The discomfort of men

It’s Sunday, and I’m feeling more lazy than usual. After I took Rigby for a walk mid-morning I came home and thought about the things I planned to do, but my heart wasn’t in it, and so I ended up on the couch watching a movie.

I watched Lantana, which is a classic Australian film of sorts made about twenty years ago. Memories muddle over time, but I remember being deeply affected by the movie when I first saw it. I think I saw it at the cinema in St Kilda with a woman a few years older than me. I can’t remember her name, but I remember how casually sophisticated she was – full of stories and good living. We’d go out for dinner and the movies and would catch up for the occasional drink. We liked many of the same things, though we never ended up in bed together – our relationship wasn’t like that.

There was a particular scene I remembered from the movie that resonated when I saw it first and which stayed with me in the years after. The main character, a detective, is out for a jog on a Sunday morning. He turns a corner and runs smack bang into a man coming the other way, their heads colliding. After the initial shock, the detective turns on the other man and starts abusing him for not looking where he’s going – though he’s at fault. The other man cowers, then stumbles away. The detective, perhaps regretting his behaviour, picks up the other man’s discarded shopping bag and takes it to him. The man turns, weeping, and I remember the shock I felt at seeing that, like an electric charge. The detective feels something the same I think, but then – their faces bloodied – the detective comforts the other man in his arms.

This is a sophisticated movie. The story is complex and deep, the performances across the board are fantastic. Most of the characters are damaged in some way and some more than others. It’s a story about relationships and the entanglements we find ourselves enmeshed in, seemingly powerless to do anything about them. For me, it’s also about masculinity and Australian masculinity in particular.

The detective is at the centre of the story, and for most of it, he’s teetering on the edge, barely in control. He’s deeply unhappy and lost, trapped inside himself, inside the maze of expectation and inability to be vulnerable. Like a lot of men, his vulnerability is expressed through violence.

There’s a scene where he’s telling an acquaintance the story of how he ran into the other man on the street. He’s almost disdainful when he describes the other man weeping, claiming that even as he’s comforting him, he’s thinking, what a weak prick. The acquaintance asks, don’t you ever feel like crying. Yeah, of course, is his general reaction, but you don’t, do you? And this the acquaintance understands, you’re right, as if it’s a rule of male conduct: you don’t show it. He nods his head in that casual way as if it doesn’t need to be said: fair call.

It’s a beautifully revealing scene set inside a men’s urinal. And you know, I reckon most men, Australian men, anyway, and men of my generation at least would recognise that. We’re brought up to be hard and tough. To keep going regardless and not show anything. I recognised it the first time and hit close to home because it was set in a milieu I understood, contemporary Australia

I lay on the couch with Rigby snuggled beside me and watched and felt myself affected in the same way I was the first time. It’s the sort of story I’d like to write, with the nuance and psychological depth that makes it both raw and authentic to lived experience. The book I’m writing now is not dissimilar – there’s a surface story that propels the action along, but all the real stuff is happening beneath the surface.

It’s nice to revisit a film you admired before and find it stacks up still. It’s not always the case. If you haven’t seen it then maybe you should check it out.

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