Just in time for Movember, this new documentary from Winnipeg filmmakers Dylan Fries and Michael Sanders is a light and lively (if overly long) look at the tangled meanings of men’s facial hair.
Men With Beards mixes in clips from old movies, instructional films, advertisements and art. But mostly the film is made up of talking heads—really, really hairy talking heads.
The camera zooms in on closely trimmed beards and full-on Santa beards, on biker beards and distinguished middle-aged beards. This being 2013, we also see a lot of hipster beards.
The film starts out as a kind of wild beard show, but as the men behind the hair start to discuss how they feel about their beards—and how other people feel about their beards—MWB raises some serious points about modern masculinity.
Fries and Sanders touch on evolutionary biology and social history. Depending on the era and the culture, the beard can be associated with patriarchal respectability or countercultural rebellion. We have the righteous religious beard and the sneaky villainous beard. The communist beard and the captain-of-industry beard. One interview subject relates that his family members can’t decide whether he looks like Jesus Christ or Charles Manson.
Most members of this proud hirsute brotherhood can’t imagine baring their faces, but they also admit to potential problems. Studies show that women find men with beards more masculine but less kissable. (“Never helped me with getting the ladies,” admits one interviewee.)
Then there’s the issue of eating, soup and syrup and big sandwiches being particular pitfalls. “Looking ugly is the price of looking good,” explains one guy, somewhat paradoxically.
In a culture in which it’s common to see women obsessing over their appearance, there’s something kind of refreshing about seeing a bunch of big men in a tough Alaska bar talking about the ongoing intricacies of beard care. Many of these fellows started growing beards to get away from the tyranny of daily shaving, but they are now similarly tethered to a punishing round of shampooing, conditioning, combing, clipping, trimming and (sometimes) using Moroccan oil. (If you don’t keep on top of it, warns one subject, you can head into Unabomber territory.)
For many of these men, their beards are also bound up with highly emotional issues of self-worth, self-confidence and identity. With stakes this high, some of them are a little prone to beard envy, beard anxiety and, of course, beard competitiveness.
Bearded men will probably be interested to see Men With Beards, if only to check out the competition. For a clean-shaven audience, there are points of interest—but also a few flaws. Men With Beards is at that awkward in-between stage: This material definitely deserves more than a short, but without a strong focus or clear point-of-view, it can’t quite warrant its full 80 minutes.
See Men with Beards at Cinematheque from November 15 - 21. Hear Alison Gillmor on Up to Speed with Ismaila Alfa Friday Movember 15 at 4:15 p.m.