Archive for the 'Movies & TV' Category

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.

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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.

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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.