Archive for category Movies

The Bechdel Test: the Right Question for the Unpublished Author?

The WFWA newsletter has provided fodder for a post once again. This time it started with a blog from Writer Unboxed related to gender bias in publishing. I know many are tired of this subject, but this post by Julia Munroe Martin was slightly different and included a link to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. As many articles on this subject mention, this one discussed the Bechdel test. This test is normally applied to movies, with the basic requirements to pass being at least two named female speaking parts where the characters talk to each other about something other than the males in the movie.


Thanks to Aleska D and FreeDigital

As noted, this test is mostly applied to movies, but comments on Munroe Martin’s post suggest applying it to books as well. Some suggested applying it to their own manuscripts. In a book is it “fair” to say that the test is passed if there are two female characters who talk about anything other than men for as little as two sentences? Does it have to be more of a sustained exchange? Do different genres have different likelihoods of meeting this requirement, or is it mostly realistic fiction that should be put to this test? I’m going to start paying more attention as I read and maybe produce a blog on this topic down the road.

For the time being, I’m immersed in critiquing manuscripts. Three of these are from my WFWA critique group, and others are from my mixed local writing group. I’ve read much of the work of one of my partners, and I have little doubt that if put under scrutiny her work would pass, since her characters, both male and female, are trying to solve problems not related to sex or gender but to life, death, and ghosts. A number of the manuscripts I’m reading are historical fiction. One involves a woman realizing she is a lesbian. This is set in the world of rodeo and other topics come up naturally. Another involves an English woman and her maid traveling out West to meet the lady’s husband. These two do talk about their travel and danger. A third is about a young wife and her engineer husband. My recollection is that she exchanges a few lines with a sister when they are children, but I don’t recall her as yet speaking with any other women. A romantic suspense has not as yet introduced the female lead and has been two men talking. In fairness I’ve read sixty or fewer pages of each of these and the tenor of the story very well may change and include other issues.

The last short story submitted by the male of the group involved a family of husband, wife, and two children. The mother and daughter might have had a brief exchange, but this story probably would not lend itself to this kind of analysis due to the tight knit group of characters. Possibly short stories are too brief and feature few enough characters that this test would seldom be passed.

How do my own manuscripts hold up? In the one I’ve submitted to my online group, one of the questions I’m trying to address is friendship. The main character asks others what components they feel are necessary for friendship. This alone should pass the Bechdel test. The problem I’m encountering, though, is that I’m told this exchange is either boring or seems like it doesn’t fit. The question that might be posited by my critiquers is, does this advance the plot?

I read sections of another completed manuscript and it might have problems meeting the test even though there are at least four important female characters. The plot of this particular book involves unplanned pregnancy, affairs, and jealousy, and  revolves around the male lead. My two lead female characters are together only briefly, leaving them little time for interaction. The female protagonist does discuss their relationship with her mother. The two also talk about the protagonist’s children, but is this enough to pass the test?

Could it be that “women’s fiction” needs a slightly different test than the one applied to movies?


Side note: when looking for pictures of women talking, most were of either children or sexy, partially clothed women.

How would you rate your writings as far as the Bechdel test? Do you think it is a fair way to look at books, or should some other criteria be used? What might you recommend as more fair? And last, do you find conversations not necessarily connected to the plot, but part of character development, uninteresting or unnecessary?

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Which is like a Made-for-TV movie? Me Before You or The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving?

IMG_0991I had breakfast with one of my librarian friends this past Friday. I related my feelings of a recent book I read, one that IS, I believe, classified as women’s fiction: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. I read this book because some of my younger writer friends were mentioning it on Facebook, and I thought someone had said that this author was really good. My feelings about the book were hard to sort out. I certainly didn’t love it and felt as if I should get out my editing pencil, but I didn’t find it so uncompelling I wanted to stop reading. I wanted to finish it, but I also didn’t pine to pick it up. What I finally settled on was that it reminded me of a made-for-TV movie. I guess I’d categorize this sort of TV show as usually not very deep, probably with a happy ending, if it isn’t a three-hanky movie. The characters, who may be loveable, aren’t very deep and often have dramatic problems. I’d expect the dialogue is supposed to be witty or funny but is only marginally so.

Mostly I enjoy watching deeply affecting foreign films. Why foreign? It seems that these movies are more often aligned with literature than all but the very best of independent American movies. Possibly this is due to reading subtitles, or the allure of a foreign language, or the more exotic setting, and not due to the depth of the material.

If I’m going to continue with the movie metaphor, I could throw in Roger Ebert’s idiot plot, and it seems to me that some element of such was evident in this book. The protagonist, Lou, seemed to be lacking basic information that any thinking adult would have. She is only 26 and apparently lives in a small English village. Possible what seems obvious in American culture isn’t obvious in English culture, but I found it hard to believe that an adult in the 2000s would not be aware of handicapped parking spaces, entrances, etc. Somewhat more believable might have been that she had never seen, or apparently heard of, any of the movies made about quadriplegics. She did know Christie Brown, and I’m assuming that is a cultural difference. I would suspect many Americans would not know who that was, although they would be likely to know the movie My Left Foot.

Whose Life it it Anyway? (1981) may have a similar overarching theme of who gets to decide when life is worth living and when you get to die. Since I read Me Before You in physical book form, I can’t go back and check, but I believe it references The Sea Inside, which for me was a lyrical, beautiful film that contained genuine emotion. A more recent French film, The Intouchables presents the other side of the picture, a quadriplegic man who wants to live.

From the ratings on Goodreads, and the stellar review in The New York Times, I know I’m in the minority when I say I didn’t much like JoJo Moyes book. To me it felt like a first draft with characters that weren’t developed beyond the mechanics of the story. I did not shed a single tear, nor did I have a single chuckle. While I was reading this, a young women I know was also reading it. She admitted she also wasn’t that touched by it. In the NYTimes review, Liesl Schellinger mentions this book was called a “real weepy” in the British press. I don’t often cry over books and have cried onl slightly more frequently at movies. I don’t like being manipulated, and for me, that’s the meaning of a tearjerker. The term weepy may mean the same as a “three hanky” movie. Possibly weepy/three hanky movies encompass both tearjerkers and movies that contain pathos.

When looking at the films mentioned above, I mostly remember being infuriated by Whose Life. I had a similar reaction to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. I definitely would categorize this last as a tearjerker. I found The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly both deeply affecting and intriguing.

A similar book to Me Before You is The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. Although the protagonist in this book does not take care of a quadriplegic, but instead a teenager with muscular dystrophy, many of the issues and challenges in the two books, are similar.

The Revised is not quite as well-liked on Goodreads, but for me the writing is steps beyond that of the Moyes book.IMG_0992

I may explore similarities and differences between these two books and the movie The Intouchables in a future blog post.

Have you ever thought what kind of movie your book might be compared to?

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The Netflix Research Excuse and South Korean Cinema

I saw a tweet yesterday from Henry Holt with hilarious definitions of words for writers. Most of them are really funny so you should check it out. Two of them are related to Netflix. (What does research mean to writers? Answer: Netflix.) I had been debating writing a column about Korean cinema anyway and figured this might be a good lead in.

Lately,  when I’ve been searching for movies to watch, I tend to favor the South Korean cinema. Although I can’t vouch that the overall best movies are now being filmed in that country, the selection I’ve come across has proven to contain many enjoyable films in many different categories. Certainly not all Korean movies are for everyone. They can be very bloody and violent, sometimes undecipherable, and at other times plain weird. Doing some research about the cinema on the Internet, I found one review that postulated Korean movies are not hits in Hollywood because they often are genre mashups. This may be one reason why they are interesting and less predictable than Hollywood shoot ’em ups.

Today, while watching Musa (The Warrior), the most expensive Korean movie made up until that time (2001), I tried to analyze  some of the reasons I find them engrossing. This particular movie was set in the 1300s and had many similarities to other war movies from the Asian past. The overthrow of bad emperors or conquest by other peoples seem to be a  popular subject.  During this rendition, while watching the adorable JuneWoo-sung and Ju Jin-mu, the older Ahn Sung-ki, plus Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, I was taken by all the long black hair on these handsome actors. The scenery in various epics ranges from interesting to breath-taking.

The acting may be another reason I find even mundane film offerings more interesting than the standard American movie. I’ve thought for years that the acting standard in Hollywood could be called “the Pepsodent method.” Just smile. Just show your brilliantly white teeth. Asian faces, or at least the way they are filmed, seem to show more nuance and usually rely less on a smile to convey every emotion. Part of my thought that Asian actors are somewhat superior to Hollywood actors may be an artifact of subtitles. Yes, there are times when the voices seem to be shouting, but since I don’t know the language, it’s easy to ignore and think it is due to the language and not overacting.

Most genres of movies are represented in the  Korean oeuvre. There are martial arts films such as Pyongyang Castle, which this short review claims is similar to a Korean Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Plenty historical dramas, including The King and the Clown, are worth a watch. As  film, often considered one of the best, was based on a play, it does have a bit of a stagey feel, reminding me of Japanese kabuki. The love triangle at its heart also places it on gay-themed lists.

Werewolf Boy is a fantasy/romance that some have likened to the Twilight saga but then explained why it is superior. To me it seemed like a fairytale for all ages. It did have some of that Korean weirdness in one or two cartoonish characters ,but the main storyline was enjoyable and touching.

Probably my overall favorite Korean movie is Castaway on the Moon. There seem to be few, if any, reviews of this movie in the press and only a very few reviews by viewers on the Internet. This reviewer called it kooky and sweet, which certainly would be some of the adjectives I’d use, too. I don’t, really, remember the gross parts the reviewer mentions, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they exist. What is worrisome is a comment that says it is being remade in Hollywood as it is unlikely an American movie company will be able to do a good job. Other movies such as Old Boy and The Host have been remade for American audiences but have not gotten good reviews. Although I started to watch Old Boy, it seemed to be pointlessly violet so I gave up.

Quiz Show Scandal is another favorite, although you do have to get over a bit of extreme violence at the start. This movie is often included on lists of best Korean movies.  Snowpiercer is an international effort with a Korean director may currently be at your local theater. It stars Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Octavia Spencer, and Chris Evans. It’s mostly in English so if you hate subtitles, no worries. It might be a good place to start if you’re interested in exploring this country’s cinema. I like to call Snowpiercer Max Mad on a Train, and although I fall asleep during 95% of chase scenes, this movie was fun and a bit unpredictable, just like most of the movies I’ve seen directed by Koreans.

There are plenty of lists of Korean movies–the ten best, highest grossing, by genre, etc. What ones would you recommend? What do you think of the movies you’ve seen?




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When Third Place is Something to Celebrate: The 1992 Other Dream Team

Not everyone can win gold, and sometimes bronze makes you happy enough. I’ll get back to that.

The first hurdle I had to surmount when I started writing seriously, or at least when I started thinking seriously about writing was that there wasn’t just one winner. It took me a long time to emotionally realize that more than one book was published each year and beyond that, more than one book was published in each category. Agents took more than one manuscript, and editors usually did, too. So even though I would have to produce a good book, I didn’t have to produce the very best of the year or the best ever written.

In the Olympics, though, only one athlete or team wins gold in each sport. I’ve heard that placing second is the least satisfying because the athletes often are down on themselves for not winning gold. The bronze winners are said to be glad they medaled, but it is likely that some of them feel they weren’t good enough because they didn’t place first. They weren’t the best, so they were a disappointment to their country, themselves, or  another nameless entity.

In the documentary The Other Dream Team,

the Lithuanian men’s basketball team recounts the story of their success in winning. Four of the five gold medal winners in the 1988 Seoul Olympics for the Russian team were Lithuanians. In the intervening years Lithuania won its freedom from the USSR. During that time frame, many Lithuanian players had been drafted to play for teams in the US and elsewhere. After freedom, the international players decided to form a team of Lithuanians to compete in the next Olympics. Although their country rallied behind them, they had no money to support this effort. An unlikely benefactor turned out to be The Grateful Dead. The band outfitted the basketball players in tye-dyed teeshirts in the colors of the Lithuanian flag and helped support the team financially. During the 1992 games, Lithuania, like the US dream team with Michael Jordon, Charles Barkley, and other household names, beat their opponents in embarrassing fashion. The two teams met in the semifinals. USA prevailed. This set up a consolation match for bronze between Lithuania and the former Soviet Republic.

Not only did the team  want to win this game for self respect–and remember in the last Olympics four of the five starters on that Russian team were Lithuanians–but the whole country rooted for them. When they prevailed and climbed the podium wearing their Grateful Dead teeshirts, the players admitted that winning the bronze meant more to them than the earlier gold.

As in basketball, in writing the circumstances surrounding a “win” can determine how one feels about a success.

I wrote the above as a draft post more than a month ago. At this point I don’t remember exactly what my point was going to be, but it seems important to remember that not everyone can be on the bestseller list or win the Man Booker prize. Sometimes the act of publication and the congratulations of a small number of friends and readers is enough. Sometimes it is worthwhile to remember that certain teams start with an advantage–more money, a larger cohort to choose from to form the team, etc. Sometimes bronze is more meaningful than gold.

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Music, Writing, Critiques; What Movie Scores Do You Love?

Recently a post, The Curse of the Critique Button? by Pamela Nowak appeared on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ blog. It discussed the problem of not being able to turn off your critique button when reading or watching movies. As I mentioned in the comments to that post, my first problem with movie watching is the soundtrack. Many years ago I took a music appreciation course for the heck of it. I don’t know a middle C from an F sharp. (Is there an F-sharp?) I learned a number of musical concepts, but what I most remember about this class was that the teacher was very skinny and had his pants cinched with a belt that had at least eight extra inches. He also mentioned that the movie score was what he most listened to at a movie. Up until then, I only noticed the music the few times I’d really loved it, such as in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

But after he mentioned this, I was more atuned to music. Suddenly, if the music felt manipulative, which it very often did, and told me how to feel, or what the impact of the scene should be, I was pulled out of the movie’s world. I often dislike popular movies and the soundtrack is often one factor why. A good illustration of this, for me, is the  difference between the two 1999 movies dealing with World War II ,Saving Private Ryan, and The Thin Red Line. SPR won awards and the hearts of most moviegoers. I thought it had a predictable plot with over-orchestrated music (the chorus in the theme song, for example). TRL, its competitor in a number of Oscar categories, including Best Music, Dramatic Film Score, was, for me, more of a tone poem.

I’m not sure either of these composers (John Williams vs. Hans Zimmer) is among my favorites, but I can routinely pick out John Williams’ scores. Being able to recognize a composer doesn’t necessarily degrade the quality; I usually know Phillip Glass or Ryuichi Sakamoto, too. For me, it is a heavy-handedness and manipulative element that makes me like most John Williams scores less than others.

In my original blog post comment, I suggested there might be a correlation between musical scores that direct your feelings and good writing. Although subjective, I find writing I most enjoy to be that which is similar to the scores I prefer: ones that actually make me feel rather than those that dictate how I should feel. In writing this is illustrated by the difference between telling me how a character feels and allowing me to feel what the character does. Although I suspect I fall far from my ideal, that is what I usually strive to do. Maybe if I listen to more of the music that achieves this state, my writing will approximate that level of art.

What movie soundtracks with original music do you find most enjoyable? Do you feel the sort of music  you prefer, as illustrated by film scores, also informs your writing or what you consider good writing?

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