The James Clayton Column: Era of the angry old men

Is 2009 going to go down as the year of cinematic older, angrier man?

When future generations thumb through the pages of history (or scroll through the cyber-archives in the aftermath of the ban on paper as prompted by the Concerned Kindergarten Parents United Against the Threat of Papercuts) they will no doubt find the year 2009 tagged as ‘The Year Michael Jackson Died’. If history is written by people who have spent most of the year at the cinema, however, 2009 may bear the subtitle: ‘The Year of the Grumpy Old Man’.

Taking a sideways glance at the movie world over recent times, things have been going tremendously well for the traditionally shunned grumpy old bastard. Conventionally, you’d expect the main male characters commandeering the audience’s interest and empathy to be fine physical specimens of youth and exuberance. Instead, what we’re seeing is ancient, irate grouches leading big film releases, and we love them. It’s like if the 1950s was the heyday decade for ‘angry young man’ flicks like The Wild One and Rebel Without A Cause, then right now we’re riding the ‘angry old man’ wave.

2009 will, I reckon, go down in the memory of movie nerds as something of a high water mark for the rankled wrinkly gimmer in cinema, and I think it’s fair to say that we are currently at the apex of the trend. Who can we credit this current ‘cool’ status to? Squint and all becomes clear, punk: I place the blame on Clint…

It’s not like Clint Eastwood ever ceased to be a stone-cold icon of coolness; it’s just that as ultra-narked Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino, he got to dig up the Dirty Harry archetype of old and remind us just how sweet his snarl can be.

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With nothing more than a pointed pistol-trigger finger and some sharp cussing, he teaches the trumped up juveniles of his Detroit neighbourhood a lesson or two they’d do well not to forget. No pipe and slippers: just spunky resistance spitting in the face of the wannabe gangsters that bully his neighbours. Upstanding on screen as a model of just how old men can still function as a patriarchal power despite apparent obsolescence, when Walt growled the grandparents of the globe listened.

Having witnessed Kowalski forcefully take back his front lawn from the hoodlums, it’s like the geriatrics were roused to raise hell and reclaim the multiplex as their own. In the same sort of ‘the-world-has-turned-and-left-me-here-but-there’s-still-life-in-the-old-dog-yet’ vein, the beginning of the year saw The Wrestler come out fighting in theatres. Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson is a complete cripple (emotionally and physically) whose arena-filling, hair metal halcyon days are far behind, but yet, he refuses to fade away quietly.

Defying the trauma of coronary bypass surgery and family breakdown, “The Ram” disregards the fact that he’s a washed-up, forgotten has-been and boldly grapples against the modern world with admirable conviction. Watching The Wrestler at the cinema, you could sense every middle-aged man charging up with fresh energy and motivation, inspired to slip on lycra pants, cut themselves up with razorblades and throw coleslaw at patronising members of the public in their nearest supermarket.

The influence of the elderly has also seeped into animation if you look to the frail figure of Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s Up. I don’t remember any of the archetypal Disney male leads of times past having creaky bones, hearing aids and a walking cane. Now kids want to stick on old-fashioned square spectacles and old codger jackets when they dress up for Halloween while the all-too-perfect Prince Charming protagonists of yore wander unloved and unwanted through the wastelands.

If the senior cinematic stars are not blowing up balloons in rebellious spirit then they’re blowing the bloody kneecaps off the filthy, disrespectful youths who are dragging society down the gutter. It may be grim viewing, but it’s great to see Michael Caine come over all Get Carter again and become an avenging angel back on home turf as the title character in Brit-flick Harry Brown.

Just as hurt Harry brutally punishes the degenerates and thugs of his council estate when they push him too far, I can see a rise in real-life OAP vigilante violence if the generation divide widens.

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For too long have the pensioners been rejected and reviled: now they are arming themselves and recalling their military training, ready to fight against the frivolous, moral-free society that’s puked all over the precious remains of ‘the good old days’. With Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables arriving next year in an explicit display of muscle, the whole thing comes full circle and the Grandpa Resistance completes their coup d’état.

It’s appropriate that finishing 2009 we have the festive release of yet another version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which consequently delivers literary miserable old bastard par excellence Ebenezer Scrooge. Even when the wrinkles are ironed out by the unnerving CGI photo-real treatment employed in Robert Zemeckis’ flick, it’s clear that the crinkly curmudgeons are king and are quite content to assert their patriarchal authority in 3D as well. It’s indisputable: at the box office the frowning fogies reign supreme.

Admittedly, it’s true that, because the system is sexist and stacked against those who lack a Y-chromosome, elderly women aren’t benefitting. Whereas the blokes are riding on into old age still proclaimed as masculine action icons, female actors find themselves forced into playing dull matriarchs or cackling spinsters once they reach the age of 40. Hollywood continues to be no country for old women, and I doubt that the older members of The Expendables cast are going to take time aside from gung-ho heroics to advance the feminist cause.

Eclipsing their female contemporaries, encroaching on the territory traditionally dominated by their younger male counterparts and making great films, times are good for the older gentlemen of the movies. With considerable clout backing up the box office posturing (Hell hath no fury like Michael Caine scorned), what we are seeing in ‘The Year of the Geriatric Male in the Movies’ is an indication of vast social upheavals taking place as the population ages.

The Elder Ones are taking power once more and have set their squinting eyes on global supremacy. My friends, resistance is futile: they’ve got Clint Eastwood on their side. Well and truly, this is an old man’s world…

James’ previous column can be found here.

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