So, this has been bothering me since I first heard it. This father of young children points out another plain-as-day thing that, like so many other truths, is hidden in plain sight. As I read more and more scripts, watch more and more films, I see how startlingly valid “The Bechdel Test” is: there is usually only one woman in a film, even if she’s the lead. If there is another, she is likely the victim of a crime in need of rescue or avenging. Almost never do two women speak and when they do, it really does seem to often be about men.
Further, women in scripts seem to always be introduced with some small variation of “Zoe, 25, stunningly beautiful” or “Lisa, 25, attractive, wearing a blah blah blah” (I’m not even going to delve into the only other available option for the role of a non-penised person in entertainment: the nagging crone). Forget for a moment that the scope of perception is impossibly narrow and consider that it is far less common to read, “Zachary, 43, handsome,” or “Burton, 19, attractive wearing a blah blah blah”. Men seem to be introduced, you know, properly with telling details about their character whereas women are uniformly “attractive”. But hey, don’t we all love spending time reading a screenplay where the parts can be played by stick figures either wearing a triangle skirt or not?
"Top of the Lake" written and directed by Jane Campion available through the Sundance Channel
Which is why I spent a rapturous weekend enveloped by the genius of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. Thank you BBC for supporting the kind of artistry that is life-changing, awe-inspiring, and so incredibly different that it has painted the ordinary fodder in a stark light. My ode to this work cannot be sung loudly enough. I am fueled by this to work towards bringing more vivid portrayals of female people to the screen. It’s entertainment so I’m not striving for reality, just equality in the fakery. That shouldn’t be too much to ask, should it?
The summer 2013 movie season has been complained about ad nauseum. I thought I’d add a little something constructive in the hopes that maybe, just maybe it helps to bring back the good times. Here are my volleys in the name of saving entertainment.
I posit that the blockbusters and other popcorn movies increasingly fail to meet our expectations because:
Our expectations are set by people whose sole purpose in life is to make you want something with an mindless, driving lust that, frankly, can never be fulfilled;
Contemporary society, in general, has a severely diminished ability to empathize;
The”heart” has been forcefully and inadvertently engineered out of most of the stories that make it to screen.
I blame the producers. And the distributors. And everybody else who, in their best attempts to give us exactly what we say we want, remove all vestiges of emotional connective tissue from the very projects they’re trying to save. It’s a lot like calling the tough-love camp to cart off your “troubled teen” — your kid ends up hating you more because sending them away proves that you don’t care (despite your vehement and deeply sincere proclamations to the contrary). In short, those on the business end of entertainment are often their own worst enemies.
Producers are people too. They are. Some of my best friends are producers and I love them anyway. In that difficult line of work, reward comes when sales figures are met. Consider that sales figures need to continue to grow (a topic for another day). Consider that high risk is to be avoided at all costs and low, previously proven risks pave the golden road to tomorrow. Didn’t meet your projections? Then find another private school for little Jimmy and Janey because your worth has just dramatically declined. Yes, it’s as personal for them as it is for you in your job, dear reader. So what better way to lower risk and de-fog the crystal ball than to produce projects that have been produced before and then spend heavily to create desire for the already familiar? Advertising is a well-researched, time-tested means of persuasion. It works at you nearly every waking moment, making promises, speaking your language sweetly in your ear. Whether you like what you’ve been made to desire is usually of little concern. So that’s point one in the smallest nutshell possible.
Point two: We’re all loveable mongrels. Harsh perhaps but really, have you looked at yourself lately? When was the last time you ate a conversational meal with your family? Did you notice the eye colour of the person asking for change on the corner you pass every single day? How about the last thing you did in the name of self-preservation or protecting your family; who was on the other end of that action and what consequences did they suffer as a result of what you did? The real nitty gritty telltale signs aren’t these bigger questions but in our every day interactions. Face it, if I pointed out our every day harshness, you’d read it and think me petty. That’s how ingrained in our culture our collective lack of empathy has become. We can’t recognize ourselves in the mirror. If we aren’t practiced in putting ourselves in the place of another, of feeling the joy and pain of lives we ourselves have not lived, how is it we expect to be moved by our entertainment? Thus movies have evolved with us to rely on the more external emotions such as surprise, thrill, and excitement. If you’ve spent five minutes with a kid, you know how lasting and satisfying those emotions can be.
Which leaves us at point number three. The grand excision of all things meaningful from contemporary movies happens not because screenwriters aren’t talented, not because directors are incompetent, and not because the studio’s metrics failed. It happens because, in general, a very small percentage of people have the kind of access that allows for identification, assessment, and application of the emotions that make going to the movies worthwhile. Put another way, most of us don’t know why we feel.
If we wonder why it is we feel a particular way, our first instinct is to connect the feeling to the most apparent circumstance. Yet circumstance is only a small part of the whole. Any particular emotional state can be traced to earlier experience and the best part is that many of those experiences are shared as part of being alive in this era or any. The commonality of human experience is what entertainment has always been about and when we lose that, we lose interest. It’s not enough to string together events, slap on some generic stakes, and call it a day.
When it comes to making projects fit budgets, timelines, insurance company requirements, key talent demands, investor requests, and everything else that wreaks havoc on a screenplay before a single scene is shot, that delicate, deeply interwoven emotional tissue often is severed. Ask many screenwriters, novelists, actors, or even psychologists and they’ll likely find it somewhat easy to point to where the connection to the audience failed in a given project. Most everyone else will point to plot events, character flaws, or execution. They’ll miss the true reason because it is the least apparent of all possibilities. As in life, that crucial reason also happens to be most important. Meaningful connection is the Holy Grail.
When producers ask the same question about where a project failed, it’s up to them whether to believe the information or not. This is where it gets difficult so brace yourself. You see, when faced with information, we make decisions by listening for how well the new information resonates with “what we know” (a.k.a. what is familiar). We measure up and determine our degree of agreement. Little familiarity usually means little agreement. Often the powers of persuasion are a key factor here in that skillfully persuasive deliverers of new information can read their audience and shape the information to be more familiar and therefore more acceptable. So the same information delivered differently is received differently and good information may not be acted upon. It’s the proverbial horse and water.
It’s not anyone’s fault and it’s everyone’s fault. My friends, we are killing the movies. We shape and are shaped by our culture. We act in ways that we believe to be best and we have many sound justifications for our actions. It all ties up in a neat bow. Except for the fact that the gorgeously decorated cake with the bow has no flavour.
Where does this leave us you ask? My dearest hope is that one persuasive individual has the guts and foresight to ask one of the finely tuned creatures we call artists to weigh in on their projects, ask probing questions, and then listens to their response with new openness. We all have emotions but only a few are skilled in their use for good, not evil when it comes to storytelling. If you’re in a position to shape a project, it will take some doing to find your person, the one who can not only critique a project but also support their criticism with sound reasoning borne of experience.
Opinions are everywhere but one must search for–and trust–wisdom.
The great Mr. Bradbury was well-known for making appearances to read his work and share his knowledge. Lucky for all of us, he did so through his eighties. He was a remarkable man with a remarkable talent made all the more valuable because he made it his business to educate on the true nature of great stories (for a taste, see 7:13 in the video where he discusses contemporary short stories).
This lecture is from his keynote address at the Writer’s Symposium By the Sea at Point Loma Nazarene University in 2001. See OpenCulture.com for a synopsis.
“Writing is not work. If it’s work stop it and do something else.”
– Ray Bradbury
Here are some resources to help you get started on Mr. Bradbury’s training program:
HOMEWORK from Ray Bradbury: “Make a list of ten things you love and write about them. Make a list of ten things you hate and kill them. Make a list of the things you fear and make your own personal nightmares.”
In Just What Is It About Mad Men?, I asked what draws viewers to the hit show season after season. I still don’t have that answer. What I do have is another question that perhaps the writers collected will discuss.
What are the stakes for Don Draper? In other words, what does he have to lose and how high are those stakes for him? For us? The discussion is relevant to the the writing of single stories such as novels and feature films as well as to the writing of stories told in series. Read on …