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Boyhood, Manhood, and Peter Pan

Robin Williams once said, “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” Much of his work, I suppose, can be viewed in this light – the precious value of being “mad,” by which we might mean “different” or “energetic” or “brilliant.” All of them are words that apply to the great actor, for certain.

In Spielberg’s Hook (an often overlooked and, I feel, under-appreciated movie), I think this quote from Williams is given full attention. Peter Banning – the neurotic, work-obsessed alter ego of the wondrous Peter Pan – is a man devoid of any such spark of anything, least of all madness. We watch him go through his life – a wonderful life, mind you – without joy. He lives in fear of everything: of flying, of failure, of life itself, it seems. Peter Pan has grown up and, as it turns out, being grown up kind of sucks.

Then, of course, Banning is compelled to return to Neverland, forced into a fight for the fate of his children (held in the clutches of Captain Hook – more on him later), and must find and rekindle his childlike glee to win the day. This story is interesting in itself in the way it effectively inverts the message of the original Peter Pan. In the original tale, Wendy Darling goes off to Neverland voluntarily to postpone or even outright avoid the prospect of growing up. The longer she stays, however, the more she realizes the life of Pan and the Lost Boys is an unfulfilling one. She returns to London for the express purpose of growing up. Banning goes to Neverland to remember how to be a kid.

Why this inversion, though? Well, I think a significant part of this is due to the fact that Hook, at its heart, is not a story for children. It’s for adults and, even more specifically, for men. Much has been written about how modern conceptions of masculinity essentially damage a man’s emotional capacities. Men are permitted to be angry, sarcastic, proud, and stoic and…that’s about it. Banning, who is actively afraid of much that is happening around him (the result of stress in a highly competitive modern world that demands that he, as a man, be “successful”), is unprepared emotionally to cope with his own stress. Accordingly he lashes out, most notably at his son, Jack. Anger and sarcasm are the only emotional languages he is permitted.

Dustin Hoffman is a *fabulous* James T Hook, by the way

Dustin Hoffman is a *fabulous* James T Hook, by the way.

In this sense, Banning has company. Captain Hook is, basically, the same creature: driven by fear, he is proud, angry, and sarcastic. He actually contemplates suicide to get attention. He fears the clocks, which are symbols of mortality and always have been, even in the original; death stalks Captain Hook and he is terrified of it. He needs Peter Pan to feel young, to feel vital, and even to taste again what it’s like to have fun. He needs Peter Pan in the same sense that Banning needs Hook to break him out of his emotionally stunted rut.

Yes, Pan needs Hook in this movie. Sure, the Lost Boys shepherd Pan to success, but Hook is the person who makes success into something other than talking on the phone with some dude at the office. Like all good antagonists, he drives Pan to remember himself, to grow. Here we have a tale of an older man at the end of his life yearning for youth and a younger man forgetting why youth is useful. Hook relishes his battles with Pan – a vestige of his bygone glory – even while he has totally forgotten joy and has supplanted it, instead, with the desire for revenge and righteous anger. In Hook, Banning/Pan can see his own future.

And that brings us to Jack. Let’s not forget the other male in this movie going through change: Pan’s own son. Repeatedly Jack is told to grow up and told to fear and told to obey by his father. He rejects his father, therefore, and gravitates towards Hook, who is willing to be a “father” figure. The role of fathers in this film is important, as it ties directly into being a man. Fatherhood is an important role for a man to play and how it is played is half the reason men grow up as they do – emotionally distant, stoic, and frequently afraid of a great many things. Banning is inarguably a bad father. Hook knows this, and seeks to turn it against him – perhaps, as a male role model, this is the one way he can strike back at his enemy. Hook inverts Banning’s parenting style; instead of being distant, he is deeply involved in what Jack wants. Instead of being severe and scolding, he is supportive and congratulatory. Of course, he is supporting Jack to be all the wrong things: destructive, selfish, and self-absorbed.

What Jack needs, what Banning/Pan needs, and even what Hook needs is the same damned thing. Not material success, not fawning attention, not victory and revenge – they all need to be happy and free. Manhood, the traditions housed therein, and the way those traditions are expressed are all shown to make that harder, not easier. And yet boyhood – banal, unstructured fun – is not the answer either. Jack gets all his boyhood dreams, but none of it matters one bit without genuine emotion to back it up. Banning is able to revert to Pan, but his childish antics do not and cannot save his children. Peter Banning finds his happy thought by remembering Jack’s birth – this is not the happy memory of a child (new-fallen snow, toys on Christmas, lollipops and teddy bears), but of an adult. It is a happiness far deeper and far more powerful than that achieved by any child – a happiness born of true love. That is the happy thought that literally frees Banning from his shriveled adult prison but also compels him to leave his childish self behind and return to the real world.

And so, in the end, this movie says something very profound to the fathers and the sons out there in the world: no childhood games and no manly dreams of conquest will ever satisfy as much as love of family and the joy of being yourself with those who love you. That spark of madness you must guard is not kept by being in control, but rather from letting go of the masculine self and permitting true, real emotions to guide you.

Guilty Pleasure: Armageddon

You know how everybody has a cheesy movie that they just love? A movie that, if it happens to be on FX, you just can’t help but watch it, no matter how often you’ve seen it? For me, that movie is Armageddon.

Armageddon is heavy-handed melodrama coupled with the pacing of an action movie. From an objective standpoint, the entire thing is ridiculous. Let’s run down the list of foolish things in this movie, starting from the top:

  1. It would be easier to train astronauts to be drillers than drillers to be astronauts.
  2. Why the heck does the Russian Space Station float around with enough fuel to re-fuel two experimental shuttle designs so they can fly around the moon?
  3. Space Shuttles don’t have spare seats for Russian Cosmonauts.
  4. The US Government doesn’t fly around in black helicopters even a quarter as often as they do in this movie. Like, seriously, every single place any of the characters go there are 2-4 black helicopters rushing to meet them.
  5. The flight path of the shuttles would cause them to crash directly into the asteroid and die, not land on it.
  6. The weak gravity of the asteroid only ever comes up when dramatically appropriate. It also, oddly, does not follow the characters inside their (bizarrely spacious) shuttle.
  7. If NASA and USAF are working on an experimental shuttle program and have built a prototype, they have one and exactly one such prototype. You don’t build a spare of an extraordinarily complex prototype. That’s why it’s called a ‘prototype’.
  8. Pretty good odds that nuke wouldn’t actually split the asteroid like they wanted. Especially since they were digging in the wrong place anyway.
  9. NASA doesn’t put machine guns on rovers. If they did put machine guns on rovers, they wouldn’t load them on a mission like this. If they did load them on a mission like this, they wouldn’t be able to ‘shoot’ their way out of the wrecked shuttle without (probably) blowing themselves up or getting stuck.
  10. Why wouldn’t the drillers, when throwing out everything unnecessary on the rover, throw out the machine gun?
  11. NASA would be painfully aware that deep sea drillers are not the same thing as engineers and should not be allowed to mess with their designs.
  12. NASA can follow schematics and build drills. Even special, high-tech, proprietary deep sea drills.
  13. NASA doesn’t have the money to do any of this stuff.
  14. Even if the shuttles did land on the asteroid, they wouldn’t be able to take off again without some kind of VTOL capability, which the shuttles in the movie didn’t have. They just kinda ‘flew away’.
  15. If you had a mission patch sewn or fastened to the exterior of your spacesuit, you probably couldn’t rip it off to give to somebody. Even if you could, it would probably be a bad idea to do so.
  16. If the shuttles landed on the backside of the asteroid (as it appears), how is the shuttle able to communicate with Earth? What are they bouncing their signal off of to get around the mass of the asteroid? How powerful is their transmitter that they can power the signal through something the size of Texas?
  17. If a woman files a restraining order against her ex-husband and keeps his child out of his life, how is the fact that he’s going to save the world make you love him again? Even if you partially forgive him, does he really get a hug? If you threw him out of your life unjustly, just how big of a bitch are you to come back only after he’s landed on a freaking asteroid and saved the entire human race?
  18. Space Dementia? Really?
  19. Cosmonauts hitting equipment with wrenches does not make it work.
  20. If you just drop your wrench in the engine room of a space shuttle just before it goes through re-entry, something terrible is going to happen as that free-floating wrench gets accelerated some direction into something sensitive and causes a lot of damage.

There are more, but I’ll stop now.

Why None of That Matters

These guys will never have to pay their tab at the bar for the REST OF THEIR LIVES.

We don’t care about all those little persnickety details when watching Armageddon. Why? Well, the movie gives us all the other things we want and love. We have a romance. We have a father/daughter relationship. We have best buddies facing death together. We have everyday shlubs saving the planet by dint of their tenure at the School of Hard Knocks.

Armageddon gives us a bunch of loveable goofballs who man up, go into space despite their fears, save the Earth, and come home heroes. My generation grew up hearing about how this happened once before – it was called World War 2 – and we’ve been jonesing for our own chance ever since. Who doesn’t want to save the world? Who doesn’t fantasize about scenarios where they and their friends are humanity’s last, best hope for survival and somehow, despite their humble beginnings, they pull it off? You know who doesn’t want these things? People who don’t like Armageddon, that’s who.

And then, of course, there’s Harry Stamper. Harry Stamper is the quintessential American Alpha Male. He’s tough. He’s wise. He’s gruff. He’ll do anything for his family. He’s a self-made man. He’s protective of his daughter and hard on her fiancée. He’s the kind of guy American men all secretly wish was their dad and/or wish is the kind of dad they will become. The guy who rolls up his sleeves, gives his daughter a tearless goodbye, and wades into certain death with a grimace and a pithy one-liner. The character is concentrated, rarefied manhood; in ancient times, they would have bottled his sweat and sold it as a strength elixir. I choke up every time Colonel Willy Sharp snaps his incredibly tight military salute to Stamper’s daughter and asks permission to shake the hand of the bravest man he’s ever known. Why? Because I’m an American Man, that’s why. That’s how I want to be remembered. I want the respect of Captain America, dammit! So do you! Admit it!

So, yeah, I love this movie for all it’s faults. It pulls all the right strings and pushes all the right buttons. I also really, truly appreciate how hard the movie tries to kill Ben Affleck. After that gag-worthy animal cracker love scene, he really had it coming, and the movie respects that. So, thank you, movie.