A good friend named Susan divides movies into two categories: those with male stories and those with female stories. She regards The Theory of Everything as a “female” movie, in that the evolution of Stephen Hawking is seen through the eyes of the young woman who became his wife. But a few weeks ago, when Susan and I bought tickets for Foxcatcher, she marveled at the fact that she, a dedicated feminist, was tending to prefer movies that focused on a mostly-male world.
The “men without women” movie has been around from the beginning. Almost all the great war movies fall into this category: the heart of such films as Sands of Iwo Jima, Platoon, and Saving Private Ryan is the tough-but-tender camaraderie of men under fire. I haven’t seen this year’s war movies, which include Fury and American Sniper. But it’s striking to me that an intimate relationship between men – no, I’m not really talking about sex – is what connects some of 2014’s most provocative films.
Take Foxcatcher, the true story of two wrestlers and the very rich man who decides to take them under his wing. Brothers Mark and Dave Schultz, well played by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, have both won gold medals at the 1984 L.A. Olympics. As the film opens, they’re in training for future championship events. The key early scene that defines their relationship shows the pair in a friendly wrestling match. Via the sweaty physical intimacy of wrestling, we see the blend of tough aggression and brotherly affection that will mark these two throughout the film. Then John du Pont (a remarkable Steve Carell) enters the picture. He’s rich, and lonely, and desperate for respect. At his Foxcatcher Farm, he sets himself up as a benefactor and would-be mentor to the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Team. He tries, haplessly, to prove himself on the mat too. Ultimately his quest for an intimate personal connection with the Schultzes will lead to a bizarre and tragic act, one that suggests the subliminal forces at work in du Pont’s psyche.
The Imitation Game deals not with physical but with intellectual intimacy. It’s the World War II story of Alan Turing and the mathematical colleagues who have gathered at Britain’s Bletchley Park in a desperate bid to crack the Enigma Code, thereby enabling the Allies forces to get the jump on their Nazi enemies. Ironically Turing, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a lone wolf, constitutionally clumsy at working with his fellow man. Sure of his own genius, he has no patience for other points of view. Contributing to his sense of isolation is his secret homosexuality, which in that era made him vulnerable to criminal prosecution. His single friend among the mathematicians is the one female in the group (Keira Knightley), whose own outsider status makes her a natural ally. So close are they that he can even imagine her as his wife.
Finally, and unforgettably, there’s Whiplash, in which a teacher-student relationship becomes something almost akin to a sado-masochistic ritual. Who would have guessed that the story of a young percussionist and the leader of his conservatory’s jazz band would have so much in common with military stories about a brutal drill instructor browbeating a young recruit? At times Whiplash made me remember the harrowing opening scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. There’s even blood spilt, though not in the way you’d expect. Still, both mentor and pupil gain something significant from the relationship. No question that each becomes the most important person in the other’s life. That’s intimacy with a difference.