David O’Donoghue takes a look at how Whiplash and Foxcatcher grapple with father figures and masculinity in the light of what people have called ‘The Crisis of Masculinity’.
“I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.”
So said father of psychology Sigmund Freud. Indeed the ‘father figure’ has been always been a fascinating and vital archetype in much of our art and culture and the figure of the father has received special attention in recent years because of what’s called the’ Crisis of Masculinity’. Blaring out from thinkpieces, news segments and comment sections, this ‘Crisis of Masculinity’ illustrates how the decline of traditional gender roles combined with the collapse of male-dominated industries, such as construction in recent years, has led to a generation of boys without effective ideas of masculine identity, who turn their aggressive urges toward crime and delinquency instead of channelling their frustration into useful endeavours.
I was thinking about this as I drew comparisons between two of the finest films in recent cinema: Foxcatcher and Whiplash. Both films are critically acclaimed acting masterclasses, that take otherwise niche subjects (amateur wrestling and jazz drumming) and use them to explore compelling characters and the universally engaging aspects of their fascinating and unique relationships.
And both are banging the war drums and chalking up their hands, grappling intensely with the complex subject of male identity and the necessity of the father figure.
Masculinity has always been a subject that fascinated me. Whether finding it in the terse, stoic prose of Ernest Hemingway or tales of knightly chivalry from Arthurian legend, the subject of what it means to be a man is something that has always caught my attention. Growing up at a time where concepts of gender and masculine identity are becoming dusty relics of the past I can see young men all around me struggling the find some sense of themselves in a world where the well-worn path to manhood has been erased from the map. We no longer have the elaborate coming-of-age rituals of tribal societies, nor the horrific baptism of fire that was the draft to war, and so we struggle to make sense of things, fashioning father figures for ourselves and trying to live up to their ideals. I can’t count how many men I know, including myself,who model themselves on some hodge podge mix of Han Solo, James Bond and Batman, desperate for some ideal to cling to.
And film is as good a place as any to look.
And so we come back to Foxcatcher and Whiplash.
These films are two of the finest of the last year and both address the issues of father figures and paternalism and the roles these factors can play in the lives of ambitious young men, both positive and negative. Foxcatcher concerns Olympic gold medal winning wrestler Mark Schultz, whose ambition and ability are often overshadowed by his more renowned brother Dave. Mark is taken under the wing of Steve Carrell’s anaemic, millionaire wrestling obsessive John DuPont. Du Pont doesn’t just want to use Mark to fulfil his own dreams of wrestling superstardom, which his slight frame makes unlikely, but wants to shape Tatum’s beefcake into the living embodiment of his own bizarre conceptions of old-school machismo and honour, exactly the kind of rough and tumble values Dupont feels can be used to restore the United States to glory and global respect.
From their initial meeting Mark seems to take something from Du Pont. Mark is a young man with plenty of built-up rage and aggression and Du Pont’s soaring talking points about masculine glory and honourable battle seem to give him a way to channel it, a way to coat his raw brutishness in the façade of knightly and patriotic service. Following his meeting with DuPont, Mark confronts his brother Dave with a proposition to assist Du Pont. The millionaire’s words and turns of phrase spill easily from the young man’s mouth, who seems to have found his figure of paternalistic inspiration.
And so too, does Miles Teller’s character in Whiplash. Andrew is a shy young man, but dedicated to his music none the less. He practices rigorously and, although his relationship with his own father seems relatively cordial if unengaged, he has crafted a real father figure out of the jazz drumming greats he aspires to play like: Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich among others. But Andrew finds a father figure almost directly parallel to his own father in aggressive and demanding conductor J.K Simmons. Where his own father seems, much like Andrew, largely meek and willing to yield to those around him, much as he yielded his dream of becoming a writer, J.K. Simmons character of Terence Fletcher will stand for no such weakness. Andrew immediately recognises something of value in his hellish practice sessions, as Fletcher demands the same thing of Andrew that the young drummer demands of himself: greatness, and nothing less.
In both Foxcatcher and Whiplash, the father figure represents someone who gives an ambitious and talented young man the opportunity to arise out of the shadows and pursue fame and greatness.
But in Foxcatcher’s case, this pursuit of self-fulfilment also becomes one of self-destruction. As Du Pont ushers the young wrestler Schultz into his world of soaring mythology and ideology, of big guns and big, macho muscles, he also ushers the young man into his delusion. Du Pont’s unhinged nature steadily reveals itself, emerging as a sick and twisted funhouse mirror reflection of all his soaring dreams of American glory. In one particularly revealing scene, really the first to show us that DuPont may not just be around to fulfil Schultz dreams of glory, the millionaire encourages the young man to snort lines of cocaine with him in his private helicopter as the two fly to a dinner honouring Du Pont. Schultz looks wary at first but Du Pont soon goads him into it. As the two pass into the greedy euphoria of the drug, Du Pont relishes the opportunity to get the young wrestler to practice an introduction speech the millionaire has prepared for himself. It reads like a hagiography, glorifying the now pathetic looking Du Pont, and Schultz repeats it in a coked-up chorus that represents, in one small scene, all the self-glorifying excess that was the flipside to the talk of “pride” and “honour” in Reagan’s America. The father figure has turned from guiding light to swallowing shadow, a darkness that will consume the events of the rest of the film in madness and mayhem.
Whiplash, although it explores the negative impact that such demanding attitudes and soaring rhetoric can have coming from the father figure, regards such a figure’s presence as ultimately more positive. Fletcher is nothing if not a demanding figure, no stranger to inducing pain in the name of passion and the pursuit of glory. Ultimately his attempts to live up to his conductor’s impossible standards push Andrew further than he has ever gone. He drums non-stop, obsessing over tempo and rhythm and wears his hands bloody in the name of impressing his new found father figure. Eventually the pressure breaks Andrew as his pursuit of perfection leaves him mangled in a car accident. Still, bloodied and battered, he shuffles his way like a reanimated corpse to the stage, unwilling to let go of his “big shot”, even if the gushing blood causes his drumsticks to slip through his fingers.
But although both characters are driven to destruction in the pursuit of the greatness that their mentors desire, things turn out differently for Mark than they do for Andrew. Andrew, after a break from drumming in which he gets conductor Fletcher fired out of spite, soon finds himself drawn back for one last gig. It appears he can’t resist the allure of challenge and the promise of greatness offered to him by Fletcher, even if it may destroy him in the process. In this way we see how ultimately the transcendent figure of the father can cause two kinds of destruction. They can absorb you into their own violent delusion and crush you underneath their thumb, as Du Pont did to the young wrestler he had wanted to give a shot at greatness. Or the destruction can be one not directly malicious, but instead one viewed as a necessary baptism of fire to scorch away the remains of mediocrity and sluggishness, leaving only the tough steel of hard-won greatness.
Foxcatcher shows the dangers that can come from the adoption of surrogate father figures. The all consuming hero-worship, the potential for manipulation and ultimately the possibility that those you glorify the most may turn out to be those whose betrayal hurts all the more. But in Whiplash a more positive portrayal of the surrogate father is found. While our father figures may put us through hell, perhaps, in some cases, such suffering is necessary to produce greatness. Whiplash asserts that, without fathers to push and prod and motivate, so many young men who might otherwise be world-renowned artists or athletes or astronauts, instead simply settle for what Fletcher calls the two most dangerous words in the English language: “Good Job”.