SCREENING ROOM; Rolling the Stone
Sisyphus, cursed to eternally roll a huge stone to the top of the hill only to watch it inevitably roll back down again, may have given us the emblematic symbol of the male condition. His life may be exhausting, pointless and absurd, but at least he is busy enough to avoid total despair. If the myth of Sisyphus were filmed today, the ideal actor for the role would be Nick Nolte. Nolte’s voice, face and body evidence the requisite muscularity, stubbornness, weariness and bone-dumbness of someone trying to be a man’s man without ever questioning what that really means. When we look into Nolte’s tired, pained deep-set eyes, we see little beyond unabashed incomprehension.
Nolte is 58 now, but has always looked a full decade younger than he was. A big man, 6’1″ and 210 pounds, he went to a lot of colleges trying to play football, but never stayed in school long enough. He didn’t learn to read until he was grown. Always in trouble and sometimes in jail, he is much divorced and has the look of a man who has run a lot of alcohol through his veins over the years.
Nolte first got our attention on TV in 1976 in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man, revealing the honest confusion of a man who grew up without understanding the rules by which the game of life was being played. He was 35 then, but he looked and acted like a kid. In the ’80s he was popular as a bewildered foil for Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. and was touchingly outrageous in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, as a smelly bum who was deserted even by his dog.
We didn’t realize Nolte was an actor until 1991, when he played a shell-shocked, failed football coach on Barbra Streisand’s couch in The Prince of Tides and a failed husband and father saving his family from an even worse man in Cape Fear. He couldn’t do accents or costumes and was embarrassing in Lorenzo’s Oil and Jefferson in Paris. And he proved, in a variety of bad films, that he was neither Burt Lancaster nor Cary Grant. For a time, neither Hollywood nor the audience knew what to do with the man who looked like a hero, but was too honest and clumsy to succeed at heroics. His range is small; this man can’t seem to be anything, on or off screen, other than what he is. But Nolte, inevitably and unavoidably playing the aging, tired, failed macho hero, seems to be just what we need right now. He reflects back to us what it looks and feels like to be a man here in the final days of the myth of masculine power.
Nolte is currently starring in two important, but not very popular or enjoyable, movies about the absurdity of the masculine condition. One, The Thin Red Line, is so irritating you can’t get out of it fast enough, and the other, Affliction, is so disturbing that you can’t get it out of your head. Both are the sort of shocking, potentially therapeutic movies I find myself talking about with patients.
The Thin Red Line was a 1962 novel by James Jones, a kind of sequel to From Here to Eternity, which is one of the great novels about war and certainly the best one to emerge from World War II. As we know from that first and better known novel, Jones saw enlisted men as pawns in the hands of inhuman officers, who fought wars and sacrificed men for their own glory, to further their military careers, and to relish some sort of homoerotic obsession with young men. Jones was a working-class writer, an angrier, rawer, even more paranoid Norman Mailer. James Jones’s novels are as rambling, jumbled and overstuffed with characters and points of view as War and Peace. But there have been few greater movies than From Here to Eternity, which simplified the story, softened the class rage and threw in a lot of sandy sex.
The Thin Red Line is not in the same league, perhaps because the screenwriter and director, Terrence Malick, has no feeling for the male bonding that makes war and war movies popular, and perhaps because he’s as caught up in anger at war and warriors as Jones and won’t let us forget it for a moment.
Malick was a Rhodes scholar from Harvard who grew up in Texas in an oil family. He directed two gorgeous, self-indulgent movies in the ’70s, both distinguished by highly personal verbal narration. Badlands was a lyrical romp about a pair of serial killers (Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen) in love. Days of Heaven was a film of extraordinary beauty and seductive pace about three young immigrants from Chicago (Brooke Adams, Richard Gere and Linda Manz) trying to create a family with a dying landowner (Sam Shepard) in an Andrew Wyethian house on the wheat fields of the Midwest. I have no idea where Malick has been for the last 20 years, but he is back, bigger than life, and with his mannerisms intact.
The Thin Red Line is beautiful, lyrical and leisurely, the music is elegiac, the scenery on Guadalcanal lush and seductive, and the characters given to soulful, poetic inner musings. But these are not the qualities one usually admires in a war movie. The one real battle scene is accompanied by a solemn dirge and followed by pained shots of the suffering of captured Japanese soldiers.
The core conflict, which often gets lost in the prettiness and deepness of it all, concerns Lieutenant Colonel Tall (Nick Nolte), a crusty and embittered old West Point regular, who has been passed over for a promotion and has been waiting 15 years for a war to salvage his career. He orders Captain Staros (Elias Koteas) to take his men and charge a Japanese bunker on a hill. Koteas, a civilized civilian lawyer, who is concerned about the inevitable carnage, suggests a safer route for the attack and politely refuses the order.
As the two officers match wills, the men react like children in a family with battling parents. The hardened and cynical Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn, as the reincarnation of Burt Lancaster’s Sergeant Warden from the earlier book) shuts down and detaches. The lovesick Private Bell (Ben Chaplin) fantasizes about his wife back home. And idealistic Private Witt (Jim Caviezel, as the reincarnation of Montgomery Clift’s Robert E. Lee Prewitt from Eternity) does good deeds for his fellows and muses about a better and more primitive world on an isolated South Sea island. Koteas, Chaplin and Caviezel have that long-faced, open-eyed poetically Cliftian look that confirms Jones’s and Malick’s reverence for basic male sweetness of spirit. But their haunted faces are hard to tell apart. In fact, the film is crowded with sad faces of men facing death and pondering inwardly the nature of life and evil. Still, the camera can’t let go of these three El Greco models of pensive male beauty in states of terminal loneliness. They face death together, but they don’t share their feelings and they don’t connect.
Irritatingly, as our poetic trio quietly faces their likely mortality and the pointlessness of their sacrifice, guest stars pop in and do their noisy turns. John Savage goes crazy, John Cusack gets a blessing from Nolte, Woody Harrelson blows himself up, John Travolta considers the public relations of the battle and George Clooney gives a patriotic valedictory.
The major distraction from Malick’s politically admirable (pro-humanity, antiwar) but numbingly repetitive reverie is, expectedly, Nick Nolte, who comes from a different breed of animal than these guys who sit around thinking about their lives and the meaning of it all. Nolte is the macho brute who stands while other men crouch under fire, shouts while they whisper, and screams and yells and jumps up and down with his great neck veins bulging while they stare into their souls. Instead of inspiring the troops, he tries to scare men into action, with no understanding of why they would value their lives so much more than he values his own. The film ridicules and then demonizes Nolte and his masculine mystique. Malick has taken all the joy out of war and warriors. He made me cry, but didn’t make me cheer for anything. He just made me appreciate Saving Private Ryan all the more. If war didn’t have some value, why would it be so popular? Why would so many men be dying to go do it? We learn something about that in another Nick Nolte film, Affliction.
In The Thin Red Line, we watch Nick Nolte from the outside, and he is not someone we like, admire or emulate. He is not even someone we understand. In Affliction, we experience him from the inside, as we did in The Prince of Tides, and the pain is unendurable.
Affliction is from a novel by Russell Banks, a writer of complex, realistic fiction. Banks wrote The Sweet Hereafter, the story of a Canadian town tearing itself apart looking for someone to sue after a bus wreck kills and cripples its children. Director Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, also directed the likes of American Gigolo and Hardcore. He is clearly drawn to the pain on the seamy side of life. He has a field day with Banks’s novel and draws overwhelming performances from James Coburn and Nick Nolte as a battling father and son in the snows of New Hampshire.
Nolte is the older of the two brothers. The younger, smarter and milder brother is desiccated Willem Dafoe, an unmarried, dispirited survivor of a shockingly dysfunctional family. He teaches in Boston and narrates, carefully and without passion, this relentless story of the tragedy of his family.
Nolte has stayed in the town in which the brothers grew up and where their father, the hulking, sadistic Coburn, worked in a mill, drank and brutalized his family. Nolte is divorced from cold, angry, upscale Mary Beth Hurt and has a daughter who fears and resists him. He seems oblivious to his effect on the child, and is merely angry that she doesn’t like being around him. Now engaged to soft, loving, downscale Sissy Spacek, he works as a well-digger and policeman, and is known to everyone in town. Most treat him sympathetically, knowing he is a good man. But, as all know, he can’t get along with anyone. His reactions are off, with a paranoid tinge and a reservoir of rage. He misunderstands why people do what they do; he cuts no one any slack; he exaggerates minor slights; he finds emergencies everywhere.
The plot centers on Nolte’s suspicions that a hunting accident was really a murder and part of a plot by rich men to destroy the town. We watch as Nolte gets crazier and crazier when all around him dismiss his delusions and thus become part of the enemy army. Gradually, he loses his job, his daughter and his fiancée, and finally goes berserk.
What is happening to this man? Halfway through the movie, we see Nolte with his father, who is uncaring and unfeeling. Even as his wife lies dead and cold, first in his bed and then in her coffin at the nightmare of her funeral, Coburn can only react by molesting his son’s fianceé and spouting rage at everyone.
After his mother’s death, Nolte has to move in with his father in the house in which he grew up. He drinks and obsesses over the childhood in which the brutal father taunted his sons into violence, battered Nolte for fighting back, and ridiculed Dafoe for not doing so. Nolte felt responsible for protecting his little brother and his even more helpless mother from this sadistically snarling monster whose love he longed for. He never got love, only more abuse.
Coburn stays drunk and will not permit himself to love or be loved, considering either emotion to be contemptuously weak. As Banks has Dafoe explain, “It is the nature of forgiveness that when you forgive someone, you no longer have to protect yourself from him.” No forgiveness is possible here, as there is no end to the danger.
Coburn’s toothy snarl serves him well in the first role in his 40-year career in which he’s been asked to do much more than swagger and sneer. It’s a scary performance and sufficient explanation for the state in which we find his sons. But we are given no hint of what has made Coburn the monster he is, and what it feels like to him. Nolte is the victim of Coburn, but what is Coburn the victim of? In the book, in death, the old man’s gigantic body turned out to measure 5’9″ and weigh a mere 135 pounds. Perhaps his motives were equally distorted by his son. Perhaps he was a good father of his generation, trying to prepare his sons for life as men, ready to fight for whatever they saw as right against whatever they saw as wrong. That’s bad enough.
Dafoe narrates: “Our stories, Wade’s and mine, describe the lives of boys and men for thousands of years–boys who were beaten by their fathers, whose capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth.” Dafoe has elaborated for himself “an elegiac mode of relatedness, as if everyone’s life were already over. It is how we keep from destroying, in our turn, our own children and terrorizing the women who have the misfortune to love us; it is how we absent ourselves from the tradition of male violence; it is how we decline the seductive role of avenging angel.”
Dafoe, who was shielded by his brother from the actual brutality of the old man, can disconnect from the tradition of male violence, the terror and the vengeance, and “grimly accept the restraints of nothingness–of disconnection, isolation and exile.” Nolte cannot do that. The violence that was beaten into him erupts uninvited on its own schedule, like the Alien from John Hurt’s chest. It comes out when there is a threat to his sense of his own masculine power. Whatever situation he is facing in the real world, inside he is lashing out against the father who is trying to destroy him (or toughen him up for whatever war he might face). So he is always under attack, always at war in a war that is about threats to his masculinity, a war that takes the place of threats to life or limb or community. But only in war and football can a man identify the enemy by its uniform.
We are accustomed to stories of men who fail in life and relationships and end up alone and despairing because they lack the requisite masculinity. But Nolte here, as in The Thin Red Line, has graduated summa cum laude in masculinity. He has been prepared to give his life and his all in whatever war he is experiencing or imagining. He just doesn’t know where the war is being fought and who the enemy might be, so everything haunts him and startles him. He was toughened up and left in a state of eternal vigilance with his weapons cocked in readiness for a war that never came, except from inside.
However many lives are lost to war, far more are lost to the lifelong training in anticipation of it. We haven’t had a full-scale war for half a century, but we continue to train men for it. That is the tragedy that Nolte and Sisyphus epitomize: all that raw masculinity and no useful place to put it.
Frank Pittman, M.D., is a contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker and is in private practice. Address: 960 Johnson Ferry Road, N.E., Suite 543, Atlanta, GA 30342. His fourth book, Grow Up! How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult, was published in June 1998 by Golden Books, New York.
Copyright Psychotherapy Networker, Inc. May/Jun 1999
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