Recently, I watched two films—Irvin Kershner’s Loving (1970) and Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love (1973) (both starring George Segal!)—that feel linked in my mind due to their shared genre. Let’s call this (perhaps distinctly American) genre the “drama of middle-aged masculine angst.” This genre seems to have emerged within cinema by the 1960s, but it’s perhaps traceable in literature at an even earlier point. A prototypical description of the genre is as follows: a straight, usually middle-aged and middle or upper middle class, man feels that his life, which usually involves a moderately successful job and a wife and kids, is meaningless and unfulfilling, so he attempts to break out of the dull monotony and search for something deeper, or at least more pleasurable. Of course, this is easily reducible to “mid-life crisis,” but the films never portray their protagonist’s drama in quite such simplistic terms. By putting this story on the movie screen, dramatizing it, these films partially normalize it and connect it with broader social and cultural changes. For instance, it’s easy to link this rise of this story type with the de-centering of the straight, white male (SWM) during this period of time. The de-privileging of the SWM creates a crisis for him because it shatters his self-definition, his former security as an authority figure at the center of American life. In this way, these films are not just about a mid-life crisis, because they conceptualize such a crisis on a much broader cultural level. But of course, the appropriateness of this move is always open to questioning.
There are a lot of reasons I have problems with this genre and why I fail to enjoy many films within the genre. (An obvious and more recent variation is Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999).). For one, there’s the inherent, for lack of a better word, whininess that comes with this angst, resulting from a process of de-privileging. If the SWM’s occupation of the center of American life was fraught with injustices and led to the oppression, directly or indirectly, of other groups of people, why lament his de-centering when it promises a more egalitarian restructuring of society? But this points to another problem I have with these films. We watch as the SWM protagonist generally wreaks havoc on those around him, but there’s always the lingering suspicion that it would be far more interesting to follow these other characters around, to see what they feel and think, to shed light on their concerns and worries. Typically, this protagonist will cheat on his wife. This is practically a rite of passage within the genre. But what if these films spent as much time asking how the wife feels? I say this not solely out of concern for the social justice issues inherent in representation but mostly because I tend to find these female characters a lot more interesting, even though this interest is sometimes only hypothetical because they are often not even allowed full characterization. And then there’s the children. If this protagonist has a daughter, he usually can’t relate to her because he’s probably cheating on his wife with a younger woman that to some degree uncomfortably reminds him of his daughter. If he has a son, he feels like a failure because, as a man “robbed” of his masculinity, he feels incapable of serving as a proper masculine role model for this son. In the end, there’s a good chance that you will enjoy these films precisely to the extent that you are capable of weeping for the plight of this SWM protagonist.
The description of Loving on Netflix is particularly interesting because it captures so succinctly the tone and feel of these films:
Brooks Wilson (George Segal) wants for nothing; he’s a happily married man with a lovely wife and two wonderful children, and he has a great job as an illustrator. Yet, inexplicably, he can’t help having an affair with Grace (Janis Young), a woman he’s just met. … And once that happens, everything he’s worked to create starts to fall to pieces right before his eyes.
To sum up: a man who has everything is unhappy. This in itself is perhaps an interesting premise. After all, much of 20th century thought and art has usefully questioned our inherited value system, wondering why we should find fulfillment in the roles handed to us by society. The proper response to the films of this genre can’t be that the protagonists need to simply learn to appreciate upper middle class life with their families and their unrewarding jobs. And in fact, there’s no reason why such a SWM protagonist couldn’t be interesting or worth emphasizing with. But on the other hand, it’s hard to lament his plight because it is so wrapped up in privilege, which ensnares all the people around him in a drama of power and authority. The Netflix description is interesting because it indicates all the ways we tacitly accept this privilege in viewing these films. Our protagonist “can’t help having an affair.” Everything in his life is what “he’s worked to create,” and in the end, when it does “fall to pieces right before his eyes” (ignoring the fact that a woman watching her husband and her marriage fall to pieces is quite literally integral to the plot of Loving), it’s still the result of this male protagonist’s agency.
This is, of course, pretty much the very definition of narcissism, but I don’t want to belabor this point. A lot of people will take a special delight in trashing the films of this genre, but even though I don’t relate to it at all, I don’t feel any particularly rage towards it either. That’s partly because, as I’ve written in the context of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010), I think it’s a cheap and pointless move to automatically dismiss any film that attempts to create empathy with characters who are wealthy and/or privileged. It’s just too easy, and any useful critique of how this genre functions must, I think, come from a recognition of how and why it’s taken seriously, rather than some preemptive and exasperated denial that there’s anything worth taking seriously in the first place. This genre exists as a registering of the effects of social and cultural upheaval, making it a worthwhile object of study. Like the horror genre(s), the drama of middle-aged masculine angst is often less an expression of an individual crisis or aesthetic vision and more a series of communal neuroses and fears writ large. Again, however, this makes it difficult for films within this genre to overcome all the objections we might raise; no matter how much a writer and/or director tries to put his own spin on this genre, the films tend to congeal around a series of similar themes and tones. But despite my lack of affection for this genre, I stubbornly refuse to believe that it’s wholly worthless. One thought I have is that since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when this genre seems to have first materialized, we have also seen the rise of what David Bordwell calls “network narratives,” films that focus not on one protagonist but on a series of intertwining storylines giving equal attention to a variety of characters. One might suspect this shift, which mimics the de-centering of the SWM within American life, might offer useful opportunities to recast the drama of middle-aged masculine angst into something more egalitarian, shading the genre with additional perspectives. Or at the very least, it might be interesting to examine how this genre has intersected and/or clashed with network narratives.
So my question for you is… what is the best film in this genre, the “drama of middle-aged masculine angst”?