Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Feminists Go to the Movies, part 1: The Attack on "The Intern"


This article is a first for me.  I bring you, as my musings for today, an expansion of a comment that I made on Facebook.   Who knows where this will lead?  Yes, I can see it now.  The bestselling comment on Facebook is soon to be a major motion picture.

It is difficult to fully unpack one's thoughts into the confines of a Facebook comment box while doing one's best to fend off attacks from an assortment of highly excitable detractors.  Facebook has turned social discussion into the roller derby.  When words are dispensed with the same force as Jacknife Jenny's elbow thrust, the discussion becomes more about ducking, dodging and shielding your nose than it is about making a thoughtful statement.

Always protect your nose.  It is a sensitive instrument.

The Facebook thread had to do with a new "DuVernay test" proposed by New York Times critic Manohla Dargis.  Dargis named the test after Selma director Ava DuVernay.  The test, which is designed to assess a film for racial diversity, poses the following question: Do the film's African Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories?  It is a companion to the Bechdel test, according to which a film is feminist-friendly if it has at least two women in it, the women talk to each other, and the women talk about something other than a man.

I was one of a few men who expressed opposition to the new test.  It is wrong to force these tests upon filmmaking and film criticism.  I know that, by saying this on Facebook, I risked Penelope Pistoff getting me a headlock and Foxy Balboa repeatedly punching me in the abdomen.  And so it was.  The person who was the most irritated was Ava DuVernay, who happened to have read the thread.  DuVernay accused us of opposing diversity and only wanting to see films about white men.  It seemed important to stand by my statements but even more important to clarify that I was not a narrow-minded bigot or a wicked supremacist.  I intend to clarify that point further today. 

I do not advocate that films be only about white men.  I advocate that films be only about real people.  I am dismissive of misguided tests that are harmful to the appreciation of films and reduce women and minorities to political statements rather than real characters.   

Good filmmaking is honest filmmaking.  The artist must be truthful to himself and find his own personal meaning in his work.  It is when a story speaks so strongly to a filmmaker that he wants to thoroughly explore it and share it with others.  He must be allowed to craft his story freely and intuitively.  Politically correct contrivances corrupt that the storytelling transaction.  Diversity quotas and affirmative action edicts are contrivances that set aside art and entertainment for overbearing principles that provide neither amusement nor enlightenment.  A film loses its value when it is reduced to a dreary, dubious and annoying political statement.  Contrivance is, to be blunt, death to filmmaking.

Nowadays, most film critics are desperate to be seen as political activists.  Their brand of political activism has come to dominate film criticism, which is as it turns out is not film criticism at all.  You can be a political activist or you can be a film critic.  You cannot be both.  Political activism is a possessive mistress.  It demands its devotees' full love and attention and it forbids its eager devotees from experiencing a film openly, honestly, or fully. 

A film is best perceived when a viewer surrenders himself to the world that the filmmaker has created.  It doesn't work as well when the viewer tries to force the cinematic world to surrender to their own personal perceptions.  In the end, you don't have to agree with what the filmmaker has to say, but you do have to allow him to have his own voice.  I won't argue much if you want to censor gratuitous sex and mean-spirited violence, but I ask you to please not censor true ideas.

A person cannot possibly appreciate the story and characters that a filmmaker is presenting if their head is filled with unrelated political preoccupations.  I imagine applying these tests while watching a film.  "Hmm," I say to myself, "that actor is black.  Does his character have a fully realized life and is he doing nothing more in the story than helping a white protagonist achieve his objectives?  Oh, wait, that other character is a woman.  Let me see if she talks to another woman.  Are they talking about something other than a man?"  It is an odd way to watch a film.  For the record, supporting characters do not generally turn up in the proceedings to tell their own stories.  So, yes, you can expect the white protagonist's black friend to inevitably be introduced into the story to help the protagonist to achieve his objectives.  The protagonist's girlfriend will be generally defined in context to her relationship to the protagonist.  It does not serve the story to have a scene in which the girlfriend talks about issues that have no bearing on the protagonist.  If the girlfriend is fascinating in her own way and she is struggling dramatically to resolve interesting conflicts in her own life, she undoubtedly needs to have her own film.  In that case, the boyfriend can play a subordinate role in whatever story unfolds.

A good actor brings a great deal of style, technique and emotional power to his performances.  It is disrespectful to the actor to be overly conscious of his skin color and pass judgement on his role in a film based on his skin color.  I prefer to judge an actor based on the content of his performance rather than his placement on a color chart.

Then, it is question of what I should think if the film fails to pass the tests.  Does this mean that the film is racist and sexist and I should reject the film outright?  Should I storm out of the theatre and demand a refund at the box office?  Should I make sure to tell others that the film has no value?  A person on Facebook said that The Martian was worthless because it was a film about everyone on Earth coming together to get a white man off Mars. 

A person who is obsessed about these tests cannot possibly love or understand the art of motion pictures or appreciate the way that motion pictures convey the human experience.

It redefines film criticism in an adverse way to have film critics predominantly see films through the prism of feminism and racism.  Applying diversity principles to stories and characters is a narrow way to study films.

Female directors get the worse treatment at the hands of the feminist-disguised-as-film-critic journalist because a female director is expected to toe the company line.  Professional women in the public eye are yoked to the feminist dogma, which they must strain painfully to drag from one project to the next.  The feminists who dominate film criticism will not allow women to think truthfully or independently.  They demand that women contribute slavishly to their holy movement.  It can be a terrible handicap if the woman hopes to direct a big-budget superhero film.  Marvel Studios does not want to draw undue attention from angry feminists, which is a group that they could never satisfy. 

Recently, female critics treated Nancy Meyers harshly for the choices that she made in directing The Intern.  The film explored themes of friendship, family, old age and career.  Bored with retirement, 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) takes a job as a senior intern at a fashion company.  His wisdom, hard work and good nature make him a valuable asset to the company and help him to develop a close relationship with his boss, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway).

To start, these critics were greatly offended by the fact that the film's title role went to DeNiro.  They couldn't understand the reason that Meyers wouldn't give the role to a woman, maybe Meryl Streep or Diane Keaton.  New York Magazine's Ann Friedman made her grievances clear in an article titled "I Wish the Intern on The Intern Had Been a Woman."  She wrote, "What I really want are stories about how being an older woman can be great, and I've come to rely on Nancy Meyers to provide them." 

Also, these critics believed that it diminishes a young woman to take paternalistic advice from an old man.  Sarah Seltzer of Flavorwire wrote, "This is The Intern, a movie about raw yet fragile female power held up by kind, competent — but very masculine —  male scaffolding.  It presents a bizarre and almost incoherent set of gender politics in appealing packaging.  The film yearns for the good old days of briefcase-toting, tie-wearing company men who shaved every day, while ignoring the fact that most of those guys operated in a deeply sexist environment and wouldn't be as graciously accepting of a young female boss as Ben is." 

Matilda Dixon-Smith announced a feminist agenda by titling her review "The Intern May Tick Boxes On The Feminist Film Checklist, But That Sure Doesn't Make It A Feminist Film."  She wrote, "Of course, the real mark of a feminist film is not just who is on the screen and who put them there, but also what it all means.  We need to look deeper to understand why those female characters are there, who they are meant to be representing, and what, overall, the film has to say about women and gender equality."  She did not like the film.  She admitted to groaning audibly during the screening, which irritated the people who sat near her.  I am fortunate that Ms. Dixon-Smith lives in Melbourne, Australia, which means that it is highly unlikely that I will ever have to sit in a theatre next to her.

It makes it even worse that DeNiro is an old white man.  The pale skin color of DeNiro and Hathaway was significant issue to these critics.  Leah Greenblatt of Entertainment Weekly condemned the film because it could "hardly find a person of color in New York City."  It was funny to me that the review was accompanied by the following image from the film.

As you can clearly see, two black people are in attendance at Hathaway's management meeting.  I would not have noticed the skin color of the actors if Greenblatt had not brought up the subject.   Other critics made similar observations.  Seltzer wrote, "Unfortunately, The Intern follows Meyers' pattern of being so white it makes Nora Ephron's oeuvre look positively ethnic.  They didn't even bother casting a person of color to play one of the assemblage of dorky guys who form Ben's posse at the startup."  Melissa Silverstein of Indiewire wrote, "[Meyers'] movies are perfectly pretty. . . and oh so white.  That whiteness was bothersome a decade ago; it's troubling now.  The Intern is set in Park Slope, Brooklyn. . ., and that part of the Slope is pretty white (I speak as a person who passes that area every day), but she made it whiter and very beautifully manicured.  It's like she stripped out any diversity in the neighborhood."

We must assume if we are to believe Silverstein, Greenblatt and Seltzer that Meyers is a rabid racist who dreams of living in a white world.  Greenblatt wrote, "A Nancy Meyers production isn't just a movie, it's a cream-toned, cashmere-swaddled universe unto itself. . . [I]t's not actually New York we're seeing at all.  It's Nancy's Narnia, and as much a fantasy as she wants it to be."  No one made fun of Todd Haynes for turning New York City into his own Narnia in Carol.

Of course, it's good that the role of the helpful intern wasn't given to an old black actor like Morgan Freeman because then the critics would have accused Meyers of creating yet another "Magic Negro" character, which we are led to believe is a terribly racist thing to do.

As I recall, the film's shots of Park Slope are fleeting.  All that I remember seeing was a white old lady walking a dog past Hathaway's brownstone.  It takes a person with an obsessive compulsive disorder to feel compelled to count black extras in a brief street scene.  I selected a scene from the film at random.  I feel silly doing this, but let us see if we can pick out black people. 

Okay, ready, set, go!  Spot the blacks!

I counted four black people.  Did any of you do better than me?  This game, as stupid as it is, is being played by many film critics today. 

Seltzer scrutinized the film for feminist issues, race issues and economic issues.  Seltzer wrote, "Nor does The Intern, which is a love letter to Brownstone Brooklyn, even touch on the gentrification that is driving out many lifelong residents of the borough — or the controversy over unpaid internships making it impossible for young people to live.  Sure, one younger intern can't find an apartment, so Ben puts him up.  Not only has he solved patriarchy, he's solved the economy too." 

[Audible groan.]

That was not the film that Meyers set out to make.  The Intern was not meant to be The Big Short.  Seltzer was so busy being politically correct that she missed most of what the filmmaker had to say and could not possibly appreciate the entertainment value that the film had to offer.  If you need proof of the film's entertainment value, you need to only look at the film's box office receipts.  The film, which had a production budget of $35 million, had a worldwide gross of $195 million.  Likely due to the universal father-and-daughter dynamics between DeNiro and Hathaway, the film was profitable in a wide range of countries.  Nothing proves a film's significance and entertainment value better than massive profits.

These critics also complained that the women in the film were not supportive to one another.  It is an odd issue to raise when you are a female film critic who is being unduly critical of a female filmmaker.  Ladies, take your own advice.

Oh, wait, I saw another black person in this still from the film.

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