Thursday 27 December 2012

A Guy Thing

I watched a movie the other day that made me cry. Was it a weepie? A soppy romance? No, it was Battle: Los Angeles.

Did I cry because it was so bad? No. On the contrary, it was very good. It wasn't ground-breaking in any way, nor was it a great piece of art. I didn't recognise any of the actors in it, it didn't win any awards and it certainly didn't shatter any box office records. The movie had a fairly predictable plot, yet when I watched it for the third time, it still moved me to tears.

Am I mawkishly sentimental? Well yes, as it happens. I can't help it, it's just the way I'm wired. Not that I blub for any old thing, you understand. I'm getting more cynical with age. But clearly I still have soft spots.

So what caused me to well up? Oddly enough, the scenes that depicted a deep and unapologetic masculinity. I say oddly because, for most of my life, I've never considered myself very masculine. I was a shy kid at school, I've never liked sports and I've no interest in hanging out with the guys.

But those things are just surface symptoms of masculinity. The emotional core of masculinity, like femininity, runs deeper than that.

If the essence of femininity is relationships (both with others and with the environment) then the essence of masculinity is sacrifice. Manly self-sacrifice.

But it's just a movie

Wait, Hollywood movies are awash with masculinity aren't they? Swaggering heroes dispatch bad guys and quip ironic one-liners in hundreds of summer blockbusters. In Stallone's The Expendables you can't move for testosterone and biceps. Surely while watching that I must have used a year's supply of tissues.

Well, no, actually I gave up after about fifteen minutes, it was that bad. I enjoyed Predators, sort of, and of course one of my favourite movies remains Aliens, with its marines in space battling for their lives. But none of these showed real masculinity - it was just machismo played for laughs. Comic book style. These movies are blockbusters and are marketed to the widest possible audience which, given how diverse any given population is, must involve the watering down of certain elements.

I did cry watching The English Patient. It features a romance, and the hero is not an action adventurer. But when he struggled to return through the desert to his (illicit) love, only to find her dead (he took too long), you then see him carrying her to his airplane. It's a futile gesture, and you know he's going to be punished for it (you've just seen him as a burned out husk for most of the movie), but he carries on anyway. The romance didn't particularly move me much, but at this point of sacrifice I found myself shedding a tear, as I did again when he opts to finish his life so he can fly forever with her in the hot desert air.

I cried also when I read a scene in The Lord of the Rings: Eowyn, shield-maiden of the Rohirrim, faces the King of the Nazgul alone. She could have stayed hidden, and she is outmatched, for none can withstand the Nazgul, but she takes her stand nevertheless. "Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes." The scene is witnessed by Merry, who has been cowering among the dead. "Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. He clenched his hand. She should not die, so fair, so desperate! At least she should not die alone, unaided."

The same scene in the movie version, incidentally, lacked gravitas for me, so didn't evoke the same response. But clearly the fact that the warrior is a woman doesn't change, for me at any rate, the noble sacrificial element. Tolkein had experienced the battlefields of Flanders in WW1, and he understood the emotions well.

Men are accused of lacking emotional depth, but this is total bunk. It may not always be on display, but it is there nevertheless. Men are also accused of being selfish, but this is to profoundly misunderstand masculinity and its nuances.

Selfless Sacrifice

In Sleepless in Seattle, there's a scene where Tom Hanks lampoons the women crying over a romance by pretending to cry over a scene from The Dirty Dozen. It's a light hearted mockery, but there's a grain of truth in there somewhere.

In The Transformation of War, Martin Van Creveld says of warfare that: "in some ways it represents the most altruistic of all human activities". Contentious stuff, to be sure, but what he's referring to is the way that soldiers are prepared to sacrifice themselves in war. Sometimes they sacrifice themselves for a flag or a cause, but these are just motifs for a more basic truth. Soldiers sacrifice themselves for those around them - most often their comrades. This is no small thing. They are sacrificing themselves for... what exactly? Fame? Wealth? Favours? These mean nothing when you're dead.

And yet still they do it. There are many true stories for instance of soldiers throwing themselves onto grenades in order to save others. Are they mad? Well, in today's therapeutic culture, such actions, and violence in general, are sometimes described as signs of mental illness. But the evidence to support this is sparse. One story that I find poignant is that of a soldier in Vietnam who finds himself in a dugout with wounded men, each waiting their turn to be seen by medics. The pin on one of his grenades becomes snagged on something and is pulled out. Frantically the soldier tries to remove the grenade to throw it a safe distance, but it is entangled in his webbing. With seconds to go he leaps out of the dugout and runs clear, the grenade bouncing on his chest until it explodes. His act saved several lives and, in the heat of the moment, it was clearly instinctive. I mean, his overriding priority at that moment, from the 'selfish gene' point of view, was to get rid of the grenade and survive. Yet, in what must have been an adrenaline fuelled moment of anxiety, he still overrode his organic need to survive by thinking of the others instead. Self sacrifice for others is real.

Bear in mind also that most soldiers in action are just working class joes. They are not contemplative, deep thinkers. Nor are they sensitive poets ruminating on the meaning of life. Today most lower class young men are depicted as shallow, mindless wasters. Stick them in a platoon however at death's door, and their willingness to risk their lives for others is easily evoked in a way that transcends cultural norms or even training. It can only be a form of built-in altruism.

Perhaps it's not masculinity per se. Perhaps it arises from millennia of evolved tribalism, where the collective is more important than the individual. It more often arises among men however. Maybe this is evolved too. Women are vital to society, whereas men are expendable. It has been said that society uses men, and this is true, but men have long relished this and even taken a pride in it. The willingness to risk themselves, it seems, was also vital to society.

None of this of course makes much sense any more in a pampered civilization where death from disease, famine or annihilation by war has never been so far away. Ancient tribes could easily be wiped out, and they didn't have access to healthcare, legislated rights and material comforts previously unheard of. Masculinity therefore is easily mocked and seen as obsolete, but a hundred thousand years of evolution isn't going to go away just because a few newspaper columnists say it should. As Camille Paglia once said, "All it takes is one natural disaster for that entire artificial world to come crumbling down, and suddenly everyone will be screaming and yelling for the plumbers and the construction workers. Only masculine men of the working class will hold the civilization together."

The firecrews who entered the smoke-filled 9-11 buildings that then collapsed were not warriors, but even in the prevailing health and safety culture that insists upon risk assessments for everything, they still risked their lives, and are honoured for doing exactly that. Some things never change.

The genetic hand of God

Self-sacrifice probably doesn't feature in most people's lists of what constitutes rational behaviour. It does however count as a form of spiritual behaviour. Sacrifice has, as we all know, been a feature of nearly all religion throughout the ages, even in societies that had little or no contact with others. We consider human sacrifice abhorrent today - even the Spanish Inquisition deemed it to be a barbaric, cruel practice (unlike, say, stretching someone on the rack and burning their dangly bits with red hot pokers) - but not all sacrificial victims were reluctant. They may even have been volunteers, giving their lives to their gods for the sake of their society. Only when the institution became old and stale did they perhaps enjoy less honour? Just as Roman citizens, during Rome's decline, ceased volunteering to serve in the legions, then Aztec sacrificial victims, during their decline, came from the surrounding subject tribes and may have become more punishment than honour.

But it's not just the pagan religions that honoured sacrifice. Christianity honours the spectacle of Jesus on the cross. This is not seen as punishment (even though we are told he was arrested and put on trial) but as a self chosen sacrifice. Jesus Christ died for us all. I never had that last phrase explained to me as a child, so I never really understood what it meant - like, how was a death supposed to 'save' us all? But the concept of self-sacrifice remains a constant in religion. Take the concept of Christian martyrdom, for instance. Or Islamic martyrdom (which we currently both fear and mock). The ritual of suttee that so shocked British colonial governors in India - the burning of a widow on the grave of her husband - was meant to be a chosen form of self-sacrifice according to Hindu custom.

Martin Van Creveld says that war fighting is, "akin to the sacred and merging into it." Being 'at one' with Our Lord, or The Universe, is familiar enough. We also have the Buddhist concept of 'letting go' and the Hindu concept of 'release' from the endless cycle of life and death. Sacrifice can be considered a form of 'giving oneself up' for a higher purpose. As I wrote in a scene in my novel (available in all good e-stores *grin*), walking knowingly towards death was less an act of will, and more an act of... "giving up, relinquishing control and offering oneself to whatever may come. It was about releasing one's hold on life."

So, with similar concepts spread across so many disparate cultures, for nearly all of human history, would it be true to say that religion is hard wired into us, as some have claimed?

Well no, for religion is a complex social institution that would be impossible to 'hard wire' into a biological organism - the two aspects are like oil and water, they don't mix. But what if the sacrificial element of our tribal evolution generates sensations that people then interpret as spiritual?

What if in fact all spirituality, and by definition, religion, stemmed from our evolved sensations? Although many societies never met each other, and thus could not have exchanged ideas, all societies could trace their origins back to tribal groups. Tribalism is the bedrock of who we are.

In which case, self-sacrifice is an intrinsic aspect of humanity, channelled through the male as masculinity, and, when fatal, considered a deeply holy act.

 Whoa, what happened there?

Okay, that was one hell of a digression from what started as a simple discussion about some B-Movie, but these things matter. With regards to the movie itself, there's really not much to say. The special effects are competent, but that's not saying much in this day and age. The editing, the flow of the story, and the scripting are all professional and, from a storyteller's point of view, done right. That shouldn't be saying much - after all, visual story telling has been around for a very long time. I came to this movie however after watching Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Christ, what a mess that was when it came to the absolute basics of the story teller's craft (I gave it two stars on Amazon). Professionalism should therefore be given its due, even in movies with a ridiculous premise (alien invasion of Los Angeles? Puleeeeeeez!). I thought it was done better than Independence Day too. The 'science' side of it was inserted seamlessly into the flow, and didn't need some scientist or philosopher archetype to crank out exposition so that the proles in the audience would understand it. The reasons for why aliens invade Earth are no more plausible in Battle: Los Angeles than they are in Independence Day, but at least no one is trying to insult your intelligence with some half-baked bullshit because, really, we all know the aliens exist in these movies purely to get shot at. As one reviewer put it, "ET go home... in a body bag."

It's definitely more war movie than sci-fi movie, which certainly cheesed off the sci-fi buffs who watched it and wondered, why are there so many military stereotypes in this movie? And why aren't they being mocked!? - like they routinely are in sci-fi. Well, I liked the military content and, having done a lot of military research, I didn't find the characters that cliched or unlikely. The characters and the mood I got immediately. And I liked the way it was played straight - like it was a documentary of Afghanistan. It was confident and understated in its portrayals. Only the way the marines moved through the urban environment struck a bum note - they don't huddle together like that, inviting annihilation from a single burst of fire. But that's a common mistake in movies. Maybe it's about getting everybody in the camera frame.

And the manly self-sacrifice I mentioned? Yeah, there's plenty of that. Plus shocked marines taking stock during the lulls. The scene with the dying father got to me. So much so that I didn't feel the need to snark when the sergeant said, "Marines don't quit," (And it's a line that Aaron Eckhart delivers better than anything Clint Eastwood did in Heartbreak Ridge - a war movie so bad, and so insulting to reality, that it really needed a few aliens).

Snark is common these days, and in the UK we are deeply suspicious of American patriotism and guys going 'oorah!' Serious masculinity has become very unfashionable on both sides of the pond. It's something either to be feared, psychoanalysed or mocked. Yet, as I sat in my safe and comfortable living room, having never risked my life for anything and confident that I'll probably never have to, I still felt moved, like some deep vein had been touched. Something base, something primeval, perhaps even something spiritual.

And I thought, yeah, that's a good movie. I'll probably watch it a fourth time some day. And if I don't have any tissues, then I'll just make sure the light's on low. Because I don't want anybody else to see.

It's private, so I'll keep it to myself, and not tell a soul...

...just don't tell anyone, okay?