“Is emotional capacity, as figured by film, an entity of fixed dimension, so that if men are represented as more caring, women must be represented as caring less?”
It began with an email from Verona this spring. A doctoral student writing on masculinity in modern Westerns asked me to read her work, based on my current book project on postwar Westerns. In preparation for my new task, I viewed James Mangold’s 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma and Wim Wenders’ 2005 Don’t Come Knocking. Quite by happenstance, I also viewed Karl Markovics’ Atmen (Breathing; 2011) during the same period, as part of the New Directors/New Film series at Lincoln Center. The point of convergence among these films is the representation of fathers, all of whom struggle to form emotional bonds with their sons, gestures that I found especially moving, migrating as I temporarily was from the ferocious cinematic fathers of the 1940s and ’50s. Yet even as these films look forward, beyond retrograde models of paternity, it is possible to detect faint echoes of a now 30-year-old discussion from the days of 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer: is emotional capacity, as figured by film, an entity of fixed dimension, so that if men are represented as more caring, women must be represented as caring less?
The two Westerns in this group confront fatherhood head on: Don’t Come Knocking is a quest narrative with an aging Western film actor literally riding away from a movie set, first simply to escape from a broken life and later, after his mother tells him of a young woman with child who came looking for him, to seek the son he never met. 3:10‘s engagement with paternity is appreciated mostly by contrast with Delmer Daves’ 1957 version. The 2007 remake dramatically develops the role of the protagonist’s son, characterizing him as a rebellious teenager who initially resists his father’s protective authority before becoming his ally in the effort to send criminal Ben Wade to prison.
By contrast with these engaged and benevolent fathers, Westerns from the late 1940s and 1950s typically represent patriarchal figures as outsized nemeses, exemplars of a hegemonic masculinity that rules by the threat of violence. Think John Wayne in Red River, Burl Ives in The Big Country, Lee J. Cobb in Man of the West. Even in Winchester ’73, in which the father is never seen onscreen, having been killed by one of his sons in the back story, the father’s death nevertheless initiates a series of increasingly violent events that will end in brother literally hunting brother in a primitive, rocky landscape. Even when the father is absent, this film suggests, murder remains as the paternal legacy. Two notable and, as I will argue later, radical exceptions to this pattern are roles played by Van Heflin: the family men of 3:10 to Yuma and Shane.
Unlike their postwar cousins, the two modern Westerns assert not only the necessity of the father but both also restore him to a position of dignity, even if, as in the case of Don’t Come Knocking, he does not really deserve it. In fact, Don’t Come Knocking insists so powerfully on the role of the father that it engages in a kind of magical thinking about the curative power of his delayed appearance. Dad need only ride into town, no matter how late and bedraggled, and the wound of abandonment begins to heal. The film is not, however, entirely uncritical of Howard Spence, the “spent” father who resists being disturbed in his downward spiral of recklessness (played by Sam Shepard, also the film’s screenwriter). In fact, the film opens with an image of assessment — two “eyes” worn by the wind into the face of a sandstone ridge, the blue sky behind them staring like a pitiless gazer. Or could this be an image of Howard’s alienation from the characters he plays onscreen, with the visual suggestion that the two eyeholes are seen from the dark interior of a mask? Perhaps this image, which Wenders in the DVD commentary calls the “mask of Zorro,” refers to the many heroic roles Spence has played, even as his own behavior becomes less and less meritorious.
As the narrative begins, the father is already gone, the opening words of the script coming from the assistant director, “What are you telling me, ‘He’s not there’?” Howard Spence has abandoned the set of yet another Western, this one rich with the iconic arches and red dust of John Ford’s Monument Valley films. In his on-set trailer the crew finds only empty bottles, the remains of a cocaine binge, two clueless prostitutes, and a sign that reads “Don’t come knocking if the trailer’s rocking.” Along the route of his great escape, Howard discards the standard trappings of heroic masculinity — his cowboy boots, his fancy horse, his Western garb. During his odyssey from Moab through Nevada to Montana, Howard’s last displays of traditional masculine dominance are clownish: a boxing match with an arcade game and a drunken and futile struggle with a casino security guard, in which Wenders photographs Shepard against a mechanical claw game, the garish colors of the proffered toys speaking to the childish nature of his resistance. The inverted words “Game Over” flash over the image of Howard being hustled out of the building. Yet the past is not quite over for Howard. In stopping at his mother’s home, Howard learns of the existence of the child who gives his quest a focus. He travels to Montana to search for his son in his father’s old Buick from the 1950s, a car that more securely tethers him to the past as he journeys back to learn of old errors, lost women, new children.
The film and Howard shift focus once he lands in Butte. In contact again with the woman whom he left pregnant, Doreen (played by Jessica Lange) and not one, but unexpectedly two abandoned children, Howard is allowed a shot at redemption which the film delivers in a homeopathic fashion. Encountering his son, Earl, who exhibits the same blind rage and emotional detachment that has scarred Howard’s life, Howard seeks to make amends, asking Doreen to rejoin him. While she sensibly rejects his tardy advances, recognizing them as Howard’s effort to “disappear into my life,” Howard does manage to make a connection with Earl, to whom he deeds his father’s car, and who is seen at the film’s finale happily singing with his girlfriend and newly found half-sister, Sky, as they drive toward Wisdom, Montana. And all of this happens within a period of a few days. As children of divorce and paternal abandonment can testify, happy journeys to Wisdom do not typically come that easily.
Yet the gender-mysticism represented by the portentously named Sky, the daughter Howard never even missed, suggests a darker possibility — that Howard is ultimately irrelevant. Sky — perhaps hers are the cerulean eyes regarding Howard in the opening shot — is the sole character in the film whose mission never alters: to find her father after her mother’s recent death. Indeed, Sky hauls around her mother’s ashes throughout most of her time in Butte, trying to be as graceful as she can while shifting the bulky urn from arm to arm. And in a plot development that sounds like a creation myth, Sky turns out to be the key element in uniting father and son, as she hands Howard a piece of paper that provides Earl’s name and address, thus enabling a rendezvous crucial for their rapprochement. She even brings the doughnuts and coffee in time for the reconciliation.
Unlike the messed-up man whose escapades demand the attention of abandoned women, children, and insurance investigators (a subplot involving the film’s completion bond), the women of Howard’s journey, especially Sky, resemble fantasies of female self-sufficiency. These women are also almost incredibly — in the literal sense of the word — forgiving, even when they resist the hero’s attempts to re-enter their lives. Doreen has managed to raise her son without Howard’s help or money and on a waitress’ salary (though we’re assured she’s really a kind of manager at her café). Sky’s mother never even attempted to contact Howard. And Howard’s own mother, although herself abandoned by him without a word for 30 years, takes him in with surprisingly little chiding. She has even recreated his bedroom in her basement, though it’s in a new house that Howard never occupied as a child. And finally, she gives him the symbolic car, saying blithely, “I use it every week for shopping but I can walk just as easy.” These women appear to want for nothing. On the one hand, these choices suggest that the female characters are not worth worrying about. Their problems are irrelevant, perhaps even trivial, compared to Howard’s crisis. The man’s story is the thing. On the other, they seem fantastically saintly, like those who serve without complaint to impress goodness on the wayward. Even if the film does undermine Howard’s authority as protagonist through this gesture, it still insists on a secular ideal of female piety — one might call it Mother Theresa feminism: women so self-sufficient that they make no demands on anyone. Their complexities as human beings evaporate in the presence of their ability to care for themselves. Is the film, then, a kind of masculine Alamo — the last stand of male relevance in a world of self-sufficient women? If so, is this progress for female characters or the New Irrelevance? To repeat the question of Knocking‘s assistant director, “What are you telling me?”
Another possibility is that the relevance of paternal authority is gender-specific: other men, mostly sons, are the one who need fathers to uphold their commitments. In this regard, 3:10 to Yuma similarly suggests that men matter more to other men than to women, yet it does so by making the women even more irrelevant that they were in the ’50s version of the story. Indeed, by contrast, Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma engages in surprising play with both genre and gender expectations, offering a film that presents domesticity as a kind of salvation. In this way, the ’50s film offers a more progressive vision of the significance of gender and family.
Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma begins with a noir premise, the rejection of conventional morality. Glenn Ford plays the bad guy, the role of Ben Wade given to Russell Crowe in Mangold’s film. As such, Wade is one of those men with the “freedom and the power” to throw women away, a masculine prerogative as described by Pop Leibel in Vertigo, released a year later. But 3:10 argues that freedom itself can paradoxically become a trap, so that as an outlaw Wade must commit himself to a life of constant movement and detachment. Through his dalliance with the bar maid in Bisbee and his observations of Dan’s tender conversation with his wife (the latter scene cut in the remake), Wade and the film do something extraordinary: they celebrate the freedom of attachment, of commitment to another. Like Rousseau’s model of the social contractualist, Ben Wade may be born free, but he will nevertheless choose the chains that bind him to others — and that will send him to prison in Yuma. Daves’ 3:10 ends with a leap, as Wade jumps onto the train to prison in order to ensure that Dan will get money for capturing the fugitive, money that will save his farm and his family. Paradoxically, then, Daves’ film imagines Wade’s jump toward the morality of marriage and family as a leap into the radical, as a rupture with traditional expectations for the bad guy — i.e., the asocial conventions of his clan of outlaws that demand withdrawal from the pleasures of home. The film thus sees outlawry as having become just another set of expectations that the free man — the chooser — can leave behind. When Wade decides to jump, he leaps away from a life of violence and loneliness in favor of the feminine comforts that earlier Westerns told us tough guys despised. Of course, Wade himself will not find such comforts in a Yuma prison: his gesture instead supports Dan’s commitment to those choices. Wade’s leap thus redeems the confinements of domesticity that make Van Heflin appear so weak and haggard in the film’s opening scenes. (Shane, released four years earlier, introduced Western audiences to a similar ethic through Van Heflin’s uxorious protagonist Joe Starrett.) Domesticity, then, solves the alienation of outlawry, and the film endorses this choice by the clap of thunder at the close of the film. It sounds the beginning of rain, the restoration of the green world. Signaling its connection to the legend of the grail, the film allows Ben Wade to heal the Fisher King.
Mangold’s film fashions a very different leap. It comes after Wade observes tender scenes between Dan and his son (his wife is left behind in this narrative — and good riddance, too, after she almost flirted with Ben Wade). Dan has confessed to Wade his struggle to appear heroic before his son, a boy who, like his mother, courts the attention of the outlaw. In the remake of 3:10, what binds together the good guy and bad man at the end is their shared commitment to the fantasy of the powerful father. When Dan confesses that his war wound resulted from a shooting by one of his own men and is not a badge of glory — “I ain’t never been no hero. . . . you try telling that to your boy and see how he looks at you then” — Ben Wade switches allegiance from his outlaw gang to the maintenance of a myth that he was denied as a fatherless child. Thus when Crowe’s Wade repudiates life with his gang by killing them one by one after they shoot Dan, his gesture demonstrates not a turn toward the pleasures of the home but a rejection of the senseless brutality of his gang, “animals, all of them,” who cannot understand the value of the father.
Like many larger-than-life myths, this one too demands a death: Dan will not live to enjoy the worship of his son. What he will also not live to see is Wade’s escape from Yuma prison. This is merely one of several details that suggest that this new leap may mean less than it did in Daves’ film. In the remake Wade earlier confides that he had twice already broken out of Yuma prison. In addition, as the train pulls away from Contention, we hear Wade’s low whistle and see his well-trained horse gallop alongside the train. Thus the film both demands a sacrifice and then decreases its value. Dan’s efforts matter only to build the myth of paternal power. To save that myth, though, the film must excise Daves’ radical vision of a new kind of masculinity in favor of a more traditional view.
Atmen is the only one of these films without a biological father; the young protagonist Roman was raised in an orphanage, the story beginning with his incarceration in a youth facility for a crime whose nature will be gradually revealed throughout the film. While his search for his birth mother is his main mission, the everyday dynamics of his life center on communities of men: his concerned parole officer, the astonishingly sympathetic guards at the juvenile detention center, and most importantly, the men who work at the mortuary where he finds a job and strives to achieve adulthood.
That narrative follows a familiar pattern, though it is deftly handled. The young man, nearly speechless through much of the film, initially feels alienated at work, observing rather than participating in the handling of the dead. The other, older workers mock him for his criminal background and his hesitancy at the sight of the bodies the men prepare for burial or cremation. Over time, though, their shared activities, which reveal the essentially good character of the boy, bind them together, and they gradually become friends. Throughout this story, it is the charity and kindness of the men that stands forth, perhaps even more dramatically than the revelation of Roman’s secret crime and his search for his absent, though living, mother. The men’s generous humanity extends not only to themselves but also, and most strikingly, to the bodies they handle. In perhaps the film’s most significant scene, Roman and his gruff adversary at the mortuary dress the body of an old woman with extraordinary care and compassion. At a time when all humans are at their most vulnerable, these men treat them with an efficient kindness, a gesture associated more with women than with men. Indeed, Markovics, speaking at a post-screening interview, said that the entire film began with that image, which appeared unbidden in his mind. From its genesis, he created a plot that would realistically place a young man at that scene and a set of circumstances that would make that work meaningful for him.
From my work on postwar Westerns I am so accustomed to see male relationships devolve into violence that I watched Atmen in nervous anticipation of the men’s interaction, repeatedly asking myself, “Will this be the scene in which they erupt in loud confrontation?” Yet the film’s grace — and, again, “kindness” is the word that keeps coming to mind — seemed to be engaged in the quiet work of crafting a new model of masculinity, one composed of “tenderness and gentleness and consideration” to quote Deborah Kerr’s character, Laura Reynolds, in Tea and Sympathy, when she critiques her husband’s ideal of a manhood based on “swagger and swearing and mountain climbing.” By contrast, something of extraordinary delicacy and generosity happens in Markovics’ film.
Disappointingly, however, the relation between men and women in all these films is still figured as a zero-sum solution. If men are benevolent, women are heartless, irrelevant, or simply absent. If men are sinners, women are saints. In Atmen, the representation of females offers them limited humanity, for they range only from Roman’s homicidal mother (who confesses that she sent him to the orphanage after attempting to smother him with a pillow), to the nagging, disembodied voice of the ex-wife of Roman’s parole officer, to the simply dead, their bodies naked, scarred, and mute. In 3:10 to Yuma, Dan’s wife, so essential in Daves’ film, is reduced to a nearly silent role, fitting more the stereotype of women in traditional Westerns than the actual, vital roles women played in many of those films. In Don’t Come Knocking, a group of preternaturally kind women makes no demands on the fallen hero who left them all so long ago.
In the wonderfully titled article “The Great White Dude,” Andrew Ross reminds readers of patriarchy’s ability to shape-shift, using as his central example the film On Deadly Ground, in which Steven Seagal becomes a macho ass-whooper for the environment, thus demonstrating the “greenwashing” of traditional masculinity. Ross’ point is that it is a mistake to see the incorporation of traditionally feminine or “soft” concerns, such as the environment, as signs that masculinity has reached a kind of gender tipping point, a limit at which it engages with and newly values feminine qualities, tossing out the prerogatives of masculinity with yesterday’s news. Rather these new behaviors are merely the shiny new incarnations of the same old patriarchy. Viewing masculinity as a “medium of patriarchy,” Ross argues that “patriarchy is constantly reforming masculinity . . . Indeed, the reason why patriarchy remains so powerful is due less to its entrenched traditions than to its versatile capacity to shape-change and morph the contours of masculinity to fit with shifts in the social climate” (172).
Is that what’s happening in Atmen? Is it merely adapting to “shifts in the social climate” by characterizing its male father-figures as healers and mentors rather than as the bullies and martinets of the past? I hope not. I do not accuse any these films of bad faith: art that celebrates a fuller emotional range for men while creating works of beauty and power — which all these films are — is to be hailed. But I would like to urge that we move beyond the simplistic binary politics of films like Kramer vs. Kramer to craft a better ideal of masculinity, one that allows men greater emotional range without either mystifying the power of the father or vilifying, ignoring or sanctifying women.
Ross, Andrew. “The Great White Dude.” Constructing Masculinity. Ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge, 1995. 167-75. Print.