Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Duplicity, Tony Gilroy

Forget Judd Apatow. The screenwriter with the most interesting things to say today about men, masculinity, and maturity is Tony Gilroy. Apatow's bromances may provide some very friendly discussion points about what it means to be a man in contemporary American society, but Tony Gilroy's films (both the two he's directed—Michael Clayton and Duplicity—and those he's written—the Bourne films, the new State of Play, Armageddon, and The Cutting Edge {wha?}) offer intelligence where Apatow reaches for bathos, and face up to the world where Apatow's heros usually start turning to their "best man."

Gilroy, however, is just as concerned with the fragility of men, with the complex ways masculinity has been pulled into odd shapes by societal formations which seem not so much crushing as incomprehensible—mirrors of the ego so large that they dwarf one's reflection. In Gilroy's scripts, action, decisiveness, and courage have become fungible commodities, not personal attributes, not ways of stabilizing an identity or stiffening one's self-confidence. I don't want to give away a major plot point of Duplicity, which is a tremendous film and really worth seeing, but virility itself has become, for Gilroy's characters, an institutional and not a personal characteristic, and men can only exercise it in the name of an institution—a corporation, a nation, an agency.

But the most interesting aspect of Gilroy's meditations on masculinity—where he really excels, as Clive Owen's character Ray might say—is on what to do with women in his films. In this, Gilroy is smarter and more subtle than Michael Mann, who is otherwise probably the most interesting director of action films and one of the most interesting writers when it comes to masculinity. And it goes without saying that Gilroy is light years ahead of the troglodytic Apatow.

It's not exactly eye-opening cultural criticism to say that action films typically struggle with what roles to assign women, particularly when they are also trying to interrogate how "men of action" can be integrated into a society which is fairly ambivalent about the need for action. And god help the action film that tries to empower women and retain a compelling male lead! It's not that this feat hasn't been accomplished, (although I'm a little stumped for examples) but I would most certainly like to proffer both Michael Clayton and Duplicity as at least mostly successful in this regard.

Both films are able to find ways to acknowledge that women participate actively and (so far as anyone is able) autonomously in the power structures which threaten and deform masculinity, and both films tease the audience with the possibility of mistaking this feminine participation for these threats itself, with using these women as stand-ins for the institutional forces which have depersonalized action and virility. Yet both films ultimately make this mistaken substitution impossible—neither Julia Roberts nor Tilda Swinton are or can possibly be seen to be the emasculating dragon ladies one might initially expect them to become.

In other, simpler words, Gilroy presents a way of introducing women into a world of action which is not constrained by the codes of masculinity which he is depicting as threatened. This move is, I think, extraordinarily difficult and extraordinarily subtle—for nearly all action directors, the introduction of (empowered) women and the introduction of the theme of threatened masculinity are so closely correlated as to presume causality. Again, that's not really a ground-breaking analysis of the action genre, but I think what Gilroy is doing within it is legitimately groundbreaking.

Also, I just want to say that you are unlikely to see a more competently made film this spring, and probably not this summer either: Duplicity is remarkably well-paced, extremely well-written, the leads are compelling and the character actors (Giamatti especially) are really fun to watch.


bgz said...

Superb observations. Saw the movie a few weeks ago and agree wholeheartedly with your astute comments. I had not thought it all
through this well and clearly & I'll be sure now to rent Michael Clayton, which I've not yet seen. Thanks

Richard said...

Armageddon offers intelligence? I say that as a big fan of Michael Clayton and the Bourne flicks. I didn't know Gilroy was involved in Armageddon, but I've always avoided the movie on principle (the principle being that it looked and was reported to be stupid). Anyway, I really want to see this movie; thanks for the review.

Andrew Seal said...

Well, I'll admit that I threw Armageddon in sort of just to see if people were reading. Blogging is boring sometimes.

But there may actually be an argument for it, even if I'm not going to rush to make it. Criterion Collection did give it their special treatment (along with The Rock, which I will defend as a superior film), and they have put up this essay in defense of it. I think the Criterion Collection has almost flawless taste (the Wes Anderson obsession must have made sense at one point), so I guess I'm willing to suspend my disbelief.

Richard said...

Yeah, I was just teasing. And since I haven't seen the movie, obviously I can't really say. I am aware that Bay has his defenders; thanks for the link to the essay.

I liked The Rock too but wouldn't call it an important movie (viz. the Criterion raison d'etre)

Anonymous said...

The Criterion essay reads more like a well-lobbied-for letter of recommendation than a critical summary.

That being said, the director's commentary tracks on these editions of Armaggedon and The Rock are even more bombastically entertaining than the movies themselves.