Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Bechdel Test

I thought everyone knew about the Bechdel Test, but when I posted a link on Facebook, I got enough of a reaction that I guess that isn't true! The video below gives a succinct explanation, but the test--named after a classic strip by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel--involves asking yourself three questions about any movie you've seen:

1. Are there more than two women in it?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than men?

You'll be hard pressed to think of examples that meet all three criteria. Let me test it on the movies I've seen this summer, limiting myself to just the ones I saw in the theater. (On DVD, I just watched Die Hard and Funny People, both of which fail hardcore!)

-Coco and Igor
-Get Him to the Greek
-Iron Man 2
-Shrek Forever After

(Parenthetical remark: wow, I've seen a lot of trash this summer. This was the consequence of living near a suburban multiplex until just recently.)

Quick scan, I don't think any of these make it. Coco and Igor had two women, but they talked to each other about Stravinsky. Inception had two women, and they did have a brief conversation, but as I recall it was revolving around Leo. Get Him to the Greek--ha! Eclipse? I don't recall every moment of the sodden and poorly-acted dialogue between Kristen Stewart and the various vampire ladies, but I'm going to guess that it fails as well. Lord knows that for a movie putatively about a girl, said girl is defined completely by her relationship with boys. Does Bella have any personality or character trait not related to interactions with boys?

I often bring up the Bedchel test as a counterpoint to the inevitable post-feministry that we find in our classrooms these days. It's not that a movie that fails the test is a bad movie. It's not even the case that all feminist movies pass the test. But if gender inequality is no longer a problem, why is it so hard for Hollywood to make a movie about anything other than boys and their issues?

Next: can we come up with a similar test for popular music?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Coco and Igor

Are you a fan of the True Blood series on HBO? If you are, then you are probably familiar with the moment a few weeks ago where vampires Bill and Lorena have what Entertainment Weekly called "the most disturbing sex scene of all time," horrifying for both plot reasons and also because during it, vampire Bill...well, just describing what happens gives me the shivers. I won't link, but the prurient can find clips online. I put this image into your mind because actually, the horror of that image has been receding, ever since last night when I saw the French film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. Because watching vampires do their thing is nothing compared to having to watch Igor Stravinsky have sex. It's just not....right. Particularly when he is being played by a Bond villain. As a musicologist who has spent a lot of time teaching and thinking about Stravinsky, my sentiment was not probably not shared by the rest of the audience, but I found the sex scenes just excrutiating.

The film, directed by Jan Kounen, tells the story of the brief affair between Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. It begins with a staging of the Rite Riot (sounds like a Clash song!); more on that in a moment. But the bulk of the movie takes place in 1920, when Igor took his family to live at Chanel's villa outside of Paris. The historical record being portrayed isn't bad, and best not to fuss too much about historical accuracy, 'cause, whatever, it's a movie. A slow and kind of boring one, but I don't really care that much if they get every single detail right.

Upon first watching the movie, I was wondering why in 1920 Igor was still working on the Rite at Chanel's house, but I reminded myself of his biography today and he did indeed do a revision for a new production that year, so it makes sense. But focusing so much of the movie on the Rite has its perils, not the least of which is that the director constantly uses the Part 2 Introduction as moody accompaniment, and that is of course the same music that John Williams ripped off for Star Wars. So, that's awkward. But I will say that the movie makes for a fairly intelligent portrait of the moment where Stravinsky is about to move towards neo-classicism, with Mavra just a year away. The director's biographical argument, I imagine, would be something about this affair being the height of Stravinsky's crazy Paris years, full of excess and passion, to be soon replaced with restraint and objectivism. Whether you buy it or not, that's a reasonable argument, although I don't know if the average moviegoer will quite get what's going on with the larger narrative of Stravinsky's life. It's interesting to think about who the director imagined the audience for the film to be. He seemed to have assumed a passing familiarity with music history; there's a really awkward line at the beginning where a dancer introduces characters by shouting “Stop it, Nijinsky! Tell him, Diaghilev!” The audience at my theater consisted of a few elderly couples and a large contingent of Russian-speaking twenty-somethings in cocktail dresses, so I'm not sure what to make of that.

Every musicologist should probably see this movie. I'm debating whether I will use it in classes, especially the staging of the Rite Riot. Like most of us, I usually show the Joffrey performance of the Hodson reconstruction, and before the credits rolled at the end, I assumed that the director was using that same choreography. But it turns out the choreography is by Dominique Brun. I hesitate to say much more authoritatively here, because I'm not qualified to speak on dance matters; I don't know who who Brun is. Best as I can tell, she's part of a dance group, the Albert Knust Quartet, that has done a lot of interesting work with Nijinsky's legacy. In an interview, the director of the film says that she "knew" Nijinsky, which seems highly unlikely!

But at any rate, showing the ten-minute opening sequence of this film, in which the ballet and riot is staged, strikes me as a good introduction to the overall myth-and-reality of the famous premiere. It was filmed largely on location at the theater, the costumes and scenery look authentic, and most importantly, the cinematic experience is much more powerful than the clumsy camerawork of the Joffrey production. Frankly, it would be interesting to juxtapose the two. My teaching of the Rite has been greatly informed by Tamara Levitz's essay "The Chosen One's Choice," which among other things talks about how different performances of the role of the sacrificial virgin can make powerful arguments about the meaning of the work as a whole--does she willingly and blindly submit herself to the community, or does she make a powerful and individualistic statement?

Which does actually bring me to one last criticism. The movie gives us a lot of insight, right or wrong, into Stravinsky's personality, but not nearly enough into that of Chanel. And there is a very odd sequence of images at the end which trivialize the whole film, including a very weird image of Chanel on stage as the Chosen One. A bit much, I think.

Photo: Stravinsky in 1911, from the Royal College of Music Center for Performance History collection.