Portraying Masculinity Through the Lens of Two Cinematographers

Examinations of masculinity are most interesting when viewed either through the female or gay male gaze as we have seen so little of this perspective in the context of the history of cinema. When women do get the opportunity to direct, they frequently, and completely understandably, focus on female protagonists, personal themes and coming-of-age stories. However, when they do turn their lens on a male protagonist, fresh insights can be brought and new truths revealed, through the objectivity of an ‘outsider.’

In Beach Rats (2017), director Eliza Hittman and cinematographer Helene Louvart closely follow Frankie (Harris Dickinson), a young man from Brooklyn who is wrestling with his sexuality. In Lazzaro Felice (2018), director Alice Rohrwacher and cinematographer Louvart (again) tell the story of gentle tobacco farmer Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) in two halves; one in the summery, rural setting of the farm in Italy and then secondly in the cold city. The secondary character of the Marquise’s son, Tancredi provides a counterpoint to Lazzaro’s highly unusual brand of masculinity.

In God’s Own Country (2017), director Francis Lee and cinematographer Joshua James Richards provide a portrait of young gay farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) in Yorkshire, England. His journey involves having the barriers he has built around himself broken down by the introduction of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) who comes to work at the farm. In The Rider (2018), director Chloe Zhao and cinematographer Richards (again) immersed themselves in a reservation in South Dakota where they discovered a rodeo rider Brady (Brady Jandreau) recovering from a bad fall and built a story around him, using his real family and friends.

There are many connections between these four films — all four protagonists are around the age of 18-22, those crucial years of being on the cusp of manhood and trying to figure out what to do with your life. All four are extremely quiet, pensive young men and have minimal dialogue — the frequent use of close-ups in all of the films reveals their emotions much more than the dialogue does. Three of the films have rural farm or ranch settings and all four portray complex relationships between the men and their environments.

Three of these stories are journeys of self-discovery, but Lazzaro Felice is less an internal examination of Lazzaro and more about his impact on those around him by offering an alternative version of masculinity, one centered on optimism, kindness and a pure good. Louvart chose to shoot both Lazzaro and Beach Rats in 16mm, but this has a different impact on each film. In Lazzaro, the grain gives the first half of the film a nostalgic, idyllic feel, even as the characters are going through hardships. Although it is not set in the past, it may as well be, because the town of Inviolata has remained untouched by the outside world. This is emphasized by the rounded corners of the frame, which are reminiscent of a 1960s or ’70s photograph. In the second half, the low-resolution adds to the cold and harsh atmosphere of the industrial town, giving it even more grit and grey misery. In Beach Rats, the grain adds to the naturalism, with its sparse dialogue and use of mostly untrained actors. Although it has a contemporary setting, the use of 16mm works especially well in the nighttime Coney Island scenes, giving them a retro seaside fairground feel.

screenshot from 2019-01-02 15-24-12

All four of these protagonists are the “strong and silent” type. For Frankie, Johnny and Brady this is due to stoicism — they are all afraid to reveal their true feelings and keep a tight lid on their emotions, until there is a pivotal moment where the dam bursts. In Lazzaro’s case, his silence comes from wanting to blend into the background and not be a burden to anyone. He tends to only speak if ordered to by those around him. However, in the same vein as Lenny (Of Mice and Men), Lazzaro has enormous physical strength. He tosses around hay bales and grandmothers as if there were no tomorrow. Crucially, he only uses his strength to work hard and help those around him; he doesn’t use it to dominate or threaten anyone. Frankie is also in good physical shape, but this is more for reasons of vanity. There are multiple shots of him working out and taking selfies in his mirror. Beach Rats even opens with snap shots of different parts of his body, as his camera and its flash click away.

The opening shots of The Rider are of different part of a horse’s face and body, showing the focus and love Brady has for these creatures. After this montage, the first scene of the film features Brady removing the staples from his head injury with a giant knife. The only focus on male physicality in The Rider is on the rodeos’ devastating after-effects and what it has done to both Brady and his best friend, Lane. Similarly, God’s Own Country focuses on the physical after-effects of Johnny’s life-style of poor diet, smoking and binge-drinking as the film opens with him vomiting after a hard night. It is only after the love story develops that the masculine form can be seen as something beautiful. Once Johnny’s guard starts to fall around Gheorghe, he becomes comfortable with nudity not just during sex, but afterwards when discussing his mother. This is an unprecedented level of intimacy for Johnny and shows a huge shift from where he is at the start of the film.

Louvart and Richards both centralize their protagonists within the landscapes around them, viewing them as products of their environments and studying their relationship with their surroundings. Brady has a respect and reverence for the land. He has an affinity for horses and nature, and he greatly struggles with the thought of not being able to ride again. In complete contrast, Johnny despises his environment. He resents the farm and the hard work it entails, as well as being trapped in the country with “nowt else to do” than get drunk every night. He spends almost the whole film with his hood up, head bowed against the elements — until Gheorghe forces him to open his eyes, look up and appreciate the beauty around him. Having spent so much time in extreme close up on Johnny, when Richards does eventually show a wide-shot of the spectacular view, it has a much greater impact on the character and the audience. We have been experiencing the misery with Johnny, thanks to Richards’ extremely tight camerawork and we can now experience this revelation with him.

Lazzaro has the same benign attitude to both the warm, sunny, rural environment of the tobacco farm at Inviolata as he does to the cold, grey, harsh town where he ends up in the second half of the film. Lazzaro manages to find a spot of the country in the town when he notices herbs and vegetables growing around a makeshift container park. Lazzaro can see the value in his locale even if others don’t. The landscape surrounding Inviolata is full of myth and legend, the howling of wolves prompts the workers to tell each other parables.

Frankie’s relationship with his environment is much more about the people than the physical place. He has conflicting pressures from his family (a dying father, a worried mother and a sister who is on her own journey of sexual awakening), his friends (who very much represent toxic masculinity), his girlfriend who he sees by day or in the evening and the older gay men that he meets in secluded locations in the dead of night. These nighttime scenes are shot in true inky darkness by Louvart, with only glimpses of pale hands on smooth flesh to provide clues of what is happening, emphasizing the clandestine nature of the encounters. The beach and the water have extremely different purposes by day and by night for Frankie. During the day, it is a place to play with his friends or check out the local girls. By night, the beach is a place for illicit sexual encounters, followed by washing his sins away in the water. When one of the encounters goes awry, the black water becomes a place of escape for the victim of Frankie and his bros’ dangerous ‘prank.’ Frankie experiences the same boredom as Johnny does with his ‘small-town’ working class life and they both try to suppress these frustrations in the same way — with drink, drugs and casual sex.

The crucial difference between Frankie and Johnny is that at least Frankie has friends (however dubious their influence may be), whereas Johnny is extremely lonely. When he is approached by an old school friend at the local pub, he mocks her ‘posh’ student lifestyle and pushes her away, even when she hints that she has a gay friend that he could meet. This prompts one of the most striking shots of the film: Johnny looking through the pub window at them. He is outside, smoking in the cold alone and the warm glow from the pub basks his whole face in light. He is aching to join them, but his stubbornness and inability to let his guard down and let anyone in prevents him from doing so. Johnny also has a difficult relationship with his father and grandmother. The weight of their expectation grounds him down, into the land — it ties him to the farm and this causes resentment. It is only after meeting Gheorghe (who opens him up emotionally) that Johnny’s relationship with his Dad softens.

Similarly to Frankie, Brady has a group of young male friends who provide an enormous amount of external pressure as to how he should be living his life and what his attitude towards his injury should be. In a nighttime scene around a campfire, they swing from being hyper-masculine to surprisingly tender. The friends very much tell Brady to man up and “ride through the pain” despite seeing what a severe brain injury has done to one of their best friends, Lane. Richards closes in on Brady’s fire-lit reactions to this peer pressure, so we are privy to Jandreau’s discomfort, even if his friends are oblivious. They pray around the campfire for Lane and experience some genuine male bonding — “we are him and he is us.” Lane was very much an alpha male; they describe him as a ‘dirty dog’ with the ladies and there is footage of him pre-accident comparing himself to Superman. This makes his current situation even more heart-breaking and again, it is Brady’s facial expressions which convey so much fear and pain.

Unlike the other three men, Lazzaro exists within a large commune that has a hierarchical structure. He doesn’t know who his parents are, only his Grandmother, but the farm workers live so closely (literally sharing beds), they are like one giant family. However, the Marquise (who actually looks down on them from a tower, like a Disney villain) is exploiting this ‘family’ by enslaving them. In turn, they exploit Lazzaro because he is an easy target — amenable, soft, gentle and kind.

Lazzaro is frequently shot by Louvart from low angles, perhaps demonstrating that although he is looked down upon by everyone around him, the audience sees him for who he is really is, as someone to be respected and perhaps even revered. It is also a clue to Lazzaro’s mythic nature. One of the early shots which foreshadows Lazzaro’s later supernatural or saint-like status is when he is framed with a portrait of a praying figure behind him, just over his shoulder. We later find out that this figure is Tancredi, who is both the angel and devil on Lazzaro’s shoulder.

It is difficult for both Frankie and Johnny to express their emotions around their sick fathers and it is only because the other person is unconscious that they allow themselves to hold their hands. Johnny strokes his father’s hand with the tip of his finger, an intimate motion that Gheorghe does to him first. It is made so clear, through the use of close-ups of the smallest of gestures, that Gheorghe is Johnny’s teacher in the ways of emotional intelligence and literacy. Brady goes through perhaps the biggest journey with his father, from railing against him — they are both equally stubborn — to capitulating at the end. When Brady does approach his father for an embrace, it is shown in an extreme long-shot by Richards, in contrast to the frequent use of close-up throughout. It is important to show the environment around the two men because it has had such a huge influence on both of them. The reservation, the ranches and the rodeo: that is who they are.

Emotional extremes are rarely shown by any of these young male protagonists. They don’t smile or laugh often and equally they rarely cry or have outbursts of anger, especially in front of others. One of the few times that Johnny looks truly happy in the freedom and wildness of abandon is when he swims in a lake with Gheorghe. The only time he cries, despite what he goes through with his dad, is right at the end when he is reunited with his love. Similarly, despite what Frankie goes through with his father, he only cries when his “date” goes awry due to his own selfish and foolish actions. This seems more an expression of fear and panic, rather than regret or sorrow.

Brady’s most vehement expressions of feeling are reserved for when he’s with Lane — he is the one who prompts both laughter and tears. Lazzaro doesn’t veer between extremes of emotion either, but this is more because he is on an even keel, being generally placid and content. One occasion in which he becomes excitable is when he sees Tancredi’s little dog Ercole in the town and realizes Tancredi must be near by. Even when Lazzaro is attacked at the end of the film, he maintains his benign countenance. His martyrdom is confirmed by his lack of reaction and refusal to fight back.

The four directors and two cinematographers have provided us with four complex portraits of masculinity. All four characters go on a journey of self discovery, but are not necessarily provided with happy endings. Both Beach Rats and Lazzaro Felice have particularly downbeat endings. Whilst The Rider and God’s Own Country are more hopeful, the shadow of injury still hangs over Brady and there is no guarantee that Johnny and Gheorghe are riding off into the sunset together. Brady, Frankie and Johnny have all changed in fundamental ways by the end of their stories. Lazzaro has had a profound effect on those around him and we can only hope, changed them for the better.

In the last year or two our society has started to reexamine masculinity and the negative aspects of the pressures of “being a man” and all of the behaviors that entails. As we all know, this has many harmful consequences on women, but it also hugely impacts the men themselves. We have had generations of emotionally stunted men who find it incredibly hard to express their feelings. These four portrayals offer insights into the impact of that on four young men and we are lucky to have them. The sensitivity and vulnerability displayed by Dickinson, Jandreau, O’Connor and Tardiolo is extraordinary and it is the combination of these performances with the extremely intimate camerawork that works so well. Every facial expression and minute gesture is captured as well as the impact of the surroundings (both place and people) on these four protagonists. These four works of art have huge societal importance. They are extremely pertinent to contemporary issues, but will have longevity due to their universal themes.

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