Monday, October 24, 2016

Man on a rig

So, last weekend it was a female film (see previous blog) and this weekend a male film. It's important to keep a balance. It is also important to read and record the gender of a film, not only because most films have a gender and few reviewers (and viewers) seem to recognise this, but because most films are male -- written and directed by men with male heroes and male themes (adventure, disaster, violence, crime, fantasy, sex).

The few films without a gender, or with a gender balance, are those that are truer to life in avoiding taking either a male or a female perspective while having a more gender-balanced cast. Wracking my brain to think of one, I can only come up with The Lady in the Van, which I reviewed here favourably in March of this year. That rare film was based on a book and play written by a man about a real-life woman, hence the rare gender balance.

But The Girl on the Train and Deepwater Horizons are as gendered as A-grade films get and running concurrently make for a good gender comparison. Their casts have predominately male/female leads and gender reverse secondary characters. They are also films of roughly equal quality and entertainment value, in my opinion. As a woman I enjoyed both equally, more or less. I found Train more intriguing and original and Horizons more exciting and coherent.

There were gender flaws in both, though more for Horizons than Train because the male hero trope it deployed to the max, has been done and overdone in film in general, though as this trope was more true to life than in most male-hero films (though I don't know how true to life and expect it was exaggerated), some of this can be forgiven. Train scored highly on a gender front not only because it was female-centred but because it portrayed a deceptively violent (good-looking, white middle-class) husband, an all too real character who rarely appears on film.

However the reviews strongly favour the male film, with Rotten Tomatoes, for example, giving Train 44% and Horizons 83%. Most other reviewers follow suit, which is, to me, telling. I suspect most of the reviewers for RT are male, even though women reviewers (like the one for Time magazine I highlighted in my last blog) can go out of their way to show they are not in favour of a female film, like Train, just because they are a woman (the type of woman that also had a bad case of 'feeling the Bern', I suspect), which of course doesn't happen in reverse. Male reviewers aren't ever trying to prove they are not biased towards male films just because they are men, though that is so often exactly what they are, they just don't know it. Ah, the irony!

In fact, our own film reviewer for the NZ Listener, James Robins, who this week gave a brief review of each of these films, has a bad case of this implicit gender bias.

According to Robins, Train is 'A reliable memory-loss thriller, but its fine female cast [patronising whot] are reduced to tearful blubbering too often -- an exploitative, uncomfortable, and infantilising technique.' He gives it 2.5/5 stars.

Horizons, by contrast, he says is 'A shockingly good disaster flick, though do try to leave before the tacked-on documentary ending [about the less-heroic, more real damage caused by the oil spill. We didn't leave]. What's more surprising? That BP is evil or that Marky Mark Wahlberg can actually act?' He gives it 4/5 stars.

In Train the problem is a gender problem, in Horizons there is no gender, problem or otherwise.

And the gender problem in Train is that the women, though 'fine', are reduced to 'blubbering tears', not sexy soft tears, 'too often.' Blubbering tears are 'infantilising', presumably, because that's how children cry. Adults don't blubber? I think you'll find they, including men, do cry uncontrollably when given good cause, as they are in Train, which is anything but childish. It shows the depth of the human capacity to feel emotion, which is a vital quality.

In my recollection the only tears that could be described as 'blubbering' in Train are those from the character who had previously come closest to being 'cold' and distinctly unblubbering when she finally reveals she accidentally drowned her baby in the bath when she fell asleep, which turns out to be the cause of her apparent coldness that is, in reality, self hate.

These tears rang true to me as a reality for most women who feel deeply about loss, especially the loss of a child, and especially when they blame themselves. If Robins finds this 'exploitative' he misses the point entirely, of getting real women and women's pain and stories on screen. That the women characters were good looking, is more of a problem than their tears, though Blunt is not classically beautiful and often looked worn out, which balanced that classic problem somewhat.

I find it telling that the critics of Train attempt to couch their criticism as feminist, when it is actually good old fashioned sexism. These critics want modern women to be sexy and bad, not sympathetic and emotional, which is just another way of denying real women a legitimate place on screen.

Man on a rig, as I would have called Horizons, shows real men at their best, and worst, with a bit of exaggeration toward the best. The Girl on the Train essentially does the same for women, though with more of an emphasis on the worst. I think it's harder to show real women on screen because we just don't believe women's realities, as we believe men's, having been lied to about women for so long.

And for my money, I'd be happy to see another female-centred thriller soon but have no need for another male-centred disaster film for a while. It's a question of balance.      

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