The Artist in the Age of Meta-Masculinity

By Madeline Lane-McKinley

I. Disaster Artists

The centerpiece of The Disaster Artist, released amidst the uproars of #MeToo in Hollywood, is a complicated scene in which the main character, Tommy Wiseau, pressures and humiliates a young actress as they begin to shoot the long and painful sex montage for the 2003 B-movie The Room. While strenuously sympathetic toward Wiseau, this film about a film features several such challenging moments – winking and nudging to the audience, reflexively struggling to not just interpret a misunderstood character, but to deal with the more unfunny elements of Wiseau’s toxic masculinity. The scene pays careful attention to the actress’s face, listens for her begrudging consent, while calling into question her capacity to consent under threat of being fired from the film. In the larger context of the metafilm, this pivotal moment operates in different registers – conveying the humiliation endured by the actress, precisely by humiliating Wiseau and the vanity of his artistry. Though providing a critical plot point, the scene mangles and unhinges The Disaster Artist, as a confused romantic portrait of Wiseau’s authenticity.

Driving The Disaster Artist, but moreover, the phenomenon of The Room’s cult following, is the question of what to do with the fragility of contemporary white masculinity, other than just laugh at it. For James Franco – who, following Wiseau’s masculinist fantasy of the auteur, wrote, directed, and starred in The Disaster Artist – the answer to this question is rooted in fragility’s authenticity. Rather than as a megalomaniac, a fraud, or a sexual harasser, Franco’s portrait defines Wiseau as a dreamer.

“Tommy Wiseau, c’est moi,” Franco jests in a recent interview, while hyping this same authenticity factor in his own performance as the film’s auteur. Franco declares that The Disaster Artist has made Hollywood history, as the first time “where a director was directing himself in a movie, playing a character that was a director directing himself in a movie.”

Franco’s on-set persona as Wiseau fits into a long tradition of method actors, whose endurance is marked not by the withstanding of constant on-set harassment, but by the ability to go without “breaking character.” Daniel Day-Lewis is perhaps the most notorious among contemporary actors for his on-set personae, often credited for going beyond method acting and toward a form of transcendence. Upon announcing his retirement late last year, Day-Lewis generated renewed attention to his process. On the set of My Left Foot (1989), he broke his own ribs and would not leave a wheelchair, to purify his performance of cerebral palsy. For The Last of the Mohicans (1992), he lived in the woods for a week, hunting and skinning animals.* More recently, rumors circulated that he was sending text messages to co-star Sally Field signed “Abe,” during the filming of Lincoln (2012). In each of Day-Lewis’s performances there is a certain masculine fantasy of artistry – an artistry achieved through reckless self-absorption, eclipsing all the labors required to accommodate these extreme measures: the film crew members who spoon-fed him during My Left Foot, the tailors who custom-designed his clothing for Gangs of New York with the most historically accurate fabrics, the actor replaced after being traumatized on the set of There Will Be Blood… A critical glance at Day-Lewis’s mystique does little to devalue his work, while it clarifies the gendering and racialization of this particular brand of authenticity.

Historically, women using some of the same tactics to prepare and develop a performance are rarely glorified for their practice. In her feminist critique of American theatre’s adaptations of Stanislavsky, An Actress Prepares, Rosemary Malague characterizes Marilyn Monroe’s pursuit of method acting as a “cautionary tale.” [1] Focusing on Monroe’s deeply troubled relationship to method acting pioneer Lee Strasberg, Malague describes a system of emotional control and dependency. While Malague sees an exploitive dynamic between the Strasberg school and Monroe “the ultimate commodity,” Shonni Enelow argues against the conception of method actresses as “passive victims,” yet similarly concludes that Monroe is a figure of hysteria overshadowing the history of method actresses. [2] Hysteria, in this sense, becomes a driving force of artistry. As Jacqueline Rose writes of Monroe — a figure of “women in dark times” — “she wanted to act not herself, but — like and unlike — beyond herself; she wanted to become somebody else.” [3] This gendering of “the method” seethes from Stanley Kauffman’s review of The Misfits, featuring Monroe’s last and compelling performance. Kauffman eviscerates Monroe, describing her as “complete with hushed, monotonous voice and with eye makeup even after a night in the mountains,” continuing that:

… at her best we sense that she has been coached and primed in thirty-second segments, which wouldn’t matter if we weren’t aware of it. Her hysterical scene near the end will seem virtuoso acting to those who are overwhelmed by the fact that she has been induced to shout. [4]

Not only mocking, but pathologizing Monroe’s study of method acting, Kauffman by contrast marvels at Clark Gable for “[radiating] likeable, decent-roguish masculinity.”

Like his subject, Tommy Wiseau, Franco models a contemporary white masculine archetype which resonates more with Monroe’s hysteria than with Gable’s roguishness. In career profiles, Franco has been endlessly pathologized – either as pathetically earnest and delusional, or as a master manipulator. Rolling Stone’s Jonah Weiner calls the “manic” actor “an idiosyncratic and indefatigable polymath,” a “hyperactive dilettante,” prone to “feverish multitasking.” In another profile, Sam Anderson explains the “paradox of James Franco”:

“…it’s either hypocrisy or complexity, self-delusion or radical self-acceptance. It’s the defining fault line of his career, the source of much of his energy. Were he to resolve it in one direction or the other, he might cease to be so interesting.”

At stake in all of this is Franco’s fragility (the impending doom of being dismissed, misunderstood, or found out), and the desire to overcome this fragility in finding the authenticity of inauthenticity – a theme that can be traced through many of Franco’s projects, perhaps most notably his feature role in ABC’s soap opera General Hospital, in which he plays an artist and serial killer named Franco.

The reflexivity and self-critique inherent to this contemporary masculine formation highlight “the cyclical nature of crises in white masculinity, as well as the centrality of masochism and male wounds in the narratives detailing those crises,” Sally Robinson suggests. Drawing from this rhetoric of crisis, Robinson brings to attention certain tropes that “often have to do with representing a conflict between a dominant masculinity defined by an unrestricted freedom of verbal, emotional, and sexual expression and a dominant masculinity defined by a pain-inducing repression of male language, emotions, and sexuality.” [5]

The drive for meta-masculinity is to inhabit fragility as a form of masochism, while maintaining the unrestricted freedoms of masculine dominance.

The perfect counterpart to Franco’s meta-masculinity is the recent documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, which was released on Netflix two weeks before The Disaster Artist hit theaters. Exploring Jim Carrey’s portrayal of Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s 1999 film Man on the Moon, the documentary brings to life this “behind the scenes” story precisely at the moment of its relevance. After nearly twenty years of remaining a secret – as Carrey recalls, it was perceived as a liability to the studio – the story behind this performance has special currency in this moment of meta-masculinity.  

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Upon being cast in Man on the Moon, Carrey explains eerily to the camera – his pupils fully dilated, his beard grown to outrageous volume – that he communicated with Kaufman telepathically.  

“That’s the moment when Andy Kaufman showed up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said ‘sit down, I’ll be doing my movie.’ What happened afterwards was out of my control.”

Later in the film, he elaborates on this sense of being out of control:

“It’s as if I went into a fugue state, and Hyde showed up. I have a Hyde inside me that shows up when there are people watching… sometimes, afterwards, I feel like ‘damn, I lost control again… to him.’” [6]

Key to Carrey’s fantasy of artistry is this total relinquishing of his own accountability, which becomes conflated with the authenticity of his performance. While the documentary reveals the extent of Carrey’s on-set high jinks – sabotaging much of the filming with drunkenness, harassment of crew members, prop and set destruction, as well as manic outbursts — its overwhelming agenda is to venerate the actor as an artistic genius.  

What’s striking about both The Disaster Artist and Jim & Andy is how this fantasy of authenticity latches onto pathological liars. In their recent emergence, these portraits of white masculinity crystallize the cultural climate of the Trump era, unapologetically grounded in a false, inescapable totality.

In this context of silence-breaking in Hollywood, both films take on the problems of sexual harassment in the industry as not merely a struggle for A-list millionaire actresses,** with meaningful yet politically confused depictions of the working conditions of a film crew. Each film remarkably portrays filmmaking as work, and film sets as workplaces, all the while glorifying this conception of artistry as a point of contrast. Specific to these metafilms is not the fetishization of authenticity, but the way that this meta-structure has accelerated during the fall of 2017, in a moment of utter panic.  

This is a cultural moment of masculine reflexivity perhaps above all else. In the face of fallen idols and disenfranchisement, meta-masculinity emerges as a reactive force, without a coherent ‘feminism’ with which to dismantle it.

II. “I was crying real tears”

In the spring of 2015, TIME interviewed actor Jamie Dornan about how he prepared for the role of serial killer Paul Spector, in the Netflix series The Fall. “I did do a couple things to try to get inside” the character’s mind, Dornan explains:

“On the tube, which is our underground system… can we get arrested for this? Hold on… this is a really bad reveal: I, like, followed a woman off the train one day to see what it felt like to pursue someone like that… It felt kind of exciting, in a really sort of dirty way. I’m sort of not proud of myself. But I do honestly think I learned something from it, because I’ve obviously never done any of that. It was intriguing and interesting to enter that process of ‘what are you following her for?’ and ‘what are you trying to find out?’”

Throughout this explanation, Dornan vacillates between humble-bragging and paranoia. In his jesting aside – “can we get arrested for this?” — he reveals a level of awareness that puts him at a distance from the psychopathy of his subject, while also indulging in a notion of artistic purity that, he hopes, not only legitimates but rationalizes this behavior as a “process.”

“I’m sort of not proud of myself.”

* * *

In 2013, at an event at La Cinémathèque Française in Paris, director Bernardo Bertolucci spoke of the authenticity of his 1972 film Last Tango in Paris. He describes the film’s most controversial scene, in which Paul, played by Marlon Brando, uses a stick of butter to anally rape his lover, played by Maria Schneider. As Bertolucci recalls, “The sequence of the butter is an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before the shoot,” prompted by Brando’s desire for the 19-year old Schneider to react “as a girl, not as an actress.” In a 2007 interview, Schneider recounts that she felt “a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”

What is it that constitutes this gap, between being raped and “a little raped”?

Brando’s process muddies this distinction. Stella Adler’s star student, an icon of method acting, Brando represents an artistry that monopolizes what is “real,” as Schneider articulates:

“Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry. It’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears.”

* * *

“A great man once said, everything is about sex. Except sex. Sex is about power.” – Francis Underwood, House of Cards

In his master class on acting, Kevin Spacey defines his craft as the capacity to “look at something in a mirror and not see ourselves, and not feel weird but feel free.”

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For the last five years, critics and viewers have marveled at the precision and knowingness of Spacey’s performance as Francis Underwood — an abusive and power-hungry politician who rises from House majority whip to President by any means possible, including murder – on Netflix’s House of Cards. Much of the series is dedicated to Underwood’s ongoing struggle to keep the violence of his power a secret. When CNN broke a story involving eight crew members’ grievances of sexual misconduct on the set of House of Cards, curiosities about the actor’s process emerged soon after. In an anonymous statement, a production assistant from the series expressed having “no doubt that this type of predatory behavior was routine for him and that my experience was one of many and that Kevin had few if any qualms about exploiting his status and position,” describing the set as a “toxic environment” for those “crew, cast, background actors” especially.

The meta-structure of House of Cards was already a point of fascination, far before this behind-the-scenes scandal broke in November. The last season’s production was halted to dramatically revise the script to take a more “ripped from the headlines” approach to the Trump era. Spacey’s removal from the series, and complete disenfranchisement from other sectors of the industry, prompted reviewers to draw these connections to the current presidency. As Patrick Blanchfield argues, Spacey’s “downfall is necessary, but it is also a kind of theatrical gesture, all about removing from the stage yet another bad actor.” This gesture reduces systemic power to a problem of behavior, while reflecting back a fantasy of overcoming political powerlessness experienced in 2017. As a figure of unrestricted emotional, verbal, and sexual dominance, Trump’s ascendance points to the futility of this process of individuation – painstakingly legitimating allegations on a case-by-case basis – when it merely amounts to a theatrical gesture.

What does it mean to “look at something in a mirror and not see ourselves”? If that is freedom, as Spacey suggests, it is a freedom of non-recognition, defined by its own conditions of unfreedom. It is an art which gets to be art precisely because it is the work of others.

In a Vanity Fair piece published during the 2016 primaries, Spacey was asked about the correspondence between House of Cards and the impending election. He answered:

“Nothing. It’s fictional.”

Later in the interview, he added:

“At the same time, I happen to believe that we get what we deserve.”

III. Under Pressure

Meta-masculinity describes an endless process of navel-gazing that — in the name of de-centering — re-centers white masculinity.

It is the oblique reclamation of a universal subjectivity.

It absorbs empathic energies from everywhere in its reach.

It is a process around which all else orbits.

Meta-masculinity is #NotAllMen.

Meta-masculinity is a form of liberal feminist-credentialing that obscures contemporary versions of chauvinism.

It is driven by a hope that masculinity can be exceeded by a more perfect articulation of masculinity, rather than as the abolition of gender.  

It is specific to whiteness.

Meta-masculinity is hours spent listening to, translating for, compromising with – in the absence of reciprocity, or its fathomability.

It is verbosely answering, but never asking, “how are you?”

Meta-masculinity is a dynamic, a set of social conditions, not a specific instance or isolated interaction; however, it attempts to reform masculinity through modifiable behaviors, aesthetics, and cultural minutiae.

It is a mutation.

It is crisis as stasis.

Meta-masculinity is masculinity folding in on itself, endlessly, under pressure.

* * *

Slavoj Žižek is, unwittingly, a caricature of the paranoiac when he locates in the “‘politically correct’ male” a certain ambiguity, stated as an “obsession with the woman as victim of sexual harassment”:

Is not this obsession driven by an unacknowledged fear that woman might somehow enjoy the harassment, that she might not be able to retain a proper distance towards it? Are we not thus dealing, once again, with the fear of feminine enjoyment?” [7]

More than this unacknowledged fear, Žižek’s scorn of political correctness, inversely, conveys what Stephany Rose calls “the fear of corporeally embodying the master signifier of hegemonic white masculinity.” [8] In dialogue with Alain Badiou, Žižek remarks that “harassment” means:

…fundamentally… hide your desire; don’t come too close to me. It means, as I have experienced in the US: If you look too long at somebody, a woman or whoever – that is already a visual harassment: if you say something dirty – that is already verbal rape. [9]

Whereas the paranoiac’s fantasy is that harassment is inescapable, the ‘politically correct’ find in meta-masculinity the ultimate escapism.

IV. Disappearing Acts

“I’m so stupid. I’m just going to be a joke forever.” – Joaquin Phoenix as Joaquin Phoenix

In September 2010, I’m Still Here premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, following months of speculation about Joaquin Phoenix’s ostensibly real-life identity crisis. The film – which director Casey Affleck calls a “mockumentary” – begins with Phoenix’s decision to retire from acting. Phoenix explains:

“I’m just stuck in this ridiculous self-imposed prison of characterization… I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore, like, I want to be whatever I am, and my artistic output thus far, when I’m really fucking honest with myself, has been fucking fraudulent. And now for the first time I’m doing something that is – whether you like it or not – it really represents me… hate me or like me, just don’t misunderstand me. That’s it.” [10]

Through the course of the film, Phoenix takes a method approach to this performance of his own career suicide. While critics debated the film’s authenticity, many were already in on the “joke” by the time of its release, following numerous publicity stunts in 2008-2009 which were then incorporated into the plot.

This performance of career suicide encapsulates the desires for non-complicity and exemption integral to white meta-masculinity. What drives Phoenix’s bender of self-humiliation is a profound desire to disappear. Masked by a large beard, unkempt hair, and sunglasses, Phoenix mocks the inauthenticity of the white hip hop artist, as he begins his pursuit of a second career. Through the film’s meta-structure, this self-deprecation becomes the ultimate form of self-aggrandizement, meanwhile fetishizing the black authenticity of hip hop culture. Phoenix’s failed attempt to work with P Diddy reveals the ways in which black masculinity is excluded from this white fantasy of unrestricted freedoms. “Why’d you want to do hip hop? You think it’s fucking funny?” P Diddy asks, only to begin reassuring Phoenix and accommodating his vulnerabilities. He continues, “If it’s something you really want to do, I believe you can do anything, if it’s really in your heart…”

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At work in I’m Still Here is what Fintan Walsh terms the “jackassification of masculinity” — a form of “male fantasies, giving men access to a power they otherwise lack,” as a “celebration of the omnipotent male.” [11] While the difference between fact and fiction was perhaps always in the control of Phoenix and Affleck, it’s not clear whether that difference actually matters. Following the release of I’m Still Here, a producer and cinematographer sued Affleck for sexual harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Both women complained that Affleck referred to them as “cows,” and subjected them to a “nearly daily barrage of sexual comments, innuendo and unwelcome advances.”

Like The Disaster Artist and Jim & Andy, I’m Still Here puts forth a vision of the ‘artist’ that “makes contemporary labor an act of self-exploration, self-expression, and self-realization,” as Sarah Brouillette explains, arguing that “accounting for the historicity and the particular emergence and spread of [this] vocabulary” of creative labor “is an essential task in denaturalizing the character of contemporary capitalism.” [12] This is a work ethic which not only renders itself as artistry, but extends itself to the entire workplace. Its toxicity is immeasurable. It wishes away, through coercion, the problem of work.

V. Deflection Artists

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On January 7, 2018, James Franco invited Tommy Wiseau to the stage, as he accepted a Golden Globe for his performance in The Disaster Artist. Wiseau gravitated immediately toward the microphone, but Franco intercepted. During the speech, Wiseau lurked in the background, while Franco read from his cell phone – with a full impersonation – Wiseau’s account of being excluded from previous Golden Globes. The audience laughs.

During the speech, stories about Franco’s sexual misconduct on sets began to circulate on social media – fixated on the actor’s sporting of a “Time’s Up” pin on his black tuxedo. But he will weather these attacks, just as he already has many before. In 2014, while Franco was promoting the film Palo Alto (in which he plays a high school teacher having an affair with one of his students), a 17-year old made public a social media correspondence in which the actor asked to meet her at a hotel room. Rather than deny the allegations, Franco appeared on a morning talk show and performed the following rationalization: “I’m embarrassed, and I guess I’m just a model of how social media is tricky… It’s a way people meet each other today, but what I’ve learned is you don’t know who’s on the other end.” In modeling this embarrassment, Franco typifies white meta-masculinity. The artist plays a scene for his audience, holding a mirror to himself, learning a lesson. Through this simple maneuvering, he deflects in his performance of self-reflection. He remains untouchable, unknowable, unaccountable.***

This “art” is tactical masculinity encountered in everyday life. It is a masculinity of crafting situations and controlling narratives. Rather than a crisis of masculinity, it points always to a limit of accountability. What do we do with all these stories? All these names? Where do we go from here?

 

Author’s Notes

Much thanks to Kendra and Kyle, for walking and talking about this project along the ocean, to Justin, for our many phone calls, to Colleen for the night by the fireplace, and to Chris, for all the memories and predicaments.

* This fantasy of malleable authenticity and white masculinity is integral to James Fenimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826. In the film adaptation, Day-Lewis plays Hawkeye, the white adopted son of Mohican tribal chief Chingachgook, and his process of nativization. The authentication of Hawkeye’s immersion in native culture articulates desires which are distinct to whiteness, to straddle universality and claims to otherness.

** Katy Fox-Hodess recently made this brilliant remark which serves incredibly useful to this point: “Key question for those dismissive of “Time’s Up” because it draws on the star power of a bunch of women in Hollywood — did you have the same reaction to high profile male athletes participating in “Take a Knee” (or vice versa)? Both are cases of celebrities (women, men of color) who themselves are oppressed by the conditions they are protesting (sexual violence, racist police violence) using their position of influence to highlight these issues which of course affect a much broader swath of people without money, power or influence. If you found it easy to support one but were dismissive of the other, it’s hard to see how sexism or racism aren’t a big part of the answer why.”

*** Following Golden Globes night, Franco continues this performance of learning and overcoming on late night talk shows and an ongoing media campaign.

 

Works Cited

[1] Rosemary Malague, An Actress Prepares: Women and “The Method,” Routledge: London, 2012. 62, 68

[2] Shonni Enelow, Method Acting and Its Discontents: On American Psycho-Drama, Northwestern University Press, 2015. 48

[3] Jacqueline Rose, Women in Dark Times, Bloomsbury: 2013. 133

[4] Stanley Kauffman, “Across The Great Divide,” The New Republic, February 19, 1961

[5] Sally Robinson, Marked Men: White Masculinity in Crisis, Columbia University Press, 2005. 12

[6] dir. Chris Smith, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, Netflix Original, 2017

[7] Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment: Six Essays on Women and Causality, Verso: London, 2005. 215

[8] Stephany Rose, Abolishing White Masculinity from Mark Twain to Hip-hop: Crises in Whiteness, 32

[9] Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, Philosophy in the Present. trans. Peter Thomas and Alberto Toscano. Polity: Cambridge, 2009. 93

[10] dir. Casey Affleck, I’m Still Here, Universal, 2010

[11] Fintan Walsh, Male Trouble: Masculinity and the Performance of Crisis. Palgrave Macmillan: London, 2010. 181

[12] Sarah Brouillette, “Creative Labor,” Mediations 24:2 (Spring 2009), 148

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