Masculinity for Llamas (and People too)

Not what this is about, but damn do I love this movie (source: Giphy)

This is a short essay about masculinity in two films that I recently enjoyed, Swiss Army Man and Ex Machina. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen them — the wider conversation is about portrayals of masculinity.

Also, when conducting research, I googled ‘pack animals’ and the result was this:

Thanks for the comprehensive answer, Google (source: Google)

I had forgotten that there were two kinds of pack animals — one that you put bags on, and the other that will eat you alive. I want this piece to appeal to more than one audience, but I can’t address all the pack animals, so I’ll also make this accessible to llamas.

I’ll be using the abbreviation TL;IAL, which means Too Long; I’m a Llama, which is a take on TL;DR, meaning Too long; didn’t read, a human construct. Also, italics are reserved for film titles and asides to llamas.

Also, this post was heavily inspired by discussions of masculinity from Folding Ideas and Feminist Frequency, two outstanding YouTube channels.

What We’re Talkin’ ‘Bout

It’s no secret that masculinity is deeply engrained in well… pretty much all of popular culture. In advertisements we’ll see a beefy dudes eating copious amounts of meat, or unrealistically wooly beasts that can spit magnificent distances (if you’re a llama). That’s the alpha! The Rambo’s, the Old Spice Guys, and the famous llamas.

But what about the beta? Where’s the nice guy who isn’t afraid to show his softer side? They’re around, and sometimes we’ll see them as the main characters. Don’t worry, they usually get the girl in the end (see every RomCom ever)… but have we seen any criticisms of this kind of masculinity? I mean, what’s wrong with being the nice guy?

It turns out the beta mindset has plenty of problems. They’re kind of hard to see sometimes, but I found that Swiss Army Man (SWA) (Kwan & Scheinert, 2016) and Ex Machina (Garland, 2015) addressed the issue nicely.

Film has the power to deceive us — it can show us the nice guy trying to get the girl, but by the end we’ve slowly realized he has no business “getting the girl.” These films leverage techniques in cinematography and editing to subvert the nice guy narrative, and that’s what we’re talkin’ ‘bout.

Three disclaimers:

1. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen these films. I think it’s still worth a read, and I’ll spend more time on their implications than on their content
 2. I’ll mostly be talking about beta masculinity in the context of heterosexuality, namely treating the female as an object of attainment. Masculinity comes in so many forms, and is not limited to one’s sexuality or gender identity. I’m writing from my own perspective, as a heterosexual man who most-often puts himself in the beta camp
 3. I don’t know shit about llamas

Three llama disclaimers

1. Llamas don’t understand movies, so I’ll keep it brief
 2. I don’t know if llamas understand gender politics
 3. I am very in-tune with your customs and culture — you’ll find my delivery graceful and diplomatic

The Films

I hate synopses passionately, so I’ll keep it brief. Also, both have some great screen grabs. (SWA and Ex Machina grabs, great for desktop backgrounds)

In Swiss Army Man, Paul Dano is stranded on an island, but then Daniel Radcliff (D-Rad) washes up on shore. He’s dead, sometimes sentient, and his farts propel him like a jet-ski. Dano teaches him about life and girls and they survive together. It sounds weird (it is), but it’s beautiful and it’s troubling, and Andy Hull’s score is SO GOOD.

In Ex Machina, Domhnall Gleeson (Dommy-G) goes to mega-tech-mogul Oscar Isaac’s seclusive bachelor pad to test out an Artificial Intelligence (AI) he’s made named Ava, played by Alicia Vikander. It turns out Isaac is a sicko, and he’s been making AI sex slaves, and Dommy-G wants out. This movie is rad and Vikander frickin owns every scene.

TL;IAL Harry Potter farts a lot and learns to love with the scary preacher from There Will be Blood. Minor Star Wars characters fight over a robot.

Dano + D-Rad and Ava + Dommy-G (source: film-grab.com)

The Good Stuff

Those are our films, and we have our beta’s: Dano + D-Rad, and Dommy-G (with alpha-male counterpart Oscar Isaac). Now we ask, what’s so special about film? What tricks are unfolding before our eyes?… well, not too many, honestly. Unless you’re a llama, they’ve likely tricked you before (llamas aren’t easily tricked).

First, it’s imperative we understand that film is NOT the same as narrative. They play nice, but they’re not always on the same page. What is written on the script is not the same as what is filmed. Through choices in production design, camera angles, staging, editing, and more, a film is a complex emotional experience. Film sculpts our understanding of the narrative very carefully and very differently each time we behold it.

Let’s start with Swiss Army Man, where most of Dano’s personal struggles come from not having the courage to talk to the woman he used to see on the bus every day (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead). When the corpse of D-Rad starts asking about girls, Dano crafts a fantasy of this woman for both of them — together they fall in love. The infatuation grows most acutely in the fantasy montage sequences, where they put on performances of meeting the woman on the bus. These scenes feature punctuated movement, saturated colors, and inspiring music (like in Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, also featuring Winstead)… making for a more inspiring story than Dano creepily snapping a picture of the woman without her noticing, and then making that his phone wallpaper.

If you think that’s creepy, you should watch Ex Machina. There’s a lot going on here, but I’d just like to scratch the surface of how this movie was filmed — basically, theres a lot of glass (a technology llamas have yet to harness). To film through glass is to film voyeuristically, like we’re not supposed to be watching these private events unfold. This technique tricks the audience (and the characters) into thinking the men posses the control. Dommy-G, the ‘nice guy’ believes he can rescue Ava, that he can save the day and defeat the evil tech-giant. Like in SWA, we find out that the beta isn’t actually so empowered in this story. (Watch this great video from Lessons From the Screenplay for more analysis.)

TL;IAL sucks for you — film is amazing and I’m sorry the only media you can appreciate is spitting on stuff

Girl Power

Men this, man that, beta, alpha, llama, llama. What about the women? Do they get a say in any of this? Fortunately, they do, and they both get the last word in.

Winstead’s character, who we’ve seen develop mostly through creepy flashbacks and warped fantasy sequences, is largely unknown to the audience. She’s mostly anonymous, the apple of Dano’s eye — never really getting the chance to make a case for herself. When we do meet her, the result is underwhelming… as it should be. Why should this woman care about Dano or D-Rad? As she unravels their infatuation, the film ends in a frenzy. As she finally has a chance to contemplate what these men have been up to, she ends the film with a resounding “What the fuck?” Indeed, Mary Elizabeth Winstead — what the fuck just happened.

I won’t spoil the ending of Ex Machina, but Ava undergoes a lot of character development. Ultimately, it’s under the watchful eye of her captor/wannabe-savior, but as I’ve mentioned, things are not what they seem… Honestly, I can’t say much without giving things away, but Ava defies our expectations in so many ways. She rejects the hold of the alpha vs beta masculine struggle, and uses their expectations of her femininity to her advantage. Does this paint a picture of women as conniving and evil? No, because the men in this movie are completely controlling and awful, and that’s stupid anyway.

TL;IAL girl llamas don’t take no shit from boy llamas.

Conclusions

What’s the point? Beta masculinity is a real thing, and just because it’s different from the in-your-face macho man attitude, it still has it’s own issues, particularly towards women. Here are two films that have used all the tools at cinema’s disposal to deliver that message. The way we perceive these films and masculinity will change every time we think about them. For example, even though Ex Machina was made in 2015, one could read it as a commentary on toxic masculinity in the tech world.

Think about the ways in which you experience or exude masculinity. Like I said, anyone can be/feel masculine, and this is a short glimpse into my perspective on the matter. Look for how masculinity manifests in films and in all media — it might be subtle or glaringly obvious. Anything can be a criticism if you want it to be.

TL;IAL can llamas even read?