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Thinking pop culture

Love, Sex and Foxcatcher

The trailer for Foxcatcher did something miraculous: it lulled me into thinking that sport and male competition - two things I have pretty much no interest in - could be made watchable and perhaps even enjoyable.

Damn you, beautiful score.

I can quite happily pass on Steve Carell in comedy – films like the 40-Year-Old Virgin, Dinner for Schmucks and TV shows like the US version of The Office have never really grabbed me. But in his more serious roles - Little Miss Sunshine, Crazy, Stupid, Love and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World for example – he’s stellar.

And voicing animation he’s sublime.

So Carell with a prosthetic nose and nine toes in the loony bin and Foxcatcher seemed to have at least a little merit.

In its favour, Carell was actually pretty good. Even more so Mark Ruffalo who is generally fairly consistent in his screen excellence (In the Cut, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Thanks for Sharing are three great examples).

But watching the Magic Mike guy (Channing Tatum) stomp around looking every bit like Frankstein’s monster for two hours was laughable, was arduous and was annoying to the point of bloody distraction.

January’s not over, so not a huge call yet, but certainly the worst film I’ve seen all year. (Worst here, based on how many times I thought about playing with my phone/doing random anagrams in my head).

Boring sure, but not without its talking points.

The one aspect that interested me most in the trailer was obsession. Not obsession with wrestling or gold medals – I don’t understand those kinds of pursuits – but the idea of an older man, a complicated man, a man with apparently not much in his life other than a love of wrestling (Carrell), who takes a wholehearted interest in a much younger bloke (Tatum). And then crazy ensues.

The whole time I was watching Foxcatcher I was thinking about one of my favourite films: Love and Death on Long Island (1997). In it, the “erstwhile fogey” novelist Giles De’Ath (John Hurt), buys a ticket to an E.M. Forster adaptation and - seemingly never having visited a multiplex before - accidentally enters the wrong theatre.

Hotpants College II.

And just as Giles stands to depart from the sophomoric monstrosity, he spots a young actor, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley) - seemingly reprising his 90210 Peach Pit waiter role - and is instantly enamoured.

So taken was Giles’ that he soon shoplifts teeny bopper magazines to collect clippings for his new “Bostockiana” scrapbook.

I hadn’t actually seen Love and Death on Long Island since it was out in cinemas – I tend to eschew repeat viewings for a) fear of diluting the wonder and b) opportunity cost - but for the purposes of this article I put in the effort.

Over a decade and a half on and it still holds its own. A gentle and thoughtful film.

Both Foxcatcher and Love and Death on Long Island centre on the onion of an idea of older men being drawn to younger ones. While suggestions are made in both as to motivations – in Foxcatcher John du Pont (Carell) wants to live vicariously through the young wrestler Mark (Tatum); in Love and Death on Long Island Giles wants Ronnie to reach his full thespian potential – both also propose the answer of love. And both do so within narratives where a verbal articulation would be unthinkable.

Love in an erotic, I want you sense sure - Giles’ draws nudie pictures of Ronnie afterall, and in Foxcatcher John has Mark cut his hair in a strange Ghost-meets-Wolf of Wall Street scene - but also love manifesting in patronage and role-modelling and most notably control.

George Michael - Father Figure (1987)

Giles in fact, has a ham-fisted stab at explaining this dynamic to the young and not-the-sharpest-pencil-in-the-box Ronnie:

“In Europe, it is often the case that a young man benefits from the wisdom and experience of an elder. There’s almost a tradition of such experiences.”

In fact, Giles’ articulates an idea that runs through both films. And sure, perhaps wisdom is on offer, experience too, but in both an unsubtle - and much more dangerous - power game drives the older gents.

Nothing in life - from philanthropy through to the ministrations of “benevolent” sex acts - can ever be completely altruistic. While gifts might be given “freely”, they’re also motivated by a tapestry of selfish motivations: be they just the personal back-slap of “doing good” through to - as apparent in both Foxcatcher and Love and Death on Long Island - the ability to capture. Holding a love interest, keeping a love interest. Even if, in these films, failing to ever fully consummate.

Foxcatcher is the slicker film with the much better soundtrack, but John Hurt and Jason Priestly do this highly convoluted dance so much better.

Foxcatcher opens in Australia on January 29, 2015

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