March 10, 2023

LOVE STORY (profanity alert):

Why Are So Many Guys Obsessed With Master and Commander?: 20 years after its release, the mildly successful historical nautical drama has become an inescapable hit with a certain type of movie fan. (GABRIELLA PAIELLA, March 8, 2023, GQ)

If you kidnapped a hundred of Hollywood's top minds and forced them to work around the clock, they could not engineer a more exquisite Dad Movie. Though Master and Commander is ostensibly about the Surprise sailing to intercept a French enemy warship, the battle scenes, exhilarating as they may be, are few and far in between. The bulk of the film--and the heart of its charm--is instead a meticulous rendering of daily life at sea: the monotony of hard labor, the palpable threat of scurvy, the dirty-faced sailors who sleep in close quarters and grin through yellowed teeth. (You know it smells crazy in there.) Even better? All the screen time devoted to close conversations between Aubrey and Maturin, and their two-dude violin and cello jam sessions. You come away with a sense of satisfaction at their accomplishments and camaraderie, and just a bit of longing over a bygone way of life. [...]

[W]hile posting about Master and Commander is popular with an irony-adjacent crowd, the love for it is all sincere. Many of the film's most vocal fans are in their thirties. If they originally saw it in their tween or teen years, their relationship with the movie only deepened as they grew older. Think of it as the male biological clock: Alex Yablon, who works for the New York City Council, said that he rewatched the movie after the birth of his first child. He's since listened to eight of the original source material audiobooks--with only 12 left to go.

"For me, personally, there's a lot of stuff that I have gotten into as I have accepted that I'm in my mid-thirties, that I'm a dad, that I'm boring now. I do boring [***], I read boring history books, and I mostly am pretty fine with that. I'm okay with being a little bit of a goofy, boring dad," Yablon told me. "And I think that the way of sheepishly admitting that and kind of making fun of that a little bit is by being into such a cliché dad thing: naval adventure stories."

Despite any surface-level irony, everyone I talked to adopted a tone of reverence and awe when speaking about the movie. They would get a misty, far-away sound in their voice, almost as if they were on the bow of a ship, gazing out over the open ocean, ponytail flapping in the breeze.

Will Menaker, the co-host of the popular leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, said, "I don't know how there could be ironic fans of a movie that's this brilliant--a movie that does onscreen everything movies promise. What's bad about this movie?"

"I always think of the scene where Aubrey and Maturin are playing their cello and violin--you're hearing that and it's just sort of taking you around the ship and it's all very quiet. And then there's just a moment where the camera goes underneath the boat and it's a shot of the anchor trailing through the ocean as you hear the slightly muffled sounds of Aubrey and Maturin's music," he continued. "I just always am so struck by the beauty of that moment and the fact that every single conceivable detail about the social hierarchies and physical maintenance of this vessel is so lovingly crafted. It's the historical verisimilitude of it and just how it does a very rare thing for movies of this nature--it's like the battles are almost incidental."

Sure, there are no female characters in the movie (except for the ship, and the wooden lady on the ship). But overall, the masculinity of Master and Commander, especially as modeled by Aubrey, is overwhelmingly wholesome and positive. Any nostalgia for the traditionalism in the movie is less reactionary and more about the healthy male bonding between the characters.

"You've got a bromance for the ages in Aubrey and Maturin," Menaker said. "They're just [***]ing buds and they play their violins together as they're traversing the Cape of Horn. It's awesome." Writer David Grossman told me that Master and Commander is "a deeply felt vision of non-toxic masculinity," while Alex Yablon pointed to it as "a portrait of healthy homosociality." Even director Taika Waititi once called it his favorite romance movie.

Russell Crowe is also particularly magnetic. Rachel Millman, the writer and Wrestlesplania podcast host who once remarked on Twitter that, "every February becomes Master and Commander month on here," brought up his specific appeal. "He's very much a 'dudes rock' type of guy," she said. "I don't think dudes rock is exclusive to men anymore. You're underselling yourself when you're like, 'This is a thing for boys.' No, it's just the attitude of 'that guy rocks, he does what he wants, he's great.'"

The idea that it could be fulfilling to live and work on the HMS Surprise--again, a 19th century ship, with all that entails--is also part of the allure for the modern viewer. I recently rewatched Master and Commander early one morning and found myself overtaken by wistful bonhomie. Wouldn't it feel satisfying to spend each day doing industrious and meaningful ship work, I thought, and then retire to candlelit dinners and violin-playing each night? As New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane put it in his review, "we feel ourselves to be in good company with these men, and strangely jealous of their packed and salted lives."

Grossman pointed to the friendship crisis among American men. "When you're in your thirties, you're looking for this sort of community. This is the age when settling down starts to happen," he said. "Friends start to drop off and you have to take more active steps to find a community of male friends, and more guys report loneliness. I guess seeing that rich community strikes some as, 'yeah, that's what I want--just to be on a ship with 150 other guys.'"

There is the beginning of insight here: consider too that Katherine Ross is superfluous to Butch and Sundance, Ingrid Bergman to Casablanca and even Jean Simmons to Spartacus. 

Posted by at March 10, 2023 7:03 AM