Monday 17 December 2012

Film as a window to the past

One of the many reasons why I like the films of Raoul Walsh so much is his journalistic style. It is not that he makes documentaries but that he is so conscious of space. The images are composed to emphasise the milieus in which his characters find themselves, and to make sure that all parts of the image is in equally sharp focus, or at least as sharp as technology permits. Even if he films a dialogue sequence set inside a wagon the audience can still see what is going on outside, glinted through openings in the canvas. This has two effects. First it makes the outside world matter and underlines the fact that the story we are told is just one of many possible stories and that there is an indifferent (because unaware) population going about their own business. The second effect is what is the concern of this article, namely that it gives the audience an idea of what things looked like, what life could have been like, either when the film was made (if it is set in the present), or further back (if it is set in the past). The combination of Walsh's preference for real locations and the open-ended and clear images in his films often make for mesmerising experiences, such as the hauling of wagons down a cliff in The Big Trail (1930) or the exquisitely detailed and vivid exteriors and interiors of Silver River (1948). In Objective, Burma! (1945) the jungle is so palpable you can almost smell it.

Films that are shot on location (or even in a studio if they have replicated a real place in detail) can serve as a visual memory of something long gone, such as the vegetable market on Covent Garden where most of Hitchcock's Frenzy (1972) is set. An aspect of cinema that gives films a new meaning after they have been made, unintentionally so. It is also, incidentally, where film has an advantage over novels. Reading about a vegetable market is not the same as actually seeing it, and listen to it. This way films can be said to be an essential part of our collective memory. Not only for the stories they tell but for the places they bring back, fully visualised.

Filmmakers are not only storytellers and image makers, they can also be witnesses, witnesses of the past. Some filmmakers have dedicated their careers to dealing with history, such as Andrzej Wajda and to some extent Roberto Rossellini. Theo Angelopoulos was mainly concern with the history of Greece. Others can, due to their style and subject matter, be said to be witnesses to the present (at least their own present), such as Yasujiro Ozu in his way or Sidney Lumet in another way. In the 1930s Warner Bros. studio made a number of films that were "ripped from the headlines", a few of which were directed by Walsh. (There are actually many similarities between these WB films and Italian neorealism.) Claire Denis is a filmmaker concerned with witnessing both the past (particularly the colonial past) and the present.

Wajda has said that he wanted to capture the truth about his native Poland, and from his very first film (A Generation, 1955) he has followed Poland, from Second World War, through the Communist dictatorship and until the present day (with a few excursion, such as to France after the French Revolution in Danton (1983)). Over time there has been a slight shift in emphasis, from a specific anti-Nazism to a more general anti-totalitarian stance and besides being a historian he is also a moral filmmaker. The one might very easily become the other, especially if the motivation for looking at history is to try to prevent the mistakes and horrors of the past from being repeated.

To use films when teaching history is for some an abomination, since the films are not real ("That isn't how it really happened!"). But there are numerous ways in which using fiction films for teaching and explaining history is not only valid but important, as long as one is aware of what one is doing. It will not do to just put on a film and then leave it at that, the film obviously needs to be discussed, contextualised and analysed. But it can give a completely new understanding of a subject. Showing The Battle of Algiers (1966) in a class on French 20th century history or on Algerian independence would only be natural, and perhaps together with The Day of the Jackal (1973). London during the Blitz? Use Hope and Glory (1987). The war in the Pacific? Try They Were Expendable (1945). The Allies push back of the Germans in World War II? The Big Red One (1980). Italian unification? The Leopard (1963). The American "war on drugs"? Traffic (2000). These were examples of war (and a "war") but there is no end to the historic events or periods that have appear in films, of varying quality. They can either show what something was like, or as an example of how a particular representation of something in the past is more or less a lie, a distortion. Even a complete fabrication can have a value, as long as it is properly discussed. And of course any film becomes a historic film as soon as it is finished. A film made last year set in its present is today showing us the past, so any film can be used for teaching history, in does not have to be a "historic" film.

But regardless of historic accuracy or lack thereof, when I watch films the images of the past matters almost as much to me as story, style and acting.

Sunday 9 December 2012

The Bechdel Test

It has been around since 1985, the so-called Bechdel Test, named after Alison Bechdel who mentioned it when making a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. (Although Liz Wallace is the person who came up with it.) It is about the representation of women in cinema or other forms of narrative art, and consists of three criteria, or questions:

1) Are there at least two female characters in the film? (Sometimes they have to be named, sometimes not.)
2) Do they talk to each other?
3) Do they talk about something other than men?

If all three are answered Yes then the film has passed the test. The argument is that many (perhaps most) films do not pass the test.

It is a quick and relaxed way of analysing a film and it is mentioned every now and then, the other day in a long article in the New York Times. I am however somewhat puzzled by the attention it has received, on blogs, in mainstream media and in Academia. I am puzzled because the test has so many problems.

The first, less important, point is the vagueness of the third question. What does it mean to talk about a man? If two lesbian women discuss their adult son, does that qualify as talking about a man, or if two sisters talk about their dying father? If two female physicists discuss Albert Einstein, is that disqualifying?

A second point is that it is based on memory, which is unreliable, and consequently a lot of films are disqualified even though they have named female characters talking about something besides men. Unless you are actually writing down exactly who says what to whom, you will not remember it all. On the website 3550 films are listed (2012-12-09), and for each film it is specified how they score, from 0 to 3. To take one example, John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) got a 0, despite having female characters (named) who speak to each other about other things then men, and hence should have a 3. According to the wikipedia-entry for the test, the TV-series Sex and the City  fails the test. How is that possible? During the six seasons the women talk about pretty much every thing known to woman. The only way SATC fails is if the rule stipulate that women are not allowed to talk about men at all, at no time, but that is not the case.

But the important point is that the test is completely devoid of context. The test on its own says almost nothing about the film. Let's say that we have on the one hand a film called Anal Sluts Tour America which begins with Chrystal and Tiffany discussing their breasts, and then they spend the rest of the film fulfilling the promise of the title. This film would pass the Bechdel Test without a glitch. Then let's say we had a film called Silent Suffering, about domestic violence. It is set in an apartment over a weekend, with a man tormenting his wife, until she manages to escape. In the last scene we see her going to a police station. This film would completely fail the test, and get a 0.

The importance of the three points depends upon the individual film. If it is a romcom and the male characters only talk about females, then it would not matter if the females only spoke about men. On the other hand, f it was a political drama where the men spoke about law, affirmative action and filibusters, but the females only spoke about their boyfriends' annoying habits, then it would be an issue and a problem. Another problem is that since the rules are so vague, a lot of films pass even without real merit. As an example, a female characters might buy a latte at a Starbucks from a female barista and they talk about coffee, and so get a 3, regardless of what happens in the rest of the film.

But there is something else that is a bit puzzling. It is almost always said that so shockingly few films pass the test (as A.O. Scott says in the above linked-to article). But is that the case? Surprisingly enough, on the bechdeltest-website most films actually pass the test. 54% of the films listed pass the test completely, and another 11% get 2 out of 3. But, as the case of Stagecoach shows, these figures are not trustworthy and it is more likely that films are "better" than it seems. (The number of films that pass the test is even higher, about 70%, if only films made the last two decades are counted.)

And finally, what is the goal? Let's say that the figures are correct, that 70% of all films get a 3. Is that good or bad? How many should get a 3 for us to be able to relax. After all it cannot be the rule that all films should get a 3. Even films that get a 0 are perfectly legitimate. If I wanted to make a film about two gay men who going sailing together I would get a 0, but that would be perfectly fine. Or films about monks, or soldiers in World War 2, or cellmates.

Some have argued that it is because it is so crude and simplistic that it is valuable, since it shows how despite the crudeness so few films actually pass. But I cannot agree with that. Partly because, as I said, it would depend on the film whether the score was meaningful or not, and partly because so many films actually do pass.

Misogynistic films are a real problem, and the lack of female filmmakers and good roles for females is shameful (particularly for older women). But the Bechdel Test will not help solve those problems, neither will it help finding those films that are problematic. It is not how a film is rated according to some test, it is how it deals with characters and events that is meaningful. No random numbers can tell you that. In the end, the problem with the Bechdel Test might perhaps be that so many films actually pass it.

2013-12-10 (Slightly amended to include more recent percentages of films that pass.)