Essay: Three Little Questions

Oct 7, 2015

The Milwaukee Film Festival is into the homestretch, with two more days of short and feature-length films at a variety of locations. 

The festival has attracted thousands of film buffs, among them Lake Effect essayist Joanne Weintraub:

I’ve never run a marathon, but for the last 2 weeks I’ve been sitting through one. Determined to get the most out of my prized Milwaukee Film Festival all-access pass, I’ve put myself on a rigorous high-popcorn diet and pledged to watch as many movies as I can take in 15 exhausting days.

As I write this, it’s Tuesday morning, and I’ve seen 38 feature-length films in 12 days, or the equivalent in live and animated shorts. With three days to go, I’m hoping to reach an even 50, although given the number of late-night shows that would entail, it sort of depends on how much high-test coffee I can gulp down along with the popcorn.

Of the more than 3 dozen films I’ve seen, I’m glad to say I’d recommend all but a handful. Sure, there was that one Swedish one that played out like an After-School Special with subtitles, but for the most part it’s been movie heaven, a mix of documentaries, dramas and comedies that keep reminding me just how blissful it can be to sit in the dark and let a director’s vision unspool before your eyes.

There is, however, one thing that would make this celebration of cinema even better. I wish the people who program the movies, and of course the people who make the movies, would pay more attention to something called the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test is named after Alison Bechdel, the Macarthur “genius” award-winning cartoonist who popularized it.  It consists of 3 questions to ask about a movie, and it’s so simple that once you know about it, you’ll wonder why just about all movies, or at least most movies, don’t pass it with flying colors.

To pass the Bechdel Test, a film must, Number 1, have at least 2  women in it, who, Number 2, must talk to each other,  and, Number 3, must discuss something other than a man.

Simple, right? Movies are full of women, so you’d think they’d be full of women talking about stuff! Talking about all kinds of stuff! What a ridiculous test! Except it’s not. What’s ridiculous, actually, is just how many movies don’t pass the Bechdel Test.

Take last year’s Oscar winner, Birdman, with Michael Keaton. Now, there were some great actresses in that movie: Amy Ryan, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone. But, not surprisingly, Birdman is about a man. And the women in it are mostly there to acknowledge that man, support that man, and, when they do talk to each other,  to talk about that man.

OK, but don’t men in movies talk to each other about women? Sure they do. But that’s not all they talk about that. That’s not even mostly what they talk about. Men in movies talk to each other about their dreams, their fears, their cars, their computers, their fathers, their football heroes, or, if it’s that kind of movie--which in Hollywood it often is—about their plans to achieve world domination.

Oh, but that’s just Hollywood, right? Yeah, that’s Hollywood, but that’s a lot of hip, cool, provocative, progressive festival-type movies, too. Because of those 38 movies I’ve seen? A surprising 20 of them failed the Bechdel Test, which is to say that more than half of them marginalized women in a way that, were the genders reversed, would be pretty lame.

Imagine 20 movies in which men never talked to other men, except to discuss women.  Guys would stay away from those movies in droves, or squirm in their seats, or at the very least accuse their wives and girlfriends of subjecting them to a pathetic assortment of chick flicks.

So here’s a challenge for the programmers of next year’s Milwaukee Film Festival. Keep the quality high and the quantity bountiful, because in both those respects this year’s event has been awesome.  But please bring in more movies--movies like this year’s Dreamcatcher, Stockholm Stories, Radical Grace, Iris and even a delicious little local morsel called Old Fashioned: The Story of the Wisconsin Supper Club, of all things--that pass the Bechdel Test. Because movies are better when women are part of the dialogue, not just part of the scenery.

Lake Effect essayist Joanne Weintraub is the former TV critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  She’s currently a freelance writer and editor.