Thursday, July 2, 2009

Alpha Defined, in 46 Seconds Flat

Michael Mann is a great director of dude flicks. His movies drip testosterone like a boxer in round 12 of a title fight. "Last of the Mohicans", "Heat", "Collateral", hell even the disappointing "Miami Vice" (which actually would have been a great film if it weren't for the horribly miscast and unfortunately tailored Colin Farrell): all these movies feature hardcore villains and even harder-core heroes.

Magua versus Hawkeye and Chinganchgook, in "Last of the Mohicans":

Neil versus Vincent, in "Heat":

Even in Mann's non-shoot-em-up movies, the male themes of honor, honesty, sacrifice, and redemption come through with drama and intensity.

"The Insider":

Mann's new movie is out: Public Enemies. Surprise surprise, it's about a law man, a criminal, the woman he loves, violence, bravery, and honor. Unfortunately, the studios are keeping a pretty good cap on movie content out there on the web so far. I've got a clip from the movie that I want to talk about, but it can't be embedded. So I'm going to link to it. Open this link in a new window, watch it, and then continue reading.

The blatant alpha-ness in this clip of Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger hardly needs to be pointed out. He's forceful, in-control, and confident. But what's truly great about this are the little moments that flicker by with hardly a second to notice them. Humans take in situations holistically and then later have a hard time explaining how they just knew things to be a certain way. I'm sure no one familiar with the concepts of alpha and beta in primate societies would have trouble calling this performance alpha. But why?

Well, the most obvious things Depp does here are throw the coat at the other man, boss the girl around, and act smooth. But how does he do it?

First of all, his coat-throwing antic is of course a total dick move to the other guy. But notice that, while he does it with a dismissive air, he also does it without a hint of anger or peevishness. When he says, "Keep the tip," he doesnt' say it with some asshole smirk, but rather matter-of-factly. He's fully established himself as far above the moustached man in the social hierarchy, but without expending any of his mental or psychic energy on the task. Even as he's AMOG-ing the moustache, he's already pivoting on his heel back to the woman, unconcerned with the other guy's reaction. He knows he's alpha; he doesn't need to wait and see the reaction.

Then he says, "Cause you're with me now." Dead-solid eye-contact, body slightly turned away. I mean, shit, how's a girl going to resist that? It's almost not even fair. Sometimes I execute the same kind of shit on a girl (minus the director, writer, and editor to perfect my moves on celluloid, but with Depp's amazing good looks and unassailable charm), and I almost feel bad for the poor doe. How is the mere daughter of some father supposed to resist a Cassanova like that? Notice how her reaction is to turn her body to him, even as she's protesting. Great directors and actors don't just make this shit up off the tops of their heads; the use these visual clues because they are universally recognizable indicators of timeless modes of human interaction.

In Depp's rapid-fire life story that he rips off, the first thing to notice is that he doesn't hesitate for a moment in his answer to her. She challenges him, "I don't even know anything about you," and without a blinking an eye he turns into her, with slightly menacing, eyebrow-leading posture, and launches into his mini-speech. You wanna get personal?... well then, let's get personal, bitch.

The second thing, and the detail that makes this Oscar-worthy, is the nanosecond of almost imperceptible smile Depp gives after he says, "My Daddy beat the hell out of me because he didn't know no better way to raise me." Watch this a couple times if you can't catch it at first. Depp/Dillinger is leaning in with vaguely menacing posture, and she's leaning back ever so slightly, but with rapt attention. He gives her a very personal detail of his life. In our modern hysterical times, we would say that Dillinger was a victim of child abuse. In any time and any culture, getting smacked around by your single father is a rough experience to go through (whether you consider it positive or negative in the long run, it sucks when it's actually happening). He's just opened up and told her something that makes him seem very vulnerable. For half a second he lets her see the little scared boy with a dead mother he never knew, cowering in fear below a terrifying father figure. Any woman — hell, any human — would feel a twinge of sympathy upon hearing that.

But even as he let's out that detail, the comment "because he didn't know no better way to raise me," does two things. First, it shows a degree of forgiveness and even superiority over his violent father, like when an adult sees a misheivous boy and says "oh well, boys will be boys." With that statement he turns his own "victimhood" (in the modern conception) into an asset proclaiming his own invulnerability.

Second, that little smile (and it's very brief) adds another layer. "He didn't know no other way to raise me" implies: I'm such a hellcat that even as a little boy my father couldn't figure out how to deal with me. My abusive father couldn't handle me, honey. You don't stand a chance. Wink. Smile.

Then some obvious stuff: "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you." I admit I like this line because I happen to love all of the above things from the bottom of my heart. And it's of course a very manly list of hobbies. But notice one more subtlety (and here the credit really should go to the script writer). The list of hobbies goes slowly but steadily up the ladder from average to dangerous: "baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you."

Every guy likes baseball (at least every guy who's not a fucking commie pinko): easy enough. Most people like movies. So approachable! Some men appreciate good clothes, but it's a definite marker of discernment. Okay, that's normal but a little distinctive, and the mark of a choosy man. Fast cars next. Not just any car, but fast ones. As in, Sure I like to get around, but only if it's going to be fucking exciting. Whiskey. Translation: I like it hard, raw, and manly, and I'm not afraid to admit it. And at the end of this list he says, "and you." Another double-entendre. It pays the girl a very high compliment by implying that he likes her more than all those glorious manly things (baseball! whiskey!) ... makes her feel very special. But also, because of the escalating scale of danger, it implies that she herself is a dangerous substance. And she probably is (she is, after all, a woman). But more than that it plays into her female conceits of herself as a glamorous, dangerous, and desirable person. What human, male or female, doesn't want to be told that he or she is the epitome of danger and desirability?

Finally, there is the moment, "What else do you need to know?" That's a direct challenge. Depp has directly answered her question, albeit wittily, and now throws her own challenge back in her face. He reasserts his initial statement ("You're with me now") by holding her coat open, simultaneously chivalrous and demanding. And he holds it for a rather long time. It's only a few seconds, as the girl thinks and glances at her friend and back up at Depp. But for a man who is unsure of himself those seconds can feel like an eternity. Look at his left hand: not a hint of doubt. Try for a moment to imagine yourself in Depp/Dillinger's position. Could you hold that coat with the same steely resolve? Even the slightest hint of wavering or concession ruins the whole act. But Depp just stands there and waits. And sure enough, she follows. Because it wasn't an "act," it was just him being the way he is. That's the biggest alpha lesson of all... As a man you are always, always, her boss.

She waits on you, even when you are politely holding her coat open for her. That's what really makes girls hot about chivalry. It's not the politeness, per se, it's the unbending confidence, the steely expectation. That's what confuses so many men when women complain about the end of chivalry in modern society. If you hold coats like the moustached man, you are "chivalrous" and you never get laid. If you hold coats like Depp/Dillinger, you are chivalrous, and you get laid by the cow-eyed old-timey dame, and you rob a bunch of fucking banks, and you get arrested, and you break out of jail, and you get killed, and people are writing blog posts about you almost 80 years later.

It's your choice. Study on it well.


  1. "assume the sale"....the alpha assumes that he is in control, always. he does not "try", he simply does. great post, deep and insightful.

  2. Out of all sources of inspiration on being alpha I came across in the last years, the way Pacino and Deniro acted in "Heat" has always been one of the most impressive and sculpted my understanding of being a man.

  3. Anonymous:

    It's very good. And for something that is very hyped and has the potential to feel overrated (the restaurant scene was talked about so much when it first came out), it still stands up.

    Love that moment when Pacino leaves his wife and takes the tv with him.

  4. another great post.

    holding her coat stinks less of servility here because it was so common at the time. harder to pull off today for this reason. more importantly, the conversational context completely turns that gesture in his favor: as she gets into her coat, in lieu of answering his question, she's just playing her part in a familiar pattern. but really she is accepting the much larger offer that the whole scene is about: "you are with me now".

    by the way what's that first thing he likes? i hadn't heard of that.

  5. "Love that moment when Pacino leaves his wife and takes the tv with him."

    That's what I've been thinking about too. Speaking of good movies, I recommend "Croupier" with Clive Owen.

  6. I'm sorry, but baseball is NOT a manly sport.

    I believe the late George Carlin thoroughly put baseball in it's rightful place.

    Youtube "George Carlin baseball vs football"

  7. Anonymous:

    Thanks for the tip. I'll check it out.

    Carl Sagan:

    Yeah I've seen that Carlin bit before. Funny stuff from the master. I fucking love football, for the record. But "manly" doesn't have to mean violent or tough. Dillinger says he likes good clothes and fast cars. Well, fast cars is more testosterone-y than good clothes. But I think having nice clothes and wearing them well is still the mark of a well-rounded manly man.

    Some other things that are totally manly but not "tough" per se are: horse racing, chess, and mathematics.

  8. Beware of generalizing from fiction evidence...

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