In the early phase of his career, Burt Lancaster is not only there to be looked at and seen, as all actors are, particularly stars; nor is he just — albeit significantly – characterised by ‘to-be-looked-at-ness,’ something that is seen to be the exclusive and particular lot of women in cinema; and nor is this ‘to-be-looked-at-ness,’ always deflected by action and violence, as is often argued by theorists like Steve Neale. Burt is dressed and undress for the audience’s pleasure. That is true of other stars of the era, one thinks of Rock Hudson, for example, although Burt seems to enjoy it more than Rock. The reason for making this particular video was simply to show how often Burt is propositioned by women, and how that is acknowledged and deflected; how that often sees the characters he plays acknowledge it as an objectifying ploy…one which places him in a position where he has his price and can be bought well….like patriarchal notions of ‘woman’ from the period. He is desirable; can almost always be had on his terms; and can sometimes be bought on others. It’s part of a locus of meanings and actions associated with his star persona at this period that contribute to his representing a particular type of man but one that evokes a certain kind of masculinity in crisis in the post-war period.
Was Burt Lancaster ever a gay pinup? I mean he obviously is one to me now but I mean socially, amongst gay subcultures in the 40 and 50s? Kiss The Blood off My Hands has a great scene with Burt, in his prime and shirtless, being flogged senseless. It ostensibly was an approved system of punishment handed out by the courts in post-war Britain, where the film is set. It´s a scene that must have inspired many fantasies and clearly influenced many a subsequent gay sex shop.
PS on a more serious note, it´s also worth thinking about male action stars and scenes like these, where they do bear the burden of the look, where they are objectified, but usually via pain or suffering, a punishment unjustly meted out. Errol Flynn, the major action star of his day, had several scenes like this in the Michael Curtiz pirate pictures he did in the thirties for Warners. What´s interesting about this one, is that the punishment is just. It´s not quite the fault of the character Burt plays. He was a POW, he´s not being too successful at processing trauma, he´s lashing out with terrible consequences. He´s done the deed but the rages or red flags that lead to them are caused by the war and he´s just as much a victim as the people he ends up victimising. He´s mired in circumstances outside of his control that work against him.
A film that jogs memories for Mike, as in the process of revisiting Fight Club he realises what an impact it had on him as a teenager. David Fincher’s outrageously stylish and visceral story of a generation of dispossessed men finding purpose in violence has only increased in relevance in the twenty years since its release, drawing comparisons to incels and school shooters, but it also leads Mike to recall how it affected his interests and attitudes in his youth. José, who saw it on its release, was on the positive side of its mixed response and recalls trying to convince his friends of its greatness – and is proud to have been proven right in the years since, in which it rapidly became perhaps the defining cult hit.
Mike is surprised to discover a sexual dimension to it that he hadn’t quite realised was there – obviously, Tyler and Marla’s ceiling-shaking lovemaking sessions hadn’t escaped his attention, but it wasn’t until this screening that he saw Marla as desirable and human, rather than simply present and symbolic. She’s weary but hopeful, fiery and alive but constantly flirting with death, and with the benefit of knowing the film’s infamous twist, deeply sympathetic. Mike argues, too, for a strain of homoeroticism — Steve Erickson writes that Chuck Palahniuk came out as gay in 2004. The clues are everywhere both in his book and Fincher’s film — in the fighting and particularly in Brad Pitt’s appearance – more than powerful and intimidating, he’s attractive, the narrator’s ideal self (though we don’t, as José points out, see him topless and sweaty nearly as often as we might remember).
It’s not without its problems. The question of exactly what it says, and indeed how deliberately it says it, is dependant perhaps on the viewer’s mood and cultural context as much as anything. Fight Club wants to be thought of as a satire, that’s clear, but of what – and is it as much of a satire as it thinks it is? Mike suggests that much of what drives this problematic area of debate is the effectiveness with which the film brings us into the narrator’s mental state, conveying beautifully his attitudes, desires, repressions, regardless of whether we might think of them as positive or negative. Were the film more objective, more willing to offer judgement of its characters, these questions would be less troubling but the film would have none of its potency.
We agree that Fight Club is a considerable piece of work – José less enthusiastically, but it would be hard to be as turned on by it as Mike is. To have seen it on the big screen is a treat – every one of its compositions is electrifying, beautiful, considered and inventive – and the themes it explores have only grown in relevance since 1999. If it comes round, don’t hesitate to buy front row tickets. If it doesn’t, dig out the DVD, which you definitely own, and watch it again.
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An imperfect combination of documentary and dramatisation, American Animals gives us a lot to talk about. Its story of four college students embarking on a heist raises ideas of privilege, ambition and hope (or lack thereof), self-image, and above all, masculinity. In its self-conscious invocation of the kinds of films twenty-something white guys adore, such as Fight Club and Reservoir Dogs, American Animals builds a portrait of the modern young man with which Mike sympathises but which José cannot tolerate.
Neither of us finds the film without deep flaws, and indeed we could not claim to have really enjoyed it. But it is valuable and leads to a lively debate. We use the phrase “American masculinity” a lot without burdening ourselves with defining it, and Mike observes that all films with American in the title are full of themselves.