A rant about chick flicks and a few more reviews.

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So what’s the deal with chick flicks? Not as in, why do those movies get made but WHY does that term even exist?

Firstly, I can’t really find any good definition of what a chick flick actually is, but for the most part it seems to be any movie that is about a woman, or women, and/or high school and/or romance/‘women’s issues’ such as weddings, babies and falling in love.

There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule to this however, Bridesmaids is a chick flick, Wedding Crashers is not, Mean Girls is a chick flick, Dazed and Confused is not,  Pearl Harbour not a chick flick, The Notebook yes a chick flick and so on and so on. What is the common denominator here? I can tell you that most ‘chick flicks’ are certainly not made by women, not at the top echelons. Of all those movies I just named, none of them were directed by a woman and on the IMDB list of top 30 chick flicks (with the highest votes) only 3 of the movies are directed by a woman and 2 of those are directed by the same woman.

I think there is a real problem in hollywood (and in many other movie industries the world over) where female stories, and female film-makers are not taken seriously. In fact, if you needed a demonstration of this attitude, this week has offered up its very own real life Hollywood example in the recent extremely white male-centric oscar nominations, including the major snub of Ava Duvernay for best director. Duvernay’s snub is not only a snub for female film-makers but also for African American film-makers too, which is a whole other major topic for discussion that I don’t have space to speak about today but if you want some good reading on the topic this is a great place to start with lots of links to other excellent pieces on the subject. 

The continued lack of funding or recognition of female directors in mainstream movie industries is a blatant demonstration of a value system where stories about women are somehow less important or less compelling. In fact, female stories have their very own specalised derogatory term to differentiate them from regular cinema: Chick Flicks.

This article has a good and quick summary of the history of chick flicks. It talks about the fact that the term and concept of ‘chick flicks’ developed out of a reactive backlash to feminist films of the 60s, and prior to that movies about women were just called ‘women’s movies’ and were marketed to both men and women.

Which for me still begs the question why did movies about women even need a special label? Mainstream movies about men get to be part of a variety of genres such as ‘action’, ‘comedy’ or ‘drama’ regardless of their quality so why do the ones that happen to be about women, or more specifically ‘women’s issues’, get lumped into one sub-genre? And what is a woman’s issue anyway?? (Just a caveat, this is all stuff that is taking place in the west – particularly in Hollywood –  I am not here speaking to the status of women on film in cultures where the history of women’s rights and representation has taken a different path, what I am talking about is mainstream western cinema and TV, especially in Hollywood)

Now obviously, there are movies that feature women in as main characters that are not classified as chick flicks, Alien and Lara Croft Tomb Radar spring to mind. Why do these movies get to be just movies when great films like Thelma and Louise get relegated to Chick Flick status? Well Kat, you might say, that’s because those movies are action movies, and as such are not technically ‘women’s movies’. And Kat, you also might say, those movies feature straight male fantasies of women rather than actual naturalistic depictions of women’s lives. 

Well dear readers, first off, I would say extremely good points. (I would also say that technically Thelma and Louise could be classified as an action movie – think about it, the plot involves assault, robbery and car chases but regardless, it’s directed by a dude and therefore has no place on this blog, for the moment) in fact I would say that actually dear readers, for the most part, you have hit the nail on the head. A chick flick, to fit the bill of a chick flick in the modern world means that a movie is somehow, strangely, according to some odd 1950s-esque definition of female taste, a movie that only a woman would want to see.  Never mind that lots of men enjoy things such as romance babies and women,  never mind that not all women want to see stories about trying to get pregnant, or identify with heterosexual love stories or care about skinny white girls being mean to each other.

And gosh isn’t it strange that we live in a culture where we collectively pretend that men do not want to see movies about romance, babies and women? And I say pretend because Judd Apatow movies are pretty damn popular across genders and they somehow don’t get classified as being chick flicks even though the subject matter is essentially the same. Hey they even invented a whole new word in order to avoid calling Judd Apatow movies chick flicks: the Bro-Mance.

The only difference that I can see between a chick flick and a Bro-Mance is that chick flicks are usually from the point of view of the female characters. A viewpoint that in our hyper-masculine society is apparently an anathema to male movie-goers. Which is weird because male viewers are seemingly quite happy to watch movies about women if they are kicking the shit out of aliens, terminators or tomb raiders but somehow if they’re just talking or walking or living lives or having feelings it becomes a no deal situation?

And let’s not even get into the fact that ‘the male viewer’ is somehow the holy grail of demographic that movies must attract in order to make money, despite the fact that Titanic and Twilight are two of the highest grossing movies of all time and are unashamedly, pointedly, deliberately aimed at a female audience, despite the fact that movies about women consistently perform well at the box office, often outlasting their ‘male’ skewing counterparts for weeks or sometimes months at a time.

AND let’s not even talk about the situation we’ve created that there’s no room anywhere in these definitions for people who don’t sit comfortably within the binary gender system, and that if you are trans, or queer, or butch or anything slightly outside the hetero-norm you get relegated to obscure indie status, or movie of the week human rights specials or you get mimicked, parodied, tokenised and trotted out by more ‘acceptable’ straight actors to play you in an oscar-baiting auteur drama (which by the way, is not unlike the way that mainstream hollywood portrays people of colour, or people with disabilities or any other kind of ‘other’ that doesn’t fit the white, heterosexual, western male ideal)

And let’s also not mention the fact that there’s a plethora of lists out there called things like ’10 surprising movies directed by women’ and that when people find out that movies like American Psycho and Wayne’s World were directed by women there’s a collective gasp of surprise, as if women couldn’t possibly make great movies about men. As if female film-makers can only ever make ‘female films’ that are somehow less than, somehow more mediocre, somehow always about women and need to be labelled as such as a kind of excuse or a warning. And that there are lists out there like ‘Top Ten Chick Flicks For Guys’ with special instructions for men whose only marker for determining a good movie seems to be: Are there hot girls, is there a car chase and/or a people being killed?   

With that in mind, here are three reviews of movies that may happen to be about some women, and directed by some women, but are just damn good movies okay? No chick flick label warning necessary.

Persepolis

Based on the graphic novel of the same name, which also happens to be the true story of co-writer and co-director Marjane Satrapi’s own life, this is a considered and poignant portrayal of life in Iran before and after the Islamic revolution. Seen through the eyes of Marjane as a child, where she is blissfully unaware of the rising political tensions around her, the story takes the viewer on a journey with the character, as she is sent into exile and comes of age in an alien land.

Marjane’s traumas as a refugee in France, and her subesequent psychological unravelling serve as a beautifully delicate counterpoint to the Iranian revolution itself, and Marjane’s experiences and her sense of loss and isolation are all the more devastating when she returns to find a changed Iran which is as ravaged as she is.

Particularly topical in Australia (and globally) right now with our terrible refugee policies, ultimately, this is a movie about the tragedy of losing your home country to war, and what happens when you are a refugee without support in a strange land. The animation is stark – the whole movie is in black and white – but in a way this stylisation helps you to engage with the intricacy of the story. I found this contrast especially nice in the early part of the movie when all around child-like Marjane there are rumblings of revolution that she is entirely innocent too, later in the movie it serves to emphasise the older Marjane’s sense of isolation and disconnection. I found the ending a little clunky but I understand that it’s based on real life and sometimes real life doesn’t have neat and tidy ending so I’m willing to overlook that because the rest of the movie was just so compelling.

An Education

Also based on a true story (the memoir of journalist Lynn Barber), this whole movie had me squirming and simultaneously mesmerised by the relationship between precocious teenage girl Jenny (played by the delightful Carey Mulligan) and much older man-about-town David. The quality of the acting is what makes this movie, Mulligan taking you on a journey with every subtle sigh of ennui she feels in stifling 1950s England and Peter Sarsgaard hitting the balance between absolutely sincere and completely inappropriate with ease.  Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour also hit the notes excellently playing her buttoned down social climber parents with delicious subtle flare.

This movie sparked some excellently intense debate as we watched it, we just couldn’t decide whether it was okay for this young teenager to be having this affair with this older man, with half of the room coming down on the ‘oh it’s real love, let it be’ and the other half firmly on the route of ‘no, he’s too old, he’s taking advantage’. I won’t tell you how the movie ends and whether it was in fact romance or something else, but the fact that it sparked debate says so much about how were drawn into the story and cared for the characters.

It’s very nicely shot, with muted colour tones and pale filters that make the sky seem wintery even in the summer, giving the whole movie that special grey 1960s English feel that instantly evokes the sense of bread-and-butter pudding, middle class post-war conservatism and the slow gathering wave of the rock and roll revolution just around the corner.

Finsterworld

I got to see this at the German film festival last year and the festival curator stood up at the start and said “I’ll watch anything, I love movies, and I really like this film, but it’s really edgy and dark, so be warned”. Which I thought was a really strange introduction from a film festival curator. But…. I am going to say the exact same thing. I really liked this film. I really did. But goodness…. It draws you in with sweetness and then smacks you over the head with darkness. Repeatedly.

The debut drama feature from documentary maker Frauke Finsterwalder meanders through several storylines following disparate characters  – students on a trip to a concentration camp, a wealthy couple travelling through the country in a bubble of money and opulence, a foot masseur who visits an elderly lady with sweet treats, a policeman who has a ‘furry’ fetish, and a documentary maker herself, self-absorbed, desperately middle class and trying to reject it, wanting to make films about something serious but never quite succeeding.  My German friend who accompanied me said that “Finsterworld’ does not mean anything in German so I am assuming that Finsterwalder deliberately intended this to be her take on the world, and she doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to examining that space where comedy, tragedy and just actually gross things often exist side by side.

As the film develops you see how the many characters are loosely connected, but rather than being a celebration of those uniting moments (a la films like Crash or 21 grams) the film takes you to places of disconnection, where the characters ultimately deliberately disconnect from each other but in doing so develop new connections which are just as dysfunctional if not more so.  This film examines the dark places you go to when you’re lonely and lustful, but wraps it up in a deceptively sweet indie-film bow complete with lens flares, bright colours and idyllic woodland forests. There are no film-noir shadows in this film, despite the fact that the characters are firmly placed in the grey moral landscape of selfishness, disconnection and downright bad behavior.

Ultimately, this is a film about people trapped in fractured relationships (the motif of capturing and releasing is used throughout the film), and the only person who manages to escape her relationships is the documentary maker herself. At the end of the movie she says to the only black person in the film “wouldn’t the world be better if there were no people in it?’ But you get the feeling she doesn’t mean it and that in fact she still craves human approval and compassion. Instead the film-maker is left alone, bereft and in a strange land.

Alright, that’s my piece over for this month. Those movies are great, the movies on those lists I pointed fun at are actually great. Go watch and have fun! Or don’t, get out in the sun, or the snow, or the great outdoors or whatever, just have fun.

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