Drinking from the poisoned well

There was once a wise king who ruled over a vast city. He was feared for his might and loved for his wisdom. Now in the heart of the city, there was a well whose waters were pure and crystalline from which the king and all the inhabitants drank. When all were asleep, an enemy entered the city and poured seven drops of a strange liquid into the well. And he said that henceforth all who drink this water shall become mad.

All the people drank of the water, but not the king. And the people began to say, “The king is mad and has lost his reason. Look how strangely he behaves. We cannot be ruled by a madman, so he must be dethroned.”

The king grew very fearful, for his subjects were preparing to rise against him. So one evening, he ordered a golden goblet to be filled from the well, and he drank deeply. The next day, there was great rejoicing among the people, for their beloved king had finally regained his reason“.

–Author Unknown

This story is told in a scene from the film Serpico (directed by Sidney Lumet and released in 1973) between the title character (played by Al Pacino) and his girlfriend Laurie (Barbara Eda-Young).

Serpico covers twelve years (from 1960 until June 15th 1972) in the life of NYPD officer Frank Serpico. It is based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Peter Maas and is about an extremely diligent police officer who discovers a hidden world of illicit activities among his own colleagues – witnessing cops doing drugs, committing violence, taking paybacks and other forms of police corruption. He decides to blow the whistle on the rot within, but doing do so leads to him being harassed and threatened, suffering great personal hardship and even enduring life-threatening situations. After being shot in the face during a drug bust on February 3, 1971, Frank Serpico eventually testified before the Knapp Commission, a government inquiry into police corruption between 1970 and 1972.

The fact is that going against the grain is never the easiest choice.

And voicing the unpopular can often make us terribly unpopular as well.

But sometimes the very things people are least willing to see and hear are the very things they most need to be told and have their attention drawn to.

Remember that Galileo was thrown in prison about 500 years ago for trying to tell everyone that the world wasn’t flat.

And until relatively recent times some people had the legal right to keep other human beings as slaves.

And doctors once used to advertise cigarettes.


“More Doctors Smoke Camels than any other Cigarette”

So even if you can’t beat ’em, don’t ever be tempted to join ’em.

Be strong and be brave, and refuse your drink from the poison well.

The lonely voices of reason and sanity can take a while to make themselves heard, but without them the world would stay unhealthy, unfair and incorrect.

So where are the women?

Have you heard of the Bechdel Test or the Mo Movie Measure?

It originated from Allison Bechdel’s comic “Dykes to Watch Out For” in 1985 and is a sort of litmus test to assess the presence of women in movies.

To pass the test a movie has to get a “yes” for all three of the following three questions.

1) Are there two or more women in it who have names?
2) Do they talk to each other?
3) Do they talk to each other about something other then a man?

It’s truly amazing (and more than a little depressing) just how many films don’t pass the test.
For example

Avatar
Star Wars (Episodes 1-6)
The Lord of the Rings Triliogy
The Dark Knight
Shrek
Watchmen
Transformers
Bruno
Ghostbusters
The Big Lebowski
Wall-E
Clerks
Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2 and 3
Austin Powers 1, 2 and 3
Men in Black
Fight Club
The Fifth Element
The Princess Bride
The Wedding Singer
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The Truman Show
From Dusk till Dawn
Trainspotting
Mission Impossible
Toy Story
Gladiator
X Men
When Harry Met Sally
Back to the Future 1, 2 and 3
Tomb Raider
Pulp Fiction
Interview with the Vampire
Home Alone
Up

There are 3378 movies in the Bechdel Test database, 1809 (53.6%) of which pass all three tests, 377 (11.2%) pass two tests, 835 (24.7%) pass one test and 357 (10.6%) pass no tests at all.

In an article that appeared in the Huffington Post (22.11.2012) “Women Are Underrepresented, Oversexualized In Top Films: Study“, Amy Lee writes

A study released by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism took a survey of the 4,342 speaking characters in the top 100 grossing films of 2009 and compared it to results from the top 100 films of 2007 and 2008. For women, nothing much has changed — in these top films, 32.8 percent of actors are female and 67.2 are male — 2.05 males to every one female. This means that less than 17 percent of films are gender balanced, even though females make up half of the ticket-buying population.

Perhaps more disturbing is the finding that women are much more frequently sexualized when they appear on screen. They’re more likely to be seen in sexy clothing (25.8 percent to men at 4.7 percent) and more likely to be partially naked (23.6 percent to 7.4 percent).

Women are also more likely to feel the effect of their age on their career. Though teen girls (12-20 year olds) are more likely than adult women, 21-39, to be shown as sexy, or partially naked — 21.5 percent to 13.8. But older women, aged 40-64, are not only less likely to be shown as attractive (3.8 percent), but less likely to be shown at all. Only 24 percent of all characters aged 40 to 64 are female.

Earlier in the year, there was an uproar over the lack of female presence of amongst directors in competition for the Palme d’Or (award) at the Cannes Film Festival.

Melanie Goodfellow wrote in article for screendaily.com called “Cannes sexism debate explodes on eve of festival” (14/5/2012)

A fierce debate over whether the Cannes Film Festival is sexist or not has exploded on the eve of its opening this Wednesday, following a high-profile opinion piece in the Le Monde accusing the event of sexism.

The article published on Saturday and signed by Baise Moi director Virginie Despentes, filmmaker Coline Serreau and actress Fanny Cottonçon attacked the festival over the lack of women in competition this year.

Feminist group La Barbe (the beard), which was behind the initiative, simultaneously launched an online petition. By Monday morning, more than 1,000 people, mainly women involved in the French film world, had signed up.

“The directors of the 22 films in competition this year are all, by happy coincidence, men. For the 63rd time in its existence, the festival will crown one of its own, defending without fail the virile values which are the nobility of the seventh art.” Despentes, Serreau and Cottonçon wrote.

“Once in 1993, the Golden Palm was awarded to a female director, Jane Campion. And in 2011, probably due to a lack of vigilance, four women featured among the 20 nominees in competition,” it continued.

“This year, gentlemen you’ve come to your senses and we are overjoyed. The Cannes Film Festival will allow Wes, Jacques, Leos, David, Lee, Andrew, Matteo, Michael, John, Hong, Im, Abbas, Ken, Sergei, Cristian, Yousry, Jeff, Alain, Carlos, Walter, Ulrich and Thomas to show one more time that “men like depth in women, but only in their cleavage.”

And in a article called “Where are the women in film?” for The Guardian (18/5/2012) Amelia Hill interviewed Producer Trudie Styler and director Lucy Walker

Each of them had the following things to say

Lucy Walker : There is a remarkable problem. In Hollywood last year, just 5% of the 250 biggest films were directed by women. That’s down from 9% a few years ago. What’s going on? It’s not that women don’t want to do it: in film school, 50% of students are women. There is something going on between women wanting to do it, and getting to do it. It’s absolutely remarkable.

…When a man directs a turkey, he’ll typically be hired much quicker again than a woman who has had a film bomb. But what’s most heartbreaking as a director are the success stories; the films directed by women that do fantastically well. Look at what happens to those women. Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight film – a hit that came out of nowhere – was not hired to make the next one, but was described as too difficult to work with. Her next film had a budget twice as big as Twilight, but she couldn’t get the same fee. In Hollywood, when a guy directs a hit, his fee goes up, no questions asked. She was very upset about that.

Amelia Hill: Why is the film business allowed – and why does it feel it’s OK – to openly treat women so differently?

Trudie Styler: We let it go on and on, and none of us have answers. It just is. That’s not acceptable. There’s a very powerful woman in Sony [Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures], but look at her slate: she’s obviously being dictated to by a strong pool because she’s producing bad boy, action movies. Everyone is concerned in these lean times to show a profit, but while only 7% of directors in Hollywood are women, 23% of producers are women. It behoves those to be inviting women directors to step up and say: “We’ll develop your product. Bring it to us.”

The Stuff of Nightmares

According to Douglas Winter, in his 1982 anthology Prime Evil “Horror is not a genre, like a mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion”.

Stephen King once said “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones”.

Perhaps fictional horror provides us with a relatively safe space to inhabit the fear (without the genuine threat) of real horror.

The horror genre essentially revolves around the questions of “What is human?” versus “What is inhuman?”

I heard screenwriting guru John Truby give a talk about genre a number of years ago in London. His view was that horror generally comes from something inhuman trying to act like a human being. The monster is the hero’s greatest fear made physical.

And the best horror stories often tend to involve a “flip” of what is human and what is inhuman, so that somewhere in the story the monster becomes the hero and the hero becomes the monster to fully mine the idea. (For example, Frankenstein).

Horror is also a very metaphorical form and horror archetypes stem from different fears.

Werewolves and vampires stem from the “fear of the animal” – the fear of animal passion and the loss of control. (This genre is all the more popular in a repressive world. Could that, perhaps, have some connection to that fact that a devout Mormon ended up writing a best selling vampire book series?).

A scene from “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)

Zombies, on the other hand, represent a “fear of the machine” horror – a fear of the loss of identity and individuality.

A scene from the “Resident Evil” computer game

These archetypes never really seem to go away, but rather undergo periodic reinvention and surges in popularity according to the relevant societal context.

For me the best horror film ever made is “Jaws“, the story of a giant man-eating shark which terrorises a (fictional) summer resort town called Amity, in New England. I first watched it on video (back in the dark ages, obviously), as a twelve year old, one Saturday afternoon.

It scared the living crap out of me, but I still thought afterwards that it was probably the best film I had ever seen.

When Jaws came out in 1975 it scared the living crap out of a lot of other people as well, and was a massive hit. It also cemented the idea in public consciousness of sharks as monsters lurking in the ocean, waiting to devour us – an idea that is still taking much effort to change.

The film taps into a strong preexisting primal fear – the horrifying fear of a very real animal which has the power to shred a human body or swallow them whole. Even with the knowledge that shark attacks are incredibly rare, and much less commonly fatal, the nature of a shark attack can provoke a lot of fear in most of us.

One thing Jaws exploits very well is the fear of the unknown, or the unseen. Often what we imagine can be more terrifying than what we see and director Steven Spielberg tapped into this fear by denying his audience any clear visual of the shark – especially not in its entirety – until late in the film. The use of music (that iconic theme by John Williams whenever the shark is around) and objects being moved by the shark through the water (e.g barrels that Clint, Hooper and Brody attach to hunt/kill it in the second half of the film) are used instead to let the audience know that the shark is lurking and present.

In part, this could be an example of what Sidney Lumet meant when he said “For any director with a little lucidity, masterpieces are films that come to you by accident”.


A short film about the infamously problematic mechanical shark in Jaws, called “The Shark that Didn’t Work”.

A highly unreliable mechanical shark – which was often out of action, and already forcing the film well over budget – made it necessary to shoot in ways where the shark in the story was only hinted at.

Years later, Spielberg remarked, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen“.

Another gift the mechanical shark’s perpetual failure gave to the film was time and focus invested into strong naturalistic performances. As Spielberg put it “The more fake the shark looked in the water, the more my anxiety told me to heighten the naturalism of the performances.”

Clint’s famous speech about the SS Indianapolis in a scene from Jaws.

Often in horror films the characters and relationships are highly reduced because the hero/es spend/s so much time running away from or fighting against the monster.

One of the things that truly sets Jaws apart from most other horror films is the naturalistic responses and moments of touching believable humanity in its characters.

Brody’s famous “You’re going to need a bigger boat” moment in a scene from Jaws.

In my opinion this is still a film, especially a horror film , that comes closer to answering the question of “What is human?” than many others.

As Peter Biskind wrote in ‘Between the Teeth’ in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media No. 9 (1975) “Jaws flatters us by holding out the promise that such triumph over unspeakable terror is within the reach of us all”.