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"Modern" Film and Going Backwards

The world of film is a delightful one; always bringing new ideas to the silver screen. Behind it are directors, producers, screenwriters, and actors who bring unique characters and vivid plots to life through the magic of the movies.

Walking into the theatre before the pandemic was a rush: the popcorn rustling in the container, parents pushing past families in the race to their seats before the commercials end. The movies are a nostalgic and somewhat welcoming place for most everyone, right?

Not exactly.

As a self-proclaimed film geek, I have lived my life inside the minds of unwaveringly talented creators like Alfred Hitchcock, Wes Anderson, Francis Ford Coppola, and the infamous Quentin Tarantino; though in the last several years, I have noticed a shift in the way I look at movies like The Darjeeling Limited and Pulp Fiction.

Both ridiculed and acclaimed by critics and viewers alike, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction has been somewhat of a staple in the film industry for nearly thirty years. His trademark seems to be a romantic telling of violence and gore, but another slipped past us without many of us noticing: the manic pixie dream girl trope.

For those who aren’t as well versed in the language of the silver screen, the problematic manic pixie dream girl trope has existed in our culture long before it was coined in 2007 by film critic Nathaniel Rubin, describing the archetype as one that, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

This character can be seen in Pulp Fiction’s Mia, a gangster’s wife, with no plot of her own. Her sole purpose is to expand on John Travolta’s character and development. The male gaze is shifted to her: she’s a dancer, an actress, a smoker who just wants to have fun; and most importantly, she’s cool.

Quentin Tarantino is not the only proprietor of this offense, just one of the more obvious ones. I will be one of the first to admit that even my favorite writers and directors have been subject to this and other harmful themes. Wes Anderson for example, while having seemingly picturesque films, uses the offensive ideal of orientalism in The Darjeeling Limited and Isle of Dogs. The director uses East Asian cultures as a backdrop for his primarily white and english speaking characters. This results in a similar effect as the manic pixie dream girl: it only exists to support male, or in this case, white characters.

Female directors are not exempt from a lack of representation either. Sofia Coppola’s 2017 film The Beguiled adapted from the 1971 film of the same name eliminates the black female character of Mattie. Coppola attempts to defend her choice by stating, “I felt that to treat slavery as a side-plot would be insulting.” Despite her defense, the choice is at heart, a discriminatory one, and something she must be held accountable for.

In regards to Coppola, she has often been the offender of catering to the target demographic of wealthier, higher class people in the film industry; a narrative in which she was born into after her father Francis Ford Coppola. Her lack of representation in films is one she has grown accustomed to with examples in films like the 1999 film The Virgin Suicides, a movie with an all-white cast. While she has grown into a world of wealthy and primarily white people, it is something she has never seemed to change, or at least try to. Her audience is mainly made up of white women who buy into her dreamy aestheticism of a juvenile or lonely upper class.

While we deem Coppola’s films as slightly problematic, we have seen progression in other areas of the industry, with female directors like Greta Gerwig and Ava DuVernay, with a younger and more diverse audience than Hollywood bigwigs.

As a society, we are so quick to forgive or even idolize filmmakers despite their obvious racist, sexist, or homophobic tendencies. Pulp Fiction, the aforementioned Wes Anderson movies, and especially Steven Spielberg’s disgraceful portrayal of women and people of color in the Indiana Jones films all utilize offensive archetypes and themes to further male character arcs or at times, comic relief. The industry has come a long way since Pulp Fiction, and Tarantino has seemingly brought himself back with more central female characters like Shoshanna in his 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds, or The Bride in Kill Bill, an audience member might see a lapse in judgement when referring to his latest feature: Once Upon a Hollywood.

Once Upon a Hollywood received mixed reviews from audiences. While the film snatched two Academy Awards (one for Best Production Design, and one for Brad Pitt as Best Supporting Actor), not everyone felt it deserved the ten Oscar nods it was given.

The film is one following several days in the lives of burnt out actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stunt man, Cliff Booth (Pitt). Despite its rather unrealistic but anticipated success in the Academy, the film is without a plot. It is a ‘slice of life’ movie, but one that uses real life characters like Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, and Charles Manson to captivate audiences for a less than satisfying ending.

The film´s exposition lasts the whole movie, but rather than dwell on that or the shockingly bland excuse for Al Pacino´s role, let us discuss Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.

Sharon Tate was an actress and model in the 1960's who was tragically murdered by the Manson Family in 1969. At the time she was eight months pregnant; the baby, unfortunately passed with her.

Many have voiced their qualms with the portrayal of Tate in the recent film. The first issue with Tarantino´s vision is not only the lack of lines spoken by Robbie, but the anticipation of a female lead with a watchable story line. She acts as a buffer between the world of a rising star and the world of the film's protagonist, Rick Dalton. Her role is miniscule and hardly necessary, her lines are few, and her backstory is not established by herself, but rather, Steve McQueen, a background and less than crucial character.

While Tarantino has attempted to speak on his behalf regarding a poor representation of women, this particular instance stood out when he states, “It’s not her story, it’s Rick’s story,” he said. “And (Tate) is an angelic presence throughout the movie, she’s an angelic ghost on earth, to some degree; she’s not in the movie, she’s in our hearts.” (World Entertainment News Record)

His placing is incorrect - he adds her as a background character and changes her death, which goes to show the lack of respect for the living but the remorse for the dead and method in which they die; especially women and people of color.

The worst part is yet to come - Tarantino and alike directors are seemingly absolved of any misrepresentation and offensive stereotypes when critics or the Academy eat up their movies. While Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood was seen as lazy and unexciting by critics and viewers alike, the film won two Academy Awards, proving that people may be aware of old-fashioned tropes, it is not enough to stop them from spending money on it. This also gives a world of straight wealthy white men an inaccurate lens to follow; one of a world that caters to them.

Now, I am aware of the question, “What about old movies?” It is true that I grew up watching the classics: Casablanca, Roman Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, and the Hitchcock collection. Enjoying old films is one thing, but using them as an example for how to write people of color and females is where the analysis should end. Young girls do not want to watch a modern film made with Audrey Hepburn's character of Sabrina in Sabrina. At the very beginning she attempts suicide because a man does not love her as she so blatantly loves him. It is not only a poor example for girls, but also the normalization of lazy writing. The considerable lack of respect for LGBTQ+ characters and people of color also proves that the world of film must not look to Blake Edwards and alike directors for inspiration. Yes, young screenwriters may look to Hitchcock for his methods of suspense, but they should in no way imitate his portrayal of women or LGBTQ+ characters in Charade and Rope.

Directors often share their influences with others, but little do they know, they have subconsciously adapted harmful stereotypes from a midnight showing of The Godfather or even Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

It remains a problem that white men and women who are not oblivious to their faults pick and choose which ones to pay attention to. Audiences rarely feel targetted or offended by the harmful stereotypes that do not affect them: select straight white men may opt to disregard sexism or homophobia, while white women may push for a more eurocentric feminism, not amplifying or even acknowledging black female voices. These of course, are simply examples and are not universal to a generalization of men or women, but in some ways, these things are true.

Movies like Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women received high praise for her somewhat reinvention of character and storytelling, specifically the characters of Jo and Amy. Older generations, specifically middle aged men, may write this off as a children’s movie, when in fact, it should be seen by all audiences regardless of age or gender.

The reason so many girls in younger generations gravitate towards Gerwig’s adaptation is because of her new way of seeing the two aforementioned characters. They are far more developed in this film than in other movie or television adaptations.

For example, the character of Amy played by Florence Pugh, was no longer viewed as juvenile or materialistic. She took advantage of her childhood but as she grew was valued for her intellect and strength. She was the embodiment of realism and maturity in the scenes of her post-childhood. Audiences empathized with her as a young woman living in the time that she did.

Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Jo brought a new light to the spunky writer. In past versions she has been portrayed as indecisive, emotional in a negative connotation, and at times childish. Gerwig’s writing and Ronan’s acting provided insight into her behavior and validated her feelings. She was no longer seen as juvenile, except in her childhood when she was allowed by the audience to act that way. The scene where she speaks with Laura Dern’s Marmee was heartbreakingly real and a very accurate portrayal of female emotion. It wasn’t a black and white example of one particular emotion, but it embodied her mind as well; she was not seen as less for her emotions, but more rounded and mature.

While Little Women can be seen as a success, it is void of any people of color in the latest version. Up and coming directors like Ava DuVernay have recently altered the public’s perception of a classic with her adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Despite receiving scathing reviews from critics for accuracy, TIME Magazine explored bold choices and perspectives from the cast and crew of 2018’s A Wrinkle in Time. Eliza Berman elaborates on DuVernay’s decisions, explaining, “When it came to envisioning Wrinkle’s worlds, the first thing DuVernay saw was not topography but faces. She wanted Meg to have brown skin, and the three Mrs. to be “black, white and someone who wasn’t either,” as well as different sizes, faiths and ages.” (Eliza Berman, TIME)

While the film was not one well received by critics, it displays a method of using a classic novel like L’Engle’s, and interpreting it for more modern and progressive audiences. The old-fashioned and less inclusive stories of all white casts in Sofia Coppola’s films must end.

The next time white, straight, or in some way privileged directors show up to a viewing of Casablanca, they should examine the world they live in while doing so. The dialogue and acting may be well worth the one hour forty-two minute running time, but the trope of the black best friend, or calling your female counterpart ‘kid’ may not be the side of history to repeat.

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