That the Nineties are proving to be a decade of a 'crisis of masculinity' is now a commonplace. But, in film, this idea is translated into the homely image of a crisis of fatherhood as what it means to be a man is examined through the prism of the father-son relationship.
Lambasted only last year by Michael Medved for single-handedly bringing about the ruin of the nuclear family, Hollywood appears to have taken up the 'Families Need Fathers' banner with zeal: even street-gang films like South Central, Menace 2 Society and Boyz N the Hood (1991) have all laid the blame for black gang violence at the feet of single mothers and absent fathers.
The father who is missing in all these 'paternity' films is not, as one might expect, the disciplinarian, but the father who knows how to love. In South Central the ex-con is saved from a wasted life by his love for his son. In American Heart another ex-con, Jack Kelson (Jeff Bridges), repeats to his son Nick the line 'You keep me straight and I'll keep you straight' like a mantra, but ultimately fails because he cannot express his love.
In A Bronx Tale, the young Calogero is saved from death with his delinquent pals by a guardian angel gangster (Chazz Palminteri), who is able to show love in a way Calogero's hard-working father (Robert De Niro) cannot. And in In the Name of the Father, the failure of Giuseppe Conlon (Pete Postlethwaite) to express his love for his son Gerry is implicitly blamed for the delinquency which makes him an easy target for a frame-up.
This plea for a father who is not afraid of appearing weak by showing love for his son appears to be an inversion of the one which was offered during the decade which invented 'the delinquent' - the 1950s. In Rebel without a Cause (1955), 'mixed-up' Jim Stark (James Dean) was driven to hanging out with trouble-making kids by his revulsion for a weak father who dotes on him.
But the very obstacles that make affectionate relations between fathers and sons so difficult in real life also make the representation of the relationship on screen a prickly and often unconvincing affair. And, in the mechanisms employed to overcome this, something is revealed about how far-off the notion of a loving paternity still appears.
In the Name of the Father was fortunate inasmuch as the unusual and extreme circumstances of the plot, incarceration, forced father and son together: they shared a cell in the film (inaccurately). Other films have to be more wily. A favourite ruse is to employ 'fathers' who are not fathers, as in A Perfect World, Man without a Face and A Bronx Tale, or, as in American Heart, a father who has not seen his son since he was a baby.
Another strategy, which has become increasingly popular with films aimed at younger, media-literate audiences, is to exploit the very 'unreality' of the film medium. So action films like Sidekick (1992) and Last Action Hero (1993) self-consciously play the love a young boy has for his idealised screen hero against the failure / absence of the real father, and the impossibility / unreality of that love.
In Last Action Hero the boy's father is dead; in Sidekick his father is alive but a fat, nerdy computer programmer. In both films the young boy gets to meet his dream hero - but only long enough for the boy to learn how to be a man himself and realise that the superhero functions best as super-ego. In Last Action Hero the boy is gradually disappointed by Jack Slater / Arnold Schwarzenegger's lack of phallic ability in the real world. The message is not so much that 'guns are really dangerous', but that the young boy-older man partnership is 'really' dangerous. For no sooner is affection sought outside the home than the problem of the ambiguous sexuality of the substitute father raises its ugly head.
In A Perfect World, set in 1963, the sexual anxieties are initially very pronounced, because the 'father-son' romance here is fostered by an escaped convict, Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner), who kidnaps the boy, Phillip. These anxieties are raised right at the beginning only to be repudiated. A fellow escapee tries to molest Phillip and is summarily executed by Haynes. A little later the boy is embarrassed to change in front of Haynes. Haynes asks, 'Are you afraid I'll see your pecker?' Phillip nods and explains shamefacedly, 'It's puny.' Haynes gets Phillip to show him and pronounces it just the right size for a boy his age. It is the scene that transforms Haynes from potential perverter to masculine mentor.
Man without a Face, also set in the early Sixties, makes a great show of anatomising the origins of the corruption which blights relations between men and boys. Nick, a fatherless 11-year-old boy suffocated by his feminist mother and sisters, turns for instruction to the 'wild man' of the town, the outsider McCleod (Mel Gibson), one side of whose face is hideously deformed. McCleod has a dark past, signalled by his scars: his face was burnt in a car crash that killed his passenger, a young pupil, cost him his career as a teacher and prompted accusations of sexual shenanigans with the boy. When it emerges that he is spending time with Nick, McCleod is hauled up before a star chamber of 'experts'. The psychiatrist (who is rather faggy, of course) asks 'Were you as fond of Nick as you were of Patrick (the dead pupil)?' 'More, probably,' McCleod answers challengingly and goes on to harangue the panel for their seedy minds.
What is on trial here, and in all these films to a greater or lesser extent, is the audience's own anxieties about close relations between men and boys. McCleod refuses to allow all man-boy relationships to be judged guilty until proved innocent. But for all that, Man without a Face cops out: to spare the boy the 'probings' of a criminal investigation McCleod agrees to forgo the opportunity to clear his name and accepts an injunction never to see the boy again - a metaphorical death. Like the ending of Dead Poets Society (1989) we are invited to feel anger at the cruel injustices which separate boys from their loved mentors, but also take secret comfort in the fact of it.
Loss and mourning are right at the heart of these films - which is why so many produce a corpse instead of a father unafraid to love (Bridges in American Heart, Palminteri in A Bronx Tale, Postlethwaite in In the Name of the Father, Costner in A Perfect World). They are an attempt to locate the source of the 'original sin' which makes the love they seek so elusive. Hence the fondness for the past, particularly the early 1960s, when America is deemed to have lost its innocence with the murder of its loving father, Jack Kennedy. A Perfect World even contrives to have Costner shot by an FBI agent on the eve of the assassination.
Death is yet again employed to make the expression of paternal love possible at the very moment that it becomes impossible in My Life. The most recent of the father-son romances turns out to be a neat comment on Hollywood's own role in the contemporary 'crisis of masculinity'. It is through the third party of his camera, videoing his life, that the dying Bob Jones (Michael Keaton) manages to make explicit his love for his unborn son, and through it learn to forgive his own father for his inabilty to show his love for him.
Mark Simpson's new book, 'Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity', is published by Cassell at pounds 12.99
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