Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Disappearing Frontier and Masculinity in The Revenant

In the Prologue and Introduction to Garry Wills’ book John Wayne’s America, the author argues that Wayne “stood for an America people felt was disappearing or had disappeared, for a time ‘when men were men’” (14). Wills is of course referring to the myth of the retreating frontier, the idea that as civilization encroached upon the last stretches of the American Manifest Destiny Dream, a type of rugged, self-reliant masculinity was being lost. This sentiment was recently voiced by filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu in an interview he gave regarding his latest film, The Revenant. In the interview, conducted by David Segal of the New York Times, Inarritu made repeated reference to how graphic, gritty and realistic his film was. In his words, he was attempting to capture a world and a type of man who was “eating animals, wearing animals…threatened by accidents, diseases, tribes, wars”. Inarritu’s idea of masculinity, rooted in a claim towards authentic, unpasteurized reality, can be easily summed up by a phrase he repeated throughout the interview, modern men, men who are living in an increasingly deindustrialized, digitized world, are “wimps”. This is a slight departure from the way in which John Wayne and his contemporary hyper masculine film figures were presented in their films. While Wayne was, in the words of Wills, an indomitable and undoubtedly tough figure, “His physical autonomy and self-command, the ease and authority of his carriage, made each motion a statement of individualism…” (19), the hold of the physiognomy of an “axiom of the cinema” like Charlton Heston no longer seems to be the bar by which we define our heroes. If Inarritu and his film are to be believed, masculinity involves more than looking the part and getting a bit roughed up. Stories abound of the torture Leonardo DiCaprio endured for his role in The Revenant, involving nearly getting mauled by a bear and standing in a freezing river for hours. It seems that in a world where feminism (or some version of it) has become a commonplace self-identification for people in the public eye, proponents of a “traditional” form of masculinity are forced to go to ever more extreme lengths in order to preserve the “authenticity” of male experience.

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