This is it, ladies and gentleman, the envelope please… the final week of our presentations on the Oscar Men of 2013. This upcoming weekend we find out what manly men will be taking home that heavy piece of trophy-dom, and which men will simply smile and nod, appreciating the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences considered them good enough to place them in the “best screen acting” ranks in the first place.
As far as Academy appreciation goes, this year was pretty bizarre. Not only did Michael Haneke get attention (while he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, if he can’t scar you, nobody can!), but musicals got the love. This week’s Myth of Macho will be looking at the work of the Australian-born entertainer Hugh Jackman. While you may not think that he was appropriate for the role of Jean Valjean, there can certainly be no argument that he counts in the “manly” camp. The guy played Wolverine, for heavens’ sake!
Hugh Jackman’s nomination this year was for the cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012). While not adored by many online film critics, it has gotten a certain amount of attention in the industry at large. This should be no surprise when it comes to the talents of Jackman as he has had a long and successful career in the musical theater world. This stage experience has given him immense flexibility and diversity in performance, especially when it comes to exploring ideas of the masculine. Hugh has played everything from Joe Gillis in the musical version of Sunset Boulevard toCurly in the Royal National Theater’s London production of Oklahoma (garnering him an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical). Jackman’s Tony Award for playing Peter Allen, the gay Australian singer-songwriter in The Boy from Oz in 2004, was no small feat either. All in all, his stage performances gave him enough fodder for anything Hollywood could throw at him.
As it turns out, these previous career moves translated to some exceptionally strong cinematic roles. Although capable of playing anything from a superhero or romantic leads to a comedic or dramatic character, there have been a couple of films that really showcased the depth of Jackman’s acting ability. This year’s nomination may stem from Jackman’s flair for musical theater, but this week’s Myth of Macho will explore two films in which Jackman’s highly masculine sensibility plays a crucial role in investigating ideas of success and failure, emotionality and technology in relation to what it means to be a man.
Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) and Shawn Levy’s Real Steel (2011) both study the idea that to be a complete man is to divide and conquer. These two films explore commonly held masculine notions of personal success and failure, dissecting them through the contexts of magicianship and robot boxing. The Prestige and Real Steel both question what would make someone continually shove aside productive human relationships in exchange for that which is damaging, and focus on the intense ideals of winning versus losing that are part and parcel of much of male psychology. The men in these films have blinded themselves to their own self-destructive tendencies through their career choices although the films do not leave them at that location. As the films expand, so do the characters and they end up at very different places (and as very different men) than where they began.
The Prestige is not like any movie you’ve ever seen or ever will see. It’s a difficult movie to describe without ruining and… you do not want it to be ruined. Trust me. I initially watched it because it was Christopher Nolan and Michael Caine but I ended up falling for it in a variety of ways. At its most basic level, this film is about magic. No, not the elves and fairies and Lord of the Rings-style stuff, but the rabbit-out-of-a-hat, card trick, Houdini-style stuff. And please, no associations that with that wanna-be hack “magician” Criss Angel: he’s taking up precious oxygen on this planet when it comes to magic craft.
The Prestige tells the story of two 19th century magicians: Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Assistants for a higher-ranked magician at first, something goes wrong during a trick, and Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) is accidentally killed. Angier blames Borden for her death and, as they say, “there goes the act.” The two men end up as top performers in their field, going out on their own. Due to this incident and what appears to be a toxic mix of ego, desire for revenge and the need to prove who is the greater “man of magic,” Angier and Borden spend the next few years trying to “one-up” each other. This journey ends up involving Nikola Tesla, prison sentences, murder raps and the devastation of many people’s lives, most notably their own.
In many ways, The Prestige is about trying to regain something that is lost. Whether it is simple pride in being the best magician or a sense of worth and power over the man who accidentally caused the death of the woman who gave meaning to your life, the sense of wanting to retrieve that feeling through causing a rival to fail is potent and present within this film. The many situations in which Borden disguises himself to spy on Angier’s show to see “how he’s doing” and the many times in which Angier does the same is a perfect example of the lengths that these men will go to in order to get one over on the other. And yet each time they go to the other man’s show, they make themselves known in the final stage. In a sense, when they perform their “spy missions” they are, in fact, performing the three stages of a magic trick. In the very first few minutes of the film, Cutter (Michael Caine), the magician’s assistant, discusses that a magic trick is made out of three parts. In his voiceover Cutter explains…
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called ‘The Pledge.’ The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn't. The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret… but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige.’"
According to this logic, the magic trick that the two men have pulled on each other is that they are not in the audience, they are not present nor watching each other with great detail. Thus they seem ordinary. Upon being selected, Borden seems to Angier like just an average audience member (and vice versa). However, it is upon closer evaluation that everything falls apart. While it is not supposed to do so in magic, in this power play/ambition game the two men are playing, their “prestige” causes Borden’s fingers to get shot off as Angier uses a real bullet in a bullet catch trick and Borden causes another audience member’s fingers to be caught, bloodied and broken in a birdcage when he catches Angier off his guard. The prestige of these men’s relationship is of the most brutal and destructive variety.
The two men continue to “compete” and Angier cannot stop. He will not stop. Even once he gets semi-romantically involved with his new assistant, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), he cannot give up on his war against Borden. It has progressed far beyond Julia’s death, beyond his mourning and loss and moved forward into an obsession. While Borden has gotten married and had a child, Angier’s entire existence is based upon beating Borden and “winning.” This tendency worsens as Borden’s career begins to take off and it appears that Borden can actually do things that Angier cannot.
When Borden begins to perform a disappearing/reappearing trick called “The Transported Man” it is the final straw for Angier. He tries to do the same trick himself and it works out for a time, but it is with a drunken double who ends up being more trouble than he’s worth. Angier sends Olivia to Borden to find out his “trick” and she comes back with a journal. The information contained inside the pages of this journal take him all the way to America and straight to the door of Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). Angier is determined not only to match Borden but to outdo him by whatever means necessary, including new scientific methods.
Tesla looks at him warily upon the proposal of this “transportation” machine and hearing the reasoning. He asks Angier if he has considered the cost. Angier mumbles something about having plenty of money. Tesla says, “Go home. Forget this thing. I can recognize an obsession. No good can come of it.” While Tesla agrees to the assignment, his point is well made. Angier has not only stopped considering what is good, right and healthy but has placed his focus entirely on Borden, managing to construct his entire life around “beating” his rival’s magic skills. Angier has lost any sense of the definition of “cost” and sees only “price.” The distinction between the two is now entirely beyond him. All he sees now is “who is first” and “who is best” and beating Borden at this has become an all-encompassing agenda.
Tesla was a smart man. No good does come of this obsession. Angier’s world only deteriorates. The competitiveness that Angier exudes is present in Borden as well and the two men only end up ratcheting each other’s desire for more and better until they spiral downwards at a rate that only two professional secret-tellers can travel. The finale of The Prestige is one that cannot be told because, like most of the film itself, it is all about the reveal. But the two men have ramped each other up for most of their lives, knowing (or thinking that they know) how each other does their show, trying to figure out the other one’s methods, succeeding and failing, biting and scratching, all to achieve… what? What is it that they actually wished to get?
While Angier was broken and destroyed at his wife’s death, it became more about proving his manhood after a while. For Borden, who was unsure about how he affected the accident with Julia, he simply wanted to live his life and perform his craft (even if he did live with a horrible sense of guilt). These single-minded and ambitious men struggled intensely with each other. Their egos and desire to remain on top did not help. At the end of the day, what builds can also destroy. These magic experts were not able to move forward into fertile life territory and it was not just a case of “breaking a few eggs to make an omelette.” These men, most notably Angier, made the quick descent into self-destruction due to the desire to win, proving themselves the “best magician” and, in that process, the dominant male.
While Real Steel’s narrative is about boxing robots, the concepts of male dominance and competition are not far behind. This film charts the story of Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), an ex-boxer now using robots to compete instead of men. In the world of 2020, this is what fighting has come to. Charlie begrudgingly gets reunited with his son Max (Dakota Goyo), the child he left behind many years previous. Max’s mother has died, but Charlie isn’t really interested in any reunion. One thing does hold his interest however: the kid’s Aunt and Uncle have some money. Charlie is not financially stable and his fights are not going well so he agrees to sign off on custody of Max in exchange for a certain amount of money from the Aunt and Uncle. He also agrees to care for Max for the summer while the couple travel to Italy.
Max turns out to be more of a handful than Charlie had counted on. Stubborn, precocious, and mouthy, it is pretty clear that he’s inherited a few things from his dad. It also turns out that Max is quite an expert on the kind of robot fighting that Charlie does. When Charlie loses yet another fight and may be out of the robot boxing game, his son manages to locate a strange old robot in the parts yard. While Charlie is convinced that Max’s find is useless, Max thinks otherwise. With the assistance of Bailey (Evangeline Lilly), Charlie’s inferred love-interest and long-time robot boxing partner (she does repairs and other tech work) and sheer persistence, Max is able to turn an otherwise junky robot into a champion, all the while forming a stronger bond with his father, and making it to the Real Steel championships.
As in previously discussions about films like Boyz in the Hood, He Got Game, and A Bronx Tale, father/son relationships play a very important role in masculine development. Real Steel is another one to add to this list. However, the plot also centers on the ways in which emotional response and technology are aligned and the reversal of traditional father/son roles. Instead of the generic story about a father regaining the trust of his son through awkwardly teaching him the ways of the world, the Real Steel landscape places Max in the unenviable position of being able to see through Charlie’s failures, mistakes and feelings of ineffectiveness.
While this viewpoint comes from the standpoint of a pre-adolescent boy, just coming into his own the innocence that Max exudes when he “instructs” his father is refreshing. It is almost a wake-up call for adults reminding us that sometimes… children do know better. It is also partially how the father and son get to victory. By working together, they are able to form an awesome team (in the true sense of the word “awesome”) and kick every other robot’s ass. It is not entirely Max- he certainly needs his father. But the two men together form a team with this “underdog” robot, Atom that cannot be stopped.
Charlie’s personal center of operations is based in the past, fed by ego and overconfidence, as displayed by the first match he takes Max to. He has a robot that he has bought with the money he received from Max’s Uncle called Noisy Boy, and he pits him against the “main card” robot, Midas. While Max warns him not to go forward with the match, he does it anyway, realizing about halfway into the match that he’s in way over his head and he is about to lose… hard. When Max sees that he’s operating the controls wrong and tries to help him, Charlie simply ignores him.
After the match, Charlie just shrugs. He is ready to toss the remaining parts of Noisy Boy away, blaming the loss on the robot itself, refusing to take any responsibility. Max is furious. He likens Charlie’s abandonment of the devastated robot to what he himself had suffered when his father deserted him. He says, “Do you even think about the stuff you do before you do it? You had no idea how to fight that fight. Those combination codes. You didn’t even know what half of them meant. You just threw them in there cocky and half-assed. Of course he lost. You never gave him a chance… Noisy Boy was a great robot… so you throw him away… that’s what you do, right? Anything you don’t need you just throw away?”
In this sense, Real Steel also bears a distinct resemblance to Myth of Macho’s discussion of Warrior. Much like those characters, Charlie cannot face emotional reality and his past is scarred and troubled, so he leaves it behind or chooses not to confront it. He has a hard time emotionally engaging with Bailey and he opted out of Max’s life entirely, until he was forced to face him. His own personal pain is dealt with through his alignment with the robots that he works with, all of which are made of metal and electrical parts. He maintains a much closer relationship to that technology than to human technology. Much like the men in Warrior, Charlie is a man who has always worked out his own pain in the ring. The problem is, as we are shown, it has become less and less successful with the onset of this new technology until Max comes into his life. When he is forced to connect with humans again, and face emotional reality he is able to succeed in the ring. Max teaches him how.
Boxing and wrestling films are the ultimate films about masculinity. They are about performance, competition, body image and pure unadulterated testosterone. So what about a robot boxing film? In Real Steel, the technological elements and robotics are used as a tool. During the final fight between Atom and the massive robot Zeus, Max and Charlie have worked with Atom and trained him so that he can box, much like Charlie used to back when it was men in the ring and not machines. At a key point, Charlie must actually do the boxing movements so that Atom can mimic them in the ring. The positioning of the two boxing machines (man and robot) in this sequence is critical: it finally places Charlie back in a location of power and masculinity where he has not been since he was knocked out of the ring by the machine age and his resulting failures. The resulting scenes show the ways in which a competitive man’s self-image can be repaired by success and hard work that has paid off.
Both The Prestige and Real Steel function on ideas of masculine competition and ego. While one plays upon secrets and individual solutions, the other looks to cooperative ideals and communication. Both films are highly technological in their content (albeit in very different times), showing the strong connection that masculinity has to machinery and self-expression. Whether it’s robots or magic, beating a rival or trying to have the most badass robot on the block, that focus on the technical and competitive can lead to emotional deterioration or complete downfall. What these films express is the beauty and the bastardry of machines and their users and how one can lead to the other, warning us to have a careful balance.
I’m very glad that you’ve engineered yourself through another fantastical Myth of Macho with me and through our little study of the Men of the 2012 Academy Awards. I will be taking a brief sabbatical from this column to finish up my scholastic work and make sure that I’m all grad-u-tated! It won’t be terribly long and I promise to come back in full force!
But in the mean time, remember: the brain is a muscle… pump it up!
Ariel Schudson is a featured columnist at CraveOnline and the president of the Student Chapter of the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA. Stalk her electronically at @Sinaphile.