Feminist Film Review: Interstellar (2014)

Interstellar Movie Poster

HOW DOES THIS FILM RATE FOR INCLUSIVENESS?

As I was watching my thoughts were more about race. This story is set in the near future, when current children are about 60 years old. In that real world scenario, I am expecting the world to look a lot less white than this movie does. Sure, there is a black guy on the space ship but I’m pretty sure he gets way fewer lines of dialogue than the white characters. The odd Asian face pops up here and there. My own imagination has never stretched to a future in which white Americans will save the world. There is simply so much brain power outside America now, and other countries have more successful education systems.

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel test was never really intended to be used as a barometer for a good feminist film and I’ve recently been noticing that many stories do pass the test but are still not all that great in regards to portrayal of women.

For the record, this film does pass the Bechdel test — two women do eventually talk to each other. Given that this is about 3 hours long, a couple of brief scenes doesn’t count for much. One of those was about a man. The other depicts two women who don’t like each other. So although Interstellar passes the Bechdel Test, some have made an amendment that ideally there are two women talking who don’t hate each other. Because everyone knows how ‘women are their own worst enemies’, right?

As for the gender breakdown:

There are 15 first-billed characters (counting as single the characters played by multiple actors). One of those characters is a robot and has a male voice, but I’ll take that number down to 13. Of those 13, 2 characters are female (played by two actresses each). So when you look at the raw numbers, this film is typical for Hollywood in its gender balance.

I’m not sure whether this is good news or not (I might just be used to the imbalance), but this cast felt like quite a balanced ensemble as I was watching. This is partly because the two main female characters have agency. Both are super smart and dedicated to their jobs and we don’t have any bullshit backstory in which they’re torn between their jobs and their families — in fact, that particular dilemma is reserved for the main male character, and that’s refreshing. In contrast, Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity had a backstory which involved her family, I guess because it was thought a female astronaut without a sob story would not be sufficiently relatable for audiences who are used to women as caregivers. The women in this story do not have children that define them. This felt great.

That said, I am detecting that we’re in the age of The Hermione Trope, in which girl characters work behind the scenes as ‘secret protagonists’, working out complex problems for the male characters who get their hands dirty on the fictional battlefield, whatever form that might take. I’d thought it applied mainly to family movies but I may have to revise that.

The frustrating thing is that we’re still not seeing many movies in which the female is the plain ole ‘protagonist’. Don’t forget that this film could just as easily have been about a woman cast in McConaughey’s role, with the young swots being male. That’s just not a story Hollywood is prepared to gamble on yet. From Peggy Olsen, Claire Underwood and Kima Greggs to the girls in Paranorman and Monster House, significant female characters are still not the main characters even when they have the brains. Perhaps this smart under-dog dynamic is thought to be more interesting. Perhaps such relationships do appeal most to female viewers, for whom it’s a certain kind of satisfying to see a woman under-appreciated and then triumph, despite the patriarchal world in which she lives. I’m still waiting for more stories in which fictional worlds of the future depict a social milieu in which women have achieved full agency, not that which comes out of the shadows, behind that of a man.

AND IS IT ANY GOOD?

Pretty fantastic! This was one of those films which stays with you for several days. High concept stories are hard to pull off 100% but all loose ends were tied up. Viewers would benefit from seeing it more than once. Part of the ending did run to cheese in my opinion. Interstallar reminds me of Contact only it is more complex, more frightening, more exciting. I wasn’t bored at any stage, despite the length of 169 minutes.

I’m looking forward to watching this with my daughter when she’s old enough to understand what’s going on. Commonsense Media recommends the film for ages 12 and up.

Pair with the book The Never-ending Days of Being Dead by Marcus Chown for some mind-bending astro stuff presented in readable fashion.

Giving Feedback On Creative Projects

photo 3

1. The SKS Model

What should I stop doing?

What should I keep doing?

What should I start doing?

(no more than 3 bullet points under each)

here.

2. The ‘Strictly Objective’ Critique Partner

I’m not sure there’s any such thing as ‘strictly objective’ when it comes to assessing creative work, but I think these questions might be good for coming somewhere close:

The SOCP doesn’t give you opinions about your story and how it could be improved. He or she doesn’t even point out weak areas. All he or she does is tell you what you have. The SOCP just finishes these sentences:

“The main conflict of your story is…”
“A basic summary of your story is…”
“At its core, your story is really about…”
“The major characters of your story are…”

Read more about this technique at YA Highway. Because sometimes it’s worth finding out if readers understand what you’re writing about let alone absorb its nuances, figurative language and its profound impact on society.

3. THE LEARNING MODEL

It can be argued that there are only four questions you need to ask yourself when learning something new.

  • What have you done?
  • Why?
  • What might you do differently next time?
  • What must you do now?

These same questions can be applied to your own creative projects.

4. THE DISNEY TECHNIQUE

In his book Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky explains that Walt Disney was a very enthusiastic creative person, but he knew how to put his abundance of wacky ideas to the test. Making use of Disney’s technique might be helpful at the idea generation stage of a project, though I can see potential for it to be used at later stages, too. As Belksy recounts it, Disney made use of three different rooms. Of course, Disney had the luxury of lots of actual rooms. The rooms we use may be metaphorical instead:

ROOM ONE: Brainstorming

  • Rampant idea generation allowed
  • No restraints
  • No doubts expressed

ROOM TWO: Aggregation

  • Crazy ideas aggregated
  • Storyboard produced
  • General sketches of characters

ROOM THREE: ‘The Sweat Box’

  • The project is critically reviewed.
  • Entire creative team is involved.
  • Criticism is never directed at one person, since the project has already been changed up in the process of aggregation.
While it’s not at all uncommon to make use of the brainstorming session followed by a critical analysis, I think it’s important to implement step two. This may make the difference between a successful project and an unsuccessful; between validated team members and those who feel resentful after their ideas are immediately scuppered.

Also Worth A Thought:

Do you get ‘annual performance’ reviews? Are they useful to you?

After believing in annual reviews for most of my career, I don’t really believe in them anymore. Not timely enough, demoralizing in general (everyone thinks they’re above average), and just a hell of a lot of work for everyone.

– from a Quora comment thread answering the question: ‘How should startups handle performance reviews?’

Do you know of any other models for giving and receiving critique? Do you think critique is always necessary?

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You won’t benefit from anonymous criticism from Seth Godin

8 Urban Myths To Squelch During Story Critiques from PV

http://stevelaube.com/how-many-critiques-spoil-the-broth/? from Steve Laube

Various ideas for critiquing a work of art

Critiquing A Story You Don’t Like

In writing groups there seem to be two schools of thought on this issue:

1. Since critiquing is good for the critiquer, and since any critique is better than no critique (for the writer of a piece), all members of a writing group should offer opinion on anything served by another.

2. There are some genres, storylines and themes that an individual could never like, no matter how well done, and asking that individual to like a work in progress is a hopeless exercise, because a critique from this person can have nothing of value to offer the writer.

Ecology offers some useful terminology to describe such relationships:

MUTUALISTS — organisms which both benefit from and benefit us

COMMENSALS — benefit from us but don’t otherwise affect us

PATHOGENS — benefit from us at our expense

Naturally, we’re aiming for a mutualist arrangement in our writing groups, or commensal at the least. But when someone is critiquing our work, despite the fact  they know they don’t like the genre, or can’t be doing with foul language, or don’t abide religious stories… or whatever… sometimes we need to ask what benefit they are taking by offering their heavy criticism. Perhaps they are critiquing to an audience; perhaps they are finding catharsis in complaint; perhaps they use critique as a way to wind down after a bad day.

I used to belong to the first school of thought — critique everything — but am now more inclined to go for the second. I’ve simply not received useful critique from people who did not like the sort of thing I write.

There is a caveat, however:

Providing the reader is engaged (ie. that their eyes haven’t entirely glazed over) there are still some surface-level comments which can be offered by a critiquer who doesn’t like the genre/plot/theme in question:

1. line edits (spelling, punctuation, formatting errors)

2. contradictions

3. repetitions

4. errors of logic

5. factual errors

and anything else of that nature.

That’s why I think that if you’re critiquing a genre that you have never really liked in the past, it pays to say so. As a disclaimer, not as part of a larger rant.

Related

Mark Twain On Assembling A Critique Group

Critique Groups Must Die from The Red Pen Of Doom

If you can’t be bothered interacting with people, there’s always the automated critique. I haven’t used it, so I can’t guarantee that it’s the slightest bit better than spell check in Word.