Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Brokeback Ontogeny

I assume that one of the more intriguing (and often overlooked) aspects of adulthood is the ability to watch others grow up. I mean this in a literal sense just as much as I do in a figurative sense. Obtaining and understanding a 401k also falls under this “adulthood” umbrella, but that’s a completely different matter.

Being able to fully grasp and analyze another’s maturation process is distinct only to adulthood and subjects other than yourself. You could never accurately evaluate your own life from birth to adulthood, for obvious reasons. It is also basically impossible to do this with anyone else’s life while you are growing up, regardless of whether this other person is older or younger than you; your outlook changes far too drastically and frequently during your developmental years to comprehend someone else going through those same stages. But when you’re a fully materialized adult (generally 35+), you essentially are what you are (and are going to be), in spite of whether it’s good or bad. You seem to vary as an individual much less from the ages of 35-55 than you do from 11-27.

As an adult, you can watch others develop and mature from infant to grown-up with your same personal perspective and understanding of life, throughout the entire process. You can recognize whether an 11-year-old is actually funny or simply believes he/she is funny. You can see just how snooty and deplorable the popular high school girl is, or how little the college student is appreciating his ability to get tanked, talk to random girls, jump off a frat house into a swimming pool, and yet still be able to wake up for his 8 a.m. class the next day, integrity still intact. I view people, events and surroundings entirely different as a 22-year-old than I did as a middle schooler or high schooler, and I’m sure I’ll see those same things differently still in five years and ten years. But as an adult, this often isn’t the case. You can see things with a balanced and actualized eye, even if that view is right or wrong or different overall than how the next adult might see it. Your perception is more or less static, which makes the focus much easier to grasp. Your personal awareness has peaked.

This realization became evident to me on two occasions, in spite of the fact that I’ve not yet reached full adulthood. The first occasion was when I turned 22, and I realized that it is the earliest moment attained in one’s life in which you actually want to be younger. When you’re 17 (or so), you know everything and want only to be older – to grow up. When you’re 22, you discover that how much you know is trivial, because you’d much rather go back to being a day over 21 and would prefer to know nothing at all. To contemplate this concept further, listen to Face’s (or more simply, Rod Stewart’s) song “Ooh La La.” Oh, and my second encounter with this revelation came while watching Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie Source Code.

None of this recognition actually has anything to do with the plot of the film, but simply what it represents or says about Jake Gyllenhaal and his career maturation. It seems to me that Gyllenhaal’s acting résumé is the perfect representation of human development and maturation. I can’t know this for sure, partly because I am not yet a fully developed adult (skewering my perspective) and partly because Gyllenhaal’s own professional development is incomplete. Even still, it seems apparent to me that Jake’s track record is some type of microcosm for everything I’ve discussed, if only because the analysis of celebrities isn’t quite as convoluted as that of actual people.

Gyllenhaal has been acting on the big-screen since he was 10, but it wasn’t until October Sky in 1999 that he made a name for himself and truly began the maturity process (an actor’s development starts later than basic human development, a statement which is pretty obvious when you think about it). October Sky showed (or represented) the infinite potential Jake had. This was followed by Donnie Darko (2001), which at the time mirrored that weird, angsty teenage phase everyone kind of goes through, and in retrospect is more influential and coherent than initially assumed. Bubble Boy (2001) was evocative of those idiotic high school-ish years, in which they are funny and enjoyable in the moment, embarrassing and stupid immediately afterwards, and then looked back upon somewhere down the road as simultaneously funny and enjoyable while also slightly embarrassing.

The Good Girl (2002) – which at the time was Gyllenhaal’s most well-rounded, professional, and mature role – is when that potential of his was truly tapped into for the first time as a young adult, when the first significant steps are made. This was followed immediately – and not surprisingly – by a stint of egotism and bravado (something that would naturally result from sleeping with Jennifer Anniston…in The Good Girl, not real life…although you never know); it’s represented in Jake’s career by the blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow (2004). In real life, this stage of audacity is defined by the binge drinking, frat-house-pool-jumping and random-girl-flirting discussed earlier. In Gyllenhaal’s film life, however, this stage is defined by outrunning a preposterous tidal wave that happens to be gushing through the streets of New York City.

Next up is a return to that potential, a much deeper and perceptible step into self-actualization and maturity. The moment is defining, not so much because it is the best or most successful, but because it is the most glaring and recognizable. For most people, it generally occurs late in college or early in their career path. For Gyllenhaal, this moment was 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. This particular film appears so clearly to be that significant occurrence for Jake, simply because of how different I personally view it now than I did when I was 16, and the fact that I’ll undoubtedly view it different yet again at some point. Also, there’s the fact that the movie and role evoke an immediate and identical labeling by those watching the entire process…regardless of how odd it is for that labeling to be “gay cowboys.”

The aftermath of Brokeback allowed for a continuation of more mature, idiosyncratic and challenging roles by Mr. Gyllenhaal, such as his parts in Jarhead (2005) and Zodiac (2007). This was followed by exploration of varying paths and emotions, whether it be dramatic (Brothers in 2009), self-indulgent unintentional comedy (Prince of Persia in 2010) or romance (Love and Other Drugs in 2010). And all of this leads us to Source Code, a film that establishes the role Gyllenhaal will probably be playing for the next few years of his life, embodying his acting maturation from youngster to adult.

Chances are that Gyllenhaal’s character in Source Code is basically the character he will be portraying over the course of the next decade or so. It’s a role we’ve seen many times before, and yet multi-faceted enough to allow for a talented actor like Jake to showcase the many layers of his onion. He gets to be a dramatic/charming/witty/funny action star all at once. He can still show off those emotional chops, while at the same time tossing in pithy or comedic dialogue and flashing his irresistible smile and/or abs at whichever bombshell they decide to complement him with. He has reached a distinct and more fixed level of maturation.

Sure, he may peel off into a few indie films to keep things interesting and explore his artistic side, and at some point he will probably deal with his mid-life crisis by completely transforming himself into the personification of another person, like Christian Bale did in The Fighter or Leo DiCaprio did for J. Edgar. But ultimately, each stop along the way for Gyllenhaal has served to develop him into what he has become. He is not just funny, or just dramatic, or just introverted, or just romantic, or just handsome, or just self-indulgent; he is not simply one-dimensional, just as very few actual people are simply one-dimensional. He is little bits and pieces of each of those things, a transformation that took place much like the growth and development of you and I.

Just as actor development starts a bit later than human development, it ends a bit later as well. Gyllenhaal is in his early 30s, meaning he will have at least one more significant developmental stage as an actor. He won’t be able to rely on this “good looks” or “action hero” phase forever, which is when those witty/dramatic capabilities will start to take over.

It is then that his career will be able to be viewed and analyzed as a whole, and done so more accurately by people slightly older (and pop culture-versed) than me. Jake Gyllenhaal will probably have a slightly better understanding of his own self (or his actor self) at that time too. He’ll finally be able to look back on those Donnie Darko days, The Good Girl days, The Day After Tomorrow days and the Brokeback Mountain days. And whether or not he recalls those moments as good or bad, successes or failures, you can pretty safely assume that Jake will wish he knew then all that he knows now…just like the rest of us.

Ooh la la.

Thanks for reading

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