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bechdel taser: taking the oscar bait

The first time I remember taking the bait was 2001. But I suppose what I really did was eat a bunch of bread, then find out later that fish will also eat that. Moulin Rouge was everything a barely ten-year-old with big dreams and a big stereo could ask for: bright colours, pop music, video clip style editing, pretty clothes and an easy-to-follow plot. I wish Channel Ten would play it every Wednesday instead of Glee.

The bait, of course, was the Oscars. By the time they rolled around the next February I was deeply invested in ‘Our Nicole’, though I’d never seen three of the other nominees. Given one of them dealt with dementia, another with a very naked Halle Berry and the third with… well, being all Sundance-y, this is hardly surprising and probably for the best.

Ten years later, the tides have turned and I call myself a failure if I don’t catch every intense, performance-driven celebration of a woman that shows up around this time of year. Even though, quite frankly, they usually leave me wanting. Wanting more music, more colour, more pretty clothes, and faster editing.

Sometimes they’re great. We Need to Talk About Kevin* was great, last year’s Winter’s Bone was great. But every time I think of seeing Melancholia**, my brain purses like I’ve been squeezing lemon juice into my ears. If I was happily eating the incidental fish-bread a decade ago, now I worry that every piece is some show-offy sourdough that can’t be cut through and prides itself on being chewy and artisanal.

I wish that wasn’t the way, because as I said on my Future musings, I find it really exciting that there are so many amazing movies focused on women coming out this year. Say what you will about Von Trier, his effort looks more interesting than Moneyball or my aforederided The Descendants. I was actually psyched about Melancholia, then I heard it was three hours long and remembered how much I disliked the Dogme philosophy and Dancer in the Dark’s non-musical bits.

So, I saw Albert Nobbs instead.  You know shit’s getting real when you’re seeing a movie with the ex-Queer Officer of a prestigious university. You know you’re not in for Tower Heist. Somehow it slipped my mind ahead of time that there are a few things which are almost guaranteed to be produce a depressing feature:

  • Movies about queer people
  • Movies about Ireland
  • Movies based on non-musical plays
  • Period films
  • Oscar bait for actresses long-overdue for ‘career’ awards

I mean, it skips a couple. It’s not about a dog, or the Holocaust. But it’s hardly the semi-farcical romp its trailer suggested.

I think I would have been very impressed by Nobbs in the right context, but that context is a small independent theatre with a sprinkling of hype and some piercing blue eyes coming from the titular character.

There are many things which could be said about the women in the film (and how closely Nobbs would identify as female if s/he’d been given a stack of queer theory to read). The real problem is that it’s only the women who consciously choose to live and work as men who are portrayed as non-supercilious, as are the maids, or some variation of drunk and/or violent, as are the biologically male characters. To complement the negative portrayal of just about every way you can perform your gender, is a thoroughly closed-off, non-verbal performance from Close which deprives a viewer of real connection with her character.

Of course, it’s possible to go too far in the other direction while attempting to make your protagonist empathetic. In the mission to produce cinematic alchemy and turn The Iron Lady into Oscar gold, Phyllida Law created a film about Margaret Thatcher which basically skips over Thatcherite politics. That movie doesn’t care so much about the decisions of Britain’s first female PM, but the fact that she was really steadfast in making them. I came out wanting to know more about The Falklands, because I had absolutely no idea what the conflict was about after the credits had rolled.

Having said that, Streep offers you amazeballs. I was a bit worried going in that the movie would be a bit too ‘Meryl’, if you catch my drift. The way Julie and Julia was a bit too ‘Meryl’, the way Devil Wears Prada was a bit too ‘Meryl’. That slightly mannered way my queen can sometimes have where the performance, accurate in its depiction of a real figure as it may be, is too affected to really live outside its star. Her Thatcher was more subtle than this, sparing my precarious sanity. On the feminist side of things, Thatcher was hardly a friend to women but I’d argue this film is. Both it and Nobbs pass the Bechdel Test, and I certainly can’t imagine the Close and Streep characters getting together to chat about how cute Brad Pitt is.

I took my mother to see The Iron Lady on Christmas Day, figuring it would be this year’s embodiment of The King’s Speechin the absolutely-appropriate-to-take-a-maternal-figure-to sense. We left the cinema with considerations of industrial relations in our mind, but Melbourne’s freak hail storm suited our less fluffy thoughts. ‘Festive’ may have been an overstatement. Ne’ertheless, it was a worthwhile venture, and not only because it took me one step closer to the authority to declare Tilda Swinton ‘Queen of Everything, 2011’*** for We Need to Talk About Kevin.

*The Academy’s failure to recognise Swinton in this morning’s early hours gave me the kind of headache I usually associate with a combination of sleep deprivation and impenetrable academic writing about false consciousnesseses. My erudite reaction was ‘GOING TO STAB A BITCH WHAT THE FUCK NO TILDA SWINTON = NO LITERACY YOU BITCHAWARDS IHATEYOU
**Also not nominated. I did not really notice.
***I take movies seriously. Deal with it.

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