Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (US, 2004)

Real men!

This film takes the piss out of masculine self-aggrandisement; sometimes with hilarious results. The schoolboy behaviour of men when they are challenged professionally by a woman, and masculine posturing, when facing competitive men, offer ripe opportunities for puncturing ideas of masculinity. All good then but it is set in the ’70s, the era of transition between women being treated in a sexist fashion and the post-feminist period when it seemed women would be treated as equal, and so the laughter is safe as ‘it’s not like that now’.

However, it is like that now and it seems women are waking up to the fact that, for the last 30 years or so, the idea of equality has been an illusion – see Kira Cochrane’s piece. Clearly advances have been made – see here – but The Guardian can still see fit to illustrate a section on cycling with an image focusing on a woman’s legs and backside whilst the male cyclist is photographed full body. Maybe we are in another transition period!

Bechdel test: Fail (5/2)
Protagonist: Male (0/4)

Memento (US, 2000)

Who are you?

Christopher Nolan’s second feature was a sleeper hit on the independent circuit and brilliantly presents a decentred identity. Leonard Selby (Guy Pearce), has no long term memory and so has too he literally has to inscribe what he knows onto his body. Using the convoluted narrative of noir the film grips from its uncanny opening, where blood runs upwards, to the (possible) revelation that… well, no spoiler here. I particularly liked Carrie-Ann Moss’  femme fatale who we first see – as the narrative is running backwards in chunks of five minutes or so – as loving before ‘becoming’ the ‘hard boiled bitch’ of the genre.

If we want to get auteurist about Nolan we can see he’s interested in heroes divided from themselves and the role of memory in identity. It would be interesting if he could investigate this through a female protagonist.

Bechdel test: Fail (4/2)
Protagonist: Male (0/3)

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (US, 2009)

'Give us a kiss'

A Freudian approach to narrative emphasises the Oedipal trajectory of the story. Freud used the myth of Oedipus to explain the psychic processes necessary for a boy to become a man. This requires the boy to move his sexual fixation from his mother toward a mother substitute so he can become like his father. Raymond Bellour (in The Analysis of Film, 2002) shows how North By Northwest (1959) tightly fits this pattern through Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) being forced to ‘stand up’ to his mother, encountering an apparently ‘loose’ woman (aptly named Eve) who turns out to be ‘good’, saving her and then consummating their relationship (shown in the film shot of a train entering a tunnel):

The hero proves his worthiness to take up his place as a man, by accomplishing a series of directed tests: a process which will often culminate, in self-contained narratives, with his integration into the cultural order through marriage… it provides the most familiar structure for such male-orientated Hollywood genres as the Western and the adventure film. (Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street, 1991, pp. 87-8)

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs has an Oedipal narrative (the mother is absent (dead) for most of the film and I suspect the reasons for this would be interesting) and I’m interested in how prevalent it is in films aimed at a young audience. I must be in list mode as I’m now going to tag films that are Oedipal in nature; I expect them to be predominantly American. The film itself, if you can ignore the narrative, features some wonderfully surreal imagery – the attack of the headless, and cooked, chickens for example – and enough of typically American food to induce vegetarianism.

It is progressive in it’s portrayal of the token female who learns that desiring to be weather girl, and so suppressing her intellect, is not a good thing.

Bechdel test: Fail (3/2)
Protagonist: Male (0/2)

Stranger Than Fiction (US, 2006)

Stranger than reality

This mildly amusing postmodern piece of frippery, with a stellar cast, the posits mildly anarchic Maggie Gyllenhaal character falling for the totally anodyne IRS exec (Will Ferrell). Why!?! Readers please point me to a movie where an interesting man falls for a boring woman.

That aside, this is barely a romcom as the laughs are muted (mostly concerning Dustin Hoffman’s lit prof.) and, as I said, the romance is er laughable (as in unbelieveable). However it scores a hit on the Bechdel test, so it isn’t all bad but I’ve decided to start counting how many protagonists are male as well.

Bechdel test: Pass (2/2)
Protagonist: M (0/1)

The Children’s Hour (US, 1961)

Who is doing what to whom?

After a fairly routine, and understandably dated, forty minutes this film gets into its stride as a portrayal of middle class prejudice and the damage it can do to people’s lives. Rarely have I seen a more convincing rendition of the destruction of lives through unsubstantiated gossip that is fed by prejudice, in this case, homophobia. It’s success is built on Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play( previously filmed by this film’s director William Wyler); Wyler’s brilliant direction; the fabulous performances of all the protagonists.

It must have been brave of Hollywood stars Garner, Hepburn and MacLaine to appear in such a controversial ‘social problem’ picture. Although the word ‘lesbian’ is not used, which may have been to avoid Production Code censure, the film is open in its portrayal of MacLaine’s Martha as homosexual. Her own turmoil in being unable to acknowledge her sexuality, to others and herself, due to the mores of the time, is painfully shown.

I mentioned the film was dated, this referred to the film’s pacing, and milieux: slow by contemporary standards; an upper middle class milieux not often the subject of films now. However I don’t think the film’s message is at all dated, even if we might (smugly) feel we are less prejudiced these days; John Browne and David Laws would probably disagree. The destruction of the the lives of all the characters, accuser and accused, is brilliantly demonstrated particularly when a character realises her error; the mesh veil she wears is lit so as to make her face appear to be at least 100 years old – a coup de theatre by Wyler and his cinematographer, Franz Planer.

Wyler’s direction is also dated in that he favours deep focus at moments of high drama; contemporary cinema tends to use long lenses that flattens the mise en scene and reduces the possibility of expressiveness. This style is perfect for melodrama as all the protagonists can be incorporated in the frame (as celebrated by Andre Bazin) whether in the fore or background (see above), and so allow the audience time to absorb the drama rather than having to reorientate themselves after the edit. Wyler was responsible for some great melodramas during Hollywood’s ‘classical’ period including The Letter (1940) and another Lillian Hellman play The Little Foxes (1941); none of these are available on DVD in UK!

I’m going to teach this film with A Single Man; the comparisons should be fascinating. Although the films are thematically different, the recent film focuses on grief not prejudice, it will be interesting to consider their respective portrayals of homosexuality.

Bechdel test: Pass! (2 fail/1 pass)

Inception (US-UK, 2010)

Seems not what it is

Christopher Nolan managed to make The Dark Knight (2008) an exciting roller coaster ride for both mind and body; the moral mazes adding heft to the visceral action. He’s clearly attempting the same with Inception, which he wrote, produced and directed. Imdb suggests the budget was $200m and with that sort of money on the line, the film has to be a crowd-pleaser. Pleasing it seems to be with a $63m opening weekend and – as I write – a 9.3 rating on imdb putting it in at the coveted ‘3rd greatest movie of all time’ slot.

I shall probably have to see it again as not only are the rules of the ‘dream worlds’ confusing, but the helter skelter action – of Bondian proportions and exoticism – also makes the film difficult to follow. I hope that it stands up to the second viewing as there are moments of pure bravura (Paris folding up on itself) and mind tingling ideas (reality or fantasy anyone?).

My first impression is the action gets in the way of the really interesting stuff and I don’t think it’s particularly well done – unlike The Dark Knight – as I was often unsure who were the ‘bad guys’. The ‘heist’ narrative, a brilliant concept of placing an idea in someone’s mind via their dreams, is fascinating.

That said, even if it is a failure, in terms of its coherence, Nolan is still to be celebrated in attempting cerebral fare in Hollywood. That’s not say all films should be cerebral, but monolithic Hollywood does not have a good track record of delivering films with interesting ideas.

DiCaprio is okay, which is as good as he gets for me, and the supporting cast… support well. Ellen Page is wasted as the token female and it’s good see one of the hero’s helpers called Yusuf. Great cinematography (Wally Pfister) and even Hans Zimmer’s bombastic music worked.

Bechdel test: Fail.

Bechdel test

From the start of July I’ve been applying the Bechdel test (see above and below) to the films I’ve been watching. It would be good if readers could share films that actually pass this test as it seems, shockingly, that not many do. The test is: are there at least two named women who talk to one another about something other than men? Doesn’t seem a high bar does it? I gave up on watching Beaufort (Israel, 2007) because I was finding the self-importance of men nauseating.