Nowadays, the family unit has become a different thing. Women have entered the workforce, resulting in an enormous upheaval in the way society as a whole works. The family unit is not the only structure that shapes our lives anymore. It’s a fact - for better or worse. And I’m certainly not decrying the shake-up of the traditional family structure. It’s fine. Whatever works! But it does beg the question, if we’re not falling in love because we are socially conditioned to, then why do we? And with the male-female dynamic in society so monumentally altered, where does that leave men?
Two recent films have raised this very issue. Both take a look at the changing world and also how our increasing reliance on the internet as a social tool can give us a warped view of who we and more importantly who other people, are.
Don Jon was received with a lukewarm shrug as it swaggered on to our screens last year. Marketed as a bit of a lads flick, or a rom-com, neither of which were accurate, there is undeniably an air of smugness about this film that could potentially make it difficult to like. However, this film, more than any other film I saw last year, has stayed with me. Possibly only due to my frustration at the lacklustre reception but I feel it needs defending.
Don Jon introduces us to a typical douchebag Jon and his douchebag friends. Jon takes pride in his pad, his ride, his girls, gym, his family and his church. He likes things to be perfect, he takes care of himself and he judges everybody else by his own high standards. When he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johanssen) she is “a ten”. Beautiful, no-nonsense, ready to whip him into shape and make him man enough for her to marry and build a life with. She sends him back to college to better himself and lays the ground rules about internet porn. Here’s the thing. Jon likes porn better than sex. Less hassle to whack one out to a video than the real thing. Women look better on camera than flat on their backs anyway, right?
As we wait for this rom-com to predictably see them break down at his weaknesses then regroup because he realises the error of his ways, something strange happens. Jon realises that he doesn’t need her and decides to get to know himself better and become comfortable with who he is before trying to allow a woman to decide what’s best for him.
Not since Fight Club has there been a film that discusses masculism and the crisis of modern masculinity in such depth.
Jon is a man, like so many others, who doesn’t know his place in the world and starts to ask himself questions about what it means to be a man. As a result of these questions, he engages in a relationship with Julianne Moore who teaches him something nobody ever really bothered to before. Sex is about love. About emotional connection. Otherwise it’s just mutual masturbation.
Joseph Gordon Levitt has crafted a film here which discusses the place of the modern man in today’s shaken up society. In all the ways that for years films and music and books have screamed at women that they need to love themselves and not allow a man to become the centre of their world and to be who they are, etc, this is a film that allows men that indulgence. Don’t always feel pressure to “man up”, to prove yourself. Learn to love yourself and let go of your vanities and those walls and figure out what works for you!
A small but vital part of Jon’s character which is never addressed is his tendency toward obsessive compulsive behaviour. Though it is never driven home, Jon’s penchant for extreme neatness and routine and perfection does indicate some mental health issues. Not to mention issues of Catholic guilt and pressures to conform to traditional family values that stem from his family.
The softer, warmer Jon we see towards the end of the film is a man who is happy being himself and who has figured out how to love; by letting yourelf indiscriminately care for someone.
Another film that looks at the way in which love is changing is Spike Jonze’s delightful oddity Her. Set in a not too distant future where hipsters have seemingly taken over the planet, Her tells the story of lonely Theodore Twombley (an extraordinary Joaquin Phoenix), recently separated from a wife he adores and employed as a proxy writer of love letters, the online equivalent of a Cyrano De Bergerac. A hopeless romantic and a man in dire need of connection, Theodore sets up the new operating system on his phone, a kind of Siri idea, a very connected, very sophisticated artificial intelligence that exudes warmth, curiosity and humour not previously found in an OS. Over time, and they show us this in excruciating detail, allowing us time to see that this is a genuine love affair and not some perversion, we see Theodore and Sam slowly become genuine companions, laughing together, being kind to each other, helping each other grow, all the things one could ever want in a real relationship. They are in love.
Spike Jonze is asking us the question, in this day and age when social pressures are gone and we are left with nobody to please but ourselves, can we indulge such companionships? What does artifical mean anyway when technology is so advanced. Spike Jonze is a forward thinker, leaving us room to entertain the questions and ideas being presented in a non judgmental fashion. This is not science fiction. This is romance, pure and simple.
The end of the film doesn’t leave us with any simple answers either. Jonze is forcing us to look at ourselves and what we want in life and from relationships and question the time we spend with our computer each day. To my mind though, he’ not lecturing us. He is asking us to think about it.
Both films are doing a straight-forward thing. They are showing a man’s journey through love: both completely opposite men. One a brazen man-child, the other an old-fashioned romantic. But their journeys are similar. Jon’s is certainly more fulfilling than Theodore’s. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say Theodore doesn’t go on a journey, we do.
It’s about time we start to think about how the world is changing. There are still people getting married, having babies and buying houses in the suburbs but more and more, the traditional two-parent one bread-winner pattern is being upended. So, if not out of habit or out of necessity, why do we fall in love? Why do we marry? Now that the working world is becoming more of an equal playing field how does this affect the male-female dymanic in society?
What does it mean to be a man? Fight Club discusses this in a very extreme way. Edward Norton’s “Narrator” is a ghost in a world that doesn‘t know what to do with him. Jon in Don Jon has built a world of which he is very definitely a part, but he has built it out of habit and he is only now asking what he really wants. Theodore is a man who needs a companion to feel complete. He is finding new ways to love in the absence of a physical companion. Again, if we’re not coming together to make babies then what is it that we REALLY want?
Two films that ask questions as a form of comment but in a completely non-judgmental fashion; Don Jon and Her are first and foremost character studies. They present us with very well realised men with very well thought out neuroses and psychological nuances. Perhaps these filmmakers aren’t the male equivalent of The Spice Girls yelling “Girl Power” but they are a call to action to men to look at themselves and know that you don’t’ have to be your father, you just have to be yourelf.