Archive for the 'Movies & TV' Category

Reclassifications: Parasite, The Million Pound Note, and My Man Godfrey.

Since I cancelled Netflix a couple months back I’ve been keeping myself busy watching old movies for free on YouTube. You can find quite a few, once you know where to look.

Among the vaguely recognized names to whom I’ve finally been able to assign faces are two that have always blurred together in my mind, Hedy Lamarr and Dorothy Lamour. I’ve now watched three or four movies starring each, and I’ll have no trouble identifying Lamour in future: she had a very distinctive face.

But I’m still not sure I’ll recognize Hedy Lamarr.

Nowadays Lamarr is more famous for her side career as an inventor, which led (in collaboration with some other fellow, whose name is politely deprecated) to a radio dingus that anticipated the development of modern wireless technology. Hardly anyone watches her movies any more, but she’s lately become a figurehead for women in science, a twist that would no doubt have surprised audiences in the 1930s who knew her primarily for, as she put it, standing still and looking stupid.

She’s gorgeous, of course. The problem is she doesn’t really look like anything in particular. She’s so flawless that there’s no one feature for your eye to rest on. Watching her movies, I find that only when she opens her mouth – she had a pretty heavy Austrian accent – can I say definitively, “Oh, there’s Hedy Lamarr.”

hedy lamarr weight loss ad life magazine 1952

Hedy Lamarr, in a 1952 issue of Life, promotes a “safe, healthful” weight-loss solution called – no joke – Ayds.

I have this trouble a lot watching old movies. I think I’m only averagely bad at telling faces apart, but when a movie is full of square-jawed, clean-shaven, dark-haired white guys wearing hats, if there’s not some quirky mannerism or distinctive article of dress to differentiate them, I tend to forget which is which. It’s somewhat less difficult with women, because more variety was permitted in their hair and clothing; also, there were usually fewer females in the cast, so fewer opportunities for confusion.

Now, there’s much to be said for suits and hats – they’re more flattering to the male figure than the cargo shorts and flip-flops that fellows slouch around in these days – as well as much to be said against them, at least in the heat of summer. But one of the side effects of living in a society where everyone has pretty much the same wardrobe and hairstyle, I imagine, is that you become more attentive to distinctions that would be invisible to outsiders. Where everyone wears the same suit, you learn to pay attention to the tie.

As I’ve discussed before, I’m not sold on the many miracles attributed to the modern-day holy trinity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. But there is at least one concrete benefit to populating our movies with a wider range of physical types. It’s not that racial diversity is necessary to helping audiences tell the characters apart: watching Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, with its 100% Korean cast, I never had a problem keeping track of who was who. But Parasite is an unusually well-constructed film. If Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive casting makes it easier for Hollywood hacks to project their overcaffeinated visions onto the screen in a way that still lets us tell at a glance which henchman is hanging off the side of the helicopter firing a machine gun at our jetski-riding hero, then I’m for it.

But diversity can increase confusion, too. My favourite of the recent Star Wars movies, Rogue One, was hard enough to follow with its dialogue full of pronouncements like, “We have to go to [random alien planet] to give the [random sci-fi gadget] to [random alien name].” Then someone made the decision to cast a number of non-native-English speakers to garble these nonsense words.

If for some reason it was deemed essential that the Star Wars universe contain not only the full range of earth’s skin tones, but the full range of its foreign accents, at least they could have taken care to assign the bulk of the space gibberish to the Brits and Americans in the cast.

***

Recently Robin Hanson wondered why last year’s arty supervillain origin story Joker was reviewed so much more negatively than Parasite, even though both are well-made, well-acted films that deal with themes of poverty and class rebellion.

Among other theories, Hanson proposed that left-leaning critics resented being asked to sympathize with Joker’s “white male lower class” antihero:

[H]e just appears culturally too close for comfort to their max disliked prototype of loud resentful gun-loving smoking “incels”, 4chan fans, Trump supporters, etc.

Whereas the poor family of Parasite, who insinuate themselves into the lives and household of a rich family, are articulate, well-mannered, upwardly-mobile Asians of the type that media folk are likely to be personally acquainted with. Although lower-class, to Western eyes the Parasite family are not culturally lower-class: in fact their apparently self-disciplined habits raise the question of how they wound up poor in the first place, as Steve Sailer pointed out in his commentary on Hanson’s post:

I really didn’t understand why the poor family in Parasite was inept at doing simple jobs like folding pizza boxes, but then suddenly turned into the Mission Impossible squad when they got a chance to edge in on the rich family.

This inconsistency is hardly unique to Parasite. Off the top of my head I can think of three famous American movies where poor people are elevated serendipitously into the realm of the upper classes:

  • My Man Godfrey, from 1936, in which William Powell’s garbage-dump-dwelling hobo gets a job butlering for a rich family;
  • The Million Pound Note, from 1954, in which Gregory Peck’s penniless American, granted temporary custody of the titular banknote, is promptly embraced by London’s upper crust;
  • Trading Places, from 1983, in which Eddie Murphy’s homeless grifter is installed in Dan Aykroyd’s cushy home and investment banking job.

In all these comedies, as in the semi-comedic Parasite, the poor folks prove themselves adept at mimicking the manners and customs appropriate to their new social positions. By contrast, when a movie concerns a rich person tumbled by fate down among the working classes – say, Ally Sheedy’s narcissistic scenester in Maid To Order – the role usually proves more challenging than he or she expects.

In My Man Godfrey the hero’s effortless mastery of upper-class etiquette is explained when we discover that he is a formerly wealthy man who let himself go after a messy divorce. The movie ends with Godfrey leveraging his recovered social standing to open a fancy nightclub on the site of the former dump, where all his homeless friends are taken on as bartenders and waiters and valets. As he puts it when pitching his scheme, “The only difference between a derelict and a man is a job.”

In a sense that’s true, but if solving poverty were as simple as offering poor people jobs, we’d have licked it long ago. (See point #5 here.) Joker is more realistic in this respect. Arthur Fleck, the mentally damaged hero of that film, can barely maintain the level of decorum appropriate to riding public transit, let alone butlering or investment banking. When Arthur confronts arrogant plutocrat Thomas Wayne, whom he blames for his poverty, we might wish the rich man were more sympathetic, but it’s hard to blame him for being standoffish when accosted by a twitchy stalker in the men’s room.

Like the poor family of Parasite and the dump-dwellers of My Man Godfrey, many of the men and women who spend their days slumped along the storefronts of Vancouver’s Granville Street would prove to be competent and valuable workers, if anyone would take a chance on hiring them. However, employers are understandably reluctant to gamble their reputations, their physical assets, and the safety of their other workers on the ability of their HR personnel to sort out the merely ungroomed from the drug-addled and deranged.

Like Arthur Fleck, these hard cases might feel, with some justice, that they were never really given a fair shot. Many of their problems could be mitigated with the right combination of therapy, medication, and cash freely disbursed. But even with their psychological and financial burdens eased, they’d still be stuck with all the unconscious habits, built up over years of scraping by, that would remind potential employers of the scuzzy, scary subculture to which they belonged.

***

Prejudice gets a bad name, probably because in many people’s minds it’s conflated with race prejudice. Most race prejudice these days is really prejudice against cultural markers like dialect, clothing, customs, and so on; when such prejudices don’t cross racial lines no-one worries too much about them. I can safely flaunt my contempt for mullet wearers, sozzled St. Patrick’s Day revellers, and inbred yahoos from West Virginia, but the rules are different for dreadlocks wearers, Puerto Rican Day parade-goers, and inbred yahoos from Waziristan.

Going by how often I find myself suppressing the urge to roll my eyes at my fellow citizens’ appearance and manners, I’m as prejudice-ridden as anyone. I try to override my prejudgements where they concern superficial traits like garish hair, outlandish clothes, or visible tattoos: I remind myself that, as a middle-aged person among the young, I’m a tourist in a foreign country, where the rules of fashion are different from my own. But where manners are concerned, it’s harder to know where to draw the line. Should I merely shrug and mutter à chacun son goût when I encounter someone littering, or pissing on a wall, or hollering obscenities – or should I adhere to my prejudgement that such a person is likely to be prone to other antisocial and criminal behaviours?

While I know that my prejudgements about the aforementioned denizens of Granville Street are, in many individual cases, wrong, it would be foolish to say that I can deduce nothing about a man’s habits and manners from the fact that I find him stretched out in a sleeping bag in front of Starbucks. People likewise make prejudgements about me. I was approached by two young women in a coffeeshop not long ago. “Would you settle a bet for us?” one asked me. “What do you do?”

“Do?” I said, puzzled.

“Are you a librarian or a professor?”

Based on my appearance – greying beard, rumpled cardigan, pen poised over a crossword puzzle – it would have been surprising if they’d taken me for an up-and-coming rap star, or a corporate lawyer, or a long-haul trucker. No doubt they could have ventured other guesses about my habits and personal history, some correct: I am a vegetarian with an interest in old movies who maintains an obscure blog; others flat wrong: I have only a high school education, my politics lean more right than left, and as for what I do…

“I’m unemployed,” I said through a tight smile.

“You’re a what?”

Un-em-ployed,” I icily enunciated. I could have told the girls (who giggled nervously and hurried away) that I was a writer, which would have been just as true and less embarrassing for all of us; but like most people I resent being stereotyped, even when I have invited it by knowingly presenting myself as a stereotype.

The world is marvelously variegated, and somewhere out there is an aspiring rapper who wears rumpled cardigans and enjoys crossword puzzles. In our daily lives we leave some wiggle room in our prejudgements to allow for such anomalies. Those who leave insufficient wiggle room, who draw conclusions too broad from outward appearances, will soon get a reputation for cloddishness; but those who leave too much wiggle room, who ignore or overlook the signals sent by strangers’ accents, clothes, and manners, will wind up stuck in a lot of pointless and frustrating interactions, and occasionally get themselves into danger.

***

Besides the practical matter of figuring out who’s who, it’s sometimes hard, when watching old movies, to tell what subtleties of behaviour and social class are being communicated by a character’s wardrobe and accessories. Why is the doorman giving that guy’s overcoat the cocked eyebrow? Is that dame’s low-cut gown meant to appear glamourous, or tawdry? What is the meaning of that hat?

When we’re introduced to Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note he’s clean-shaven, with slightly shaggy hair, and dressed in faded blue jeans, an open-collar shirt, and a black pea coat. Something like this:

robert redford three days of the condor pea coat

Some fella in a pea coat. Image source.

You caught me: that’s not Gregory Peck, it’s Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor. Redford plays a low-level CIA analyst, a “desk-bound ex-military bookworm” who gets swept up in a spook civil war. He looks so sharp getting chased around Manhattan in his pea-coat-and-sideburns combo that a half-century later the film still gets referenced in fashion blogs like the ones linked above.

In The Million Pound Note Peck plays a hobo. Granted, his coat is somewhat shabbier than Redford’s, and he has neglected to flip up its collar, as pea coat suavity requires:

gregory peck the million pound note

Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note. Image source.

The difference is that The Million Pound Note is set not in laid-back mid-1970s New York but in uptight Edwardian London. We can readily discern Peck’s lowly social standing by how much less natty he is than all the other gents in the movie.

A couple years back, in another extremely discursive post inspired by Hollywood, I made the mundane point that a story is not a solid object but a cloud, whose shape varies when viewed from the perspectives of different cultures and eras.

When we repurpose old stories we gather in armfuls of cloud, believing we’re taking the parts that matter; but the further we are from wherever and whenever the story was created, the likelier we are to remake the cloud into forms the creator would find unrecognizable.

I gave as an example Spider-Man, who, whatever else may change about him – his costume, his superpowers, his skin colour – has thus far always been a New Yorker:

We intuit that New York means something to the Spider-Man mythos. What it means depends on our distance from and familiarity with New York. I’m sure Chinese audiences couldn’t care less which American city Spider-Man swings through, any more than we worry about where exactly in China the Monkey King’s adventures take place.

Like his pea coat, Gregory Peck’s accent means something to the plot of The Million Pound Note: when he flashes his banknote, waiters and shop clerks conclude that the shabbily-dressed foreigner must be an eccentric American millionaire, of the kind they’ve read about in the papers.

To the modern viewer, Peck’s American accent is obvious, if a little antique-sounding. (I have a friend, a native English speaker not much younger than me, who claims to have trouble following the dialogue in Hollywood movies from the 1940s and earlier.) But future film historians may have to resort to creative subtitling to get the point across, just as translators of Lysistrata or Cyrano de Bergerac must find ways to deal with characters speaking in Doric or Gascon dialect: should their speech be recast into hillbilly or Scots, or is that likely to confuse matters even more, by forcing new and incompatible stereotypes to stand in for old and incomprehensible ones?

M.

In November I gazed across the class divide on the patio of my neighbourhood coffee shop. Last May I chuckled as the hero of Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning mangled the vocabulary of yuppie enlightenment. In 2018 I discussed Steve Sailer’s Dirt Gap and one harried mommy blogger’s Trail of Tears.

It: Bullies in our own minds.

I found It: Chapter Two substantially weaker than Chapter One and barely an improvement on the dopey 1990s TV miniseries. I suspect that the TV version will be fondly remembered as a campy artifact long after the glossier, better acted, but equally dumb big-screen retread has been forgotten.

I had a lot of questions coming out of the theatre – number one being what was that magic sewer clown actually trying to do, anyway? – but they’ve all been explored in depth elsewhere. So let’s scroll down to a less central but still interesting mystery: have these films’ creators ever encountered a bully in the real world?

***

I endured my fair share of bullying as a schoolkid, stood by while others were bullied, and indulged in a little bullying myself.

You may snort that, growing up in a middle-class town in the Canadian prairies, I never faced real bullying of the type that warps its survivors into worldly, battle-toughened souls like you. You’re probably right. But my small-town 1980s prairie childhood, while lacking in sewer clowns, was otherwise quite a bit like the small-town 1980s New England childhood depicted in It. So I feel I’m as qualified as anyone to comment on the plausibility of the bullying depicted therein.

What strikes me about the bullies I’ve met in the real world – as contrasted with the screaming, slavering psychos depicted in movies like It – is how jovial they usually are. I grant that there really are mentally unbalanced sadists who, like Henry Bowers, might like to carve their initials in a fat kid’s belly; but they’re rare – so rare that you’re unlikely to find more than one or two even in the biggest and roughest school. When they do turn up, they tend not to attract admiring entourages because – guess what – they’re scary and no fun to be around. Which means they quickly get ratted on and expelled, or clapped in juvenile detention.

Whereas the cool bully who makes bystanders laugh can go on terrorizing weirdos and outcasts indefinitely. The targets don’t resist, will even laugh along at their humiliation, because it’s not clear where the joshing ends and the cruelty starts. Witnesses and victims are made complicit in the abuse. And when the bully pushes too far he can always fall back on, “Don’t take it so serious, kid, I’m only messin’ around.”

***

Unlike It, Jonathan Lethem’s 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude is set in a locale and an era that really are foreign to me. Yet it contains the most relatable depiction of juvenile bullying that I’ve encountered in a work of fiction.

The hero is Dylan, one of just three white kids (his flaky left-wing mother is proud to observe) attending a mostly black public school in a gentrifying part of Brooklyn in the 1970s. Dylan’s whiteness and wimpiness make him a target:

He might be yoked low, bent over, hugged to someone’s hip then spun on release like a human top, legs buckling, crossing at the ankles. Or from behind, never sure by whom once the headlock popped loose and three or four guys stood around, witnesses with hard eyes, shaking their heads at the sheer dumb luck of being white. It was routine as laughter. Yoking erupted spontaneously, a joke of fear, a piece of kidding.

He was dismissed from it as from an episode of light street theatre. “Nobody hurt you, man. It ain’t for real. You know we was just fooling with you, right?” They’d spring away, leave him tottering, hyperventilating, while they high-fived, more like amazed spectators than perpetrators. If Dylan choked or whined they were perplexed and slightly disappointed at the white boy’s too-ready hysteria. Dylan didn’t quite get it, hadn’t learned his role. On those occasions they’d pick up his books or hat and press them on him, tuck him back together. A ghost of fondness lived in a headlock’s shadow. Yoker and yokee had forged a funny compact.

You regularly promised your enemies that what you did together had no name.

***

Once, I believe it was in fourth grade, I was walking to school with a friend a year younger, and for no reason at all, besides the rare opportunity of dominating someone even weaker than me, I jumped on him and ground his face into the snow. He barely resisted. After a few moments I stood up, brushed myself off, and continued on my way. He trailed after me, red-faced and sniffling. I felt bad immediately but, as far as I can recall, never apologized to him.

That’s the one instance I can think of where I physically bullied anybody. But I fear there were other occasions where I took part in or even initiated the mental torture of other kids, which I’ve forgotten because it never occurred to me to file those offenses under the heading of “bullying”.

Some months ago, discussing Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle, I shared this passage about a security officer in a Soviet prison who has no qualms about the brutality his job requires him to inflict on prisoners:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

We’re rarely bullies in our own minds. We’ve seen such people on the stage and in films: they’re pop-eyed psychos like Henry Bowers, tormenting harmless oddballs for no reason at all. Whereas we’re merely reluctant defenders of the social order, using mockery, threats, and (when absolutely necessary) a little roughness to scare sneaks and creeps and deviants back into line.

M.

Last year I mentioned my first meeting with a high school sociopath whose icebreaker was, “Are you a Jew?” In 2017 I reflected on how screenwriters can justify any implausible plot point with the mantra “Because. That. Happens.” And way back in 2010 I discussed Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape, a sci-fi reimagining of the John Wayne flick The Searchers.

Casting aspersions.

This post, written back in 2017, is the last in my Decennial Fridge-Cleaning series. After today it’s back to our regularly scheduled, completely uncontroversial programming.

Recently, in my hometown paper, I read about a local production of the play Belfast Girls, by Jaki McCarrick. The accompanying photo showed five young women in 19th century period costume, four of them white, one kind of brownish.

belfast girls peninsula productions 2017

Belfast Girls, Peninsula Productions, 2017. Image source: Vancouver Sun.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Must be that ‘race-blind casting’ you sometimes hear about.”

But on skimming the article, I found that the casting had in fact been acutely race-conscious: one of the Irish characters has a Jamaican mother. “[T]rying to find someone to fill that role here in Vancouver wasn’t as easy as it might have been,” the director commented.

According to Wikipedia, in 2016 white people made up a tad under half of Metro Vancouver’s population, with East Asians a further quarter and the remainder a hodgepodge of the world’s other ethnicities – mostly Indo-Canadian, with a smattering of Middle Easterners, Latin Americans, blacks, and others.

If the goal were merely to cast someone who could convincingly portray a half-Irish, half-Jamaican woman, then many Indo-Canadians, Middle Easterners, and Latinos ought to have fit the bill. But I suspect the director was further constrained by the necessity of finding someone with a mixed-race black-white background. There seems to be an elaborate unwritten code governing which actors are allowed to take which roles, variously and contradictorily justified by the primary imperative of maximizing racial diversity:

1. A white person should not portray a character who was written to be, or customarily has been performed by, or was in real life, or in another medium, a person wholly or partly or arguably of another race. (See controversies over Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Martian, A Mighty Heart, and Aloha.)

2. A non-white person, however, may portray a character who was written to be, or customarily has been performed by, or was in real life, or in another medium, a white person. (See Miss Moneypenny, the cast of Hamilton, and various comic book characters.)

3. The definitions of “white” and “non-white” are subject to change without notice.

Is it acceptable for a non-white actor to portray a character of a different non-white race? Hard to tell. But the director was probably smart to be cautious.

My own view is that race-blind casting is more or less appropriate where the mise-en-scène already acknowledges the artificiality of the medium, as theatre productions generally do. No-one watching Troilus and Cressida really imagines they’ve been transported back to Anatolia in the 12th century BC. If Troilus is black and Cressida is Chinese, it shouldn’t throw us any further out of the play than when either character launches into a high-flown speech in English.

However, if Troilus is black and his father, King Priam, is Chinese, we may wonder if we’re meant to infer that Troilus was adopted, and devote concentration to puzzling out their relationship that the director would prefer we focussed elsewhere.

Contarily, a production might wish to highlight the divisions between Greeks and Trojans by casting the two groups with actors of different races – a logical creative choice that race-blind casting forecloses.

Unlike in theatre, in film and television we generally demand a greater degree of “realism” – which nevertheless accepts conventions like foreigners who speak to one another in foreign-accented English, or space aliens who are just humans with bumpy foreheads, or action heroines who somehow maintain their bouncy hair and smooth-shaved legs through every adventure. There’s no obvious reason we couldn’t adapt just as well to the convention of race-blind casting.

And yet the conventions just mentioned aren’t generally seen as good things in themselves, but as necessary concessions to audience prejudices, the limitations of special effects, or the demands of the marketing department. Now that technology has made it cost-effective, we increasingly see directors opting to create aliens who look genuinely alien. I’ve noticed a similar trend in favour of foreign characters actually speaking their native languages, with subtitles, and even lowbrow flicks are more likely to contrive an in-story reason for the foreigners to switch to English. (I doubt movies will ever tire of depicting beautiful actresses with bouncy hair, but who knows.)

The old convention of white actors portraying people of other races is now demonized as racist, but it got started for similar pragmatic reasons. A lot of youngsters don’t seem to realize how small the pool of, say, Asian-American actors would have been in mid-20th century Hollywood. [1] Blacks and non-Hispanic whites together made up 97.5% of the U.S. population in 1950; Asians were less than a tenth of the remainder. In the absence of a taboo against the practice, casting directors naturally wished to expand their options beyond the tiny number of actual Asians available to play Charlie Chan or the King of Siam or whoever. Generally they tried to find people who looked vaguely Asian already, creating openings for mildly exotic actors like Peter Lorre and Rita Moreno. [2]

peter lorre mr. moto

Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto.
Image copyright Fox Home Video.

rita moreno deborah kerr the king and i

Rita Moreno (and Deborah Kerr) in The King and I.
Image source: Pinterest.

Sometimes they piled on makeup instead, and the results look pretty outlandish to us.

mickey rooney breakfast at tiffany's

Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Image source: Wikipedia.

Now that there’s a sizable population of Asians around, of course it makes sense to cast Asians in those roles – if realism is what you’re going for. But lately realism seems to have been elevated from a guiding principle, to be balanced against other principles, to an unbreakable commandment that actors must be a perfect genotypic match for the roles they take on. So you wind up with absurdities like the mixed-race Zoe Saldana being condemned for putting on a prosthetic nose to portray Nina Simone. Meanwhile…

robert de niro raging bull

Robert De Niro, Academy Award for Best Actor, 1980. Image source: Zimbio.com.

nicole kidman the hours

Nicole Kidman, Academy Award for Best Actress, 2002. Image source: The Makeup Gallery.

charlize theron monster

Charlize Theron, Academy Award for Best Actress, 2003. Image source: The Makeup Gallery.

steve carell foxcatcher

Steve Carell, Academy Award Nominee for Best Actor, 2014. Image source: Tribute.ca.

I suppose you could classify that as “white privilege”.

M.

1. I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a young Chinese-Canadian actor here in Vancouver years ago. He complained that when he went out for roles in locally-filmed TV shows, he was unlikely to be chosen even for parts that had specifically been listed as “any race” – because casting directors worried that the writers might decide to make the character a regular, which might necessitate casting the character’s parents or grandparents – and they might then be hindered by the tiny number of older Asian actors available. My acquaintance seemed to view this as a nuisance, but an understandable one. Nowadays it would be a crisis requiring immediate mobilization across all social media.

The bias has probably diminished as more Asian actors like my acquaintance have grown to an age suitable for parent roles.

2. In case you missed the link above, it’s worth watching this video of Rita Moreno discussing her casting as Tuptim in The King and I. Apparently there was a half-Vietnamese actress up for the role, but unlike Moreno she had no musical background; also, unlike Moreno, she wasn’t a contract player whom the studio was eager to promote.

My recent post about transtextuality included some thoughts on race-swapped superheroes; in 2017 I observed that screenwriters could justify every implausible story development with the mantra because that happens; and way back in 2008 I defended the movie 300 against one of its more unhinged critics.

Movie bad guys, by the numbers.

Warning: This post mentions major plot points from the 2017 movie Unlocked.

Last summer, in a rambling post inspired by a scene from Robert Altman’s The Player, I wrote about my friend who’d been complaining that Muslims were stereotyped as the bad guys in Hollywood films. I demurred that

even after a decade and a half of Middle Eastern war and unrelenting media attention to Middle Eastern terrorism, in the movies Middle Easterners were stalled in the number four bad guy spot behind Russians, Nazis, and rich WASPs – maybe even five, after Latin American drug lords. But my friend seemed to doubt me.

I went on to wonder whether our argument could be settled by numerical analysis. Could one analyze a large volume of films, determine who were “the bad guys”, and prove scientifically that Hollywood had been treating certain groups unfairly?

I attempted to define the parameters of the experiment:

One would need to examine all movies (caveat: define “movie”) over a given period, identify the main bad guys (caveat: by what criteria?) and somehow sort them (caveat: actors, or characters?) by ethnicity and religion.

I now realize I was understating the difficulty. Consider only my first caveat, defining the data set. Do you limit your investigation to American-made films, and if so, in the era of international co-productions what constitutes “American”?…or for that matter, in the era of Netflix and video-on-demand, a “film”? You could make a case for restricting your analysis to big-budget movies, as they more accurately represent studio conventional thinking. Or you could ignore budgets, and focus on the highest-earning movies, as they’re likeliest to reflect audience prejudices. Or you could include as many movies as possible, including little-seen indies, as they represent the widest possible sample of filmmakers.

Your choice will skew the results. If your sample is heavy on big-budget, theatrically released movies, you’re going to find a lot more superheroes shooting Nazis with laserbeams; the more you expand it to cheapo direct-to-DVD fare, the more Mexican cartel members you’ll see getting kicked in the face by guys in blue jeans.

But suppose you cracked all the above problems and carried out an accurate and objective census of bad guys: what percentage would qualify as “unfair”? What does science tell us is a proportionate depiction of Middle Eastern villainy?

***

Netflix recently made available a pretty generic spy thriller called Unlocked, starring Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, and Michael Douglas. It’s ostensibly about Islamic terrorism, but none of the main actors plays a Muslim. In the end we discover that the evil mastermind is one of the top-billed stars – a CIA agent secretly helping advance a jihadi plot in order, he rants, to awaken America to the threat of biological weapons.

I’d seen enough movies of this type – i.e., more than one – to predict that it would be something along these lines: the only question was, would it be Douglas, Malkovich, or Collette who turned out to be the villain? This insight didn’t rely on parsing Hollywood’s racial politics; only awareness of Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters.

I could use Unlocked as a data point against my friend’s argument that Middle Easterners are negatively stereotyped: all the main bad guys, even the leader of a jihadi cell, are white men; of the five non-white Muslim characters, one is clearly good, three are ambiguous but portrayed sympathetically, and only one (fairly minor) is an outright villain.

But if I wanted to make the opposite case, those three ambiguous Muslims could easily be roped into the “bad guy” column; and it’s true that all the Muslims in the movie, good and bad, are defined by their relationship to Islamic extremism.

In short, like many movies on this theme, Unlocked could be pigeonholed – stereotyped, if you will – equally well as anti-Muslim paranoia or anti-American paranoia.

Poking around for reviews of Unlocked I came across this one by a writer who thought it was not just a good but a “great thriller”, and who was “pleasurably surprised more than once by sudden twists in the plot”. But even this credulous viewer found something to roll his eyes at:

The only real flaw it has is in following a very hoary cliché. Cynical viewers would guess from the beginning that the heroine’s black friend is marked for death.

As soon as we see his happy home life, and watch him playing with his beloved infant daughter, we know his fate is sealed…

This “flaw” didn’t even register for me. Is “black sidekick with happy home life is doomed to die” more or less of a cliché than “CIA heroine’s mentor is secretly the bad guy”? Could we conduct a numerical analysis and find out?

I doubt it. Movie-watching isn’t a science. We see the stereotypes we’re interested in seeing.

***

Pursuing the line of thought described in my earlier post, last summer I downloaded ten years of box office returns from the website Box Office Mojo and attempted to answer what I believed was a straightforward question: In the previous decade, had there been more movies about the “Global War on Terror” (henceforth GWOT), or about World War II?

I predicted that WWII would be the clear winner. In spite of (or because of) the ubiquity of real-life Middle Eastern violence in our newsfeeds, and the central place of Islam in our current ideological squabbles, in our fictions we prefer to go on reliving the clear-cut ideological and military triumphs of our grandparents.

I started with the top 200 movies, by North American box office receipts, from each year 2007-2016.

I threw out all documentaries and animated movies.

I disregarded country of origin but excluded a few foreign-language films for which there was little information online.

Then, using Wikipedia plot summaries for the 1686 movies remaining in my sample, I attempted to identify and categorize every war movie.

Finally, having devoted many evenings to this time-consuming project…I chucked the whole thing out.

I realized that my survey was absurdly susceptible to manipulation. Depending on how I defined “war movie”, I could make the case that WWII movies greatly outnumbered GWOT movies…or the exact opposite.

Here’s a table – which should not be regarded as in any way scientific – illustrating what I mean:

war movies wwii versus gwot 2007-2016

Click for PDF.

Movies marked red take place primarily in a war zone.

Movies marked yellow include one or two battlefield scenes, or explore the causes or consequences of war, or deal with war in a comedic or fantastic way…but most people wouldn’t think of them as “war movies”.

Movies marked orange could have gone either way.

Using a strict (red) definition of “war movie”, there were more than 1.5 times as many WWII movies as GWOT movies. (16-10)

Using a loose (yellow) definition, the GWOT movies outnumbered the WWII movies by an even greater proportion. (43-25)

But those results are next to meaningless. I could have expanded the definition of “war movie” still further by hauling in the innumerable action flicks about ex-Green Berets fighting bad guys on U.S. soil. Or limited GWOT movies to only those involving declared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I could have applied a higher or lower box office cutoff, or used some arbitrary criteria to exclude “non-Hollywood” films, or performed any number of subtle manipulations, to get whatever results I wanted.

My effort wasn’t entirely wasted. It has made me even more skeptical about dubious claims of scientific objectivity, and the journalists, bloggers, and social media stooges who unquestioningly pass those claims along.

Having said that, I can scientifically prove that there is a shortage of movies about the surprisingly busy sex lives of struggling middle-aged male writers. My study is forthcoming.

M.

Because. That. Happens.

In Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire The Player, Richard E. Grant’s pretentious screenwriter runs into the titular studio exec and seizes the opportunity to pitch a script. It’s a crazy melodrama about a district attorney who falls in love with the woman he prosecuted for murder, only to discover on the night of her execution that she’s actually innocent:

“The D.A. breaks into the prison. Runs down death row. But he gets there too late. The gas pellets have been dropped. She’s dead.”

robbins grant stockwell the player

Tim Robbins, Richard E. Grant, and Dean Stockwell in The Player.
Screen capture by Alchetron.com

The screenwriter insists that the film be cast with unknown actors, because his story is “too damned important to be overwhelmed by personality.” He’s going for gritty European-style realism here. “There are no stars. No pat happy endings. No Schwarzeneggers, no stick-ups, no terrorists. This is a tough story. A tragedy. In which an innocent woman dies. Why? Because. That. Happens.”

I thought of that line a few nights ago while watching, of all things, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the teen drama about a high school dork who (spoiler) angers the male portion of the audience by losing his virginity to Emma Watson. The hero is a typical brainy introvert who’s picked on by the meatheads until he falls in with a gang of proto-hipsters who do stuff like host live performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and publish zines about punk rock. I guess it’s mandatory that the hero have a tragic past, so they give him a best friend who committed suicide – which is alright, I guess – it explains why the cool kids feel sorry for him and take him in. But then at the end we learn (another spoiler) that as a child he was sexually molested by his aunt.

I found this twist plenty annoying. The movie captures the head rush of high school angst pretty well, even if its signifiers are teen-movie relics worn smooth by over-fondling – bullying jocks and tragic gays and a sympathetic English teacher who, I swear to god, gifts the kid his tattered copy of Catcher in the Rye. The molestation angle at least comes as a surprise. But why couldn’t the kid have just been an ordinary introverted dork? With a non-tragic past like the vast majority of dorks?

Of course, there really are dorks out there who’ve experienced both suicide and sexual abuse. Lots of them, probably. So the screenwriter could legitimately answer my complaint with: Because. That. Happens.

***

I once wrote a script for a short film which a director pal of mine agreed to help me make on an ultra-low budget. One scene had the main character visiting the grave of his recently-deceased girlfriend, so I did some location scouting at a local cemetery, looking for a grave with a shiny headstone and newly-turned sod.

I strolled among the trees, seeing mostly grassy graves and eroded headstones. Here and there I found a freshly-disturbed plot where some old person had been interred alongside a long-dead spouse – but where were those who’d died tragically young?

Finally, after a half hour of wandering, I spotted a row of unweathered stones out past the edge of the treeline, overlooking the freeway. Of course, I realized – young people don’t have plots set aside in expectation of their death. Their loved ones take whatever’s available, in the sparsely treed, unlovely outskirts of the cemetery. I picked out a grave at the end of the row which I thought would make an interestingly desolate shot for the film.

When it came time to shoot, the director disagreed. He wanted a visual that was immediately identifiable as a graveyard, and he worried that the shot I was advocating would look like a few prop headstones erected in an empty field. So we roamed among the trees and settled on a ten-year-old grave nestled among other graves in the shade of a venerable elm.

My version of the scene would have been more authentic, in the sense of being faithful to reality. The director’s version better communicated authenticity. My version would have caused the audience to wonder, “Waitasec, where are we?” The director didn’t want the audience wondering that, because he believed there were other, more relevant things for them to be thinking about at that point in the story.

If I’d insisted on my definition of authenticity, the director could easily have argued that plenty of young people must be buried under shady trees. And he’d have been right.

***

A couple months back, Steve Sailer linked to coverage of this speech by the actor Riz Ahmed, in which he claimed that young Brits from Muslim backgrounds (like him) were at risk of being seduced into Islamic radicalism because their ethnicity was insufficiently “represented” in British movies and TV shows. Muslims unable to locate sympathetic portrayals of their culture in the mainstream media, he suggested, had nowhere else to turn except to the head-lopping wildlands of the internet.

Frankly, the speech doesn’t paint a very flattering picture of Ahmed’s community. No doubt Welsh-speakers and ethnic Chinese and exiled Russian oligarchs would also like to see more shows about their unique contributions to modern-day Britain, but for some reason their alienation never seems to lead to killing sprees.

Presumably to help thwart the radicalization of Muslim youth, Ahmed had been attempting to find good roles for himself on British TV. But he complained that he kept being turned away because the show would turn out to be set in, say, 17th century Cornwall, and there was no call for minority actors.

Frustrating, no doubt. But then, if the rule is that Muslim actors must be represented on TV in numbers equal to their share of the British population, the result will be fewer shows set in the period before mass Muslim immigration – a period which happens to constitute the bulk of British history. By imposing on TV producers one narrow definition of “representation” – to authentically represent modern Britain’s racial diversity – Ahmed would limit their ability to pursue another, equally valid definition – to authentically represent the diverse eras of Britain’s past.

Ahmed might argue that the racial version of representation ought to supersede the historical version. He might argue that it’s more urgent that the British see themselves as they are than as they once were. But “representation” is the beginning of the argument, not the end.

***

Last night I watched the 1950s sci-fi flick It Came From Outer Space and was struck by how often the heroine shrieked in terror at the sight of aliens, shadowy shapes, unexpected trees, in a way I’ve heard no real-life woman shriek, and as no female character would shriek in a modern movie. My first thought was, how phony. But then, for all I know the shrieking women in old movies reflected the reality of the time. Maybe women really shrieked a lot back then.

I’ve heard it theorized that the reason women are always falling into swoons in novels from the Victorian era is that in those days women’s breathing was restricted by tight corsets – excessive excitement really did make them light-headed.

Maybe. Or maybe women fell into swoons because it was socially acceptable, because their fictional heroines were doing it all the time.

Fifties moviemakers may have modelled their heroines after real-life shrieking women, while real-life women learned from movies that society expected them to shriek in scary situations.

What behavioural quirks might our modern-day fictions be amplifying and feeding back to us?

***

A while back I suggested that the worthiness of any piece of writing, from the script of The Perks of Being a Wallflower to the Iliad to this essay, could be evaluated using just two criteria – truthfulness and originality.

Truthfulness, I said, isn’t necessarily a matter of factual accuracy, although in certain contexts – reporting, history, essays – sticking to the facts is pretty important. Truthfulness can also include the telling of lies – fictions – that convey truths about human nature, how society is ordered, how society might be ordered if aspects of human nature were to change, how humans might change if society were differently ordered, and so on.

My definition leaves a lot of leeway for artists to fudge the truth, and for critics to call them out for fudging. Artists can create fictions where people they dislike are shown saying silly or vicious or hypocritical things, which their targets will protest as malicious distortions of their true beliefs, to which the artists can justly reply but that really happens. There really are head-lopping Islamic zealots. There really are hypertouchy social justice warriors. There really are right-wing politicians who cloak their avarice under family-values rhetoric.

But the complainers have a point. Stories that are individually truthful can be cumulatively misleading – as anyone will acknowledge after looking at a media source whose ideological slant is opposite to theirs:

LIBERAL LOOKING AT BREITBART: Does every article have to be about illegal immigrants raping and murdering pretty white girls?

CONSERVATIVE LOOKING AT SALON: Does every article have to be about alt-right thugs queer-bashing transgender asylum seekers?

A different selection of stories results in a different picture of the world. And that’s sticking to true stories. When our fiction-makers overwhelmingly share a similar background – a background that is largely white and male, yes, and also largely urban, university-educated, liberal, irreligious (the demographic can be sliced any number of ways to prove one’s point) – their fictions can wind up misrepresenting other people’s beliefs without their even intending it.

But the pursuit of representation doesn’t end with, or even necessarily entail, the elimination of misrepresentation. A British TV industry devoted exclusively to the production of shows about life in 17th century Cornwall needn’t be untruthful in any way. It could explore every aspect of human experience – the tragic, the comedic, the spiritual, the horrific – with sensitivity and nuance. It could in fact be vastly more truthful than British TV as it currently exists. But it would almost certainly be less Muslim, so Riz Ahmed wouldn’t register the improvement.

***

I was chatting about movies with a friend not long ago – a white Canadian girl, if it matters – who made a sarcastic comment about Middle Eastern actors always being typecast as the bad guys in modern action movies. Being fairly certain that I’d seen a lot more movies of that type than my friend, I replied that, while she might be right, in my observation the main bad guy usually wound up being a WASPy guy in a suit. I offered the Iron Man franchise as an example. Parts I and III involved terrorist threats, but the boss villains were Jeff Bridges and Guy Pearce, respectively. In between was Mickey Rourke as a vengeful Russian.

I speculated that this was partly due to commercial concerns – there aren’t many bankable Middle Eastern actors to fill the role of Muslim Terrorist Mastermind – and partly due to cultural sensitivity – filmmakers being leery of contributing to the supposed climate of intolerance towards Muslims.

In fact, I went on, even after a decade and a half of Middle Eastern war and unrelenting media attention to Middle Eastern terrorism, in the movies Middle Easterners were stalled in the number four bad guy spot behind Russians, Nazis, and rich WASPs – maybe even five, after Latin American drug lords. But my friend seemed to doubt me.

I started to wonder – could my speculation be proven? Was it even susceptible to data analysis? One would need to examine all movies (caveat: define “movie”) over a given period, identify the main bad guys (caveat: by what criteria?) and somehow sort them (caveat: actors, or characters?) by ethnicity and religion.

According to boxofficemojo.com, there were over 700 movies released theatrically in North America in 2016. You’d want to look at more than a single year’s releases – easily thousands of movies – and analyze each storyline in sufficient detail to figure out who was the “bad guy”. This is straightforward enough in a thriller or action movie but gets tricky when you start looking at serious dramas, comedies, cartoons, and the various hybrids. Should you treat You Don’t Mess With The Zohan as a movie about Middle Eastern terrorism? (It ends, by the way, with Zohan teaming up with the main terrorist to take out a WASP in a suit.)

As an experiment, I thought I’d attempt to answer a much simpler question. Does modern-day Hollywood churn out more movies about World War II, or about America’s wars in the Muslim world?

I predicted that World War II would come out on top. Audiences and filmmakers are drawn to clear-cut conflicts where we can guiltlessly celebrate heroes dispatching bad guys, and the Nazis still lead the list of hissable villains.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been playing with the data, and the main thing I’ve learned is that objectively sorting works of art (generously defining “art” to include things like Captain America and You Don’t Mess With The Zohan) into tidy, countable categories is impossible. There are any number of ways I could have tweaked the definitions and the dataset to tip the results in favour of my hypothesis.

But I want to put my results at the top of a new post, where people might actually see them.

[Update, Feb. 27 2018: Finally posted this. Movie bad guys, by the numbers.]

In any case, do the results of my investigation really matter? Should Hollywood be more interested in the Middle East, or less? When the last surviving World War II veteran is laid to rest, will that excuse us from any further interest in the struggle against Nazism?

For the overwhelming majority of us, our day-to-day reality has nothing to do with war or terrorism – or for that matter with spying or bank-robbing or serial-killing or any of the other exciting pursuits that dominate our movies, TV shows, and books.

It’s reasonable to ask that our fictions be truthful. If they must be representative as well, one might wonder – what’s the point of having fictions at all?

M.

I published this post last year about how advocates of “representation” sometimes seem a bit fuzzy about the demographics they claim to be attempting to replicate.

My friend and I never finished the short film discussed above, but I later recycled some of the footage into this homemade music video for my band, Sea Water Bliss.

Jim Jarmusch: Rock-n-roll vampires are just like you and me!

The rock-n-roll vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive are among the most explicit audience wish-fulfilment surrogates in the history of fantasy filmmaking. Usually we have to exercise our imagination to vault ourselves into the exalted realm of our superhuman heroes. In our self-flattering daydreams we are always the mutants of the X-Men, the aliens of Avatar, the wizards of the Harry Potter world, never the ordinary clods who misunderstand and persecute them. It’s the fantastic element that prevents our identification with these demigods from becoming embarrassing. We feel a bit sorry for people who take their hero-worship so far as to actually learn Na’vi or participate in real-life Quidditch matches.

But Adam and Eve are exactly the sardonic, sexy misfits that the kind of people who go to Jim Jarmusch movies imagine themselves already to be. They make a fetish of old audio equipment and accoutre themselves in fabulous thrift-store chic. They’re saddened by pollution and they sneer at the anti-intellectualism of common rubes. They’re totally cool with gays. I’m pretty sure given more time with these characters we would eventually hear them endorse open-source software, the 100-mile diet, and public funding of the arts. Somehow these immortals have lived for at least half a millennium without accumulating any wisdom, or on the other hand carrying forward a single prejudice, that would challenge the belief system of the modern-day indie moviegoer. Isn’t that kind of boring? In the food court outside the theatre I could’ve found a dozen real people more fascinatingly estranged from the modern world than these ostensible relics of Elizabethan England.

In one of the latter, lesser-read chapters of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver finds himself in the land of Luggnagg, where he is told of the existence of certain people called Struldbrugs. These citizens, born now and then to ordinary mothers, have marks on their faces that indicate they will never die. Gulliver exclaims that these Struldbrugs must be the happiest people alive. When asked by his surprised hosts to elaborate, Gulliver paints a picture of wise and temperate sages passing their eternities in philosophical conversation with their fellows and freely offering the King the benefit of their accumulated knowledge. This discourse provokes much laughter. He learns that in fact the birth of a Struldbrug is regarded as a terrible omen. That these unfortunates age and suffer from disease just as we do, only they persist forever in their decrepit state, resenting and envying their countrymen who can look forward to the relief of death. The Struldbrugs are “opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship and dead to all natural affection”. After the age of eighty or so they lose interest in the world and stop learning new things, and eventually, as the language mutates and they fail to keep up, they find themselves unable to communicate even with their fellow citizens, let alone Struldbrugs born in earlier ages.

Jonathan Swift’s insight here was that even in the course of an ordinary lifespan, the world changes so much that a senior citizen finds himself feeling like a stranger in his own country. The vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive are no more alienated than the average struggling art student, but they wear their wisp of outsiderdom like a burqa. This happens to be one of the behaviours that old people find most irritating in young people. Am I incriminating the movie, then, or myself, when I say its immortals strike me as rather callow?

M.

Marvel’s mannequins of SHIELD.

My girlfriend and I are five episodes into Agents of SHIELD. I would characterize our response so far as “grudging acceptance”. We want this show to be good, we hold out hope that it will someday be good, we keep telling ourselves that it exhibits signs of incipient goodness. The Whedon track record, and the affable presence of Clark Gregg, are enough to keep us watching for a while.

Living somewhere off to the side of the Facebook-Twitter-Tumblr axis, I have only the vaguest sense of what other people are saying about the show. I happened to check out the episode summaries on the AV Club today and was somewhat comforted to read this comment from reviewer Oliver Sava:

Chloe Bennett … doesn’t feel quite right as hacker/S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant/double agent Skye. The easy breezy make-up, the hip but still commercial wardrobe, the lustrous brown hair that falls over her shoulders like ribbons of finely shaved chocolate – how the hell does this girl look so good if she spends all day on a computer in her van? (Would it have hurt to throw some glasses on her to help sell the tech wiz image a tiny bit?)

I think “doesn’t feel quite right” understates the problem. This has been our complaint with the show from episode one – having conceived an eclectic group of characters with distinctive and often clashing personalities, the show’s creators elected to populate these roles with a lineup of generic Hollywood pretty people. Which perfectly-coiffed mannequin are we watching now, the high school dropout anarchist hacker, the eccentric scientific genius, or the icily competent ass-kicking secret agent? Hint: one of these characters is Asian, and one has an English accent. The other one is the other one.

When Liz first brought this up, at first I was inclined to pooh-pooh her observations as typical Beauty Myth-derived feminist grievance-mongering. Of course the girls are all pretty, I said: it’s Hollywood. This show, like all other TV shows, exists in an alternate reality where double-digit dress sizes don’t exist and women’s hairdos are constantly tended by invisible magic sprites. It’s not fair to blame the creators for a standard of female hotness that is imposed by studio execs, advertisers, and furtively masturbating internet fanboys.

But I was misunderstanding Liz’s complaint. The problem isn’t that they’re hot, she said, the problem is that they’re identically hot. The reason people love the assembling the team sequence in so many adventure movies is because we enjoy seeing diverse people brought together in a common cause. The hero, the bruiser, the stammering intellectual, the mysterious loner, the comic-relief foreigner, the hothead who’ll eventually betray the team, maybe an alien or an elf or something…whatever, mix and match. On the movie poster they all pose together with the bruiser looming in the background and the elf crouching ninja-style in front, and they look awesome because they’re all different.

Agents of SHIELD has the diverse group of characters, but has neglected to physically differentiate them in any way. Our imaginary poster consists of a hero, a slightly larger hero, a stammering intellectual, and three pretty girls (one of whom, luckily, is Asian).

This isn’t solely a problem of branding. Liz’s particular beef is with the Skye character, the computer hacker with the finely shaved chocolate tresses. As written, Skye could be pretty interesting – a mistrustful outsider with a sketchy past and an Aspergery aptitude for computer mischief. Basically she’s Lisbeth Salander, and I wonder if they didn’t cast the generically gorgeous Chloe Bennett precisely because they didn’t want the resemblance to be too glaring. The result is that every time Skye talks about her life prior to joining SHIELD – her childhood being shuffled among foster parents, for instance – the viewer tries and fails to square this narrative of dysfunction with the apple-cheeked all-American girl delivering it, and momentarily checks out of the story. (In our case this checking out is audibly manifested in Liz’s dismissive guffaws.)

It’s too late to go back into the early episodes and give Skye some scruffier clothes and maybe a piercing or a tattoo or something. But it’s not too late to have Chloe Bennett start delivering her lines with something approximating the level of attitude a formerly homeless information-must-be-free ideologue might bring to her dealings with the world’s most intrusive supranational spy agency.

M.

Why Anna Faris will never take a wrench to the face.

For a while I kept up, in addition to this blog and the Sea Water Bliss website, a third web presence, the Spokesmonster Blog, where I talked about my gig in software marketing. This was back in the early days of my marketing career, when I was paid to make funny cartoons. (Nowadays I spend the bulk of my time writing press releases, and it’s pretty hard to blog about that. So the Spokesmonster Blog hasn’t been updated since late last year.)

In a post in 2008, I speculated about why, despite my best efforts to create a gender-balanced roster of cartoon monsters, my cartoons kept on coming out male.

Why is it so much easier to come up with male characters than female characters? I’m not the only animator with this deficiency. Look at the old Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons. Disney had Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck, but they were stuck in minor supporting roles. Warner Brothers had Bugs Bunny in a dress – that’s about it. The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park all have girls in them, but I’d reckon there are ten male characters for every female one.

Why aren’t animators more interested in drawing female characters? Perhaps they’re limited by a sense of decorum. You needn’t have seen too many episodes of The Simpsons to summon up examples of Homer being dropped from great heights, having heavy weights dropped on him, or losing his pants. Those things just don’t happen to Marge or Lisa. If the definition of comedy is inflicting pain or physical humiliation on your characters, and if our culture is uncomfortable with seeing women brutalised in those ways, that’s a powerful disincentive to drawing female cartoons. Why use Daisy Duck if we can’t clunk her over the head for laffs? We’ll just use Donald instead.

I was reminded of these speculations while reading this profile of the comic actress Anna Faris in the April issue of the New Yorker. Why is the funny Faris wasted in so many unfunny movies? Perhaps because the men in charge of making movies aren’t interested in casting funny women:

David Zucker, the director of Airplane! and The Naked Gun, says that the recipe for classic comedy is to pair a dumb, thin guy with a smarter fat guy: Laurel and Hardy, Norton and Kramden, Rubble and Flintstone. “That wouldn’t work with two women, because…” he trailed off, then suggested, “Maybe women have a built-in dignity, and if a woman slips on a banana peel…” After a moment, he concluded, “You know, maybe it’s just that I’ve never tried it.”

…The director Keenen Ivory Wayans says that vanity impedes most actresses’ efforts at humor. Referring to the scene in Old School of Will Ferrell streaking, he said, “If Will Ferrell was a girl, and she’s got a belly and a hairy back, she’s not running down the street naked.”

I think Zucker and Wayans, in their floundering way, are onto something. This “built-in dignity” that Zucker refers to isn’t exactly built-in; it’s imposed. It’s a by-product of our culture’s protective attitude toward girls. Perhaps this attitude is old-fashioned, but human biology is pretty old-fashioned too. As Faris acknowledges:

“I felt like I was born with a disadvantage – not only female but small, and not particularly athletic. If there is a God, it’s so confounding why he made a physically weaker gender, but one that was just as smart. Couldn’t we just be dumb, and weak, and happy?” She smiled. “Such were the thoughts of a fourteen-year-old girl.”

Since Faris was a young girl there’s been a proliferation of ass-kicking Ripleys and Xenas and Buffys in our popular culture – characters intended to subvert our assumptions about female helplessness. Yet in some ways we’re actually more protective of the “physically weaker gender” than we used to be. Take 1940’s The Philadelphia Story – #5 on the American Film Institute’s Top 10 Romantic Comedies list. In the very first scene, Cary Grant grabs his soon-to-be-ex-wife Katharine Hepburn by the face and pushes her roughly to the ground. The accompanying musical cue tells us it’s meant to be funny.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story.

Take that, uppity female!

Nowadays, you’d never show the hero acting so brutishly. In the 21st century, the surest way to make an audience hate a movie bad guy isn’t to show him kicking a dog – it’s to show him abusing his wife.

Even the most cro-magnon Hollywood producer must see that Anna Faris is funny. But he probably also recognizes that there’s a narrower range of funny that she’s able to occupy. Audiences are happy to watch Faris bumble around and trip over her high heels, but we’re not so keen on seeing her get stabbed with a fork, or hit in the face with a wrench, or threatened with anal rape – punishments routinely meted out to male comedians.

Much of modern comedy – especially the kind of comedy favoured by moviegoing teenage boys – is centered on violence. Should we feel bad about that? Maybe we should; I don’t, really. But so long as we laugh at Charlie Day getting fork-stabbed while cringing at Cary Grant’s comedic domestic abuse – so long as that double standard endures – funny women will always be at a disadvantage.

M.

Dren / Not Dren: The unsatisfying ending of Splice.

Splice is four-fifths of a superior science-fiction movie. Then something goes wrong. In the paragraphs below, I’m going to talk about precisely what goes wrong, so if you haven’t seen Splice yet, you should head down to your local second-run movie theatre and watch it before reading further.

***

Perhaps we can better identify what’s wrong with the ending of Splice by comparing the movie with its most obvious antecedent, David Cronenberg’s The Fly. As you’ll recall, at the end of The Fly, the direly mutated Jeff Goldblum kidnaps Geena Davis from the doctor’s office to prevent her from aborting their baby. He takes her back to his lab and spells out his nutty plan to use the teleporter to combine himself, her, and their unborn child into a single being. Then his rotting flesh sloughs away and he turns into an animatronic monster.

I can understand why Cronenberg chose to do this. If you go to see a monster movie called The Fly, you expect to see a giant fly – not an actor swathed in lumpy latex. The problem is, we’re not only watching a monster movie, we’re also watching a movie about the relationship of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. It’s the relationship that makes the movie interesting. And suddenly, right at the climax of the film, one of the two main actors disappears and is replaced with a slime-covered puppet.

This is a problem with The Fly. But it’s not that big a problem, because A) it happens a minute or two before the end of the movie, at a point of maximum tension, so we don’t have time to think about it, and B) in the puppet’s final scene, when it helps Geena Davis aim the shotgun at its own head, we’re willing to believe that the puppet is Jeff Goldblum. It’s a leap, but we can project our feelings about Goldblum’s character onto this pathetic creature.

At the end of Splice, a similar transformation occurs. The actress who plays Dren, the most sympathetic character and one-third of the romantic-incestuous triangle at the dramatic core of the movie, disappears, and is replaced with a totally different actor. [Correction – see update, below.]

At this point, I stopped caring. I felt gypped. Intellectually I can acknowledge that this spiny naked guy leaping through the trees is supposed to be Dren. But I can’t transfer my affections to him because he’s obviously not Dren. He’s some guy I’ve never seen before, and his fate doesn’t interest me.

Why is it easier for me to identify with puppet-Goldblum than with pseudo-Dren? I suspect it’s precisely because a puppet isn’t a person. It’s a thing – an empty vessel. Its eyes give us nothing, they’re only glassy orbs, and we can imagine that we see Goldblum’s busy mind at work behind them. But pseudo-Dren is very obviously a person. His eyes look back at us, and we say, “Who’s this dude?”

The ending might have worked better if they’d somehow retained Delphine Chanéac, the actress who plays Dren, to portray her post-transformation self. Still, I can’t help but think that the whole ending is a wrong turn. Splice sets up a fascinating, twisted relationship among its three lead characters, but the relationship is blown to bits before we get a chance to explore it.

M.

Update, August 22 2010: A few weeks ago, Niky posted in the comments that the male Dren was actually played by Delphine Chanéac. I had trouble believing this, but today was the first chance I’ve had to do a little more in-depth Googling – and it seems Niky is right. Here’s an interview with Delphine where she confirms it; the relevant discussion starts around 2:41.

Obviously, this revelation undermines the premise of my complaint about the ending. Therefore, I withdraw my objection: Splice is a perfect movie.

Spike Jonze’s I’m Here will melt your callous human heart.

Don’t wait for me to tell you why. Schlep your laptop to a quiet room, ask your roommate or spouse to keep out of your hair for a half-hour, and watch Spike Jonze’s new short film I’m Here. Then come back and we’ll discuss.

I'm Here by Spike Jonze

[Spoilers ahead.]

I think it’s a brilliant, sad little movie. On the surface it’s, as the website declares, a love story. But it’s also a story about deterioration and decay. The bittersweetness of the ending comes from the realisation that Sheldon must be aware that his sacrifice is futile – that the accident-prone Francesca isn’t going to have any more luck with her new body than she had with her old one.

What is going on with Francesca, anyway? We see her carelessly fall down early in the film, but every one of her subsequent accidents occurs offscreen. Presumably her arm was knocked off by careless humans in that mild-looking mosh pit. But when she subsequently loses a leg, and then has her torso horribly crushed, Sheldon never asks how it happened. The implication is that these injuries are inevitable – that once you give up the lonely, sheltered life that Sheldon was leading, once you start engaging fully, like Francesca, with the big scary world of imagination and creation, your destruction is pre-ordained.

I don’t think that’s true; there’s a current of artistic preciousness to Jonze’s story that irritates me slightly. I don’t see the world as a harsh place where fragile free spirits are torn apart when they dare to spread their beautiful butterfly wings. Why can’t Sheldon sit Francesca down and say, Listen, you crazy bitch, I love you and all, but I’ve got a limited supply of spare parts – go easy, for chrissake? Why can’t robots throw awesome parties and build things out of papier-maché while still exercising a bit of common sense? Do passion and practicality have to be mutually exclusive?

These are the quibbles, mind you, of someone who adored the movie. On a side note, kudos to Absolut Vodka for funding Jonze’s little experiment. It was a ballsy move, and I pray that other corporate sponsors will be as forward-looking when filmmakers drop by their headquarters with kooky and dubious ideas.

M.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker