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Don’t Roll the Dice if You Can’t Pay the Price — or, some writing lessons from a 1960 heist film


A group of friends and I have been having a weekly movie night during quarantine. Each of us have nominated some movies, we put them into a rotation in a shared spreadsheet, and each Sunday night we all cue up the movie to stream or otherwise watch together and we text each other comments while we watch, then talk about it afterward. This last Sunday the movie was The Thomas Crown Affair /(the 1999 remake/).

There were at least two of us in the group old enough that we remember watching the 1968 version starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. So while we were contrasting the newer version versus our recollection of the original, a young friend in the group mentioned that the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven was awful compared to the newer version. I started to get affronted, but fortunately before I typed anything my second thoughts pointed out that I haven’t watched the old version since I was about fourteen years old.

And I honestly couldn’t say whether I would agree with 14-year-old me about the merits of the movie.

So, since it was available to stream for free on one of the services I subscribe to, I watch the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven that night.

Short review: I still really enjoyed it. However, I completely understood why younger viewers would not enjoy it at all. It was a great reminder that no creative work stands in isolation.

More detailed review: One of the film’s greatest weaknesses is that there is virtually no character development. As more than one contemporary review pointed out, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop — also known as the Rat Pack — aren’t playing fictional characters unique to this movie, but rather just playing the personas that each had become associated with over the course of several movies and other performances over the years before the release of this film.

Cesar Romero–who was never considered part of the Rat Pack–is essentially playing the same character he played in a large number of movies before this. And much less famous members of the cast (Richard Benedict, Norman Fell, Hank Henry, Robert Foul,, Richard Conte, and Henry Silva to name a few) were all playing a type of character that they were frequently cast as. So for a vast portion of the 1960 audience of the film, the script didn’t have to do any work to establish the characters—the audience knew what to expect when they saw the actor walk into frame.

A further example of this is the recurring gag during the first half of the movie. For no apparent reason, Sinatra’s Danny Ocean keeps doing or prompting others to do things that greatly upset the mastermind of the operation, Mr. Acebos /(played by Akim Tamiroff/). Nothing about this sub-plot ever contributes to the end of the film, let alone moving forward any part of the plot. Tamiroff was an exceedingly well regarded actor who had been nominated for an Oscar a few times in his early career, but by the late fifties he was often cast in roles like this one of a easily excitably, overly worried character. His main role in those sorts of files was the be the easily wound up character who was unnecessarily worried about the ability of the main character to do whatever he was supposed to do for the plot.

Slight digression at this point, Tamiroff was an Armenian-American who was never able to shed his accent, and thus enjoyed a 60-some year career in Ho0llywood being cast as virtually every ethnicity except Armenian. The character he played in 1940′ The Great McGinty is often cited as the inspiration of the character of Boris Badenoff in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.

Another big shortcoming of the movie for modern audiences is the heist itself. The way that Danny Ocean’s eleven comrades go about stealing millions in cash from five casinos simultaneously is not even slightly as intricate or clever as the plots of later caper films such as The Hot Rock or either version of The Thomas Crown Affair or even any single episode of the television series Leverage.

But, to defend the movie (which made a tidy profit for the studios at the time), one doesn’t have to ignore all of those deficits. Rather, one should ask what sort of story was it trying to tell?

First, even though it usually presented as a stand-alone movie, that wasn’t at all how the movie executives (nor most of the audience) perceived it. If you were a studio making movies at that time, you didn’t cast Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford, et al, to portray a new and unique character. You cast them to play a particular type of character they had become famous for. Similarly, if you were an audience member going to the theatre to see this film, you were expecting those actors to deliver a certain kind of entertainment.

Second–and possibly most important–this film is not part of the modern genre of caper film. The title itself foreshadows the ending. Early in the film Sammy Davis, Jr. sings a song called "Ee Oh Eleven." The song is about a person who is trying to claw their way out of a less than advantaged background, and almost reaches financial success, but life is a crap-shoot, and the character rolls an eleven, losing everything he had amassed. And that is the clue that was meant to tell audiences what was coming. The title appears to refer to Danny Ocean and his ten army buddies who, as a gang of eleven, are going to do the impossible. But the eleven in the title actually refers to that moment in a game of Craps where the person rolling the dice rolls an eleven and loses everything.

While I was looking things up about the film to make sure I remembered all the details of its release and so forth correctly, I happened upon a quote from a contemporary review of the movie: "In the end, it is just an amoral tale told for laughs."

I think the reviewer who wrote the line thought that it was a scathing rebuke of the film. But when I read the line, my thought was, "Yeah? So?" Because an amoral tale simply told for laughs sounds like a quite wonderful way to spend an evening. We don’t usually come to stories and other works of art hoping for a deeply profound life-changing exploration of a erudite philosophical question.

We just want something that makes us laugh and feel entertained. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Thank you, Mr. Wilder

Gene Wilder, Gilda Radnor, and Dom DeLuise on the poster for Haunted Honeymoon. The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Orion Pictures, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist.

Gene Wilder, Gilda Radnor, and Dom DeLuise on the poster for Haunted Honeymoon. The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Orion Pictures, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist. (Click to embiggen)

For many years, Haunted Honeymoon has been my go-to movie for fixing a bad mood. Written, directed, and starring Gene Wilder (along with Gilda Radner, Dom DeLuise, and Jonathan Pryce), it is a silly thrilling tale set in the 1930s. Radio actors Larry Abbott and Vicky Pearle are the stars of the wildly successful Manhattan Mystery Theatre and are engaged to be married, but Larry’s recent erratic behavior has their sponsor ready to cancel the show. Larry’s uncle, Paul Abbott is a “famous psychiatrist” who claims that Larry’s recent engagement had opened a crack in Larry’s mind which can only be cured by forcing Larry to confront his worst fears—to scare him “to death.” Which he’s going to attempt to do while the entire Abbott family is gathered at the country estate of their Great-aunt Katherine.

Aunt Kate (played hilariously by Dom DeLuise in drag), meanwhile, has recently changed her will so that Larry inherits everything. Unless Larry predeceases her, at which point the inheritance goes to all the other Abbotts equally. And someone is stalking Kate’s home in a cheesey werewolf mask, and has already killed one person…

I can’t explain why the show works so well for me. Is it the banter and onscreen chemistry between Gilda and Gene (this was the last movie they made together; mysterious pain she kept feeling during filming was later diagnosed as the ovarian cancer that eventually killed her)? Is it Dom’s hysterical performance as Aunt Kate? Especially the song and dance number Kate and Vicky perform in the music room after dinner? Is it Jonathan Pryce’s delicious performance as the slightly sleazy cousin Charlie? Or Eve Ferret’s vampy turn as Charlie’s girlfriend (and Larry’s ex-) Sylvia?

I don’t know. But I love the movie. My husband always makes certain that we have a copy on more than one of our computers when we go on long trips, in case I wind up in a dismal or vicious mood because things go awry.

Last night I watched it, and I enjoyed it as always. But for the first time I was crying at the end. Because yesterday the world learned that Gene Wilder had died the night before.

I love other movies Gene made. I was ten years old when Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came out. The town we lived in at that time didn’t have a movie theatre. But a mere thirty miles away, just over the border in neighboring Colorado, my grandparents lived in a town that did have a theatre. And I and my sister and Mom all went to see the movie along with my paternal grandmother one summer evening. I loved it, of course. I had read book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a couple of years previously. I remember early on in the movie thinking that they weren’t following the book very faithfully. But once Wilder came out and started playing the mad, bewildering Willy Wonka, I decided that the movie got it right.

I don’t watch this movie as often. Although many people love Wilders’ Willy Wonka even more than I do, my husband had a very different reaction to the film as a child. It gave him nightmares—severe enough that he just can’t watch the show even now as an adult.

And of course I re-watch Young Frankenstein at least once a year. Quoting along and laughing throughout. It’s a brilliant comedy and parody.

The only other of his films I currently own is Blazing Saddles which I hadn’t watched in a long while, so I watched it as well, last night. Gene was good in that, though with not nearly as much screen time as I’d have liked.

Gilda and Gene from a scene early in Haunted Honeymoon. Gene is literally "awoo"-ing in this one.

Gilda and Gene from a scene early in Haunted Honeymoon. Gene is literally “awoo”-ing in this one.

I love Gene isn so many of his roles: Willy, Dr. FRON-ken-STEEN, Larry, the Waco Kid… We have his movies to enjoy again and again. And we need to remember the sentiment his family expressed in their official announcement, along with the explanation for why Gene didn’t publicly reveal his health problem: he couldn’t stand the thought of even one less smile in the world. He put many smiles into the world. And yes, many of us shed some tears yesterday, but I know re-watching his movies will bring smiles and laughs instead of tears again. Just not today.

I ain’t afraid of no dude-bros, or just call me a Ghost Girl, too!

Salty snacks that literally are named Salty

Photo courtesy of the awesome @OsakaJack

In addition to writing about how much fun I had both times I went to see the new Ghostbusters movie on this blog yesterday, I’ve also mentioned it several times on Twitter over the weekend. I’ve mentioned the movie by name, I’ve tweeted: about how much I liked it, how much I love the character of Holtzman, what a good job Chris Hemsworth did playing a bimbo, and recommended that other people see it. And the only reactions I’ve received are either people agreeing with me or saying they want to check it out. I have even mentioned more than once that I went back to see the movie a second time.

On the other hand, a friend of mine mentioned that she was getting in line to see the movie again, and immediately her tweets were replied to by a bunch of random internet guys spewing various derogatory comments. Accusing her of getting in line again to “make up for it being a flop” (which it isn’t; Sony is very happy with the numbers), for instance. Explaining to her why she shouldn’t like it, and so forth. Several people have jumped in on it, including some guys claiming to be friends and not disagreeing with her, but upset that she isn’t tolerating the other dude’s opinions.

Why are her tweets getting that response and not mine? I did a little checking around on Twitter and saw several other male friends who have commented how much they liked the movie, and none of them are getting arguments from random internet dudes. But several women I am acquainted with have posted virtually identical comments about the movie, and they’re getting harassed.

And make no mistake: if you tell someone that they are “silencing”dissent when they don’t agree with you after you come into their space (which is what you are doing when you reply to someone’s tweet or blog post, et cetera) and tell them that their feelings are wrong, then you are harassing them. And when you’re a guy trolling through social media looking for women expressing opinions that so you can correct them, you are a mansplaining douche. I know you’re going around looking for women to argue with, because you’re ignoring nearly identical statements from other guys. You may not consciously realize you’re doing it, I’ll grant that, but when you see both my comments and my friend’s, but you only argue with her? Yeah, you’re being that kind of jerk.

And please, Internet dudes, don’t try to mansplain away another dude’s mansplaining.

You don’t have to like the movie. That’s fine. But don’t try to convince someone who has already seen the movie and loves it that they don’t actually like what they like. And don’t try to prove that the movie is bad. When you do that (when we do that) we’re being jerks.

And I say “we” because I slip up and do it, too. A lot. I have explicitly asked certain friends to tell me when I cross the line from trying to discuss something to bullying someone for disagreeing with me. It’s a behavior many of us learned growing up. When someone disagrees, we push back. It is so easy to go from pushing back to pushing down. 

Yeah, we made our opinion known publicly. You’re allowed to have a different opinion and express it in public. But don’t be a dick about it. Being a dick is not going to persuade the other person to agree. It isn’t. And here’s the thing: if what they like isn’t hurting you, there’s no reason to try to persuade the other person.

I push back hard on certain political topics because actual people die because of some policies that some people support. People dying, people living in poverty, people suffering injustice, people not being able to get health care… those are all things worth arguing about. But a goofy comedy? Let it go.

I want the new Ghostbusters movie to succeed because I loved it and I want to see more movies like it made. So yes, I’ve recommended it and told people how much fun I had and in some cases I’ve offered to buy people a ticket to see it. Because I genuinely believe they will enjoy the movie, perhaps as much as I did, but even more because I want us all to be able to enjoy more movies like this. I want little girls such as the one whose father posted a picture of the Ghostbusters costume she made with her existing toys to see movies like this and know they can be the hero, too. And yes, I want little boys to see this movie and know that their sisters and girl classmates and neighbors can be just as much a hero as they can. I want everyone to know that they can be someone’s hero.

Even you, dude bros. I want you to be heroes. And the first step is to stop being a mansplaining jerk. Salty is great when we’re talking about snack food (especially parabolic potato chips), but not in social interactions.

Bustin’ ghosts and laughing it up

Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 11.18.59 AMI’m used to being disappointed in members of my own gender. Growing up a queer boy in very redneck communities in the 60s and 70s, I learned to be very careful around other guys, since you never knew which ones would turn into bullies the moment you accidentally expressed the wrong opinion, or pronounced something weird, or walked wrong, or… well, you get the picture. So I wasn’t completely surprised when a lot of a certain type of fanboy started spewing hate and rage at the fact that someone was rebooting Ghostbusters with one twist: our four ghost-hunting nerds would be played by women.

I was very shocked when a few male friends, specifically a few gay male friends, joined in. Particularly one who got angry and seething on line after the first trailer was released absolutely insisting it was a bad trailer and this was going to be an awful movie. Because I watched the trailer and couldn’t stop laughing.

One of the differences between me and a lot of the men hating on the movie before they ever saw it was that the original Ghostbusters movie was not part of my childhood. Because I was 23 years old when the movie was released in theatres. I saw it in a theatre with a bunch of my friends. And we laughed, and cheered, and howled with more laughter while watching it. For weeks afterward we kept quoting lines to each other and laughing more. Decades later, I still find ways to slip allusions to that movie into tabletop roleplaying scenarios I create and stories I write. I liked the movie a lot.

But I didn’t love every single moment of the original. I cringed at a lot of Bill Murray’s scenes. I kept wanting him to stop being a sleaze toward Sigourney Weaver’s character. It didn’t matter that most movies at the time featured men behaving in that slimey, sexually-harassing way. I didn’t like it when it happened in the other movies, either. But a lot of movies, especially comedies, have moments that make me feel like I need to apologize on behalf of my gender. While I laughed and cheered when the heroes beat the big bad at the end of the movie, I was always a little bit disappointed that there was no hint that Dr. Venkman had become less of a sexist sleaze ball. I had wanted him to have a redeeming moment with Dana Barrett, but it didn’t happen.

There were other moments, jokes that weren’t quite perfect. It was a good movie. It was a great way to spend some time laughing with friends. But it wasn’t perfect. And when I went back and watched the trailer for the original, I can’t exactly call it a masterpiece, either. It was funny, but actually it struck me as less engaging than the trailer for the new movie. So I figured that at least some of the guys who otherwise weren’t misogynist manbabies but were still reacting so negatively to the trailers, were doing so because they were remembering the first movie through the distortion of it being literally part of their childhood.

My husband and I saw the new Ghostbusters on Friday night. We laughed. We cheered. We applauded. We howled with more laughter.

And so did everyone else in the theatre with us.

It’s a good movie. It’s a funny movie. It is not a retread. It’s telling a similar story in a similar universe, but not the same story. The opening sequence is very creepy. Some of the jokes are in-jokes and allusions to the previous films, but not such in-jokes that they aren’t funny is you don’t know them. Don’t believe me, then read this review: A Ghostbusters Review From Someone Who’s Never Seen the Original Ghostbusters.

There’s also this review that compares the reactions to the Ghostbusters reboot to another sequel to another beloved-by-fanboys movie: What Are You Fighting for When You Fight the New Ghostbusters?. And then there’s this: Sorry Haters – Ghostbusters Might Actually Be Good although this latter reviewer is a lot more mealy-mouthed than he ought to be (I mean, come on, guy, you just watched the movie; you know whether or not you enjoyed it; stop writing this like an insecure person who isn’t sure of your own opinion unless it is validated by other guys!).

And don’t miss this one: Real Men Confirm the New Ghostbusters Didn’t Ruin Their Childhoods After All.

It’s a funny movie. Period. It’s a good movie. Period.

I’m not saying that only misognyist manbabies won’t like this movie… I’m just saying that every single negative review I have seen has demonstrated more than a little bit of a gender-based double standard. Every one.

So, I’m hoping this movie does well. Not just to prove the trolls and manbabies wrong, but because I really enjoyed laughing for two hours without one moment of cringing that made me embarrassed to be a guy. Because that’s an extremely rare thing in movies—but it’s something we need more of.


ETA: Sunday night I went to see the movie a second time with two friends (my husband wasn’t feeling well). I still liked it my second time. The theatre was packed, again. People laughed and cheered and clapped a many points in the movie. It’s a goofy comedy, yes. So was the original. I had a blast the second time, and still recommend it.

Just call me Mr. Chicken

31I love Halloween. Seriously, I do. I love a well-done vampire story. Or a good fantasy tale with interesting witches and/or monsters.

But I’m not good with scary movies. Now I should qualify that: I’m not good with a lot of horror films, particularly the gory and/or very intense ones. I wind up having nightmares. The kind of nightmares where I wake up other people in the house because I either wake up talking very loudly, or worse: I sleepwalk around the house, intentionally waking anyone I can find, and explaining very emphatically how we’re in danger and we have to do something to defend ourselves/thwart the monster, et cetera. The more intense the movie, the more likely I am to do this for several nights in a row.

There are exceptions. I do better when it’s a movie I’ve seen before. I also do better if I watch the movie on a TV or computer instead of going to see it in the theatre. Being able to look away at familiar surroundings whenever I want without the overwhelming presences of the enormous screen and THX sound seems to help a lot. Watching it with someone I know and trust helps. I have been known to physically cling to friends (not just people I am romantically involved with) at particularly scary parts of some films.

I own a lot of movies that I classify as Halloween/horror films. And every year, I select some to watch on Halloween (and sometimes nights leading up to it). But my collection isn’t full of things many people would think of as scary. Movies that appear in my Halloween fests a lot include:

  • The Ghost and Mr Chicken
  • Elvira, Mistress of the Dark
  • The Addams Family
  • Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy
  • Monster Squad
  • Frankenstein (the 1931 version starring Boris Karloff)
  • Bride of Frankenstein
  • Dracula (the 1931 version starring Bela Lugosi)
  • Young Frankenstein
  • The Lost Boys
  • Tremors
  • Queen of the Damned
  • Fright Night (the 1985 version with Roddy McDowell and Chris Sarandan)
  • Haunted Honeymoon
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • Arsenic and Old Lace
  • Teen Wolf (the original with Michael J. Fox)
  • Hocus Pocus
  • Edward Scissorshands
  • Ghostbusters
  • Little Shop of Horrors
  • The Man with Two Brains
  • Hellboy
  • Godzilla
  • Forbidden Planet

I could go on. A friend posted a similar list on her blog yesterday. I’m glad to see I’m not the only person who likes this kind of less-than-nightmare-inducing spooky movie.

I have all of the “Abbot and Costello meet…” cross-overs with the Universal Monsters, as well as the Universal box sets of their classic horror franchises: Frankenstein, the Mummy, Dracula, the Wolf Man. And a bunch of the Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episodes on disc. I only recently acquired Munster, Go Home on disc, and it was a candidate for this year’s Halloween fest.

3265dcb92ac0b5575bed9a0e0d047927Since my husband has spent so much time converting the rest of our (nearly a thousand) DVDs and Blurays into the media computer and database, I spent a while scrolling through the list looking for films that maybe we haven’t watched in a while because they were on a different shelf than the other Halloween movies. I noticed, while scrolling through the sci fi section, The Black Hole (the 1979 version with Maximilian Schell), which I haven’t watched in many years. When I said that, Michael said that he’s never seen it.

My husband has never seen it!

So I said, “Well, that’s one of the Halloween movies this year, definitely!”

Then he asked me if I could remember when I last watched the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie (with Kristy Swanson, Luke Perry, and Donald Sutherland), and I couldn’t remember, so we both said, “Guess that one’s on this year’s list, too!”

images (2)And, of course, the premiere of the new series starring Bruce Campbell, Ashe vs the Evil Dead is happening on Starz on Halloween. And Starz is a channel I have in our line-up, so I’d been planning all along to watch it that night.

I should mention that the Evil Dead movies are one of those cases where the gore is enough that normally I wouldn’t watch them, but I love work that Bruce Campbell does elsewhere (and was so, so, so happy when he was cast in the major supporting role in Burn Notice which went on for several seasons without getting canceled or jumping the shark before they ended it in a really good way). Plus, after being enthused at about it many, many times by our friend, Sky (who is one of those people who I know really well), in some ways I felt as if I had already seen them. So I finally watched The Army of Darkness and one of the earlier ones.

Sky was sitting on one side of me and my husband on the other. (I spent most of bloody-cabin-in-the-woods movie with my eyes covered, even then!).

I… will not be surprised if Campbell’s new series gives me nightmares. But I’ll probably watch the whole thing, regardless.

Because I love the mix of comedy and horror tropes! And did I mention that I love Halloween?

Sometimes you need to know

A while back I ran across a music video by a singer that I like. I own a few of his albums, and several of his singles are in some of my favorite playlists. I had never heard the song, but the title seemed familiar. As I watched this video scenes from what was clearly a movie kept appearing. I found out that the song was the theme song for the movie in question. Then I remembered that I had read about the movie, which was written and directed by a director whose previous works (a pair of gay romantic comedies) were movies with which I was familiar.

I really liked the theme song, and it was available in iTunes. I went to buy it, and saw that the entire soundtrack of this movie that I had never seen was available. And as I browsed the track list, I saw that several of the songs were recorded by other singers I knew and liked. I listened to samples of several of the tracks, and the next thing I knew I bought the whole album. Read More…

What’s your favorite End-of-the-World movie?

REM disc art.

“It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine!

I finally watched Iron Sky, which is a very silly movie about a secret colony of Nazis hidden on the dark side of the moon, that has been plotting the “liberation” of earth for 70-some years. It’s got some nice, diesel-punk (that’s like steampunk, except moved forward about 40 years) sets and devices. It has some nice homages to a couple of movies (Dr. Strangelove, Downfall, just to name two) without beating you over the head with it. It was fun.

I especially liked the song that played over the end credits, “Under the Iron Sky”—not just because its chorus line, “We will meet again, under the Iron Sky,” was a nice nod to Kubrick’s choice to play “We’ll Meet Again,” over the end credits of Dr. Strangelove. While I was checking to see if the song was available to buy online (it is, along with an entire album of music inspired by the movie released by the Finnish band, Kaiti Kink Ensemble), I got thinking about other end-of-the-world movies and why I like them.

I wound up polling my twitter followers for more suggestions of end-of-the-world movies. That spawned a side conversation about the difference between a post-apocalyptic story versus a story about an apocalypse. For me, not all post-apocalyptic stories are end-of-the-world stories. And though I’ve been thinking about it for a whole week, I still haven’t been able to clearly articulate why I think of Mad Max as an end-of-the-world story, but Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome are post-apocalyptic but not end-of-the-world in my head.

However, since I polled my twitter followers, I’m going to poll you! Note that you can choose Other and type in the name of your favorite if it isn’t listed.

Also, please feel free to add a comment with your own thoughts on the subject. I want to post a follow-up on the subject. Maybe by then I’ll have a better idea of how to explain my definition of end-of-the-world movie!

Presence (stage, screen, or otherwise)

I’ve recently read two different proposals for a gay version of the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is described in a comic strip by Allison Bechdel back in 1985. It is usually described as a simple way to gauge the active presence of female characters in Hollywood films and just how well rounded and complete those roles are. The test is in three steps, 1) There must be at least two named women, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something besides a man.

It is frightening how many movies and TV shows fail the test. Having just watched, over the course of a month, the first five seasons of Supernatural, for instance, I can report that not a single episode out of those 65 episodes passes the test. To be fair, since I’ve also watched a few later episodes out of order, I can report that one recent episode in which Felicia Day reprises the role of a lesbian hacker played in an earlier season very nearly passes the test. Nearly.

While the results of applying the Bechdel Test to your favorite shows can be depressing, it is even worse if you try to apply a similar test about gay characters. If you transliterate the Bechdel Test into a test of how gays are treated in storytelling, it might look like this proposal:

  1. Are there at least two gay/lesbian/transgender people?
  2. Do they talk to each other? Or even do more than shock horror kiss?
  3. Do they talk about anything other than sex/being gay/shopping/cats?

With extremely rare exceptions, only movies made by queer writers/directors and explicitly aimed at a gay audience pass the test. Most fail at item number one. And most of the few who pass would fail if you changed it to say “is there one out gay/lesbian/transgender character.”

I insist on the “out” part because, I’m sorry, characters such as Dumbledore in the Harry Potter stories don’t count. He is never identified within the books or the movie as being gay. It isn’t even really hinted at in a meaningful way within the story. Having the author tell people during a book tour (and then only after having been confronted umpteen million times about the lack of gay characters), that one character who is portrayed as completely asexual throughout the books doesn’t count. Because this is about recognizing the existence of gay people, not compounding the closet.

Of course, Brokeback Mountain fails this test, because the only gay characters who appear are all deeply and tragically closeted. Which was true to the historical period, but also integral to the fundamental point of the story. Because of that historical reality, I find this other version I found a bit more useful:

  1. The movie includes two gay characters who interact in some way,
  2. Do not offer sassy advice to the protagonist,
  3. And are not dead by the end credits

At least with this test, Brokeback Mountain doesn’t fail until the third bullet.

The point of the original Bechdel Test wasn’t to assess whether a movie treats female characters equally, or whether there are stereotypes, or even whether or not it is misogynist. All it does is establish a baseline that the writers have actually imagined the women in the story as being full-fledged human beings, with lives and feelings and interests of their own. It’s useful not so much as a way to judge a specific movie or story, but to make us think about the presumptions of story telling.

Movies and books and stories are full of a variety of fully realized male characters, who range from good to nasty, from important to silly. And even most of the throw-away male characters have hints of a life and personality of their own that isn’t defined by the protagonists or their family. Where as the default position for female characters are to be the sister, wife, ex-girlfriend, or mother of one of the characters who is actually doing something in the story.

And let me just say, it’s disturbing, as a writer, to go apply the Bechdel Test to your own work and discover just how many of your own stories fail it!

So, the two versions of the Gay Bechdel Test aren’t quite the same as the original. Both have at least one step that focuses solely on clichés rather than just establishing whether the writer has actually developed a personality and backstory for the characters. So I think I prefer this version:

  1. The movie/story contains one identified gay, lesbian, or transgender character,
  2. Who has a conversation with any other character,
  3. About something other than sexuality*.

With the corollary that under sexuality we include topics that are typically (and lazily) considered a subset of “queerness.” So if all they talk about is gay rights legislation, or AIDS prevention, or who uses which bathroom, those count as a failure, too.

Not that we need to be the stars, or that we need to appear in every story, but we’re part of reality, and there are far more of us than there are people capable of dodging dozens of machine gun bullets while driving a car at very high speed through a crowded place without hurting anything other than a single vegetable cart, while reloading their gun and explaining the intricacies of a multinational conspiracy.

And we see thousands of them in movies all the time.

It’s been done

I watched a teaser for a movie I’m looking forward to seeing later this year, and accidentally got sucked into the comments.

As a rule, I try to ignore comments on the internet. Wiser people than I have written extensively about why some of the worst humanity has to offer seems to congregate in the comments sections of articles and the like. Sometimes, on some sites, you can’t help be see at least the first few comments while you’re looking at the actual content.

This comments section began with someone writing a long rant about how the movie, and previous entries in the related franchise, were not original. They had borrowed this element for an older series, and that element for an older movie, and so on and so forth.

Except, of course, none of the things he cited had been original in their use of those elements, either.

Humans have been telling each other stories, constructing various finds of flights of fancy, for tens of thousands of years. Every twist of plot has been thought of, in some form, thousands of times before, for instance. Technology and cultural changes allow some of the details and contexts to change, but in some ways only on the surface. If you abstract any idea out far enough, it becomes a trope or cliché that’s been around for ages.

Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to distinguish between a genuine effort to tell a story that is yours, and a lazy copy of someone else. But it does mean that pointing out some element or bit of a story “has been done before” isn’t saying anything terrible profound.

And certainly not original.

Experiences, not things

The ads usually pop up as Christmas time approaches: give people the gift of experiences, not things. They suggest paid excursions, theatre tickets, sports event tickets, and so on, with an appeal against consuming natural resources. As a person with a house continually crammed full of stuff that I love but don’t really have room for, I understand the sentiment.

But I’m not terribly good at following it.

While I was browsing the dealer’s den at RustyCon (a small local sci fi convention), one of the booths was filled with zillions “Rare! Hard to Find!” soundtrack albums on CD and movies on DVD. I have a weakness for soundtrack albums and started flipping through the tightly packed rows of discs. Within the first half dozen I looked at, all labeled with a price of $44.95, were two which I had happened to buy in the last year at the iTunes store. One for 9.99 and the other for 7.99.

I have no doubt that many (if not most) of the discs he had there are not available for download from iTunes or Amazon or any of the other digital music sources. And I’m sure that many of them were difficult for him to obtain. Certainly storing and transporting those enormous piles of discs isn’t cheap. So I’m not in any way disparaging the vendor.

It’s just that seeing those two albums (one originally released in 2002, the other originally released in 1975) which I had by chance purchased digitally recently made me stop to think about the situation. The reason I like owning music is to listen to it from time to time. I have a rather daunting amount of music in my digital collection, and how often any individual track is listened to is rather less often than might justify even the typical digital price of 99₵ per song. So does it really make sense to spend 45 bucks on a disc with 12 – 16 tracks on it?

I had just this last week commiserated with two friends about our shelves and shelves full of music and movies, which even though many had been digitized, we were still reluctant to get rid of because the discs now constituted the backup. But we also were all a bit frustrated at how much space they took up.

Not too many years ago I still owned a couple boxes of music albums on vinyl. I hadn’t owned a machine that could play them in a few years, so I finally admitted it was time, and got rid of them. I should mention that among those boxes was the 1975 soundtrack I mentioned above which I recently purchased digitally.

I’m afraid all this thinking about how much stuff is cluttering up the house made me steer clear of the booksellers. If I stopped acquiring new audio books and ebooks, and just focused all my reading time on the piles (multiple) of “new books to read” beside my bed, it would likely take me a few years to get through them.

I have been enjoying myself at the con. I’ve had several good conversations, attended interesting panels, and yes, I bought some things. As a person who frequently has a table with things for sale at conventions, I don’t want people to stop buying things at cons, don’t get me wrong.

I just think that I, personally, need to focus more of my enjoyment on the experience, and less on carrying home a pile of toys and such afterward.

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