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Bromance Is Dead: Male Failure In Humpday And Old Joy
Stephen Lee Naish , June 5th, 2015 10:17

Following on from his article concerning American Psycho and Point Break, Stephen Lee Naish investigates two more examples of female directors focussing on and spotlighting male behaviour

The kind of male companionship depicted in the buddy movie genre has been a staple of American cinema since the early 1960's. Whilst the lonesome male figure reveals existential turmoil and a sense of cool, silent detachment (see Drive or Taxi Driver for example), having two male main characters allows for a dynamism and those revelations of personality that can only come via spoken or unspoken exchanges. For example, buddy movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Stir Crazy (1980), The Blues Brothers (1980), Midnight Run (1988) and Dumb and Dumber (1994) all feature touching, and humorous male interaction. There is also an opportunity to convey a homoerotic subtext to films which feature a male twosome. This is very apparent in two films by female directors that loosely fall into the buddy movie genre: Lynn Shelton's Humpday (2009), and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006). Both narratives explore the reacquainting of male friendships, yet there are moments in both films in which the relationship moves beyond simple friendship and comes closer to complicated romance. However, it is not quite that simple, as the two films not only show the failure of male friendship, but the failure of the male himself.

In an earlier piece for The Quietus - ‘American Psychos: The Hollywood Male At Breaking Point’ - I discussed female directorial interpretations of the fractured male psyche. I pulled focus on Mary Harron’s American Psycho (1999) and Kathryn Bigelow's Point Break (1991), films that lay within the spectrum of mainstream cinema, and show that intense rivalry, combined with infatuation can produce volatile homoerotic subtexts, most evidently between Point Break's hero Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) and the film's villain Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). But it’s also worth exploring the female perspective on the more subtle relationships between males that are not borne out of psychotic tendencies, but come from genuine friendships. And it’s best to turn to independent cinema as a way to find these understated subtexts and explore a female interpretation of male failure.

Humpday and Old Joy both depict the narratives of once close friends reacquainted after years of growing apart. Whilst one has grown up and become dependable and settled in adult life, the other never grew up and continues to exist in an adolescent mindset. When their friendships pick up again it is from the moment they last saw each other. In Humpday, Andrew (Joshua Leonard) is a free spirited artist, who has been travelling South America for the last few years. His attire of torn denim jeans, tatty jacket, unkempt beard, and oversized backpack, signify him as a roaming man. After being absent for ten years, he crashes in on his best friend Ben's (Mark Duplass) homestead at two in the morning. Like Andrew, Old joy's brash and opinionated Kurt (Will Oldham) has spent the intervening years wondering from place to place, crashing on peoples couches, and avoiding the responsibility of adulthood. When we first meet Kurt he is pulling a wagon that contains what looks like an old busted television set. His beard is wild, and his denim shirt barely stretches over his protruding beer belly. Both Andrew and Kurt's behavior is impulsive, suggesting all the symptoms of burn-out. Too much booze, drugs, and partying have taken their toll. They have both been pinballing from one spiritual, radical encounter to another, never quite finding the peace of mind and settlement they so obviously require. From Andrew and Kurt's perspective it's as if nothing has changed, that their friend will simply accommodate them. But in their absence their friend has moved on, grown up, and now has adult responsibilities. Humpday’s Ben works a soulless desk job, is married to Anna, and is in the first stages of planning a family. Old Joy's timid and quiet Mark (Daniel London), is in a similar situation to Ben. He is married, and his pregnant partner is due any day, which is putting tremendous strain on his relationship.

From Ben and Mark's perspective their friendship with Andrew and Kurt is a burden, yet in their presence they revert back to the adolescent mindset in order to prove something, or regain a little of their lost adolescence. In Mark's case he has to prove to Andrew that he is not tied down and hasn't yet completely embraced his adulthood. During a party with a group of local hipsters that Andrew has connected with, discussion turns to an upcoming porn film festival called HUMP! in which participants submit homemade porn and erotic films. Andrew boasts to his new friends that he is going to film himself having sex and enter the film into the competition. Ben calls his bluff, yet Andrew rebuffs this by stating that he will have sex on film with Ben. The discussion then turns to how the idea of two heterosexual men engaging in full penetrative sex would be a brilliant artistic statement. Their unwillingness to back down and save face locks the two friends into a childish quarrel. This leads to an uncomfortably hilarious scene in a motel room where they attempt to film themselves with a cheap digital camcorder Ben has acquired. They strip down to their boxers, share an awkward kiss, and discuss how they will secure and maintain erections during intercourse. Neither is willing to admit that the scenario scares them. Eventually though the two friends realise their stupidity, and Ben begins to contemplate the damage he may have done to his relationship with Anna. Ben realizes he has to return home and make amends. The two friends part company. Andrew looks genuinely wounded as Ben gathers his things and leaves the room.

Mark's situation is similar to Ben's. As fatherhood looms a camping adventure with the freewheeling Kurt could be his last chance to experience a little carefree fun. On another whim suggested by Kurt, the two friends begin their drive to Babgy Hot Springs in Mount Hood National Forest. After taking a number of wrong turns in the mountains and getting themselves lost the pair decide at nightfall to set up camp down a dirt track and proceed to drink beer, smoke pot, and shoot cans with an air rifle. Kurt gets emotional at the detachment he perceives between himself and Mark and his desperate need to reconnect overwhelms him. Mark reassures him that everything is fine. Upon their arrival at the idyllic springs the next day the unease between them seems to have passed. They fill up the baths with hot water and soak into them naked. As Mark relaxes in his tub Kurt suddenly hovers over him. Kurt's shaky state of mind that has been witnessed throughout the film suddenly becomes a concern. Does Kurt have some sort of homicidal tendencies lurking beneath the veneer of spiritual calm? Thankfully not, but perhaps something else. Kurt begins to tenderly massage Mark's shoulders and chest as he lays in his tub. At first Mark is somewhat freaked out by the unsolicited touching. His upper body fights and withers against Kurt's hands. Eventually though he relaxes, closes his eyes, and allows Kurt to continue.

By the end of Humpday and Old Joy, both Ben and Mark have returned to their partners, and resumed their adult lives. It is as if they have flirted with the possibility of an illicit affair. Andrew and Kurt on the other hand are left alone and more detached than before, as if they were the jettisoned mistress. In the last scene of Humpday, Andrew sits on the bed in the motel room and rewinds the tape in the camcorder to watch back the footage of their brief and awkward encounter. He laughs to himself, yet it is clear he is saddened by the loss of his close friendship. Andrew packs his things and vacates the room, and we assume leaves town for good. The last few minutes of Old Joy are possibly the saddest and loneliest in cinema. Kurt aimlessly wanders the streets. He stops outside shop windows and peers in, he attempts to talk to a homeless guy, but can't make any connection, he crosses the road and wanders back again, he searches around for a familiar, or sympathetic face, but he finds no one. He is utterly lost and alone. Andrew and Kurt's imposition on their friend’s lives is a last ditch attempt by both of them to re-establish a connection that has long faded. The desperation is so intense that they both breech that friendship and instigate a physical, homoerotic connection that is equally alluring and disturbing to Mark and Ben. Andrew and Kurt can't seem to be intimate without being erotic, a trait that leaves their friendships in tatters.

The films mentioned in the introduction as examples of the buddy movie genre were all directed by male directors, but they are also older films. The times have changed, and male companionship has been somewhat replaced by something more sinister. The modern interpretation of male friendship in film is one that often features humiliation, intense rivalry, and betrayal. A few examples of this trend are The Hangover (2009) and its sequels, 21 and Over (2013) and The Inbetweeners (2011). Whilst these films do explore the insecurities of the male, it is through a lens of gross-out humour, which diminishes the overall impact.

Shelton and Reichart's interpretation of friendship is filtered through a lens of male insecurity and a longing to turn the clock back on adulthood. It is also a more honest depiction. All four of the main characters are stunted adults and have failed to live up to the expectations of what it means to be male in modern society. They lack drive, ambition or determination. They have let themselves go physically. Though these characteristics are injected for comedic purposes (two grown men kissing in their boxers as their tubby bellies press together is far funnier than if they both had toned physiques) it is also telling that the modern male has become the subject of such ridicule. We are a long way away from the ripped and slender bodies and the confident alpha males seen in American Psycho and Point Break. This version of masculinity has been unattainable for a vast majority. In those two films the male protagonists/antagonists are slick bodied and muscular. They are confident, witty, and take pride in their outward appearance and perception. In Humpday and Old Joy the lead characters have flabby beer guts, un-toned muscle, unkempt hair, and defeated, sulking postures. We are left with this vision of masculinity. Their failure is complete when they are unable to recognise the difference between intimacy and friendship, and can barely love themselves, let alone another man.