Adam Driver and Being a Man

By  · Published on January 6th, 2017

What kind of man is Adam Driver? Is it a new kind of man?

“What is transmitted through the photograph,” Roland Barthes wrote of politicians, “are not his plans, but his deep motives, all his family, mental, even erotic circumstances, all this style of life of which he is at once the product, the example and the bait.” Substitute the political figure for the screen actor (it’s easy, America did it) and you have a tidy dialectic on celebrity culture and all that. The product that I’m interested in here, right now, is masculinity, that thing stuck between being sold by magazines and Justin Theroux or perpetuating violence against its unfamiliars. The salesman that I’m thinking of is one Adam Driver, marketer of a particular kind of authenticity, a thing that, like fronting an underground indie rock band, you can only do for so long. You make it or you don’t. Rocking to the top after a turn in the Star Wars money machine (The Force Awakens), he now prominently foils Andrew Garfield’s Jesus act in Scorsese’s latest (Silence) and stars in the latest Jarmusch feature (Paterson). Past bearers of the latter honor include: Tom Hiddleston (Only Lovers Left Alive), Bill Murray (Broken Flowers) and Johnny Depp (Dead Man). So what is Driver selling now?

Driver’s style of leading man recalls, for me, something of Jimmy Stewart built with Marlon Brando’s pecs. The sharply idiosyncratic and, consequently, easily imitable accent. A kind of white-bread look that recalls more the Wonderbread of an unlived childhood than anything you can remember buying on the shelf. Weird-looking but sexy. Interview notes his “Modigliani Mr. Potato Head appearance” while Stephen Colbert bequeathed him a “a millennial sex symbol.” Jimmy Stewart, of the moon-lassoing in the streets of Bedford Falls, hails from Indiana, Pennsylvania. Driver, like the Vice President-Elect of the United States, hails vaguely from Indiana. Much has been said about this upbringing: the child of religious folk who don’t watch Girls (GQ), a child pyromaniac who founded a fight club in high school (Women’s Wear Daily), and two-year Marine veteran who never fought a battle (everyone talks about this). All seeming to suggest a sort of estrangement, somebody who enters the city from the world of the common man to gawk at its hipster ways. Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, Date Night) told GQ that he “moved heaven and earth” to cast Driver alongside Tina Fey and Jason Bateman in Levy’s ensemble family drama, This Is Where I Leave You. “The way he moves, talks, eats, navigates the world,” Levy told the masculine periodical, “It’s really authentic. Adam is a fucking man.”

Girls (2012)

“What Do You Actually Need From A Man?,” asked a Buzzfeed quiz sometime last year. It takes the form of a set of word puzzles. Later, among the post-election hot-takes was The Guardian’s “Donald Trump’s victory is a disaster for modern masculinity.” The version of modern masculinity Driver first became known for embodying was a character named Adam Sackler on HBO’s Girls. We are introduced to Sackler in the show’s pilot, opening the door bare-chested ‐ his shirtless scenes in the show would later inspire their own fan-powered twitter account. He is the principal love interest of Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham, the show’s creator and an ostensibly controversial media personality). His apartment is an emporium of wood-working tools and he has a degree in “comp lit and it hasn’t done shit,” he tells Hannah, his voice rolling the vowel gleefully. We think briefly of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, perhaps, but Dunham insists that the misunderstood artist shares space with the unrepressed id and its sexual cool. In a later episode, we witness Sackler’s idea of a romantic gesture as a mural of stenciled graffiti on a Brooklyn warehouse. Shortly after exhibiting the work, he tells Horvath, “Let’s go fuck.”

T o paraphrase Mr. Levy, Driver’s ability to articulate masculinity stretches from the bedroom to the kitchen. A lot of directors like to show Driver eating, particularly something simple, like the bowl of cereal which he attacks with the strange gusto of a bear pawing salmon. He does it conspicuously throughout his life with Hannah in the second season of Girls, Jarmusch throws in a soggy bowl to his indelible daily routine in Paterson. Ditto in one of Driver’s first starring roles, in Saverio Costanzo’s Hungry Hearts, where he plays a father whose wife (Alba Rohrwacher) attempts to starve their child. It is a charmingly ridiculous movie; at some point Driver’s character hides in a church to secretly feed ham to his infant. But the movie highlights another argument Driver articulates on contemporary masculinity: embodying traditionally maternal space with ease. In a world where Seth Rogan’s class of leading men still evoke Homer Simpson in order to make a point about fumbling with the obligations of fatherhood so forced upon then, as if to say, I’d rather be with the boys but if I must, Driver’s rejection of this feels both progressive and homespun. It’s the kind of way gentlemen are supposed to act, we’ve long been told, but also embodies a political moment where issues like material and paternal leave remain distressfully unresolved in the American body politic.

Hungry Hearts (2014)

In Driver’s first rom-com, Michael Dowse’s The F Word (titled What If in the States), he appropriates Adam Sackler’s mannerisms into a buddy role paired with Daniel Radcliffe. Radcliffe, you might guess, is the brainy sadsack to Driver’s reckless sexual adventurer ‐ The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky compared Driver’s role to any of the post-hippie brawn that Tony Roberts played in a line of ’70s Woody Allen films. But there’s a moment in the movie ‐ well-written, as a whole, but unremittingly dull as a piece of entertainment ‐ where Allen (Driver), in addressing what Wallace (Radcliffe) should do about the woman he has feelings for (played by Zoe Kazan), addresses the stock images of masculinity hanging over their interactions with women:

Allan: Be honest. Tell her how you feel. It might ruin the friendship but at least you stood up like a man and expressed your feelings.

Wallace: Wait, since when does being a man involve expressing your feelings?… Like Bruce Willis, you never see Bruce Willis expressing his feelings.

Allan: Do you think Bruce Willis would be happy just being friends?

Driver delivers this in a kind of pointedly laconic drawl, as if the idea of anybody looking up to a symbol like Bruce Willis’ stylized tough-guy act is a ridiculous rule of modern life that one must dance around rather than follow. Which it is.

O n the surface, Paterson is gratuitously giving us the real Adam Driver. Like Driver, per Women’s Wear Daily, Jarmusch’s Paterson doesn’t own a cell phone and a brief pan over a photograph of Driver in military attire is all we get of Paterson’s past. A bus driver who writes poetry on the side and for an audience of one, Driver’s character emphasizes art as an intensely private concern. Paterson is also Jarmusch’s first movie, since, perhaps his first release Permanent Vacation, without the bare bones of a plot; Driver carries the movie by engaging with each climax with the canny verisimilitude of the small but unexpected. His bus breaks down on a random city street, his book of poems is ripped up by a dog; Driver treats each of these events as if they are neither foreshadowed nor flashed-back upon, they simply are and Driver gives them the human agony they justly merit. This point feels articulated again when Jarmusch’s camera takes us through a den stacked with novels by David Foster Wallace, Robert Walser and, of course, books by the movie’s much-referenced William Carlos Williams. Later, Driver tackles an unruly bar patron (William Jackson Harper) who pulls out a gun. It is a Hemingway-esque fantasy that has long coasted the cultish edges of American masculinity ‐ names like Jack Kerouac or Michael Heizer come to mind. But both Driver and Paterson represent quieter figures; Jarmusch’s choice to ultimately idolize Williams, the quotidian general practitioner, emphasizes an argument for more contemplative masculinity, one that occupies the once-feminine space of being seen and not heard.

“He’s not a brooder,” Noah Baumbach ‐ who directed Driver in both Frances Ha and While We’re Young ‐ told GQ. The current aching simulacra of male emotional vulnerability, generally directed at some past event over which our hero fumes over, was much on display a decade ago in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as well as today in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, and suggests a fear that men cannot occupy that feminine space if they are not nurturing some wound, suffering some great and oh-so-unbearable loss. Helen Holmes, addressing the controversy over Casey Affleck’s past over at Moleskine-mouthpiece The Towner, connected Affleck’s emotionally tortured performance with its embodiment of a retrograde and violent masculinity : “[Affleck] has long stood in as an avatar for a particular strain of Massachusetts manhood…he reminds me of the high school classmate with perfect grades who assaulted me in the back seat of my own car.”

In Martin Scorsese’s Silence, Driver’s dark Jesuit robes and stony presence bring to mind Driver’s turn as Kylo Ren, a villain whose anger is expressed less in his grandfather’s penchant for calm strangling than in quick spurts of very human rage. The rage, however, is present, it relates to events happening in front of the camera, occurring in present. While Andrew Garfield’s Father Rodrigues must go through the motions of coming to understand that watching innocent Christians martyr themselves isn’t all the New Testament fun it’s cracked up to be, and doesn’t quite get there, some say, Driver’s starved face quietly betrays the agony of what is in front of him. History as a long-wrought set of personality dramas has long been criticized as a masculine invention by everyone from Hélène Cixous to Sanda Gilbert and Susan Gubar ‐ perhaps, by making masculinity an entirely present performance, Driver will take it out of the Dark Ages as well.

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