Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Hereafter: Nonchalance and Gender

As the credits scrolled across the screen and the lights grew slightly brighter in the theater, my friend Becky turned to me in her seat and sternly said, “I don’t want to hear a single word.” I guess that she heard over the movie’s score my constant sighs and saw through theater’s darkness my incessant eye-rolling and knew that I thought very little of the movie we went to see, Hereafter. I tend to be critical of movies, especially of ones that are overly hyped and widely popular, and I have a tendency to openly voice my dissatisfaction. Becky has been on the receiving end of many of these rants, most of which were about movies she enjoys, so I understood her decision to preemptively stop me from critically railing the movie we had just finished seeing.

But the truth is that aesthetically speaking, Hereafter is severely lacking in terms of plot development, acting ability, and overall general cinematic quality, and this dearth of good material prevents the film from adequately and convincingly developing any of the statements it makes about masculinity. Gender is not one of Hereafter’s primary topics—a factor that might seem strange considering that its director is Clint Eastwood, a man known for having a very distinct relationship with masculinity—but the film does make modest, implicit statements, primarily about how many men struggle with their masculine identities and about how masculinity tied to objective, scientific knowledge excludes certain topics from seriously entering intelligent conversations. Although the film addresses these issues, it unfortunately does not effectively develop them to profound levels.

Matt Damon’s character, George Lonegan, plays an ex-psychic trying to get his life on track despite having to deal with his abilities to communicate with the dead, something he refers to multiple times as not “a gift, but a curse.” The film avoids mentioning masculinity explicitly and successfully resists falling into typical gender exaggerations we frequently see within films, suggesting that Eastwood’s desire is to approach masculinity from a complicated standpoint. Lonegan, for example, is not a traditional Eastwood character; he’s a sensitive and moody man who attends cooking classes at nights to expand his interests and lets active women interested in him pursue him romantically in roles that assert their agency. But he also embodies masculine virtues as well; his new profession is within a blue collar industry, and after he’s fired, he’s shown commiserating with his brother in a stereotypically masculine bar. Furthermore, his ambivalence towards his psychic abilities works to present him as a mysterious character who is working hard to achieve “normalcy”. This desire to attain what he considers a normal identity is not surprising, and it explicitly relates to Lonegan’s “curse”. But considering the dueling masculine nature that Damon’s character embodies by being at times traditionally masculine and at other times not, it can be assumed that his longing for a normal lifestyle extends to a desire to live simply as a masculine man among the complex and competing understandings of what that entails. The “curse” that everyone mistakes as a “gift” is, therefore, not only his ability to channel the deceased, but also the gender roles society grants/forces upon him.

In the case of Cecile de France’s character, Marie Lelay, the issue of gender correlates to knowledge. After undergoing a near-death experience, De France’s character gains the ability to see the afterlife, and this forces her to change her worldview. Before the experience, Lelay was a successful news anchor known for asking her guests hard questions; here it’s acknowledged that her success is incumbent upon assuredly knowing that what she thinks is morally correct. After the event, however, her understanding of reality is called into question, and the information that she previously felt sure about now suddenly appears uncertain. As a result, she loses her career and although she procures a job as a writer, she cannot do much to convince her publishers to accept her draft of a book she’s written about the afterlife. What is worth noting about these situations is that the actors of resistance are all men who feel that knowledge should be tied to objectivity and empiricism. Lelay’s efforts, however, undermine this assumption because they rely upon her subjective experiences and refuse to take clear positions. The information that she presents offers many questions and answers nothing. In taking spiritual and personal information and suggesting that it deserves equal acknowledgement as scientific empiricism, Lelay’s struggles accentuate the difficulties that non-masculine voices must overcome. She refuses to pursue more masculine topics—her publishers want her to write a book that critically examines the history of a former French politician—and eventually her book about the afterlife does get published, but the struggle she faces underscores how gendered rhetoric and discourse is and how information is often filtered through a masculine sieve as it reaches audiences.

Unfortunately, however, these aspects of the film do not receive much attention in its plot, nor are they emphasized heavily in the acting. Lonegan’s masculine qualities operate only on the periphery of the film, and Lelay’s struggles with masculine discourse communities are deemphasized. In part, this is because the production qualities are low; the script is divided into three separate stories that hardly feel connected, preventing the movie from achieving any sense of profundity. Considering that the film’s main concern—spiritual ways of knowing, the “really real”, and the afterlife—this lack of awe inspiring cinematography acts as an extreme detriment to the movie’s sense of importance. It could be that Eastwood wanted to present these themes in ways that suggest that they are so relevant to our way of life that we should consider them mundane, but, unfortunately, the execution presents the material in a manner that counter-intuitively appears blasé about everything.

Sadly, this nonchalant positioning extends beyond the spiritual layers and into the film’s themes regarding gender. The reason that Hereafter makes little headway in arguing that masculinity is a complicated phenomenon for many men and that discourse favors a masculine objectivity that hinders alternative forms of knowledge is because the movie does not adequately appear to be making any form of strong argument. The film addresses its main concerns in a neutral manner, and unfortunately this prevents its secondary concerns from feeling meaningful and lasting.

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