Our Men: The Powers/CK Continuum
March 14, 2011 2 Comments
We write a lot here about men in movies, and the imbalance of their female counterparts. The Sloppy Joe is really just the Normal Joe. Meanwhile, the Sloppy Jane is a sore sight for sore eyes that aren’t used to looking into the sun. (Also, I have to make a loud, brusque, and phlegmy cough of ahem! to David Denby’s lukewarm observation in a review of Hall Pass that “women, however, may be insulted in other ways: onscreen, they are rarely the ones who get to act up. They’re usually solid and sane–good, loyal, colorless, hardworking girlfriends and wives.”…May be, Denby? May be?).
But, let’s look at the Sloppy Joes out there that are certainly part of the posse (both the Hollywood gender vacuum, and the posse of me, you and anybody else that would come to our party), and not part of the problem. I want to assert here that Louis CK, in his role as Louis CK on the show Louie, and the bombastic Mr. Kenny Powers of Eastbound and Down offer a spectrum of modern masculinity, its shapes, its foibles, its merits and demerits. I think they are the Sloppy Joe of our dreams, or at least, the men that Apatow’s boys are supposed to be.
The fucked up protagonist, fully launched into our collective sub-conscious with David Brent in 2001, has become such a staple and mandate that television execs are suggesting it is as passe’ and lucrative as vampires (at least this is what I overheard at my local coffeeshop where we all talk loudly about doing important things). Depressed may well be out, because CK has cornered that market so well on his FX show. As long as he keeps producing, I’m okay if he is the only supplier of sad man out there for awhile. This is because what he does is startling. I would offer that CK is the male Munro…just as Alice Munro catalogs how women’s lives are not made of miracles, CK would very much like to take all the gloss off, and show that plain living is made of shit and life. Under the initial layer of middle age and divorce chronicles, the show takes on what it is to be a man and the wobbles of masculinity (and not in the “should I be a dad or not” angst). He isn’t portraying rites of growth or understanding. He shows the ambiguous part of having balls. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it, except in key Sloppy Jane roles (again, the glorious Munro, Poppy in Happy Go Lucky, Sylvia Plath…). Our regularly scheduled schlumps (Life According to Jim, any Seth Rogen role, well, all any man starring in a movie where he is not wearing a beautifully tailored suit), don’t do this kind of work. They exist in their messes (messes that any actress would be lucky to get a chance at), but their saccharine revelations are more of a kind of fable porn, where all struggle reveals sweet lessons and profoundity: angsty confused men grow up to be good men, and thus the hard part is over. CK is already grown up. He sits in his mess, and carries on.
And then we have Kenny Powers, who can mostly be summed up as a major dick. He is a worst fear of American masculinity (the majorest dick): arrogant, racist, misogynist, uncouth, drunk, raging, scared, self-serving, and blind to all others but himself. He belches, he slaps asses, he brags about women ovulating all over his jetski handlebars. He betrays those closest to him constantly. And, he’s a sports hero. For all the fun of his rants and horrible behavior (the writers are smart here to win from the foulness of his character, and calling dibs on knowing he is an asshole), Powers is working in the same waters as CK: how to be a dude, and how restraining and nebulous expected gender roles can be.
Powers is so sunk by his own macho self-narrative that he constantly causes himself pain. As much as he swaggers in the first season, you just as often see a scared man who doesn’t know how to admit failure, or a scared man who cannot live up to his own mouth. He only knows how to relate to the world through the demonstrations of alpha status: wealth, ladies, and domination. But the real world he returns to after he burns out in baseball make a mockery of these tools. They are small attempts, or gilded impostors (a leased truck, absolute rule over 7th graders, a disregard for insurance law). He always looks like a chump. The show delights in the myth of Kenny, the fun of his badassery, and it is delightful. But ultimately, creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill are taking on the failures of a rigid and mythic masculinity.
I also give the writers a high commendation for their allegiance to the jet-ski, which becomes a running metaphor for the grandiosity of Powers’ self-narrative. And the scope is large. Jeffrey Sconce, in a post tiled “Burdened White Men”, also comparing CK and Powers, noted that
If Eastbound and Downwere simply about beating up on Kenny Powers, who remains oddly sympathetic despite burning through life as a testosterone tornado that emotionally destroys everyone in his path, the series would get old quick. Luckily, the show is smart enough to link the fate of the mulleted, super-awesome, and sociopathic Kenny to a parallel crisis in America’s collapsing confidence and identity.
Kenny Powers does seem to be a worst nightmare of America, as well as of a son, neighbor, or loverman. And yet, I still really like him, and want him to win. Like David Brent, I really don’t want to see him humiliated. His fucked up heart isn’t exactly his fault…he just needs more self-esteem (wait, I thought that was girl’s problem?).
Sconce also commends the challenging work these shows are doing, even if they are another set of odes to the white man’s lament of living well in the western world. As far as Sloppy Joes go, these two just might take your breath away. Both rip open expectations of masculine identity and poke around at what’s underneath: the lovely and the icky bits that are suffocating together.
And, because I live off of Netflix, I am late to both of these parties. Louie is available on Netflix Instant, while season one of Eastbound & Down is on DVD. Both shows will have a new season this fall.