Okay, so even I’m bored of all this conversation about women in (or *not* in) film, but as the issue begs, the conversation will keep going. Even I’ve partaken in it, and I can’t seem to say everything I want to. And not everything I say is being heard. Of course, this is because there is simply so much wrong; with the film industry, with other industries, and with the way that white men have pretty much ruled not only the production of things, but also the reception. Even female filmmakers, a lot of the time, if going for a high-profile kind of gig, might use a male-driven narrative to form the plot.
Then I was watching Shotgun Stories (2007), from the wonderful Jeff Nichols, whose Take Shelter (2011) I finally had the absolute (stressful) pleasure of experiencing recently. It’s great. But so far, thirty minutes in, four women have appeared. Two mothers, with less than a minute screen time, and two romantic interests, only seen in conversation with their “men”. The plot involves two families of grown men, who have something of a war between themselves. I noticed how odd it was that both families had produced only men — not impossible, but odd, perhaps unlikely. Then the small-town American men fought. One of the brothers of the “good” family didn’t fight, and was scolded, made to feel ashamed for being cowardly. I thought, perhaps it was scripted just so these men could be made to act out “male-specific problems” like shame and fighting. Isn’t this the problem?
One evening Michael Shannon’s wife hears a bottle break on their house at night and asking “What was that” as she wakes up her husband. Sure, but…whatever.
The worst thing about all of this, I think, is that if there ever is a female character who adopts any qualities “like this”, she must be talked about “like that” — as though she’s so positive because she’s a woman doing “this”. That response is so boring. It’s been boring for a long time, but as long as the representation, and the response, is marginalised, it will stay so. And maybe I’m prolonging this cycle by writing this. But I just needed to write that, in each of the two warring families, there were three and four sons respectively (and three young sons between them). I couldn’t help thinking that Shotgun Stories was scripted like this, with seven men, so that issues like fighting, responsibility, manliness, guts. It showed me nothing knew at all, nothing I haven’t seen before, even beautiful Michael Shannon’s character was boring. When each family loses a brother they decide to “be cool” and bring their war to an end.
It’s not that filmmakers don’t have a right to explore “male” characters and “male” issues. But simply using men in a way that’s consistently expected isn’t going to get anyone anywhere. Sure, Take Shelter centred around a male character’s psychological breakdown, but the involvement of his wife in his rehabiltation, and the central support role she played, lifts it far above Shotgun Stories. Nichols’ use of the widescreen also improves by Take Shelter, although it is impressive in its slow grandeur in the earlier work. At first I thought perhaps this would be like an adult version of Stand By Me (1986), if only because of Barlow Jacobs‘ resemblance to River Phoenix. But Stand By Me does a much better job of revealing and exploring the intricacies and difficulties of self-expression in a small town. But Shotgun Stories, burning as it is with “pain”, left me cold.