BEYOND THE BECHDEL TEST: A CONVERSATION WITH CLÉO

by GUTS

cléo is a Toronto-based journal of film criticism and culture that is informed by feminist perspectives. Last week, GUTS editor Cynthia Spring met with cléo’s editorial team—founding editor, Kiva Reardon, managing editor, Julia Cooper, and submissions editor, Mallory Andrews—to talk about the history of their young magazine, their thoughts on contemporary film criticism, and their hopes for creating a space for discussing feminist ideas. cléos upcoming issue, “Doom,” is set to be released this Thursday, November 28th.

GUTS: How did cléo come about? 

JULIA COOPER: I know Kiva and Mallory from a film class on the cinematic body we took together at the University of Toronto. The journal came about through an inauspicious email from Kiva a year ago, saying “I have this crazy idea about starting a journal. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, I don’t know what I want it to look like, but there seems to be this gap in who is writing about film and all the interesting ideas that the people I know have about film.”

KIVA REARDON: Yes, I guess I sent the email because I work as a film writer and I just see the gender gap at every screening I go to. Sometimes I’m the only woman attending a screening. It’s a little disheartening, especially when you think about how this affects the way conversations are shaped after a screening, or a movie’s release. If you give a gendered or feminist reading of a film, that’s seen as niche. Whereas for me, that’s just natural. So part of it was thinking how we could have more women writing and more perspectives on film and feminism. A motivating factor was to create a space that fostered female voices especially in film, which just has fewer women writers, directors, screenwriters. And as Julia mentioned, the course we were all in together on cinematic bodies, taught by Corinn Columpar at U of T, inspired our first issue, “Flesh.”

GUTS: Given the lack of female voices in film criticism, why is the discussion of film in relation to feminism so necessary? What does the form of criticism that you are practicing allow for?

MALLORY ANDREWS: It’s down to the basics of representation. What we see on screen feeds our culture, and vice versa. For instance, I recently got into an argument with a former student, who is male, talking about Breaking Bad and Skyler, responding to Anna Gunn’s recent article about her character being maligned but also the actress herself being personally attacked. This guy went on this tirade saying, “I’m not misogynist, but I just think her character is really annoying because she doesn’t stand up for her man when he was doing this for his family.” We got into a bit of a to-do about it, and I eventually said: “no, you are misogynist and you are communicating ideas that are misogynist.” Afterwards, I had several private messages from people who had witnessed the conversation telling me to calm down because it’s just a TV show. But it’s not just a TV show and it’s not just a movie, these are our lives, these are the ways that our lives are being represented, and this is the way those representations are being taken in by people. It’s important to talk about.

KR: I’m no arbiter of feminism—like any politically empowered movement, feminism changes and evolves—but I do see a lot of these post-feminist critiques that strip feminism of its political agency in order to make it less difficult. The reason I like feminism, however, is that it is so hard and I have to grapple with it in my intellectual pursuits, in my writing, in my own lived experiences. What I like about the writing that goes into the journal is that we aren’t featuring critiques of films that would seem obvious to write about. As one friend pointed out, no one is writing a critique about Brave, even though, hey, I like Brave, that was a great mainstream movie. Let’s have more female protagonists in Pixar films! But I like the idea of being able to dig into something that is a little more demanding and offer up more challenging views of what feminism means through film. And I guess it is through film because I don’t know how to write about anything else.

JC: What is really exciting about contemporary feminism is the way it encompasses a lot of queer theory in a changing theoretical landscape that is invigorating what it means to be feminist, not limiting it. This is something we are really trying to embrace and encourage in our submissions. We want to hear from feminists whose voices and perspectives haven’t traditionally been included in film criticism.

GUTS: Right, as you mention in your Editor’s Note for Issue 1, cléo “strives to be an open space where writers can address various feminist perspectives in all forms of film, new and old.” How have your editorial decisions been influenced by your mandate to be an open space? What are the challenges you face in attempting to create this space?

MA: One of the things we did was make the decision to allow men to write feminist discourse, which is a bit dicey in some ways because it is already such a male dominated field, but at the same time you need to open the door for everyone to come at films from a feminist perspective.

JC: Yeah, because what is the point of creating a journal informed by feminist perspectives when it can only be told by one specific subject?

MA: …or one specific lived experience?

JC: Exactly, that’s kind of going against what we are trying to do. We have tried consciously to include some Canadian content and it’s also important to us to go across genres to include documentary film, which encompasses the more overtly politicized aspects of film. But each issue is looking pretty different than the last.

MA: Yes, even for our upcoming issue, “Doom,” the engagement with psychoanalysis is much more pronounced than it has been in past issues. It always surprises mewhich themes bring out which interpretations. This issue is looking completely different that what I initially expected, and I could not be more pleased.

GUTS: Like GUTS, cléo is a digital magazine. Do you think it is important that your online content is free?

JC: This is partly a decision to be open source. It’s shocking how hard it is as a young writer to get published, I find it infuriating. Also, when you have an article in a printed journal, by the time your work comes out, it’s so long after the fact. With a medium like film, there is sometimes a sense of urgency in your analysis.

MA: “I have to be the first one to say this!”

JC: Right! Or we are linking our analysis directly to cultural events. This issue we have a piece on Detropia, and the fact that Detroit just declared bankruptcy seems relevant. We aren’t adverse to print objects by any means, but I think what is so exciting about living in the Internet age is the ability to have a wider audience across the spectrum. 

KR: I really love the Internet. I’m indebted to it in so many ways. Much of my own career in writing has been forged on the Internet and it is still this new frontier where there are so many possibilities. There are of course detriments to that as well. Some people say that film criticism has been diluted by things like personal blogs. But the good stuff rises to the top and I like to think that by making a conscious effort to have an editorial team, by taking the time to copy-edit, and by upholding a stringent standard of what we accept, cléo has caught on fairly quickly (knocks on wood).

GUTS: Pop film critics are becoming increasingly fond of Alison Bechdel’s test as a productive way to evaluate film. The test goes like this:

Does it have at least two women in it
Who (at some point) talk to each other
About something besides a man

Once you’ve heard the test, it’s hard to not judge all films according to these three rules. In your opinion, does a film gain more legitimacy when it passes the Bechdel test? Or can films that fail it still be critical of the overarching patriarchal forces that are limiting the scope of representation?

KR: I have big issues with that test. I think it is very useful when pointing out a really basic thing about screenwriting. In that regard, I think it is an interesting way to look at film in a quantifiable sense. But if you look at quality, Ridley Scott’s The Counselor passes and it also has a scene with Cameron Diaz screwing a car. It’s a ludicrous representation of women, but two women discuss something other than a man, it happens to be an engagement ring, but that still counts. Evil Dead also passes, Thor passes, Thor II passes. So when you look at films that actually pass, it becomes more interesting than what doesn’t, because those films aren’t necessarily overtly feminist. The test demonstrates a kind of baseline that we are missing, but labelling a film feminist because a certain interaction between two female characters happens is a bit of a stretch.

MA: It’s a good place to start a conversation about representations of women in film, but it is incredibly limiting. To talk about a film that does not pass the test: Goodfellas. I don’t think you could call that film anti-feminist, when it’s really critiquing that world and that super-macho male dominated American dream inverted fantasy. Lorraine Bracco’s character is one of the strongest in the film. She gets narrative equality on par with the main character in that she gets a voice over—she gets a voice in the film. Yes, it fails the Bechdel test, but it doesn’t mean it’s not right for feminist inquiry.

GUTS: We often understand and view a film through its classification. Comedy, horror, romcom, sci-fi, are all genres that provide us with a bit of information about what we can expect from a film. How does this history of classification and the contemporary film critic’s tendency to taxonomize affect the discussion of feminism and film?

JC: In my experience in literary studies, I’ve always despised the categorization of art of any kind but especially the need to draw lines between periods as if everything was so clearly delineated. Despite the fact that we look for a range of films, this hasn’t factored into our editorial process. If you can give a feminist reading of Oblivion, you can give a feminist reading of…

KR: Right, it’s not that the film has to be feminist, but it has to be a feminist reading. You can really read anything from a feminist perspective. I’m especially interested in the whole debate around national cinema and the limits that are imposed on international filmmakers, in the same way that if you are categorized as a female filmmaker it’s ghettoizing. I like subversions of genre more than adhering to them.

GUTS: Can you share some films that you feel are indispensable to your development as feminists, critics and publishers? Basically, are there certain films that inspired you to start this journal?

KR: I came to film writing through a class at McGill taught by Ned Schantz on Hitchcock. It was the structure of the class that really attracted me. We were responsible for writing weekly pieces—this might sound familiar—500 to 800 words on a film we watched in class. That really clicked as a way of working and thinking through film. Also, I love the films of Claire Denis so much, I don’t think that’s a surprise for anyone who knows me.

MA: I grew up in a home that always loved film. With my dad especially, it was the one thing we really shared growing up. I’d be twelve or thirteen years old and he’d say “Oh come on, sit down, this is great, you’ll love it.” Usually he would be watching Stagecoach or a Hitchcock movie or something. But I remember once in high school he was watching a movie and I saw the very end of it and it was Bonnie and Clyde. I saw that last scene and I was completely enthralled. So I went out and I found a copy of it and I watched it every night, for maybe a month, just wanting to understand why this was supposed to be such a great film. It really struck me then how a film could touch something inside that I didn’t know was there. After that, going to school for film and learning how to articulate that in words was incredibly important to me. Which is an impulse I get from my mother, who is also a writer. 

JC: For me it was around family, as well. My sisters and I were obsessed with Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman and the films of Shirley Temple—all of which, under scrutiny at a later age, are quite troubling. But you can still really enjoy something that you also find morally problematic. Partly what is so exciting about film is how it shapes the world. I saw those characters as women with agency at the time, and it wasn’t until later that I realized Julia Roberts was actually a prostitute. A highly problematic depiction of the sex worker, but nonetheless a formative film. But I experienced a turning point when I saw Larry Clark’s Kids at a young age. I was traumatized and bothered by that film. It wasn’t until I came back to it later in a film class at McGill taught by Ara Osterweil that I realized that unsettling feeling was something worth looking at more closely. And what attracts me to film now are the really uncomfortable things that I don’t want to watch again but I know I probably should.

KR: I’m glad you brought up that point about reclaiming, because I feel like my first real cinema education started with a French New Wave class, which if you want to talk about a boys club, that’s it. Alanna Thain at McGill, who has been very supportive of the journal, taught that class. She really put an emphasis on Agnes Varda and that’s where I came across Cléo de cinq à sept, which the journal is named after. Thain taught us how to come at these male-dominated, sexist or even misogynist films, from feminist frameworks. To return to the earlier point about shaping conversations, then, I think it’s pretty clear now that there is a greater chance that you are going to come to feminist interpretations if you have a feminist in the room.


Celebrate the launch of cléo’s third issue “Doom” on Thursday November 28th at Quinn West salon (1479 Queen West, Toronto). The upcoming issue features an interview with film director Claire Denis, and a collection of critical reviews of Born in Flames, Melancholia, Monsieur Lazhar, Outer Space, Dream Work, Beau Travail, Extreme Private Eros, and Detropia.

 

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