Tag Archives: Movies

The Bechdel Test

I found this to be very illuminating:

This is one of those things that is so fucking obvious that you spend a few minutes slapping yourself in the head for not thinking of it first.

It’s difficult to assess how films do on this test off the top of my head. But after thinking about it for a while, I’m somewhat stunned at just how many films fail it. For example, of the 25 top-rated films on IMDB, going by memory:

Three of the movies — Shawshank Redemption, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and 12 Angry Men have no significant female characters at all.

Eight films — Stars Wars, Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Night, Casablanca, Fight Club, Once Upon a Time in the West, the Usual Suspects and Seven Samurai — have only one significant female character. Same goes, incidentally, for the Star Wars prequels. To be fair, the female characters in several of those films are strong. But they fail the test. My recollection is that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and City of God also fall into this category.

The LOTR movies and Pulp Fiction have several women, but they do not interact.

Goodfellas and both The Godfather films have several female character who interact. But my recall is that they only discuss the men in their lives. Raiders of the Lost Ark has a brief exchange between Marion and Sala’s wife about monkey, but I don’t think that counts. I’m not sure about The Matrix but I don’t recall a female conversation. There’s a reference to an offscreen conversation between Trinity and the Oracle. But that was about Neo.

Only four of the top 25 films meet this test:

Schindler’s List, despite being dominated by its male characters, has numerous scenes of Jewish women discussing the situation.

Rear Window passes the test. Despite Hitch’s icy blonde reputation, he always had interesting female characters. Psycho fails the test, but mostly because of the way the film is structured.

Silence of the Lambs has some interaction between Clarice and one of her friends at the academy.

But even those four are marginal passes.

So is this indicative of extensive sexism in Hollywood? Yes and no. One problem is that a number of those films deal with subjects — war, crime, prison — which have historically been male-dominated. Others take place in circumstances where there few women — 12 Angry Men, for example, was written when juries were usually all-male.

In addition, IMDB’s top 25 movies among women is little different. Most of the women-favored movies are identical to the male-favored list and the new ones aren’t exactly breaking the mold. Amelie and Forest Gump I don’t recall well enough but think they fail. Gone With the Wind passes (more on that in a second). I’ve not seen American History X but doubt that it passes. To Kill a Mockingbird and Beauty and the Beast pass, I think. Up fails, as does WALL-E. So one could argue that women aren’t exactly demanding movies that pass the Bechdel test. Even the conventional “chick flick”, if I can use the term, is mostly about romance.

However, that misses the point, in my opinion. The problem is that our movies have, for the most part, been heavily divided between “chick flicks” about romance and “guy movies” about everything else. This doesn’t have to be the case; it simply represents a blind spot in the mostly male writers, producers and directors of movies and TV. Almost all of the top 25 movies could have passed the Bechdel test if writers gave two shits about creating more than one interesting woman character. The movies that do pass the test didn’t exactly go out their way to do it. They just rounded the movies out a bit, made them fuller and more realistic.

In the end, this trend may be less of symptom of sexism than sexism convolved with writers attempting to economize on character development. One thing I’ve noticed in movies and TV is the startling number of characters who are single children, have deceased parents or have no children of their own. This is mainly because it gets so complicated to write about real people with real families and real circles of friends. Writers also tend to write exclusively male characters since it’s so easy to write your own gender and “Gary Stu” the damned thing. (As an unpublished writer myself, I used to be that way. But I eventually started writing female characters and found them far more interesting.)

As an example of how things could be different, you can contrast Star Trek: The Next Generation against Babylon 5. The latter had interesting female characters who frequently talked about something other than men. The former, however, danced on the blade quite a bit, never seeming to know what to do with its female characters (although it still usually passed the test). This was a principle reason why, in my opinion, B5 was the better show.

As another example — the most successful movie of all time — Gone With the Wind — is a vast war epic that has numerous interactions with women that are not just about men (just mostly about men … Oh, Ashley!) Titanic and Avatar dominated the box office and, I think, both pass the test or at least dance on the blade.

I’m not saying that people should rewrite movies to make sure they pass this test. If nothing else, I don’t want to watch a movie and hear my brain shriek “Bechdel scene” when some pointless all-women conversation is shoe-horned in. The Bechdel test is a thought experiment, not a recipe. Some movies and genres are simply unsuited to having multiple dynamic women characters — Lawrence of Arabia or Master and Commander, for example. “Bechdelling up” books like LOTR would be misguided and smack of tokenism.

No, I think the lesson here is that Hollywood still has a blind spot. Not about women, but about life.

Hatin’ on Film

Queenan via Massie via Drezer via McCardle has this to say on bad movies.

To qualify as one of the worst films of all time, several strict requirements must be met. For starters, a truly awful movie must have started out with some expectation of not being awful. That is why making a horrific, cheapo motion picture that stars Hilton or Jessica Simpson is not really much of an accomplishment. Did anyone seriously expect a film called The Hottie and The Nottie not to suck? Two, an authentically bad movie has to be famous; it can’t simply be an obscure student film about a boy who eats live rodents to impress dead girls. Three, the film cannot be a deliberate attempt to make the worst movie ever, as this is cheating. Four, the film must feature real movie stars, not jocks, bozos, has-beens or fleetingly famous media fabrications like Hilton. Five, the film must generate a negative buzz long before it reaches cinemas; like the Black Plague or the Mongol invasions, it must be an impending disaster of which there has been abundant advance warning; it cannot simply appear out of nowhere. And it must, upon release, answer the question: could it possibly be as bad as everyone says it is? This is what separates Waterworld, a financial disaster but not an uncompromisingly dreadful film, and Ishtar, which has one or two amusing moments, from The Postman, Gigli and Heaven’s Gate, all of which are bona fide nightmares.

Six, to qualify as one of the worst movies ever made, a motion picture must induce a sense of dread in those who have seen it, a fear that they may one day be forced to watch the film again – and again – and again. To pass muster as one of the all-time celluloid disasters, a film must be so bad that when a person is asked, “Which will it be? Waterboarding, invasive cattle prods or Jersey Girl?”, the answer needs no further reflection. This phenomenon resembles Stockholm Syndrome, where a victim ends up befriending his tormentors, so long as they promise not to make him watch any more Kevin Smith movies. The condition is sometimes referred to as Blunted Affleck.

I actually like Kevin Smith movies, but I see his point.

I would add point 7 — a movie must have its defenders. Nothing can make you hate a movie more than someone insisting that some piece of shit is actually a good flick. That’s why the movie I hate most is Jerry Maguire. It meets all seven requirements.

  • I had no expectation that this movie would be awful. It was an oscar nominee and made many critics’ top ten lists.
  • Definitely famous.
  • It thinks it’s a good movie.
  • Not only does it have one of biggest stars in America, it had the misfortune to make two more. The movie’s defenders point to Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Renee Zellwegger as reasons the movie is good. But: (a) Jerry Maguire turned Gooding, a talented actor, into a perpetual joke with the most over-rated performance in movie history; (b) I tired of Zellwegger’s “acting”, which consists of a pout, by about reel three of Maguire. She was great in Bridget Jones, but I have yet to think she was good in anything else.
  • The movie fails on the negative buzz scale, unfortunately. But this requirement doesn’t carry much with me. As one of McCardle’s comments says, a bad movie should be more like a kick in the balls — sudden and unexpected. But eve failing the buzz test, it more makes up for it with-
  • Having its defenders. Maguire rates a 7.2 at IMDB. It was nominated for five oscars, including Best Picture and made a large number of top ten lists. And any time I mention it, people look at me goggle-eyed, as if they can’t believe that someone would hate such a wonderful movie. And their arguments only make me hate the movie more. A primary one is, “It’s got everything! It’s got sports for the guys and romance for the girls!” As if all guys need to watch a romantic movie is sports and all women need to watch a sports movie is kissy-faces.
  • So why do I hate the movie? First, there’s the acting, from Cruise’s somnambulant attempts at enunciation to Gooding’s scenery chewing. There’s the clumsy directing. There’s the soundtrack.

    But mostly it’s the horrid script. Rarely do you see a script that is: (a) completely ignorant of its subject matter — most sports agents have lots of clients because very few of them will make money; (b) riddled with cliched dialogue stolen from other better movies; (c) lacking in any kind of subtlety — no message in the movie can be conveyed without being spoken in short sentences by a character; (d) responsible for the most over-rated and over-used movie quotes in history — which I will not repeat here for the sake of decency.

    It’s Jerry Maguire that makes me sympathize with people who hate Lord of the Rings, a movie I obviously love. No film is worse than the one everyone else loves. And the more they try to argue with you and persuade you that “no really, it’s a great movie! How can you not like it! Don’t you love this line!”, the more you hate it.

    Attack of the Phantom Sith

    I’ve been rewatching the Star Wars prequel trilogy while working this week. That I own them on DVD tells you I have a better opinion of them than most people my age. I do think the hatred of the movies is, in some sense, a Gen-X thing. They failed to live up to expectations. I’ve noticed older viewers and younger ones tend to think they’re almost as good as the original trilogy.

    I think the thing that frustrates most people — and frustrates me on occasion — is that you occasionally glimpse the great movies buried within just good movies. The prequels were not very far away from being outstanding. The direction — at least the visual direction — is great. The F/X are spectacular and, more importantly, imaginative. John Williams music is up to par. If the movies had just done a few things differently, they might have been great. Specifically:

  • Simplify the narrative. Complex political strife does not work well in the Star Wars universe. Having the droid army simply be the Sith enemy would have made things simpler. Only at the end would it have been revealed that Palpatine was playing both sides.
  • Keep Darth Sidious in the shadows until the last. Darth Maul would have been a better villain if he, and not Sidious, had appeared to be the main villian in Movie 1. And just think how devastating it would have been if Annakin had discovered the truth at the end of Movie 3. The omniscient audience is not always a good thing.
  • Recast and rework Annakin. Having him as a kid in movie 1 was a mistake. Having both Annakin and Padme as teenagers would have started romantic tension right from the first second. By movie 2, they could have been in love but unwilling to act. Having them “fall in love”, if you can call it that, was a big problem. Think about the romantic tension in Empire. It’s clear that almost all of the romantic stuff happened off screen. So it works.

    Accelerating Annakin’s descent into villainy would have done well too. Cast as a teenager in movie 1, he could have shown the ruthlessness and impatience that makes him fall. Movie 2 could have seen him growing more disgusted with Jedi restraint and more convinced that only a firm hand can destroy the Sith, culminating in hims executing a defenseless Dooku on Palpatine’s orders. By movie 3, he would be spinning out of control, unable to harness his own power, paranoid to the point where when Palpatine says, “kill the Jedi”, he does so without thinking.

    Casting someone other than Hayden would have been a good idea as well, although I’m not convinced that was a Hayden-sucks-as-an-actor problem and not a Lucas-can’t-direct-actors problem. His spell as the evil Annakin at the end of Movie 3 was quite good.

    What’s amazing, watching the movies, is how well parts of it work. Obi Wan works. The fights work. Yoda works. What drags things to a screaming halt is the forced arc of Annakin.

  • The problem with Jar-Jar and the Gungans was that they were comic relief. Any movie that has a comic relief character has problems. Humor should flow naturally out of all the characters. It works better. It lightens them up and makes them human. In fact, the biggest problem with the movies, I think, is the lack of humor in certain characters. Moving Jar-Jar from comic relief to “Chewbacca substitute” would have vastly improved Movie 1.
  • Notice I haven’t suggested any radical changes. Just tweaks. Simplify, accelerate, amplify. Star Wars does well with clean story telling. It’s a pity Lucas forgot that. Because instead of three good movies we could have had three great movies.


    MSNBC has a fantastic article on the “more fame than talent club“. So I just know you want my opinion:

  • Jessica Alba. OK, she’s not that good an actress. But I don’t really care. She can be good given the right role – she was the only reason to watch Dark Angel and was very sexy in Sin City. But she needs to put some weight on. She’s gotten way too skinny.
  • Jessica Biel. Agreed, but she was effective in The Illusionist. Another actress who picks bad movies.
  • Jessica Simpson. I don’t even think she’s that hot. She looks like a barbie doll.
  • Adrian Grenier. To be honest, I don’t know who the hell this is.
  • Elton John. Perhaps today, but the man has been show business for decades. Give me a break. I don’t like his music either but the man is an icon.
  • Nicole Kidman. I have to think about this one. Kidman is supposed to be this great actress. But I actually think she just picks really good movies to be in. I don’t think I’ve ever watched on of her movies and said, “Wow, Nicole made that movie!” My aussie wife will now kill me.
  • Carlos Mencia. Oh, abso-fricking-lutely. He is making a career out of being politlcally incorrect. He’s sometimes funny. But he’s an infamous joke-stealer and, once you get past the shock value, not that funny after all.
  • John Travolta. Don’t get me started.
  • Renee Zellweger. I have to agree with this one. Her career is one of the more unfortunate things to come out of that repulsive Jerry Maguire film. At least Cuba Gooding, Jr. has charisma if not talent. But, funny me, I think acting involves more elements than making squinty faces. I will, however, say, that Zellweger was great in Bridget Jones’ Diary. If they wanted to give her an oscar, that was the film.
  • There are many times I could add to that list, if I weren’t gooned on cold medication. Ben Affleck is a name that immediately jumps to mind. Michael Bay is another. Martin Lawrence. Richard Gere. Sandra Bullock. So many pretty not-so-talented people; so little time until I have to give my talk tomorrow.