Bechdelling the Box Office

    Posted on: Monday, April 16th, 2012

Heading out to see a movie in St. John’s this week? Here’s how the films at Empire Theatres, Studio 12, at Avalon Mall fare with the Bechdel Test. To pass the Bechdel Test a film must a) have two named female characters who b) talk to each other about c) something other than a man. Easy, right? Not so much. Have a look at the list of films that pass on the Bechdel website. It’s a little depressing.

Cabin in the Woods – A bunch of friends get tricked into spending a few nights at a cabin and that somehow results in the world ending? Or something? It passes, though barely. According to the Bechdel site, there’s just one conversation between two female characters that gets the film a pass, and it’s embedded within a larger conversation about boyfriends.

(As an interesting side note, a lot of horror films actually do pass the Bechdel test. They do it while their female characters get blood spattered across tight white tank tops, but they do it. More on that later.)

Hunger Games – Set in the future, when children fight to the death on live television. The star is a young girl, who takes her sister’s place in one of the fights. Huge pass. Apparently even the towns in the film are very egalitarian, gender-wise. Even though they watch children fighting on TV.

American Reunion – It’s the American Pie people! Ten years later! At their reunion. Yeah. Though the official Bechdel site doesn’t have a listing for this one, Sarina Murray, over at Lip Magazine, gives it a fail.

Mirror Mirror – It’s the story of Snow White, redone. And it’s a pass! But a dubious one. According to the Bechdel page, only Snow White has a name; the Queen is “the Queen,” and the Baker’s Woman is “the Baker’s Woman.” All the male characters, on the other hand, get names.

21 Jump Street – Two cops get sent back to their old high school to bust some drug dealers. + hijinks. No official rating on the Bechdel site, but this guy says it fails. If you go see it, let us know.

Titanic 3D – You know the story. And, yes, it passes, and it passes well.

Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax - It’s The Lorax! Well, actually it’s The Lorax embedded into a story about a little boy trying to win the heart of a little girl. According to some blogs, it passes, to others, it doesn’t. You’ll have to see it and decide for yourself. And then let us know.

Wrath of the Titans – Perseus and Zeus and Ares and Hades and Titans and no named women who have a decent conversation. Fail.

A multi-purpose arts centaur? In St. John’s?

    Posted on: Thursday, April 12th, 2012

No, no, not a multi-purpose arts centaur.

A centre.

Back in 2011, the city voted to set aside some money to develop a needs assessment and a business plan for a multi-purpose arts centre.

Next Thursday, the first of that money will be spent.

Sheppard Case Architects are hosting a forum on Thursday, April 19th, to discuss the demand for a multi-purpose arts space. In other words, they want to know if you’d like them to build a reliable, affordable space where artists of all kinds could rehearse, produce, workshop and collaborate.

If you’ve got something to say about all this, hoof it on down to the Foran Room, on the 4th floor at City Hall, for 7pm on Thursday, April 19th.

UPDATE: I just had the following chat about the centaur – er, centre – with city councillor Sheilagh O’Leary.

Is a multi-purpose arts centre really a possibility or is it as mythical as a centaur?
I don’t know how realistic it is, all I know is that I’m really pushing for this. There’s a real need out there in the city for something like this. We need to start supporting creative production. We go on and on about all the great art there is, but the producers don’t have any space to make it in. There are all these existing properties – Macpherson Elementary, to me, is a great spot, but that gets tangly – and we could do this!

If nobody shows up, it’ll look like nobody gives a damn. So we need a lot of engagement from the arts community. It’s a forum – it’s not somebody talking at you, people will be able to really engage at this meeting. But we need to get a big outpouring of people there.

Equality? Since when?

    Posted on: Friday, March 30th, 2012

In the February 27th edition of the New Yorker, film reviewer Anthony Lane made a comment that damn near knocked me over.

In a scathing review of “This Means War,” Reese Witherspoon’s new film, he writes, “Such is the cultural evidence submitted that is submitted by This Means War: irrefutable proof that, in certain areas of Hollywood, sexual politics are going backward, fast.”

“Wow,” I thought. “Is someone finally going to start talking about this?”

But people – mostly women – have been talking about this for years. Forty-odd years, actually. And the numbers are still dismal: only 32.6 percent of speaking characters in Oscar Best Picture-nominated films from 2007 to 2010 were women, only 14.3% of those films have female directors, and most Hollywood films struggle to pass the Bechdel Test.

23 years ago, the poor representation of women in film inspired Noreen Golfman (pictured left), professor of English and Film Studies at MUN, to help launch the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival. The situation also inspires much of author Melissa Silverstein’s (pictured right) blog, Women and Hollywood, on Indiewire.com. Two years ago, she also founded a women’s film festival: The Athena Film Festival, in New York City.

I got a hold of Golfman and Silverstein to discuss Anthony Lane’s comment. Here’s what transpired.

So, let’s start with Anthony Lane’s quote, that “in certain areas of Hollywood, sexual politics are going backwards, fast.” Did they ever really advance?

Noreen Golfman: That’s my first response. I’m not so sure that they have advanced very much. There are lots of examples of lame roles for women, and there have been since the 30s or 40s.

Melissa Silverstein: I think what happens with women in Hollywood — which is different from what happens in independent film — is that things happen in fits and starts. So we’ll get one step forward and two steps backwards. So it’s hard to analyse like that. You have a good moment, like we had this weekend with the Hunger Games, and you look at it from a cultural perspective of where women are in the spectrum: here is one of the biggest budget movies that has a female at the centre of the story, and it has the third-highest grossing opening weekend ever. So, that’s kind of a step forward. But I’m reading now about this bidding war for a Twilight fan fiction book which is about a 21-year-old girl who enters into an S&M relationship with an older man and it’s just — ugh. Step backwards. So, you have to really analyze what’s going on in Hollywood in terms of a) everything is about money and b) everything is not linear. And that’s true for women’s rights everywhere.

So, do you think the Hollywood notion that movies with strong female leads don’t do well at the box office is true?

NG: I don’t think that’s true, no. I think that often we’re really talking about lame, weak scripts, and weak movies, more so than we’re talking about female leads. I think it’s a smokescreen for something else and I’m actually increasingly surprised, in view of the commonplace that the people who are making spending decisions and have the buying power for families are women. Women from let’s say 30 to 55 — that is a huge demographic, and those are the people who ostensibly, according to marketers, are carrying the weight of decision making around spending. And yet there is this counter-current that comes from Hollywood that, for the last four decades, just doesn’t acknowledge that.

Melissa, you just posted an article on your blog with stats that showed that women are buying at least half of all the movie tickets sold.

MS: That’s correct, yes. That’s the analysis from the Motion Picture Association of America. And I agree, women make upwards of 80% of all consumer decisions and Hollywood has gotten itself into what I believe is a really big mess. What Hollywood is obsessed with is the younger male audience. That’s the audience that a lot of the executives feel most comfortable with, and that’s the audience that usually comes out on opening weekends. With so many other activities now peeling away the young males, with their new gadgets and everything, they’re not going to the movies as much. So what’s happening now is there’s an opening. I really think there’s a strong opening and we really have to take advantage of it.

NG: I guess I’m not so optimistic.

MS: I’m not very optimistic, I’m giving you my good face on that. But at the same time, movies about women have much smaller budgets and they don’t get marketed as much, and that means they appear in less theatres. One of the statistics that came out of that MPAA study was that 80% of movies are viewed in theatres with eight or more screens. So that means that everybody is going to these mega-complexes and that also effects these smaller movies, because women make smaller budgeted movies.

NG: Well, it’s also because the people who are greenlighting are largely men.

MS: Correct.

NG: So there’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, here. You get a certain attitude about what works and what doesn’t work coming from the same mindset. So until you get women making decisions, and there’s enough of them to match the power base that men have in Hollywood, I don’t see any radical changes or shift in the culture.

MS: There are certain women doing the green-lighting but what you see is, because they are small cogs in the wheels of multinational corporations, they have to think of everything as a business decision. Plus they’re surrounded mostly by men. Hollywood is not different than any other business entitity. So when there’s not a critical mass of people who might think like you, it’s really hard for you to be able to have an authentic voice. So while these women might greenlight a lot of boy movies they might potentially greenlight some girl movies, but there’s not a lot of impetus to really put themselves out there for one of those movies that people might not go see.

Another peice that bothers me greatly is this kind of sexism that exists in terms of how people make decisions about the movies they want to see: a movie about a man or a boy is seen as universal in our culture, whereas a movie about a woman is seen as a niche or special or off the beaten track. We’re 50% of the population, our stories should be of equal importance to the culture! But we’re not taught that. And these guys in Hollywood have been acculturated to believe that stories about men matter more. And that’s how it all begins.

Should we be at all hopeful about the numbers of female directors that are behind Oscar-nominated films? I was just reading that from 1977 to 2006, only six Best Picture-nominated films had female directors. But from 2007 to 2010, there were five. So it’s at least improving.

MS: But no women directed then.

NG: Again, the numbers are so insignificant, I can’t see any great breakthroughs there. It’s like politics, you have to ask yourself if you were a woman, why the hell would you want to go play in that racket? You’d have to be determined to just barrel through, or get a lucky break, or be always ready to compromise. It’s just a very, very daunting landscape.

MS: You have to also, via women’s film festivals, encourage women to fight for their voices, and that’s why I do what I do. I believe that women’s voices are important and that if we tell women’s stories then other people will believe that their story matters in the same way.

NG: Absolutely. But, you know, every year I get the same media questions, both locally and beyond. People, reporters, journalists ask me — usually it’s men but not always — why in 2009, or 2010, or 2011, or 2012, do we still need a women’s film festival? And my jaw just drops. The assumptions behind that question speak to a common ignorance out there about all of this. People just don’t give it very much thought, or have very much information about it, and that includes a lot of women who don’t think about what the potential might be for them. It’s a very discouraging place.

MS: Girls are also being taught that feminism is done and that we’ve achieved equality, and that everything’s finished.

Yeah, so now it’s something that we don’t even think of. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son and it’s nearly impossible to find something decent for him to watch; all of the kids’ movies are about males saving the world while females bat their eyelashes and get upset about bad dates.

MS: So, it’s our obligation to make sure that people understand why it’s important to have women’s film festivals and women directors. But we need to have different kinds of panels and conversations because people have been having the same conversations on the same panels that I see all the time – the same women are having these conversations – and these women are like, ‘I’m tired of having this conversation.’

So what needs to happen right now is some new thinking on how we can have a different kind of conversation that pushes the envelope. There’s a certain level of activism that has been borne in the blogosphere and on social media, and people are paying attention in a much more profound way. So the step might be to pull together a full list of all the women’s film festivals and have a link to each one and have it be really prominent and encourage people to go see one in their own city. Go support a women-directed movie, be educated, see what’s playing at the box office and use your dollars as a vote. I don’t think people have that information, or they don’t have the information in a way that’s actionable for them.

NG: I think there’s potential, but I don’t think it’s really been realized yet through social media — that is to say, a more enlightened conversation. Because, for the most part, social media is working as a sort of counter-narrative to mainstream discourse or ignorance, if you will. So, I do see hope there. I don’t see it manifesting yet, but I like to think that there’s a wider conversation that people could be informed by.

I also think that there are some surprises, as with our last film festival when we programmed Miss Representation. To me, as an aging feminist, it seemed like ‘Oh, here we go again, same old same old.’ It’s an entertaining documentary, it’s well made, but how many times have I heard the same thing over the last 40 years of my adult life? Yet, we had a standing-room only crowd of largely young women who are absolutely starved for that conversation and what that movie was signalling. So, you can’t forget that those discussions that might seem tired to us, who have been blazing those trails over and over, are still fresh to a younger generation that is really, really hungry for that kind of conversation.

MS: That’s what I’m trying to say is that you can’t have the same conversation in the same way, but you can have the same message.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

NG: I watch a lot of television, I watch a lot of cable, and I guess anybody who is interested in good stories these days is doing the same thing. I do think that there are far more interesting roles for women in episodic telivison now than there are in film, and I think there are much riskier choices being made in storytelling, period. I mean, you’re not going to see a piece of dreck like Bad Teacher on HBO. And I can rattle off a whole list of shows that I’m watching that are extremely women-centered. I find those far more inspiring and maybe pointing to a different current — a popular current — of audience engagement. And that’s where I see much more promise than in feature filmmaking.

Could you give a quick list of good shows to watch?

NG: Mad Men. Mad Men is about men, but it’s women who are the most interesting in that show. The two-hour opening, for instance, was really all about women and about emerging feminism. It was both about the civil rights movement and about the emergence of feminism in the mid-to-late sixties. And it’s really interesting to see women emerging in their roles and challenging such paleolithic social attitudes. I also watch Shameless which I think is actually suberb and very, very female-centered. It’s about a working-class dysfunctional family, Bill Macy plays the father, and it’s adapted from a British series.

MS: Both those shows that you name have strong female stories, but are mainly about men and were created by men. There are also several shows that were created by women and have strong women centres, like Rizzoli & Isles and The Good Wife, which is the only show on network television that has a female and male creator, a married couple.

NG: The Good Wife is certainly very popular, and critically popular. And, again, turn to that show and others as examples. But it’s not about whether women in those cases are creating the shows exclusively, but it’s about a whole approach; it’s a much more intelligent, informed and complex view of sexual relations.

MS: But that also goes back to what we were talking about before: the reason why television is so welcoming to stronger women is because television is fuelled by advertising, and they know women buy the stuff. So the reason television is six or ten steps ahead of movies is because they know they have to cater to women.

NG: And that goes back to my first point, which is that it’s a little surprising that Hollywood hasn’t figured this out.

Static #1 – Fusion with Kelly Warren

    Posted on: Thursday, March 29th, 2012

The first episode of Signal’s new streaming audio show, Static, is here and I’m really excited to present it to you!

Huge thanks to Kelly Warren for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk to me (and essentially be the test subject for this little experiment o’ mine).

Thanks as well to Grayster for providing the music for this show.

Fusion opens tonight at 8pm at Annexe! More info on the poster below!

The great downtown brunch dilemma

    Posted on: Saturday, March 24th, 2012

For all the amazing restaurants and wide selection we have in downtown St. John’s, it seems that when it comes to finding the perfect place to brunch it up on the weekend we tend to come up short.

“Where do you want to go for brunch?” is the surefire way to kill an hour amongst friends, incite confusion, anguish, and eventually that dark and damp feeling known as settling.

I’m going to run down the list of brunch options here that I’m aware of and offer up a few points on each, then sum up with my thoughts on what I’d like to see happen here to make the notion of grabbing brunch downtown a little more appealing.

The cafes

Let’s get these out of the way first, since I don’t really consider them to be a part of the quintessential brunch experience. Yes, places like Hava Java and Rocket Foods offer up brunch-like fare, but the following hold them back from being true brunch options:

  • no table service
  • limited menu
  • not typically made to order
  • no booze

I’m a cafe rat, but it’s not the ideal destination for a group of friends to munch off a hangover together by any stretch.

The restaurants

Sometimes you want something cheap and greasy to fill the hole in your soul that a night of hard drinking carved out, and sometimes you want all the fancy frills of fine dining to help you forget your woes. The latter is where places like Blue, The Casbah and The Gypsy Tea Room should come in, but they all tend to fall short. Your mileage may vary, but in my experience what you get here typically amounts to:

  • great atmosphere
  • hit or miss service
  • promising menu
  • undependable delivery on that promise

I’ve had or seen too many orders show up either wrong or the results of which handled poorly (note: criticizing your own kitchen is instant patron repellant) to comfortably recommend any of these options.

The pubs

These are, in my mind, your best bets for good service, reasonable prices and grub that totally meets your expectations. See also: booze. While the menu at The Duke is vast, it’s also fairly golden. Fortunately, The Ship offsets that with some (relatively) healthier and less traditional options. But where The Duke’s atmosphere is warm and cozy, The Ship can’t seem to escape that bar-with-the-lights-on feeling. And neither caters to the early bird crowd. So to sum up, with the pubs you get:

  • variety
  • dependability of food and service
  • tradeoffs in atmosphere
  • afternoons only

I’ve only recently become aware of Nautical Nellies as an option for brunch, and they appear to be open pre-noontime as well. I know their evening menu is vast and covers the gamut, so it’s possible their brunch menu follows suit. If you’ve ever given them a whirl, please let us know your thoughts in the comments.

The chains

Personally, I’d rather eat out of a trough.

Miscellaneous

These are the places that are distinctive enough to stand out on their own and so can’t really be grouped together for descriptive purposes. The three that stand out in my mind are Velma’s and The Begal Cafe and The Sprout.

Velma’s is a real fish and potatoes, salt of the earth kinda place. And that’s about it, really. Not a lot to write home about.

Like a few other spots mentioned here, The Bagel is another vast ocean of menu options, and they’re one of the more dependable places in terms of doing what it says on the box, but their prices are a little steeper than you’d expect for what you’re getting, and the atmosphere is — literally and figuratively — all over the place.

The Sprout is far and away your healthiest option, and arguably one of the most delicious, but being the only vegetarian restaurant in town can mean longer than desirable wait times for a highly coveted table, and if anyone in your party is looking for a little grease-laced protein to cut through the harsh pangs of a five alarm hang over they’ll be likely to object. Limited booze options for the dog-hair lovers among us, too.

My fantasy

I would love to see two distinct options emerge from the downtown brunch situation, each of which exists on opposite ends of the spectrum.

On the one side there would be the greasy spoon dive. A place that does bacon and eggs and not a whole lot else, where the coffee is as strong and burnt as the wait staff and the prices all hover around the five dollar mark. They’re open at 6am, seven days a week, and are a wash of tables and chairs all cramped on top of one another. This place could never let you down because you just couldn’t ask for less.

On the opposite end would be the fine dining quintessence. Where the layout of the cutlery is as perfectly considered as the design of the menu, the free range eggs are always poached perfectly and the double caesars are works of art. You’ll pay as much as 20 dollars for the thing that has lobster and asparagus in it, and you’ll gladly tack an extra 20% onto the bill in thanks for the gracious and impeccable service. You’d never leave here disappointed because the owners would rather shut their doors permanently than ever let that happen.

No place like home

Barring any of the above, you can always roll your own brunch at home and invite as many friends as you have plates and cutlery. The menu will never disappoint, but the whole having to make it then having to clean up afterward thing is a definite con compared to the fussless, mussless reasons for eating out in the first place.

So that’s my take, but what about you? What would you like to see happen to the brunch scene in downtown St. John’s? Maybe you think I’ve missed the mark in my assessment of the current situation, or missed an option all together that bares mentioning here. Whatever the case may be, if you’ve got something to say on the subject, please share it with the rest of us in the comments!

[Photo via Steve A Johnson’s photostream.]