacity in extreme circumstances, honed and hardened by their high-stakes histories. I justify it by telling myself it’s my version of a super hero movie: however unrealistic it may be for me to, say, build a family cattle ranch and empire from scratch in Montana, if grown men and women can get excited by Captain America and Iron Man, I can enjoy my time fantasizing about being John Dutton for an hour a week.

I’ve never been sure that re-writing women in these same movies would produce the same effect on screen. Seeing as how Sheridan’s un- or barely-civilized characters tend to be men, there’s reason to think he has that same my suspicion. Whether or not he intended these two new movies to act as a test of the theory that men and women characters might not always be interchangeable in contemporary Western(ish) settings, by adapting others’ work Sheridan ends up giving us women in roles that would seem more traditionally suited for men.

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse is, as you might have guessed if you’ve heard of the name in the title, largely a spy movie. Espionage, double crossings, blurring the lines between good guys and bad guys, an unrealistically bad-ass protagonist, and so on. I’m not so much a connoisseur of spy thrillers, but this one seems competently done. I enjoyed it overall, though even now, a week after watching it, I find it takes effort to recall it in detail. My main point of entry was as a Sheridan fan–I probably wouldn’t have watched it had he not been a screenwriter. Because of that bias, I noticed the same Western themes of revenge, morality that might be at odds with legality, and taking justice into one’s own hands, for example. Other hallmarks of Sheridan’s, like starting the movie in media res during an intense situation, and only slowly parceling out the bigger picture as the movie goes on, help grab our attention and keep it locked in the whole time. Michael B Jordan brings a fire to the driven and periodically enraged Navy SEAL John Kelly. Like men in other Sheridan movies, he’s developed his capacity to succeed in life-or-death situations–in this case, combat–through repeated exposure to intense danger. One feels the intensity of what it must have done to his character, to his soul, and to how far he is willing to go when the need arises. One understands the ambivalence his superiors must feel both recognizing that a dangerous mission might require a man like Kelly and having reluctance to unleash him for fear of what else might come with that kind of skill set. This is the kind of man Sheridan can write as well as anyone–the kind of man you hope is on your side when you need him and who you pray stays on it.

Most of the other battle-hardened characters in Without Remorse are also men, with an exception to be found in Kelly’s superior officer, SEAL Lt Commander Karen Greer, played by Jodie Turner-Smith. Many a reviewer could simply say the character is fine, that she’s serviceable as written and played, and leave it at that. The reviews I’ve read basically just that, with nothing especially effusive or critical to say. But I’m too interested in taking advantage of this moment where Sheridan writes a character you’d expect to be the very image of a masculine alpha male (for context, Jocko Willink is one such (retired) Navy SEAL Lt Commander) but is instead a woman.

I’m enlightened enough that I am happy to try and lay my preconceptions aside and give this character a chance. I am perfectly willing to see portrayed a competent, bad-ass special forces officer who is also a woman. I’m sure women like that exist. And again, Turner-Smith’s Commander Greer was acceptable. But the thing is, the characters and the actors who play similar roles in other Sheridan screenplays jump off the screen with their over-the-top testosterone-fueled presences. I’m thinking, for example, of the hired mercenaries in Sicario: Day of the Soldado. Or Sheridanverse all-star Jon Bernthal, who would have popped in this role. I can think of two scenes where Jordan’s Kelly, an absolute powerhouse of a killing machine, is positively burning with rage, and Commander Greer just . . . blends into the background, unable to match his intensity or meet him where he is to calm him down. In another scene, the team has just been ambushed and is feeling uneasy. Commander Greer starts issuing commands, as her position requires. It didn’t strike at me as incompetent or inadequate, but it was an opportunity for her to show off the kind of exceptional leadership of crack soldiers I’d expect in a SEAL officer, and she didn’t. To be fair, 99% of men probably wouldn’t be able to bring that kind of authority either. But when we’re talking about being at the extreme masculine edge, I can easily imagine men who might, and I could name dozens of actors who could pull it off. I’m not going to say there are no women who could go there, but I will say that it’s not easy for me to imagine them or make a long list of actresses obviously up to the task.

I realize this isn’t exactly a proper review of the movie. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’ll say it was fine. Some strengths, some weaknesses. I don’t see myself watching it again, but I don’t regret my time with it. For purposes of the project of this article, though, I will say that I think the movie would have been improved with a typical Sheridan manly man as the SEAL Commander. (Not that the movie lives or dies on that one aspect or anything.)

Those Who With Me Dead, on the other hand, is a more interesting test case. The central character is Hannah, a middle-aged, compulsively risk-seeking, rule-breaking smoke jumper/fire fighter, played by Angelina Jolie. This story didn’t originate with Sheridan either (he’s credited as the third writer), which is probably why more even than a typical Sheridan-esque character, it’s Denis Leary’s Tommy Gavin in the FX TV Show Rescue Me Hannah reminds of. You know, someone who really needs to dial down the extreme behavior in order to properly function in society. The Western-style elements are also less pronounced in this movie than in Sheridan’s originals. The good guys are mostly just trying to escape the bad guys, none of whom are going to join the pantheon of Sheridan “cowboys” alongside the Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, or Jeremy Renner characters. It’s set in the mountains of Montana, and the unforgiving, chaotic power of nature does play a large role in the movie, but that’s about it as far as this being a contemporary Western.

Jolie can obviously brings as much charisma to the screen as any actress alive. So in terms of whether it changes the movie to write and cast a woman as the overly-masculine archetype, an A-list screen presence isn’t an obstacle here. I’ve seen some reviews that question Hannah’s plausibility in this movie simply because of how beautiful Jolie is. Whether that’s because someone so attractive would surely have found a husband who could pluck her out of that life, or because smoke jumping really interferes with that multi-step skincare regimen, I’m not entirely sure. But that part doesn’t bother me per se. I don’t mind engaging in a little aesthetically-pleasing suspension of disbelief.

One thing I like is that in comparison to Commander Greer, who could easily have been cast as a man with few if any changes to the script, Hannah does have a few more feminine streaks. For one thing, the others (all men) on her smoke jumping crew (is she their superior? It wasn’t clear to me) try to flirt with her, and she continually shuts them down. That said, there never seems to be any legitimate sexual tension with any of them, but that doesn’t seem central to her character. Nor does the fact that we learn who her prior romantic partner is. Who knows–maybe those things play a larger role in the book. But when she interacts with the young (pre?)teen Connor, there are times when her actions border on the maternal. It’s clear Hannah doesn’t have highly developed mothering skills, but Jolie’s performance in helping Connor did bring a contour to the film that would have seemed different somehow had Hannah been a man. Not dramatically different, but it wouldn’t have been quite the same. So I was blessed with at least one intriguing thought provoked by the subversion of my expected casting.

Another wrinkle in this exploration of women in Sheridan movies is the character of Allison in Those Who With Me Dead. She’s pregnant, but does as much ass-kicking as anyone in the movie. She comes across as more of a protective mama-bear, though, rather than a hardened cowboy type whose sex was just reversed. She has frontier smarts and can expertly and courageously wield a hunting rifle, and gives far better than she gets in this movie. As I sit and try to think about what makes her seem like a feminine type instead of a masculine type like Hannah, I have to admit it’s difficult. Sure, she was just minding her own business until her family was threatened, which is easy to categorize as mama bear imagery. But I don’t know that that couldn’t just as easily be a description of a masculine hero too. I’m sure the fact that she’s pregnant contributes to my view of her as a distinctly feminine kind of protector, but I don’t know if I can articulate it more than that.

I’m reminded of the Harmony Korine movie Spring Breakers, which sticks in my memory as a harrowing but riveting experience. In it, three young women leave a trail of physical and mental destruction on those they encounter. We’re introduced to them as normal, unassuming college students who end up robbing a restaurant in a shockingly violent way. It is so unexpectedly brutal that I found myself feeling somehow more disturbed than if it had been a group of young men had committing the same actions, but again, it’s a challenge to say exactly why. Was the violence of women somehow more terrifying than that of men by virtue of it being rarer and therefore more unpredictable? Or does it just make me more uncomfortable because I’ve got some idea that women are less likely to commit violent crimes and it goes against my preconceptions? I’m still not entirely sure. But I love that Spring Breakers makes me confront that question.

I doubt Those Who With Me Dead will join Spring Breakers as one of my reference movies on the difference between men and women on screen. Would it have been better with a man in Hannah’s role? It’s not as clear, and at the same time that choice probably had a bigger bearing on the success of this movie than it did in Without Remorse.

In any case, these two movies are the first and only two Sheridan movies I don’t consider essential. Not necessarily bad, but I don’t feel the need to add them to my library. Here’s hoping that, although this diversion into adapting other source material gave us the chance to think about men vs women in certain movies, Taylor Sheridan gets back to writing originals in the future.