Broken Masculinity: The Portrait of an Artist as a Bald Man
The film: “I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel” directed by James Franco, starring David Shields and Caleb Powell.
By Lucas Runge
1. david shields himself
Why should you care, stay, listen, read? Well, I’d say because the guy we’re talking about today…matters. David Shields is a smart, accessible, and important voice in our culture. He has read and analyzed a library of books, has processed more complex art than the average person by idk a factor of like a 1000. Through this bibliophilia, by the “garbage in garbage out” reverse, he has gained a rather unique lens of the world. What’s most important, though, is that he can actually communicate it. His writings on art and our culture exist in the magical sweet spot between accessible and profoundly affecting; he’s like a tasty dessert that’s actually good for you. For more convincing, check out these blurbs over his manifesto, Reality Hunger (this is the “other people like him so you should too” strategy. You don’t have to read them all [I minimized them so zoom in]).
“Reality Hunger is more than thought-provoking; it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time.”—Jonathan Safran Foer
“Reality Hunger, by David Shields, might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last 10 years.”—Chuck Klosterman (on Twitter)
“This dude’s book is the hip-hop album of the year."—Peter Macia, Fader
“Reality Hunger promises to become, like Lewis Hyde’s The Gift for earlier generations, the book that artists in all media turn to for inspiration, vindication, and altercation as they struggle to reinvent themselves against the headwinds of our time."—Rob Nixon, Chronicle of Higher Education
"Maybe he’s simply ahead of the rest of us, mapping out the literary future of the next generation."—Susan H. Greenberg, Newsweek
"I can’t stop recommending it to my friends. There is no more effective description (and example) of the aesthetic concerns of the internet age than this."—Edward King, The Times of London
“[I am] grateful for this beautiful (yes, raw and gorgeous) book.”—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times
“This is the most provocative, brain-rewiring book of 2010. It’s a book that feels at least five years ahead of its time and teaches you how to read it as you go.”—Alex Pappademas, GQ
“I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger: A Manifesto and I’m lit up by it—astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed.”—Jonathan Lethem
“One of the most provocative books I’ve ever read. . . . I think it’s destined to become a classic.”—Charles D’Ambrosio
“The phrase ‘paradigm shift’ is one that induces my gag reflex, but that’s what he’s up to here. And, dear readers, shift happens.”—Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett, Seattle Times
“Reality Hunger is brilliant. It keeps the reader alert and attentive and excited through sheer intelligence, epigrammatic concision, wit, and sheer rightness, as when a pronouncement is so correct that it just pulls all the clouds aside. . . . There’s a feeling of the imminence of violence in these perceptions. This is a great compliment.”—Charles Baxter
“Reality Hunger is witty, insightful, and compulsively readable. Every page abounds in fresh observations.”—Lydia Davis
“I think Reality Hunger is absolutely wonderful. Exhilarating.”—Mark Leyner
OK, done with quotes. Anyways, I’m here to give you an appetizer for his documentary “I Think You’re Totally Wrong: a Quarrel,” which is directed by James Franco and is a must see. To help warm up your taste buds, let’s first talk about the cultural convo Shields weighed in on. He noticed that in American culture, “An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming” and that its key components are “a deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional.” This unartiness is used for a “blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real,” where “all must be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel (minus the novel).”
Basically, if you’re reading a book or watching a movie and you don’t know what parts are non-fiction and which are fiction, it changes how you see the art and how you see life, and where they overlap. Something that actually happened -- which is a realism different from “being realistic" -- causes the ingester to pay more attention, and this attention helps craft a critical consciousness. The further stories and art are interwoven with life - things that are happened or are happening (at least seemingly) - the more it affects us. Reality TV makes us rethink reality; The Blair Witch Project makes us rethink witches; The Bachelor makes us rethink bachelorhood. He notes that, as a culture, we are progressing closer and closer to Realism because our “bullshit radars” are better than ever and if something seems to be Actually happening, it can’t be bullshit. Shields recognizes that, from all sides of the elephant, we are hungry for something Real. This documentary is an attempt to feed us, to give us something to sink our teeth into.
The film has layers that, when understood, assist this reality-fiction blur. On the surface, the film seems to be an off-the-cuff, barely edited conversation about art and life. It’s David Shields and a friend taking a cabin-buddy weekend. Caleb chose life over art, David chose art over life and they argue about ideas on both sides of the coin. However, this realistic documentary changes if you know that a good portion of this is a reenactment of a weekend that already happened in 2011. In fact, it was already turned into a book by the same name. This foreknowledge creates a meta-layer of art blending with life while they’re discussing art v life (the only time I’ll use meta today). Knowing this, your critical eye has to exist in two different sort of worlds, you drink the doc through two funnels. Similar to when you watch WWE wrestling: you’re looking for the raw moments out of the scripted, the human element in the act, the moments when the porn stars forget where they are.
2. The Battle Itself: David’s Art vs. Caleb’s Life; Vampires, Spiders, Scuba Divers.
Art is theft
-Picasso (and the quote is in Reality Hunger)
Charlotte’s Web and Twilight are full of lies: spiders and vampires don’t really have friends -- just fellow blood suckers. What warmth they get and have is predatorial: they are not the fire starters, they are not the water boilers; they do not cook but are fed. They do not dive into pools to risk drowning or being drowned, but wear their scuba gear, their masks and sea-packs, to observe cautiously those who do.
Similarly, in the documentary, David is firebuilding illiterate, does not cook, and carries around his Darth Vader sea-pack everywhere he goes (CPAP, really [it’s an artistic Freudian slip]). Left to his own devices in the wild, he’d probably eat bark and die. Jack Frost’s fire builder would put David to shame (and that guy died…[spoiler]). But this is okay because he doesn’t live in the wild, but more floats around and above it in a sort of Good-Witch bubble.
David refers to himself in the doc as a “dead man continuously attempting a sort of resuscitation,” an idea that reminds me of hummingbirds. They are, at all times, hours away from starving, so they must constantly replenish energy to live. They are in one long race against mortality, trying to outrun -- outflutter and outsuck -- death (like Super Mario when the left side of the screen chases him). In the film, David says it’s not the secrets, it’s not the victims, it’s not the object that’s important: it’s the ability to suck, in his words “the method of investigation.” Hummingbirds, David, spiders, vampires all suck to survive; they are gifted, otherworldly creatures (parasitically predatorial or not)
“If you could only see the way….then maybe you’d understand.”
All of these creatures’ abilities come from their vantage point. Vampires, spiders, scuba divers, and Shields don’t primarily exist at ground level, on the front lines of Life. They are subterranean or ethereal, upper-corner of the room or underneath the floor boards. The middle ground is not their niche. They are sheltered, not fit for the luxuries of sunbathing. From a distance, these extraordinary creatures suck the blood out of bugs, ideas, and other people to survive.
Through David’s unique perspective, he sees the surface through a multiplicity of dimensions, but this vision comes with a cost. He tells us that he feels the world and his emotions through a glass filter: he is isolated and disconnected from everything, himself included. This barrier, this gulf, thus constitutes the heart of his experiences, so he stains the glass with beautiful and intricate colors and patterns. Life, for David, has become a filtered representation, a hologram of sorts. Caleb, in disagreement, argues that David’s filtered world is but a cheap substitute for Life, that if you add A1 steak sauce to everything, you never really taste anything.
The upstairs and basement are all well and good but they aren’t nearly as Real as the ground floor, as integral to the structure. This is Caleb’s argument against David: that he is substituting the limbs for the core, replacing Life with Art. And this is a completely fair argument. Caleb is a husband, a stay-at-home father of three kids, and a part-time writer; he’s traveled the world for about 8 years and seen reality in many forms. He believes that through this reality exposure, he’s been able to find what’s worth writing about, and although he doesn’t do it with David’s prescribed prowess, that’s okay. What good is a world class telescope if you’re not even looking at the stars? He thinks that David has so little Life-experience, that his writings don’t land in any meaningful way. It’s a fair argument,
but I think it’s totally wrong.
3. The War of Masculinity
Caleb is a front line soldier in the American battle for masculinity and although he’s seen the blood and the guts, walked amongst the killers and the killed, he still lacks the bird eye’s view of a general. The only time Caleb gets for writing, for zoom-out contemplation, is in the 4am hour before the kids wake up. He can’t see the big picture because he’s busy dodging bullets. This single-vision stuck-ness is similar to the unconscious stuckness of most American men.
On the one hand, men have the need for intimate male-male communication so that they can evolve their collective unconscious for the better; on the other hand, a persisting homophobia hampers that growth (we’ve made progress, but we still really would prefer not to be thought of as homosexuals - it is still embarrassing). This homophobia keeps men, embodied by Caleb, from intimate and revealing communication with other men, but also within themselves. The magic of this film is that in juxtaposing David and Caleb, you see the same sort of feelingless-ness in both, despite one being on Earth and one on the Moon. The film is a clash of these two polarities and the viewer (be ye male or female) is forced to analyze one’s own relative location in the masculinity mirror.
The unfortunate, one might say tragic, element of this film is that Caleb doesn’t see the need to change, to move closer to the middle, whereas David does. Front-line masculinity explains that sensitivities are what get you killed. The rhetoric goes that feeling-lessness and numbness are simply synonyms for grit; that the denial of certain parts of themselves is key to overcoming the battles of work and family life. They might say that grit, a sort of hardy numbness is what allows us to continue, to become great, to overcome. However, the denial of one’s self ends up oftentimes being extremely harmful to both. Before I explore Caleb’s own brand of homophobia, let’s turn to Frank Underwood, an example some of this malady’s more monstrous side effects.
4. Frank Underwood: the Masked Self of Evil
In the fictional universe of House of Cards, as the viewer, you have two choices: you can either blame Frank’s evil on his latent homosexuality or on his society for not allowing its expression. Only one of them is the cause of Frank’s ruthlessness - which one do you “fix”? Frank is a man detached: his inability to do some tush pushin outside of Meechum distances Frank from himself, and normal humans. His code of human morality is completely fucked because he’s frankly inhuman. (Apologies for term-blending a bit - intimate friendship isn’t necessarily gay sex).
“Homosocial doesn’t mean homosexual,” was the snappy response of a ticked 10am classmate of mine that’s now at Harvard whose last name coincidentally starts with Cock (not kidding). The offender was a middle aged soldier that meant no harm…ish. Because although the entire class knew what the man meant, we all knew what Cock knew he also meant. Cock, who was an enthusiastically open communicator, rather crisply shut down this man (and at this point, I think the dislike became mutual).
Apparently homosocial (social interaction w/ same sex) and the homosexual overlap in any intense male-male filmic friendship, as far as criticism goes. While many of us just see best pals taking a trip or sharing an apartment, there’s a slice of critics that just see repression & subtext. For instance, I was researching a Sundance director that I was soon to interview and he briskly reviewed Foxcatcher as a gay wrestling movie. Criticism like this is plentiful but pretty understandable. Outside of the past decade or so, gay issues had to be communicated on the sly, subversively. Hence, due to this ever possible layer of “gay in sheep’s clothing,” critics gay and straight alike can freely abuse the label.
In the documentary, to nip this label in the bud, David and Caleb explicitly explicate their heterosexuality. However, in professing their straightness, we learn of Caleb’s homoerotic uncertainties (similar to how when a 1950’s American was pressed to express his/her die-hard patriotism, doubts and possible commie sympathies might arise). This proclamation brings up the rainbow can-of-worms at the subversive core of the film: modern masculinity’s avoidance of solid communication so that it won’t, in any way, resemble zee gays.
Similar to how Caleb’s wife represses that she was married to a gay man, Caleb shies away from exploring his multiple sexual experiences with transvestites. Caleb is unable to kill - to process and accept -- this part of him, to molt. It remains unexplored because he’s is busy with the multitasking-task life. Caught between two worlds, he is in a sense drowning.
This dilemma informs the language of the film. When David says Caleb’s art is missing an X-factor, this death is the secondary meaning. When Caleb’s wife gives him “gay tests” he asks if she’s “trying to Mark him,” a phrase that puns off her ex-husband’s name, being branded, but also as the marked man you assassinate. This is why, immediately prior to entering the cabin, David says “we have a chance to kill this.”
David is Caleb’s opposite because he already knows what it means to have his identity murdered (remember: he’s the “walking dead man.”) He’s had enough ego-shattering in his stutter-filled, high-pitched life that purple bullets don’t hurt anymore. Paradoxically almost, David ends up being more confident in his sexuality. This, in itself, is a testament to the predicaments of modern masculinity: that David is more secure with his sexuality than the physically imposing, good looking, far-more-alpha, borderline ideal family man.
5. The film itself
If the above tussles interest you, then be sure to check out the documentary I Think You’re Totally Wrong: a Quarrel. The film acts as a sort of snapshot teaser, a tip of the berg, for Shields’ work -- not in what it discusses, but how he thinks good art operates at this point in our culture: that it blends the real and the fiction. Possibly, see the documentary as more of a behind-the-scenes DVD than a stand-alone film, use it to jumpstart your investigation of David.
The documentary itself, without any knowledge of “the conversation” can feel a bit dull, a bit haphazard but it’s still quite palatable. I’m a pretty reactive movie watcher: when I don’t like something, it’s got about four minutes for the bomb to be defused or I turn it off, and while watching this movie, the countdown never even started. Although I am probably not burying myself with the DVD in my coffin, I still really appreciated it.
From the get-go, I saw craftsmanship. In David’s opening monologue, the camera is angled from the back, “There’s an ancient tradition going back, frankly, to Platos and Socrates…” Then the camera switches to the profile side-view as David raps off “where two white guys bullshit…mind vs body, control & discontrol…” and David looks side-to-side while crossing an intersection. The camera returns to the back of his head when he talks about his past with Caleb, then the side-view as David gives his emotional thoughts: that Caleb embodies “the position of every dumb reviewer, every misspoken notion of members of my family” about his work. He rolls down the car window to the world as he says “there’s something implicitly sociopathic about him….a 1/1000 chance he might kill me.” When they’re both in the car, the moment the pair begin discussing heavy stuff, David notes that the how the rain has turned into foggy snow and a highway helper advises them to take caution. In the final drive home, there’s a 5 second shot where the sun is blinding them, where they are semi-literally driving into the sunset. Artistry like this permeates the film and is a pleasure to watch, to notice, to decipher. Afterwards, you can’t help but recognize more of the artistry in your own life. It’s a workout for your ability to see patterns, to make zippy connections in your own reality, to notice the moments where art truly does meet life.