By Nigel Andrews
From Financial Times (London), 02.01.1992
The New Man, as we all know, is gentle, caring and Politically Correct. He helps with the washing up and changes baby’s nappies. He makes sure the goldfish has fresh water, the dog has a good book and the cat is on a high-fibre vegetarian diet. He croons his wife to sleep and then spends all night studying Dr Spock.
We have to ask at this point: Where is the New Man in modern cinema? The film heroes on video this month include Arnold Schwarzenegger stomping around futuristic Los Angeles smashing everything and everyone in sight in Terminator 2 (Guild); Bruce Willis brawling and ladykilling across New York and Europe in Hudson Hawk (20:20); a whole lot of gun-toting blacks blasting us out of our sofas in New Jack City (Warner); and Gerard Depardieu battering Isabelle Huppert into romantic submission in the French film Loulou (Artificial Eye).
Popular ideology likes the New Man. Popular entertainment loathes him. And video culture may be part of the reason. With its stress on short-attention-span storytelling, where every scene must pack a punch to keep the home viewer’s finger off the fast-forward button and his mind off the rival TV channels, video demands high-definition heroes with no-nonsense virility.
The world sometimes makes penance for this by throwing charity money at a film like Dances With Wolves (Guild). But there is a deep and essential Jekyll-and-Hyde duality in the simultaneous rise of the caring male in modern sociological fashion and the Cro-Magnon super-hero in modern cinematic fashion.
Indeed in today’s movies the sensitive male must be surreal to be believed. He must be the crazed, poetic, topiarising youth created by a mad scientist in Edward Scissorhands (Fox), where he is played by Johnny Depp in all-Gothic leather as if he were Harpo Marx mugged by Kenneth Anger. Tim Burton’s fantasia in small-town America comes to us from the same writer-director who gave us Batman (Warners). In this, you recall, the hero is a masked avenger by night (all-male superhero) and a home-loving fellow by day (New Man), played by a Michael Keaton best-known previously for man-with-apron roles like Mr Mom.
In Edward Scissorhands the New Man is a gentle, adorable freak. In period guise he is much the same in Peter Medak’s film of the Craig-Bentley case Let Him Have It (1st Independent), where Bentley is a sweetnatured fellow of deprived IQ driven towards violence by his evil twin Craig. Medak builds a stylish, moody picture of 1950s Britain in this true-life tale of travestied justice–Bentley was hanged for a policeman’s murder he neither committed nor probably abetted–and he sharpens without caricaturing the contrast between the gangling, slow-witted hero and his pintsize Mephistopheles pal.
As the sum of these films shows, the cinema has a wonderful counterbalancing instinct. Every ideological posture that a new age brings provokes an equal and opposite counter-posture. For every gentle chap brought shyly towards the centre of action from screen left, his opposite is sent stomping in from screen right.
Which brings us back to the Stone Age superheroes we started with. I have tried to dislike Terminator 2, with its preposterous superhunk throwing his weight around post-nuclear L.A. But dear me, I would rather have Arnold Schwarzenegger in this mad, mythopoeic, metamorphic form than Kevin Costner tending the winsome Indians in Dances With Revisionism.
I cannot so keenly recommend Hudson Hawk or New Jack City: sometimes thick-eared machismo is just thick-eared machismo. But you should try the European thinking man’s answer to Mr Schwarzenegger, namely Monsieur Depardieu. In Maurice Pialat’s Loulou our Gerard is not so much a New Man, more an ageing hippie driven by Bachanialian demons. He sweeps a stunned-looking Isabelle Huppert off her feet, pushes aside her maturer boyfriend (Guy Marchand) and generally behaves as if he would not recognise Political Correctness between the sexes if it fell down from the sky and beaned him.