Science, Movies, and A Little Bit of Hooey

Science has an important place in the study of movies at virtually every stage of the film-making process. But movies are also about illusion, a shadow box of dreams. Perhaps that is why a lot of the science that gets applied to film is sometimes a collection of smoke and mirrors.

Take for example the Bechdel Test. Conjured up in 1985 by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in her seminal comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, the test was a pretty savvy and extremely on target dig at the mainstream Hollywood narrative structure.

For years, the Bechdel Test was a major reference in feminist critical analysis. It was a loosy-goosy but pretty quick opening move in critiquing material. It was a half-satiric but incredibly accurate jab. In the right hands, it was even fun to use.

Then, something happened. By 2010, the concepts underlining the Bechdel Test moved increasingly into the mainstream. That was largely good. It raised awareness of the celluloid glass ceiling in the film industry. It brought wider focus to issues that many of us have brought up over the years about the film industry and its treatment of women. It also still provided a nifty satiric point.

By late 2013, some of the major cinemas in Sweden began using the Bechdel Test as part of their rating system.  That’s OK since the Swedish approach to rating films is so strongly based in a distinctive Scandinavian cultural attitude that we neo-Puritans in the States are always baffled by them anyway.  It’s like shopping for furniture at IKEA.  Half the time I don’t even know what you are supposed to do with the thing (but the Swedish meatballs in the cafeteria are mighty good).

Now, Ted Hope wants indie filmmakers to pledge themselves to the Bechdel Test.  It’s a bit like the no liquor pledge from the old Temperance movement (minus the axes and wild storming of saloons). Again, I guess that is sort of OK if you are into doing it. In my experience, talk is cheap and these sort of pledges are utterly meaningless. So go ahead and sign. Whatever.

But this does force some questions about the Bechdel Test itself. The first and most important question: is it valid? The answer is pretty easy: nah. Not really. I mean, how do you define valid anyway? In and of itself, the Bechdel Test is simply designed to be a informative educational tool that playfully pokes at a complex series of ideological structures that have dominated Western narrative tradition since The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Ages ago, Hollywood co-opted a crude (one might even say debased) version of this tradition.  Everything was a love story.  Granted, everything was a male-dominated love story exclusively predominantly written, produced, and directed by lots of guys. But they were all love stories. Heck, back in 1976 when he was producing his gawd-awful remake of King Kong, Dino De Laurentiis kept referring to it as a love story. You know, ape meets girl, ape loses girl, ape drags girl off to the top of tall building till he gets gunned down. I get choked up just thinking about it.

In turn, this narrative tradition is all part of an ideological structure. The Bechdel Test (which is based on an ideological theory, not a scientific principle) touches on this much larger issue ever so slightly. At its best, it can be somewhat enlightening. Mostly, it has provided a lot of web sites with long lists of the major movies that flunk the test. (Word to the wise: most movies will flunk this test – in fact, some of the movies that pass  only do so because somebody stretched the rules.)

So yes, there is an extremely valid point to the Bechdel Test. Part of it has to do with the narrative structure. Another part involves the entire nuts and bolts of the industry. Even though women are now moving more than ever into various important positions within the film business, it is still a recent phenomenon. But this has yet to result in any noticeable change in the movies themselves. Even a recent film like The Heat is primarily an adaptation of the buddy-buddy genre rather than a radical change. We are still a long way off from seeing an American version of Daisies

What is Daisies, you ask? This 1966 Czech New Wave movie by Vera Chytilová was an experimental satire in narrative deconstruction that lampooned the psycho-social ennui of Eastern Europe in the 1960s. It also made fun of men. Especially men of the official type. That may have been the real reason why it was banned for a while. It was also a key step toward the development of the modern feminist cinema. Ironically,  Daisies would not be able to pass the Bechdel Test. Go figure.

But this film is a lot closer to what I am talking about. A real change to the current situation will involve something more than adding a few women to the mix. It will involve major, substantial, even (dare I say it) revolutionary change. The rest is just window dressing.

However, I do make one little request of anyone who signs the pledge. If you are a male filmmaker and sign this thing, please fire yourself as the director and hire a woman instead. That way, you can show your commitment.

Oh, you don’t want to do that? I had a hunch that was the case. So never mind.