Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What's wrong with contemporary Hollywood, Part 1

"The Problem of 'Chick Flicks'"

In getting my series on "What's wrong with contemporary Hollywood" off the ground, I talked to a friend of mine about the various problems I wanted to highlight. One of them, I noted, was a growing gulf between "chick flicks" and "guy flicks," particularly in the comedy genre, and an increasing scarcity of films that could appeal equally to both genders. My friend said the problem was much simpler: "Too many chick flicks."

This got me thinking. How many "chick flicks" do we see in a year? Not many, compared with the number of releases from genres that appeal largely to men -- action/superhero movies (the Transformers films, the Iron Man films) and male-buddy comedies (Hot Tub Time Machine, Grown-Ups, The Hangover, Cop Out, etc., etc.). For every five male-oriented films, we may see one female-driven one. So how can there be "too many chick flicks"?

Sadly, because while action/superhero movies and male-buddy comedies may range in quality from the superb to the wretched, "chick flicks" tend to come in only one quality type: bad. If a genre is almost entirely lacking in quality, even one or two can seem like too many.

In considering the problem of "chick flicks," two questions must be addressed:

1) Is any film with a female protagonist automatically a "chick flick"?
If we accept this proposition, it follows that any film with a male protagonist would be a "guy flick," which of course is not true. Both "chick flicks" and "guy flicks" are known for their primarily stereotypical, paper-thin depictions of the opposite gender; a film like Rescue Dawn, which features no major female characters at all, is less a "guy flick" than The Hangover, which puts forth the thesis that a hooker is the only type of woman who can be trusted not to make a man's life miserable. Just as The Aviator, Gran Torino, Finding Neverland, and Schindler's List are not "guy flicks" per se, Elizabeth, House of Flying Daggers, and A Very Long Engagement cannot be dismissed out of hand as "chick flicks" simply because the films' central figures are female.
Then, of course, we have films in which the protagonist is female but is depicted less as a believable human being than as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the male audience. The Lara Croft films and Aeon Flux stand as examples of this phenomenon. These are "guy flicks" with female leads -- and they usually stand the same chance of being good as your average "chick flick."

2) Are "chick flicks" bad by definition?
Answer: No. For proof, one can look back to the late 1930s and 1940s, when Bette Davis reigned as queen of the "woman's picture" (a much more dignified term than "chick flick"). Two of Davis's finest films, 1939's Dark Victory and 1942's Now, Voyager, are clearly aimed at female audiences. They have all the earmarks: a charming but patently non-threatening male lead, a bit lacking in charisma (George Brent in Dark Victory, Paul Henried in Now, Voyager); close female friendships (in Dark Victory, the Davis character's closest bond is with her personal secretary, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald), and a focus on domestic, rather than on national or global, problems. Yet both manage to be splendid films. How?

One single word: gravitas.

In Dark Victory, Davis's character, initially a shallow social butterfly, faces her own mortality and discovers both romance and inner strength in the process; she dies a genuinely heroic death. In Now, Voyager, her character suffers a mental breakdown in the first scenes (the victim of years of emotional abuse from a cold-hearted mother) and must piece her shattered inner life back together. The love she finds is doomed from the outset, but it convinces her that she does indeed deserve to be loved, and this gives her the courage to face her mother without crumbling. Her triumph lies in discovering her best self. In both these films, the characters' journeys matter.

Therein lies the reason most contemporary "chick flicks" are bad: the gravitas, the sense of smoething important at stake, is missing. These films are as light and airy as cotton candy, as their glam characters play at falling in love with very little emotional risk to themselves. If I'm going to invest my time in a film, even a comedy, I want the characters' decisions to carry at least a little weight and consequence. Their focus need not be global; the Davis films prove that. But I want them to matter.

Very little matters in your average "chick flick," which by and large has far less positive to say about women in general than the "woman's picture" of yore. Davis's characters in Dark Victory and Now, Voyager emerge as towers of strength, but they stand doubly strong and tall compared with the fashionistas in Confessions of a Shopaholic, Sex and the City, Mamma Mia and When in Rome.

Until Hollywood remembers how to turn out a "woman's picture" with a bit of gravitas, there will continue to be "too many chick flicks."

1 comment:

  1. You make very valid points about the state of 'chick flicks' today. The great classic movie actresses like Bette Davis, Kathryn Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck made women's movies, but they made great movies that anyone could enjoy.

    Today, movies like Julie and Julia show that a so-called chick flick can have a good story that doesn't involve the frantic search for love & marriage as in movies like Leap Year.