Youth and Young Manhood, Male Anxiety in Palo Alto

Posted by Liam Dodds on October 23, 2014 in Blog tagged with , , , , , , ,

An image of Fred and Teddy from Gia Coppola's Palo Alto

“There’s a part of me that’s like that, and it’s a part that I keep so hidden,” he said. “So basically that role was almost liberating. It was finding this part of myself that needs a ton of attention that I usually keep hidden and bringing it out to the front” – Nat Wolff

What does it mean to be a modern man? In the face of decades of increasing marginalisation, the concurrent rise of political correctness, and an overt and overly-prescriptive consumerist agenda – where men were told what to wear, how to act, but most importantly, what to suppress – Fight Club sought to respond to this crisis of masculinity. Since the publication of Chuck Palahnuik’s novel, and following the success of the subsequent film adaptation, Tyler Durden has served as the totem of troubled masculinity. In response to this perceived threat to masculine identity, Tyler prescribed violence and aggression, Project Mayhem, destroying something beautiful. Tyler was supposed to be the cure. But was he? As we approach two decades of totemic masculine crisis, Gia Coppola returns to explore contemporary male anxiety in Palo Alto, an unflinching portrayal of adolescent lust, boredom, and self-destruction.

A poignant evocation of first love and unwavering desire amidst the twilight reverie of a fading adolescence, Coppola portrays a purposeless youth and young manhood, an aimlessness that is depicted through the representation of Fred as the shadow-self of the sometimes-protagonist, Teddy. Coppola’s adaptation opens with Fred (Nat Wolff) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), isolated, jittery, and smoking pot, in an abandoned parking lot during the fugue state of one-of-those-conversations that you might remember from your youth, where it’s suddenly three o’clock in the morning and you realise you have spent an entire evening excitedly putting the world to rights, or, at the very least, wondering what role you would have in a medieval society if you were to have access to a time machine and had a penchant for trebuchets. King, as it happens. Fred drives the automobile into the wall. Blood courses from Teddy’s forehead. This sudden act of violence, which marks both young men, excites and troubles them in equal measure. However, occurring without witness or external frame of reference, this abrupt performance of masculinity, with all its associated connotations of sexual desire, remains aimless and does nothing to resolve the apparent crisis of masculine identity.

An image of April and Mr. B from Gia Coppola's Palo Alto

Mr B. (James Franco) is desperately seeking an outlet for his own crisis of early masculinity. B is troublingly single. Perpetually unsuccessful in dating, living alone, and acting as a single-father to his young son, Mr. B displays a strong predilection for his students and sometimes babysitters, and aims for their seduction in a manner that appears forceful, and worrisomely practiced. The very nature of these seductive methods, which appear devoid of all experience, charisma, or allure normally associated with a relationship of this kind, this perfect imbalance of power, only serves to underline the character’s feelings of personal insecurity. “I’m older and I know that there aren’t a lot of good things around and I know that you are really good.” There’s nothing else out there, B seems to say; I might be the best of a bad lot, he states; also I might be your best shot. Maybe I am just immune to B’s charm but, for me, the lack of confidence he portrays during the pursuit of his victim(s), despite the seeming inevitability of their eventual seduction, betrays him and serves to demonstrate that he is yet to receive affirmation of his masculine identity he so desperately seeks.

The volatile youthfulness of Fred echoes the purposeful aggression of Tyler Durden. Fred is reckless, impulsive, and sexually manipulative. Fred uses a chainsaw. Fred wields a machete. Fred drives the wrong way down a slip-road into oncoming traffic. Fred forces himself onto a young friend, on a number of occasions, taunts her, and then describes in sordid detail the organisation of, and his participation in, a group sexual assault analogous to the scene from Rules of Attraction. Perhaps in an allusion to vicious whorl of rumour and spite common in a group of teen-somethings, this isolated instance of disembodied narration forces the audience to question the veracity of the account. The intimacy of the concurrent and probing close-up of his victims eyes, hair, and hands, lends some truth to the narrator’s version and thus, as an audience, we are forced to accept and abhor Fred for his actions. Somehow, Fred remains disturbingly alluring in spite of his violent and reprehensible behaviour. The character is played with such nervous energy, such vigour, that you cannot help but like him, in spite of his many, many, faults.

As a figure of repression, Fred may be representative of Teddy’s desire to experience the forbidden pleasure that the adolescent experience has to offer. However, Teddy is already part of this world in his own right. The audience acts as witness to Teddy, as he experiences his first drunken tryst at a house party; his first experiences of drug-taking; his first drunken hit-and-run, which admittedly led to his prompt arrest and eventual sentencing. Teddy’s actions stand apart, in part because they are portrayed as having been witnessed, as having consequences. His car crash is not imbued with the same charge of sexual fetishism, nor are his acts of drug-taking or sexual exploration imbued with hopeless longing for self-affirmation. Rather, the ease with which Teddy can resist his shadow self in the movie’s closing scenes, where he convinces the machete-wielding Fred to pull over in order to let him out of the vehicle, points towards an opportunity for redemption. Given the opportunity to self-destruct, Teddy chooses to survive.

An image of Teddy (Jack Kilmer) sitting alone on the bench

Coppola portrays the home as entirely absent, a safe space to return to perhaps, but a space devoid of the attention, nurturing, or direction that her young leads require. In the absence of adult role models, Coppola’s charges are often shown alone, often doing just as they wish: texting, dancing, smoking, playing music, or drinking from flower vases. Coppola’s characters are sometimes precocious, occasionally malicious, but always alone. I believe that Coppola wants her audience to play witness to this rite of passage, as the isolation of youth and young manhood gives way to a tremulous and outward looking adulthood that struggles to express itself, in order to show that when the poetic and romantic confusion of youth ends, her male lead wants nothing more than to care for others and to care about his own future. And thus, Nat Wolff, in his description of Coppola’s direction, summarily outlines the response to male anxiety as portrayed in Palo Alto, as he states “The asshole’s already in the script. You don’t have to play the asshole. Play the other. That opened me up.”

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