Entry from July 31, 2009

“Once Upon a Time, a Real Leading Man,” an article about Cary Grant by Mike Hale in today’s New York Times hides its subject in its headline. The word “real” doesn’t appear in the article at all, while “man” appears only in titles and combining forms — and in this quotation from the late Pauline Kael: “He was the man women wanted and men wanted to be.” Everybody quotes that about Cary Grant, though I’m not sure that it’s true. But why the reach? Nowadays, it ought to be enough that he’s a man at all. The “real” part may seem curious, at first glance, since we’re talking about a movie star here, but that’s really the point. In Grant’s day, the movies strove to make things look real, and Grant was good at making manhood look real. “Kael noted in 1975,” writes Mr Hale,

that it was impossible to imagine Grant in the macho action and crime films that were beginning to dominate Hollywood. It’s equally impossible to imagine him in the soggy, misogynistic, stealth-macho geekfests that pass for romantic comedy now. Watching him is to be reminded of a time when intelligence, grace and self- containment were their own rewards. The 21st century, so far, hasn’t deserved him.

The missing word “man” is implied by two uses of the contrasting pejorative, “macho.” Macho is manhood that doesn’t look real. It’s a posturing form of manhood for boys.

I wonder why Mike Hale takes this circumlocutory way to say what the headline writer, at least, must have recognized as the obvious, namely that Cary Grant was always a grown-up on screen while contemporary leading men — think of Tom Cruise or Matthew McConaughey — almost invariably look like overgrown boys? Maybe it’s because The New York Times, especially its arts pages, is heavily invested in the culture of unreality, a.k.a. post-modernism, which affects to regard posturing boys and their amusements as preferable to, or at least the equals of, the more manly sort — if you can find the more manly sort anymore, apart from old Cary Grant movies. In the same day’s paper, we have a wholly serious, “Books of the Times” review of three book-length comic books, including one which “imagines several variations of Batman’s death,” as if they were the product of some eminent poet or novelist, while on the op ed page, of all places, Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan are kind enough to enlighten us as to “Why Vampires Never Die.”

I have a few ideas of my own about that, but this piece is even more serious and high-brow in conception than the comic-book one, as this passage may suggest:

The myth, established well before the invention of the word “vampire,” seems to cross every culture, language and era. The Indian Baital, the Ch’ing Shih in China, and the Romanian Strigoi are but a few of its names. The creature seems to be as old as Babylonia and Sumer. Or even older. The vampire may originate from a repressed memory we had as primates. Perhaps at some point we were — out of necessity — cannibalistic. As soon as we became sedentary, agricultural tribes with social boundaries, one seminal myth might have featured our ancestors as primitive beasts who slept in the cold loam of the earth and fed off the salty blood of the living. Monsters, like angels, are invoked by our individual and collective needs. . .

Of course, the same could be said for Superman, who is “invoked” by our need — alas, ever to be disappointed — to be invincible. But that doesn’t mean that he “emphasizes the eternal in us,” as Messrs. del Toro and Hogan claim the vampire does. “Through the panacea of its blood it turns the lead of our toxic flesh into golden matter.”

Oh, please! That the once highly-respected New York Times does not hang its head in shame for publishing such arrant nonsense can only be because the paper now does it so routinely. The evolution of the culture usually proceeds at such a glacial pace that it takes something like this to jolt us into an awareness of how far we have come. Mike Hale writes that Cary Grant “avoided entire genres that didn’t suit him, like noir or the western, and much of his output consists of the sort of mainstream light comedy or melodrama that seems most dated today.” Yes, that’s true in general, though Grant’s comedies have held up better than any others of their era. The Awful Truth is as funny today as it must have been in 1937. But I suspect that what it means for something to be “dated” is that people have grown so used to being amused by trash that they can no longer see the humor in non-trash.

Recently I watched a re-run of the episode of “Seinfeld” in which a female reporter from a student newspaper at NYU gets the idea that Jerry and George are gay lovers — the episode with the brilliant catch-phrase, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” In the final scene, where George is determined to use the imposture of his and Jerry’s homosexuality to break up with his girlfriend, we find Jerry kissing the reporter and saying that he was attracted to her from the start because she reminded him of Lois Lane. This is just one of the running gags of the series based on the humor of the presumed incongruity of a grown man still interested in such childish things as comic book superheroes. Yet the humor of it is fading, now that we’re reading about superheroes and vampires in the pages of The New York Times on a regular basis. All grown men today, at least those of Jerry Seinfeld’s age and younger, seem to take such things seriously — which is another way of saying that they take nothing seriously.

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