Friday, January 22, 2016

No Country for Old Men

So some of you may have seen the kerfuffle over the fact that time exists following the release of the Force Awakens last month. There was so much criticism of Carrie Fischer and how she’d aged that the amazing actress finally had to comment and tell the fanbabies to stuff it. People rightfully applauded. There were commemorative memes. It was a great time. But there was something about the discussion in terms of gender that really struck me the wrong way that I couldn’t put my finger on.

This weekend, instead of doing housework I watched every review Mistress Diamanda Hagan has done of a Jeffrey Combs movie, because it was really exciting to find someone who has as much of an actor crush on him as I do (all though hers is more platonic than mine due to, you know, not being into guys and all). Also because screw house work, it’s not like the Queen’s coming over. One thing that ground my gears, though, was her reaction to Combs’ role as a detective in the movie Faust: Love of the Damned. Some of it seemed to be a really strong aversion to seeing Combs cast against type, which is a topic for an essay of its own, but there was something more to it than that. It’s not as though he’s never played a badass before. Usually not that straightforward, sure, but he actually kind of specializes in characters that, rather than having some kind of Napoleonic complex, just seem to have never noticed they’re physically unintimidating. He can project a great force of personality, and it’s something I’ve always appreciated. It’s not as though his performance in the movie in question was unconvincing, at least in the clips used in the review. So why did this particular role just seem so jarring?

Oh, probably because the character looked like this.

I so wish he was on a motorcycle so that I could caption this "The mid-life crisis starter pack."
Yeeeeeah. Combs is a good-looking guy (in my humble opinion) but everything about this says, “Trying too hard."  At the time, Combs was forty-six-damn-years old and already at the point of telling (adorable) “you kids these days …” stories at Star Trek cons. This is based on a comic with which I’m not familiar, so I tried to find pictures of the character from the comics, thinking that this had to be one of those things where they chose faithfulness to the source material over common sense. Wouldn’t you know it? An image search for the character’s name only turns up pictures of Combs from the movie and a web search only brings up discussions of the movies, so I’m thinking his character was either a composite of several comics characters (since there seems to be about five people living in the city in the movie) or invented whole cloth to keep the narrative moving. Which means they chose to dress him like a character played by someone twenty years younger. (Watch some fan of the comic show up to tell me I’m wrong.) Combs did apparently choose this role from all the characters in the film since his friends produced it, so it’s entirely possible this was his idea. Especially given that that hair and the sideburns looks distinctively seventies, when Combs would actually have been young enough to wear that. And for all I know he was riding up to the studio every day on a motorcycle his wife yelled at him for buying. But somebody should have damn well told him no. I’ve been told it’s sexist to tell women they’re dressing too young. Now, I’m usually not one for “turnabout is fairplay” – I’m just as disgusted by Marvel Studios selling me Chris Hemsworth and Bret Dalton’s bodies instead of an actual product I want to watch as I am by the objectification of women that is still widespread throughout media – but if it’s sexist to tell Grandma to take off the yoga pants with “Sexy” emblazoned across the ass, maybe we should have balanced it out years ago by telling Combs to take off the jacket, shave the sideburns, and wash the hairspray out of his hair. Put the same guy in a proper detectives’ coat and give him a decent haircut and it would have been way less jarring. 

          What do these nerdy sticking points have to do with each other? Well, it was when I was pondering this baffling costume decision that I suddenly realized what struck me as wrong about all the conversations about aging and sexism. All of them assumed that we just allow famous men to age gracefully and let them be sexy silver foxes while banishing women over thirty, Logan’s Run style, from the public eye.

I feel like that's the face he makes when looking back on his appearance in this movie.

          Once again, look at that. Look at the dignity we afford aging actors. We don’t allow actors to age – that’s crap. We allow them to keep desperately pretending to be thirty. We’d allow actresses to do so too, but since most of the value we place on women is in appearance, that’s harder to hide. In fact, look at how much praise is showered on women whose age doesn’t show. On the male end, Jackie Chan can continue doing fight scenes even though he’s started breaking bonesfrom the stunts he used to laugh off. Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford can continue doing action scenes, even if they injure themselves in the process. Al Pacino can keep on playing cops long, long after reaching retirement age for an actual police officer. Jonathan Frakes can shimmy into his Next Gen costume and wander around the Enterprise set for the finale of the show. But don’t mistake that for “allowing them to age.” All of those things have the same purpose as a face lift or some trendy Hollywood suicide diet – creating the illusion of youth, or at least of respectable middle age. And just like when a face lift goes wrong, we’re all too ready to laugh at the results. Sometimes they even outright lie about the ages of their leading men. The MCU pretends Tony Stark is ten years younger than RDJ despite RDJ being generally considered a very sexy person “even” at fifty. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. pretends the same about Agent Coulson despite the fact Clark Gregg is legitimately, actually still in very good shape (as a brown belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu who does most of his own stunts). Even NCIS fudges the age of its leading man, despite, again, Mark Harmon being considered a highly attractive individual. In the end, most action stars, and even actors who were never known for being beefcake action heroes, end up like Tim Roth’s character in The Incredible Hulk – talented, having contributed a great deal to their field, and desperately hoping for something, anything, to give them the strength to compete with the upcoming generation. Making that movie the only case in history in which Sylvester Stallone would have been a better casting choice than Tim Roth. No, the actors aren’t forced to do these silly things – but I doubt that it’s what they’d be doing if the pressure didn’t exist.

Just look at this decrepit old man.

          We live in a culture that values youth, no matter how you slice it. Many people more qualified than me have already discussed the crap that is the beauty standards of Hollywood, especially for women, but I’m going to take a stab at the masculine end of things. If you’ll forgive someone who is decidedly not male for dabbling.

          Our culture tends to equate physical strength and emotional strength, even though it’s 2016. That’s why Strong Female Characters™ have to be ass-kickers, and can never be, say a brilliant scientist who is working tirelessly on a cure for some awful disease and has seemingly superhuman compassion for the afflicted but who is chubby and gets winded going upstairs or a kindhearted teacher who would walk through hell and high water to help a stranger but would probably faint from overexertion on the way. That’s the reason that DS9’s Weyoun is generally remembered by the fandom as a coward – despite the fact he’s actually almost parasuicidal in his willingness to put himself in danger (and I’m not even talking about Weyoun Six, did we forget that Weyoun Eight died mouthing off to Garak while Garak was holding a phaser rifle, while physically standing between the Female Founder and Garak?) and during space battles, at least, was on the front lines right next to Dukat. The guy never picked up a phaser or threw a punch so it must not count, right? That’s the reason people crap on Hawkeye – his trick isn’t as impressive as lighting up the sky with lightning, but how does that make him any less interesting of a character? That’s the reason Aquaman fans desperately bring up Aquaman’s powers being awesome instead of the character being awesome when they’re getting butthurt by the broader pop culture perception that Aquaman sucks. 
And it’s the reason there’s not a lot of good roles for older people of either gender – we equate their physical frailty (which may or may not even exist) with an inability to contribute to the story in other ways. Wise old mentor character? Sorry Sensei, better be able to back it up by still being able to do back flips and round kicks at eighty. Someone’s beloved dad or grandpa they’re trying to save from the thugs who’ve taken over the building? Sorry, Grandpa, we’ll always choose a kid, wife, or love interest over you for that position, and even if we do go there, it’ll probably be seen as demeaning somehow. The Grandparents watching the kids while Mom and Dad run off to be an action couple? Not likely in the world of no grandparents most fiction seems to take place in. If you’re really, really lucky, you might make it as an authority figure of some kind, like a police commissioner or the President, but you’ll probably be at best irrelevant to the story or at worst, dangerously incompetent. So in order to include men and sometimes women over forty, we pretend they’re not. Maybe all of this is related to more and more movies being action-oriented, maybe it’s just the ultimate example of an underlying pathology we’ve had for far too long.

          On the other hand, I think our reluctance to acknowledge the passing of time in film, and the negative reaction when we are reminded time exists, is also because we’re creatures of habit and have always hated change. Who wants to see their favorite action star grow old and lose their spot to some punk you don’t know? Who wants to think about iconic characters like Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, and Princess Leia getting older? We want more with these characters, yet we don’t want to acknowledge change. That might work well for a medium like comics, or even for a film series like James Bond that accepts casting changes, but not so well otherwise. On a more morbid note, I think that’s why people react with shock when celebrities, even celebrities in their eighties, pass away. We want to hold onto them forever and freeze them as they were when we came to know and love their characters or their music, so we cover our ears and squint our eyes and pretend we don’t see the lines on their faces or hear the quiver in their voice or . But we can’t hold on forever. No one is immortal. Except maybe Johnny Depp. 

At what point do we accept this man is a Highlander?

          I think we just need to move on and accept that people get older. Instead of parading nostalgia for the increasingly mundane, we need to accept that things and times change. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia in and of itself, but sometimes I feel as though if I see one more “only nineties kids know …” or “today’s kids will never know the struggle” from people no older than myself, I’m going to explode. I think more leading men need to follow the lead of Jack Nicholson – he still stars as a romantic lead, but usually in romantic comedies that are premised on him being an older man (and often costarring older women, too). Clint Eastwood is another good role model – he still plays a badass but in a way that is more suited to his age.  I think more leading ladies need to follow Carrie Fischer’s example of just not giving a shit what people think. We as audience members of all ages need to reward movies that value the contributions of people of all ages, and more broadly movies that value strength other than physical. We need to stop assuming that women are always the only victims of a prejudiced system – sometimes the prejudice has nothing or less than we thought to do with gender. Women do get the short end of the stick a lot of the time, that’s why I’m a feminist. Hence the first essay I did for this blog. But we really need to start listening and stop making assumptions.
This is not very far removed from some of my neighbors.

          And most of all, at all costs, Jeffrey Combs must not be allowed within ten feet of that style of leather jacket ever again. 

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