Punch Drunk Love

Punch-Drunk Love

Popeye the Novelty Toilet Accessory Man

Share the pain as Adam Sandler—er, Barry Egan—tries to figure out what it is to be a man.

Timothy Stanley

Maybe it’s because he’s so alone
Maybe it’s because he’s never had a home
He needs me he needs me
He needs me he needs me
He needs me he needs me
For once, for once in life I’ve finally felt that someone needed me
And if it turns out real
Then love can turn the wheel

—Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl,
He Needs Me,” Popeye: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

A small, mousy young man sits in a bad suit behind a cheap desk in an eerily nondescript warehouse anywhere in Los Angeles. Finishing his conversation, Barry Egan (played by Adam Sandler) walks through the quiet darkness of the warehouse and into the alley to squint at the dawn. The camera pans to the street a hundred yards off where light morning traffic passes by. Out of nowhere a car flips uncontrollably into a chaotic wreck. Barry’s petrified cringe defines his character—and his movie’s theme—in a moment.

A truck stops near where the wreck occurred and unceremoniously drops a small harmonium—a piano-like instrument—onto the street.

Barry appears stunned, powerless in the face of the chaos around him, but somehow the harmonium draws him. We cut to him standing in front of it at the end of the alley, wondering at the strangeness of its presence. Turmoil returns in the reverberations of another passing truck, and Barry is off and racing back to his warehouse sanctuary with the harmonium in his arms. He takes it to the warehouse’s office, the inner sanctum of his refuge from the outside world. Fiddling to get it working, he timidly caresses the keys as the soundtrack theme of the movie Punch-Drunk Love gradually emerges from random notes.

Deconstruction Zone

Punch-Drunk Love took the prize for best director at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival and received critical raves for taking the genre of romantic comedy “to its absurdist limits.”[1] Romantic comedies, almost by definition, include a binary gender construction—male and female. Punch-Drunk Love, however, centers its narrative on a particularly male experience of the heterosexual love relationship. It explores and deconstructs the oddities of twenty-first century masculinity through the performance of Sandler, an actor known for a comedy career based mostly on shallow male gender stereotypes that plunge bathroom humor deeper into the toilet.

Barry Egan is a socially impaired post-patriarchal everyman, his character a combination of mama’s boy–extraordinaire and fingernails streaking down a chalkboard. As Sandler admitted in a Charlie Rose interview, “He’s pathetic.”[2]Under the direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, the film’s masterfully discordant soundtrack and disorienting cinematography only enhance the discomfort the audience feels while watching Barry go through the process of examining and exposing the kitsch superficialities of several patriarchal gender constructions.

The film as a whole is literally painful to watch, yet Anderson not only confronts us with the unsettling image of a disempowered man, he explores the possibilities of transcending the sense of gender anomie so many men feel. Fortunately, he resists proposing an overly simplistic alternative for the postmodern male, suggesting instead a potential re-enchantment with a kind of “punch-drunk” masculinity.

The Many Voices of Olive Oyl

The film’s dark underbelly emerges when Barry calls a phone-sex line. Sheepishly, he gives the operator his credit card, Social Security number, home address, and phone number so that a girl can call him back. Barry hangs up the phone only to pick it up again to be greeted by the verbal stimulation of “Georgia.” It all seems innocent enough as he claps off his bedroom light and goes to sleep in the safety of his apartment.

But Georgia calls Barry again the next morning, awakening him to the nightmare of being asked to help her with her rent. Barry refuses and she threatens that if he doesn’t give her more money she will charge his cards and make trouble for him. He hangs up and goes to work. Georgia’s “sexy” voice turns sinister as it hunts him down at work, calling again to blackmail Barry for money he doesn’t have. Just as Barry’s late-night chat partner is turning up the heat, one of Barry’s seven sisters comes to his warehouse with a friend to play matchmaker.

The scene is shot to juxtapose three kinds of women, all expecting Barry to perform different kinds of masculinities. The phone sex girl is threatening him into playing the role of a financial patriarch. Barry’s sister is harassing him into a heterosexual performance as the macho man who should date her friend. And then there is Lena (Emily Watson), the woman Barry’s sister is trying to get him to date. He appears to be genuinely frightened of her, just as he is of the other two women in this scene. When he does not immediately follow up on his sister’s demands, Lena bluntly asks him on a date and Barry passively accepts.

Though the women are obviously asking Barry to masquerade in the patriachal costumes of their liking, Barry is unable to do so. The patriarchal means, like wealth and his ability to be the macho man, are non-existent. He sells novelty plungers from a warehouse. Even if he did make a lot of money he wouldn’t be able to brag about what he does, a traditional sign of masculine pride.

This barrage of female voices is the normative context for what we might want to call a post-patriarchal man. Women hand out multifarious fictional roles to men who no longer have the resources to play them out. Women define and redefine the roles and then judge the performances, but there are many different women to listen to.

In Punch-Drunk Love, women complain to Barry that he is inadequate (his sisters), ask him for money (the phone sex girl), and even ask him on a date (Lena). Barry is expected to be a financial provider, a tough guy who doesn’t cry (Barry has a crying problem that his sister asks him about at this point in the film), a macho ladies man, and, oddly, some sort of soft-hearted and sensitive companion.

The plurality of voices, presented cinematically to evoke the experience of pressurized chaos, leaves the audience with the distinct impression of the futility of male attempts at patriarchal performances. If there was ever a case study for the experience of post-patriarchy, Barry is it.

After Patriarchy, What?

But what do we mean by post-patriarchy? Typically, patriarchy is thought of as a kind of characterization of culture—a Zeitgeist where men and women embody norms and values that benefit a few men while oppressing many others.[3] A social pattern promoted by both men and women,[4] the general notion of patriarchy assumes the rule of men in a kind of “hegemonic masculinity” that aims to identify “those sorts of men who enjoy power and wealth.”[5]

Discussion on the decline of patriarchy is not currently about the ”decline of sexism, or misogyny, or even male domination,” says theorist Barbara Ehrenreich. It is rather over “the original sense of the word, as the intimate power of men over women, a power which is historically exercised within the family by the male as breadwinner, property owner, or armed defender of women and children.”[6] Post-patriarchy is thus not about the fact that white men still seem to be a majority in positions of political power, or that men typically still dominate the marketplace. What we are talking about here is the way men no longer wield influence and power in marriage and family relationships. Post-patriarchy, says Ehrenreich, is recognition of the reality that the traditional reading of patriarchy

“simply does not describe the situation of today’s single women, or married working women, working in corporate workplaces and living in dangerous cities. Even if we modify the word and call it ‘capitalist patriarchy’ or ‘racist patriarchy,’ the word itself is anachronistic, and of little help in understanding the situation of more and more women in the world.”[7]

Part of the complexity of current masculine gender constructions is that men are confronted with a plethora of voices that tell them how to be a man. These voices create real crises in men’s experience of masculinity. Linda Lindsey suggests five that are traditional:

1. No Sissy Stuff: the stigma of all stereotyped feminine characteristics and qualities, including openness and vulnerability. 2. The Big Wheel: Success, status, and the need to be looked up to. 3. The Sturdy Oak: A manly air of toughness, confidence, and self-reliance. 4. Give ‘Em Hell: The aura of aggression, violence, and daring. . . . 5. Macho Man: An emphasis on sexual prowess and sexual conquests.[8]

Some wives may want “the sturdy oak,” while the locker room may beckon the “macho man.” The marketplace may tell him to be the “big wheel” with all its politics and refinement, while the bar room may call for the “give ’em hell” aura of mindless aggression. And while men have traditionally found ways to integrate these voices into their masculinity, more recently they also have had to contend with new masculinities that idealize, “the fallible anti-hero who . . . emerged in the 1970s, such as Dustin Hoffman and Dudley Moore. Women praise the sensitive man who can admit to his vulnerability yet admire the toughness of the man who refuses to bend in the face of overwhelming odds,” says Lindsey, concluding, unsurprisingly: “Most men fall short when attempting to satisfy both standards.”[9]

No male in the postmodern, post-patriarchal world can escape this cacophony. The noise compounds gender confusion and results in men who move from one performance to another just trying to be a man for someone. But men are predestined to fail at this impossible yet still seemingly expected masquerade. It is perhaps understandable that many compensate by diverting themselves with consumption and voyeurism, trying whatever might make them feel empowered or fulfilled—the new SUV, the new wide-panel plasma screen, the new girlfriend, the new boyfriend.

Post-patriarchal culture is particularly embodied in the many toilet accessory men in Los Angeles and every other global urban center. These are people like Barry, disconnected almost by definition from meaning because of their dissociation from any sense of history, tradition, or community. As toilet accessory salesmen, they are peripheral even to the consumer marketplace. All of the constructive processes that once for better and worse produced something of a normative masculinity have eroded. It is becoming increasingly difficult for men to understand how they are to relate to women—and other men—at all.

The question we face today, in light of the many valid concerns of the feminist movement, is what a post-patriarchal world might look like. Patriarchy is declining, but what will take its place? Ideally we will achieve some sort of gender utopia beyond mere performance, but as Ehrenreich indicates and Barry illustrates, men are deeply confused about who and what they are to be, and this sense of confusion, disconnect, and powerlessness leads directly to an internalized rage that is just waiting for an outlet. It is not too much of a stretch to wonder whether the world we live in today, the world Barry Egan portrays, is not dangerously close to a gender terror where the battle of the sexes moves beyond a metaphor and becomes an actual violent struggle.[10]

Popeye the Novelty Toilet Accessory Man

P. T. Anderson’s vision of the futility of male attempts to simultaneously portray disparate masculinities reaches a pinnacle in Barry’s final masculine gender performance: Popeye. This comic strip to cartoon to live-action hero-icon is the ultimate example of masculine tension, the sensitive anti-hero who, after eating his spinach, becomes the macho man.

After their first date, Barry drives Lena home and takes her up to her apartment. They talk for a while and then Barry cordially excuses himself for the night and heads home. He has just reached the front door of Lena’s building when the concierge asks, “Are you Barry?”[11] It’s Lena on the phone. “I just wanted you to know, wherever you’re going or whatever you’re doing right now, I want you to know that I wanted to kiss you just then.”[12] The scene cuts to Barry running back up to Lena’s apartment. He is being guided into a heterosexual relationship, but he doesn’t know how to find her apartment. The camera captures a long and frustrating sequence as Barry runs through the sterile and disorienting corridors of her building trying to reach Lena for that goodnight kiss. The inhuman architecture of the apartment complex, like the post-patriarchal context, makes it difficult for men to perform. After a concerted effort he eventually finds the right door, knocks, and is rewarded with a passionate lip-lock.

The visual and aural disorientation continues as Barry follows Lena on a business trip to Hawaii where she is staying at a maze-like hotel. Our attention is again caught as Anderson has “the pulse of infatuation represented through an aggressively loud, discordant soundtrack and the occasional appearance of kaleidoscopic inserts.”[13] But it is during this segment that Barry breaks through something as he begins to open up to Lena; he is beginning steps toward love. The soundtrack promptly shifts to “He Needs Me,” which was written for the Popeye original motion picture soundtrack (1980).

A typology between Popeye and Barry soon becomes apparent. Up to this point, Barry has been shown as weak, someone who avoids confrontation at all costs.[14] On their return to California, Lena and Barry are rear ended by four blonde white men in a pickup truck. They have been sent by Dean (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the owner of the phone-sex line—aka Bluto. Rather than cringing at this chaotic car wreck, Barry gets out of his car and beats at the thugs and their truck with a crowbar. He uses them as an excuse to act out a true “give ’em hell” masculinity—thus letting his own post-patriarchal rage escape the previous safe (if embarrassing) confines of his uncontrollable fits of crying.

He takes Lena to the hospital to get treatment for her minor injuries and then leaves her to confront Dean. Barry initially curses Dean out over the phone. When Dean talks trash back, Barry becomes so enraged that he starts running with the phone still in his hand, cord now dangling. Barry drives to Nevada where Dean “fronts” his chat-line business through a mattress store, and confronts him.

Dean: “You’re a pervert. Think you can be a pervert and not pay for it?”

Barry: “I didn’t do anything, I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me that’s that before I beat the hell from you.”

Dean gets up and stands toe to toe with Barry.

Barry: “I have so much strength in me, you have no idea. I have a love in my life and it makes me stronger than anything you could imagine. I would say that’s that, mattress man.”[15]

After a pause and another brief exchange, Dean agrees. “Alright. That’s that.”

Like Popeye, Barry puts Dean in his place and seemingly ends their feud. But what appears to be a victory for Barry turns out to be yet another masculine performance from a patriarchal past. Barry, in becoming the raging protector who fights off the Blutos of the world, ends up protecting a woman who doesn’t want protection. Lena checks herself out of the hospital and Barry has to come finally to terms with the way he has played the parts of so many masculinities that in the end have nothing to do with his relationship with the one woman he cares about. As Barry and Lena grow closer together, Barry slowly begins to confess to Lena the struggles he faces as a Popeye amid so many Olive Oyls.

Sorry State

The voice of patriarchy still echoes through the women who seek to transform Barry into a financial macho man. But Barry is unable to perform adequately in these patriarchal gender roles. When he tries (as in the case of being Popeye) he is quickly forced to apologize for his behavior.

As Barry’s sisters illustrate, not only are men presented with a plethora of voices calling them to be macho, financially astute, sensitive, and relational, these voices have the power to taunt. The reason is that men are no longer the ones who define masculinity. Others set the gender performance standards in a new world where identity is defined over against an outmoded white heterosexual male patriarchy. Patriarchy thus becomes the bedrock of male oppression—both as what men are supposed to be and as the one thing against which everyone else can define themselves.

Barry is gagged—first in a politics of difference where everyone defines themselves against men in power, and second, as those who have differentiated themselves all ask for a redistribution of white male power. Ironically, this latter point requires men to be rich and powerful, for there must seemingly be someone from whom to take power and of whom to demand new gender performances. Few men today, however, are any more likely than Barry to have the kind of money and emotional or social power to make this response feasible.

Under the pressures of the remnant social hegemonies that call men to be macho individualists while simultaneously being sensitive anti-heroes, men are fast becoming disconnected and marginalized predators of urban life. Women are thus not in much better shape than before. As Ehrenreich notes, the unfortunate situation is that “the end of patriarchy is no more women’s liberation than the end of feudalism spelled liberation for the long-suffering peasantry of Europe, it just means new forms of exploitation and degradation.”[16] It may be that men no longer have a domineering role in the home with money and power, but this does not equate to a culture of men who are less promiscuous or self-serving. If anything, the way the sexes have moved toward equality is with women becoming just as promiscuous and self-serving as men.[17]

One Way Out?

Punch-Drunk Love does show Barry moving in a more positive direction as Anderson asks us what a man can become in a post-patriarchal context. Put another way, the film asks us to consider “what possibilities exist by virtue of the constructed character of sex and gender.”[18]

Barry and the Harmonium
an intervention from outside the system

The film begins by orienting us around the vacuous nature of post-patriarchal masculinities which, like the culture of postmodernity, ultimately fail in providing any standpoint from which to move beyond their antecedents.[19] Patriarchal theory can only state the problem; it cannot resolve it. If a man has little power, and even less money, how can he give these things up or even share them? “The point being made by many in the men’s movement,” says cultural scholar George Yudice, “is that self-esteem and cultural empowerment are among the most important of ethical principles in any struggle for recognition.”[20] When we ask what men can become, we first need to ask what empowers them towards gender performances. This is particularly important when we address masculinity in a post-patriarchal context where men often do not feel empowered, but rather oppressed and disconnected from society as a whole.

Throughout Punch-Drunk Love we seem to be given many views of the way women attempt to coerce men into various performances, but when it comes to empowerment, we find only one clear direction to go—cathartic love. Barry falls in love with Lena and Lena falls in love with Barry. The power of their love story is driven by their honesty with each other. In this relationship Barry finds a woman with whom he can “come clean,” in large part because she is the one person who does not assume he is either powerful or wealthy. She is a woman who, rather than asking for a handout, asks for a relationship with Barry.

The honesty of their relationship is the one salvific constant throughout the various farcical gender performances that Barry attempts in the film. It is Barry’s cathartic confessions to Lena that give the hope that he can become a man neither gagged, oppressed, nor confused by the subsuming politics of post-patriarchal masculinity.

Punch-Drunk Masculinity

A simulacrum is a symbol without referent, or a surface without depth. It is a sign that instead of referring to something real refers to the fact that there is nothing real behind it. It is a surface that lacks any dimension or depth to support its weight or give it meaning beyond its immediate cognition. Like a special effect in a movie, the simulacra confuses/fuses “the factual (or operational if you prefer) and the virtual; the ascendancy of the ‘reality effect’ over the reality principle.”[21] Throughout Punch-Drunk Love Barry is caught in gender simulacra. Each masculinity that Barry attempts turns out to be a depthless gender surface rooted in fiction upon fiction.

The film works through these various masculinities, juxtaposing them amidst Technicolor blurs and symphonic sounds to show them up in all their shallowness. Post-patriarchal masculinity is a farce that many men experience, but few know how to move beyond. Trapped, they become disconnected toilet accessory salesmen, perverts who jack off to phone-sex lines, or idealized Popeyes who protect Olive Oyls who no longer want protection. Punch-Drunk Love exposes post-patriarchal masculinity as a confusing, oppressive, and gagging experience liberated only by concrete relationships that break through the simulacra into more honest encounters.

If patriarchy truly “does not describe the situation of many of today’s women,”[22] then Punch-Drunk Love may offer us some of the directions that a post-patriarchal context can lead—albeit by showing post-patriarchal masculinities to be the simulacra that they are. Though women may continue to use patriarchal hegemonies to coerce men into giving them what they believe they are entitled to, they will likely soon find that they can’t squeeze blood from turnips. Even for those few men who have the power and wealth to give, when forced “to confront privilege . . . men are forced to replay it”[23] as well.

Men and women both continue to be oppressed by patriarchal gender constructions, even if those constructions are now being voiced in a post-patriarchal context. It may be, as Yudice hopes, “that we’ll begin to resolve many of the inter-gender issues not by disempowering men, but by empowering them to find a real, functional social sense of power.”[24] Punch-Drunk Love seems to take post-patriarchal factors seriously by showing the way in which cathartic love between a man and a woman can become a new source of empowerment for an alternative masculinity that remains open and hopeful.

Far from providing a tidy ideal for men to aspire towards, Punch-Drunk Love concludes with Barry at his harmonium practicing and performing. Lena comes up behind him, puts her arms around his neck and softly says, “So, here we go.” Though the film deconstructs post-patriarchal masculinity, it resists gender nihilism. Barry’s relationship to Lena continuously calls him to accountability for who he is and the performances he will enact.

This film shows us that masculinity—and really gender as a whole—is a process and a journey that men must undertake in post-patriarchal contexts. Hopeful re-enchantment can be birthed in a man who comes to terms with the many lies he was living. This is not to say that Barry will ever be freed from gender performances, but through catharsis and a touch of transcendence represented by the harmonium, he can begin to assess how best to correlate the roles he plays with the reality of his concrete relationship with Lena. The film begins with a man riddled with self-doubt and shame. It ends with a man hopeful that his cathartic love can sustain the punch-drunk masculine journey on which he has embarked. :::

[1] Kenneth Turan, "Isn't It Daringly, Absurdly Romantic?; ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ Mines Real Emotion on the Extreme Edges of the Genre," Los Angeles Times, October 11 2002.

[2] C J Wallis, PT Anderson [Website] (Greg Mariotti, 2003 [cited 6 November 2003]).

[3] Ian M. Harris, Messages Men Hear: Constructing Masculinities, Gender, Change & Society; 1 (London: Taylor & Francis, 1995). 190

[4] Geoff Dench, Transforming Men: Changing Patterns of Dependency and Dominance in Gender Relations (New Brunswick, N.J.; London: Transaction, 1996). It may also be the case that women also contribute to the promotion of patriarchy in traditional societies to foster the creation of a masculine culture that contributes to their own needs. In this view patriarchy is a kind of domestication of self-serving men who do not pull their weight in family households. Dench offers the argument that men do not want domination over women but rather seek self-sufficiency. He argues that it may have been easier for men to pursue this self-sufficiency because of their ability to develop skills that provided for their basic needs. He argues that women who decide to have children traditionally recognized the need to enter into the network of social relationships to help foster the rearing of their children. In this scenario women seek to co-opt men into becoming productive and supportive members of society rather than self-seeking wanderers by giving them figure-head positions like “head of household.” 84-85

[5] Kenneth MacKinnon, Representing Men: Maleness and Masculinity in the Media (London: Arnold, 2003). 9

[6] Barbara Ehrenreich, "The Decline of Patriarchy," in Constructing Masculinity, ed. Carrie Mae Weems (New York: Routledge, 1995). 284.

[7] Ibid. 289.

[8] Linda L. Lindsey, Gender Roles: A Sociological Perspective (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall : Prentice-Hall International, 1994). 214

[9] Ehrenreich. 210.

[10] Ibid. 290.

[11] Paul Thomas Anderson, Punch-Drunk Love, 1st ed., A Newmarket Shooting Script Series Book (New York: Newmarket Press, 2002). 59.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Nev Pierce, Punch-Drunk Love [Website] (BBCi Films, 2003 [cited December 10 2003]).

[14] There is scene shot where the phone sex chat line has sent four blonde white men to extort money from Barry and he responds like a fear-ridden weakling.

[15] Not in the screenplay but in the film itself.

[16] Ehrenreich, "The Decline of Patriarchy." 288.

[17] Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs, Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex (London: Fontana, 1986). 2

[18] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Thinking Gender (New York: Routledge, 1990). 42.

[19] Graham Ward, The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, Blackwell Companions to Religion (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001). xviii.

[20] George Yudice, "What's a Straight White Man to Do?" in Constructing Masculinity, ed. Carrie Mae Weems (New York: Routledge, 1995). 272-73.

[21] Graham Ward, True Religion, Blackwell Manifestos (Oxford, UK ; Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2003). 33, quoting Paul Virilio, "The Vision Machine," in The Virilio Reader, ed. James Der Derian (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998). 135.

[22] Ehrenreich, "The Decline of Patriarchy." 289.

[23] Richard Fung, "Burdens of Representation, Burdens of Responsibility," in Constructing Masculinity, ed. Carrie Mae Weems (New York: Routledge, 1995). 297

[24] Yudice, "What's a Straight White Man to Do?" p. 273-274

Timothy Stanley is pursuing a masters degree in theology, culture, and gender at the University of Manchester in England. He holds an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and was previously a church planter in Seattle, Washington. He will be beginning a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Manchester in Fall of 2004.
posted by editor ::: March 22, 2004 ::: philms ::: (7) Comments