Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Wrong, wrong, wrong

For years I've been telling people about what I called "the Ms. test for movies," ever since I first read about it in a Ms. magazine when I was a summer intern at WIFP, a 1st amendment nonprofit. Is my memory muddled, or was Ms. quoting it from the place it originated, a Dykes to Watch Out For strip? The world may never know. At least I can attempt to set the record straight here: all credit belongs to A. Bechdel, friends, for this brilliant 3-part movie test:

1) Is there more than one female character? If so,
2) do the female characters talk, and if so,
3) about anything other than men?

You would be amazed at how many movies don't pass this test. Good movies. Great movies, even -- go ahead, count.

I don't think you need to self-flagellate over this, for what it's worth. A movie can flunk the Ms. Test -- I mean, the Liz Wallace via DTWOF and Ms. Test -- and still be quality. But for what it's worth, one of the reasons I've never been crazy about Scorsese is that virtually none of his movies pass the LWVDTWOFAMT Test. It's all-macho-all-the-time with Marty, with the glorious exception of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which you could say is the only Scorsese movie he's only made once and which almost no one talks about.

Is it so hard to have women be real people in good movies? I mean, even master-of-macho, Russell-Crowe-worshipping Ridley Scott has Thelma and Louise AND Alien on his resume.

Children of Men, I am happy to report (finally!), does not have this problem. There are three major female characters, one of whom is named "Kee." The name is something of a pun: the character herself is "key," and she also does represent, in a very real way, the energy and lifeforce -- you know, the qi -- of not only the film but the dystopian near-future in which the film is set. In 2027, the human race has stopped reproducing and is either grimly awaiting, or actively courting, death. It's all very Emily Dickinson.

The world is in chaos and, British propoganda claims, "only Britain soldiers on." Or so the government would like to pretend: the only advertising anywhere is for home suicide kits, and you know a civilization has really given up when it can't even be bothered to hawk beauty creams and liquor. Cuaron's direction uses the same narrative efficiency he displayed in Y Tu Mama Tambien, where he made every glance out a window educational: every British flag hangs limp, every street and car and building is crumbling at the edges, every billboard you see warns of immigrants or reminds you that "avoiding fertility tests is illegal."

That's the first third of the film: mood, setting, understanding. The second third is Clive Owen's journey from disaffected post-activist to a person who's alive and cares again, a progression the film accomplishes by, perversely, taking from him everyone he loves or depends on. The last third -- a fierce fight for survival -- is cribbed from the Battle of Algiers, as my fellow-filmgoer Bobby describes well enough that I don't feel the need to go into it (thanks, Bobby!) It's a punch to the gut, as visceral and important as anything I've seen in years.

As long as I'm gushing, I'd like to say how happy I am for America Ferrara, who rocked the Golden Globes by (a) winning, (b) looking fantastic, and (c) giving a short, eloquent speech that made everyone cry. Hat trick! And for a worthy cause, too: I really like her show, maybe even more than Gray's Anatomy at this point, b/c Ugly Betty serves its melodrama up with a spoonful of campy, campy sugar.


nate said...

hey, this is one of your best posts ever, and not just because CoM was one of the best films (and yes! important!) I've seen in years - but because that Ms. Rule, and the IMDB list is truly, truly eye opening... for me. I've been aware of the lack of women in certain movies before, but not like that.
Just the other night I noticed it in History Boys... for obvious reasons.
But then there's The Descent, which has a total cast of six women, but then that was not really about women, nor was it particularly good. They are not talking about men, but they're not talking about much at all since they are just trying to get out of the cave without getting eaten by these creatures which may or may not represent men, depending on how metaphorically minded one tends to be.
great post!
I'm takin' the Ms. Rule with me!

the fire boss said...

indeed: very nice. i don't think you need to call it "faux."

the thing with scorcese, i think, is that his masculinism goes so far beyond like, symptomatic sexism that, to me, it comes off as a specific artistic choice. like, i think he's actually exploring masculinity, rather than lazily mistaking men for the world. what do you think?

ester said...

I think it's difficult to tell. Certainly I think Scorsese's movies, like F. F. Coppola's, are often about "masculinity" in a way most thoughtless modern movie-makers' aren't. But ten, fifteen movies about white, American, working class masculinity, always approached in the same way ... I'm ready for something new.

Even Clint Eastwood has started branching out. Mel Gibson hasn't, but then, he's Mel Gibson.

angela said...

I meant to mention: for some reason, Goodfellas (which is probably my favorite movie of his, in part 'cause the cinematography draws on this) is continually shown on Lifetime. Figure that one out.

Anonymous said...

I think this post has to be amended in light of the antics of our female astronauts and the men in their lives, or deaths.