And with that question, film critic Joe Queenan
isn’t questioning movies like Beowulf or 300, with CGI background or characters. I might have been with him on
No, Queenan is lamenting what the advent of the information
age has done to movies. His case in point: Psycho.
If it were set in today’s world, TripAdvisor.com and her PDA could save Janet Leigh
from that fatal shower at the Bates motel.
I sort of see his point: I’m
as tired of post-Matrix computer-age drivel as anyone else. But
the pre-cell-phone-era films Queenan applauds, such as Beowulf,
American Gangster, and No Country for Old Men, have something
in common (aside from limiting cutting-edge technology to spear manufacturing
or bolt pistols): a decided lack of strong female roles.
You might as well call the Coen brothers’ movie No Country for Women
Queenan contends that one reason the
Coen brothers set the film in the late 1970s was to make “a perverse
point about the way gadgetry frustrates drama.” (Apparently
forgetting that the movie is based on a novel by Cormac MacCarthy,
who set it in 1980 himself. Ahem.) Anyway, Queenan’s point
is that easy access to information and tools by tech-savvy protagonists
His example of the computer-age action
hero who ends up looking more like a typist than an action figure is
Eddie Izzard in Ocean’s 13. The lameness of the star-studded
love-in that is the Ocean’s franchise aside, let me offer a translation
of what he wants: More bloodshed, please. He says,
If it were up to me, every movie
would be set in an era without mobile phones and Google, every movie
would put the hero in a situation where he could not call in an air
strike via his BlackBerry but would actually have to slit the terrorists’
throats and strangle their frothing dogs with his bare hands.
I don’t think it’s an accident of grammar
that Queenan sticks to the male pronoun here. Queenan points out
that in the tech-free days of yore, “if you want to find out where
Grendel hails from or how many soldiers Xerxes has on hand, you’re going
to have to rely on spies, traitors, camp followers, ex-girlfriends,
information-gathering goatherds or duplicitous dwarves — not a database
search.” Notice that the only room for women in these scenarios
is as the ex-girlfriends or wives.
My girlfriend and I were actually discussing
this trend in epics the other day after we saw The Assassination
of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. We actually liked
the movie, but agreed that confining Mary-Louise Parker, who played the wife of Jesse James,
to a role limited to shooting dirty looks at Casey Affleck and
crying over Brad Pitt‘s body was absolutely criminal. But
there was no room in this period film for a larger female role without
a serious reconceiving of the entire project.
My point is this. Technology
doesn’t ruin movies; lazy plot devices and poor character development
do. And gendering action roles as male so that women are shunted
to supporting characters is nothing new, but it’s still disappointing.
Give me a strong female lead. It doesn’t matter to me if she can
heft a spear or hack into a military high-security database.