Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film

1977, first edition, from Pantheon Books
Joan Mellen
Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film
Original price $12.95, purchase price $6.95
Good condition hardcover with worn dustjacket

While I'm sympathetic to Mellen's premise, that movies need to stop glorifying violence as the ultimate expression of masculinity, unfortunately the book is deeply flawed.  The largest problem is that Mellen doesn't have a strong enough sense of film history, or even of then-recent film.  Some of these are minor errors any editor (even nine-year-old me) could've easily caught, like Raquel "Welsh" and the original Fun with Dick and Jane being listed as '76 rather than '77.  But when she insists on how Pillow Talk is both an early '60s movie and a carryover from the '50s, having come out in 1962, it really does matter that it actually came out in 1959.  (For one thing, it's the first Rock & Doris movie, and for another, that three-year difference already meant much cultural change.)  And if she can't get that the Hays Code was scarcely enforced until 1934, then much of what she covers in the chapter between the '20s and the '30s (itself called "Crossing into Hard Times," but confusingly covering '29 to '39) is invalidated.

Also, she seems impatient to get to the 1970s, and keeps bringing the movies of that decade (Dirty Harry especially) into discussions of earlier decades, so that Rocky is mentioned in the Introduction and for the '40s, and then forgotten by the time she actually gets to the '70s.  Additionally, I think she lets some male characters off the hook, just because they can express their emotions, like Valentino as a rapist.  Not to mention, why is so much space devoted to James Bond in what is supposed to be a book about American film?

With a better editor, and a clearer focus, this could've been a better book than the Rosen and Haskell books on women in film.  As it is, it does stand as a useful corrective to the idea that men in '70s media were all sensitive Woody Allen/Alan Alda/Phil Donahue types.  She does discuss Woody briefly, pointing out that while he wasn't the traditional screen male, he worshiped men like Bogie.  And yet, she says that Bogart was never just violent but had more complexity.  So even here, her point isn't exactly clear.

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