‘Fury’ and the Bechdel Test

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Katie McNeice goes beyond the Bechdel test and explores a feminine cinema in her short film Fury.

Director: “Okay so you have a week to write this. I have one weekend to shoot it. It has to pass the Bechdel test, with two guys and two girls as actors. We have one room in a really old house to shoot in. Oh, and one guy wants to be Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet. Can you pull that off?”

Me: “Sure.”

This was how Fury came about, a script I wrote for a One Month Film Challenge, run by The Dublin Filmmakers Collective. It’s one of those self-explanatory Ronseal scenarios–a small group of filmmakers take on the challenge to write, shoot and edit a film in a month. So why agree to all that?

At the moment the only real quality associated with women in film, at least in Ireland, is their meticulous absence, both in production and on-screen. It’s a high-profile industry topic but like many women’s issues, translating the over-tasted thirst for change into action is tricky. How exactly do you make more female media? Do we exclude men? Should we correct our creative urges until they start looking more feminine? All of these questions are ridiculous. My goal approaching the project was to see how well the feminist film themes I picked up and ran with in college could be blended the shooting requirements.

The thing is, I’m not sure my finished script or the film passes the Bechdel test at all. In fact, my attempt to talk in a female language from a female space became an unintentional body horror. It’s true to say we shouldn’t manipulate ourselves into creating what seems to be more female media, but that being said, should we shy away from those stories for fear of looking hyper-feminist? Body horror or not, I think we achieved something unique.

BECHDEL

The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel test comes from cartoonist Alison Bechdel, whose work first appeared in feminist newspaper Womannews. From here the Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip emerged. The strip’s characters come up with a set of rules for evaluating whether a work of fiction, including film, can portray women without deferring to men.

It must:

  • Have at least two women in it
  • Who speak with one another
  • About something other than a man

Writing toward the Bechdel test was insightful, no doubt. It forces the writer to make gendered narrative decisions and stimulates a constant criticism of gender balance from one page to the next. The finished work still had me begging the question of what exactly female content is however, and with further consideration I think the mistake of the Bechdel test is forcing us to read and write in terms of a gender dichotomy. Sexuality and gender identities just don’t read as simply as this, either politically or on-screen. To approach the so-called problem of female content with this assumption therefore starts us off writing with prejudice and not our heads.

THE SEARCH FOR FEMALE CONTENT

According to the Irish Film Board’s Gender Statistics 2010-2015, only 16% of all writers attached to applications for funding were female. The level of female directors falls to 13.6%. Dr. Susan Liddy’s 2015 article Missing in Action: Where Are the Irish Women Screenwriters? turned a few heads on Film Ireland last year when she bent Irish filmmakers’ ears with the same subject. She begins by pointing out the gender disparity in funding, then qualifies this point by reminding us that funded films are supposed to tell stories about ourselves to ourselves and wider audiences. She continues:

“The IFB talks about investing in ‘Irish stories’ and yet the majority of our stories are told by men and are about men. How do we make sense of that? Are we to believe Irish women writers are uninterested in, or incapable of, writing for film? Or is their work being side-lined because screenplays written by women just fail to measure up?”

Some have deferred to the financial facts to generate the panic this issue deserves, such as the mission statement of voluntary group Women in Television Ireland, which calls on us to resolve the issue, “…to ensure the sustainability, and growth of Ireland’s €550 million audiovisual sector.” More recent examples include the Guiding Lights Scheme, which bridges both Irish and UK funding to support female writers and directors.

These explicit requests for change have continued and intensified since last year but my point remains the same; how do you translate this into action on a personal level, without losing the integrity of your content? I’m not an established writer or director. I don’t have a lengthy filmography just yet, nor enough time to concentrate on my writing in tandem with a full-time content job, essentially honing the craft without guidance.

Fury

The ten-minute short I made recently fails to meet the essential requirements of the Bechdel test and yet, to my mind, the themes are implicitly female; motherhood, pregnancy, birthing, miscarriage and comfort in a non-narrative structure. Fury is the name given to one character who is defined by her rejection of any symbolism or interactions which are not feminine. She is the driving force rejecting culture, politics, traditional language and body identity. As logic goes, this should enable Fury to shed masculine concepts in order to finish with nothing but implicitly feminine content.

Four strangers wake in a barricaded room. One is a poet, another a slut, the next a vulgar drag queen and the last a mysterious mute. The group’s panic gives way to intrigue as the walls and floor grow mushrooms and leak water. What meaning can survive in a place when culture is irrelevant, language is subjective and history no longer matters? What gender norms survive the horror of a place where nothing has been defined just yet, but life must continue? What follows is a difficult examination of how masculinity and diverse femininity can survive in that ultimately female environment.

feminist film sexuality mushroom

The script is extreme as far as attempting to write female content goes; the densely packed metaphors combine psychoanalysis with sexology, feminism and queer theory, stacked against the constant theme of the maternal body’s dramatic interior. That’s exactly how I wanted to write it. As mentioned above, I think the foremost issue with the Bechdel test is that it assumes gender and sexuality are simple divisions of male and female issues. There are many forms of femininity and sexuality and part of the disillusionment in trying to make more feminine cinema is the assumption that it involves only women.

The Fury script includes sensitive men, queer men, weak women finding genuine confidence and a psychotic embodiment of motherhood. I don’t believe we should shy away from what can be misunderstood as feminist content to create more feminine cinema. As complicated as the female psyche is to articulate cinematically, we should be more willing to interact with and unfold the complexities and contradictions of the female gender, rather than the limitations of the industry. Including female writers and production staff in the industry will be a lengthy process. If this includes looking at feminine men, masculine women, or indiscernible combinations of the two, then so be it.

Note: Fury is currently being edited and will available soon.

 

Katie McNeice is a Film MA graduate, content professional and the screenwriter of short film Flaneur. She has recently become the Content Coordinator at IFTN, the Irish Film and Television Network.

You can follow Katie’s blog here 

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Fury

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DIR: David Ayer • WRI: Juliette Towhidi, Cecelia Ahern PRO: Simon Brooks, Robert Kulzer  ED: Tony Cranstoun DES: Matthew Davies CAST: Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal

War is bad. This mantra has been hammered into the minds of cinemagoers since the dawn of the medium. Not that we’ve ever actually learned from it. With violence so prominent in not just popular entertainment but in the very world around us it’s easy to become desensitised to a man’s screams as he writhers in agony on screen. Every now and again, however, a film is made that offers such a raw, unflinching insight into the actual horrific reality of warfare that it promises to linger in the minds of its audience long after the credits roll. David Ayer’s Fury is one such film.

It’s April 1945 and the Allies are pushing ever closer into the epicentre of the Nazi regime in the German heartland. Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Pitt) commands a five-man Sherman tank called ‘Fury’ through a ravished countryside; his team find themselves surrounded by death and brutality – but it’s just another day’s work for the battle-weary crew.

Fresh faced Norman Ellison (Lerman) has spent the war in a cosy clerical position but the death of the Fury’s co-driver propels him into a position with a lot more action, excitement and, of course, danger whether he wants it or not. As Ellison faces combat for the first time he discovers the animalistic savagery that conflict induces in people, soldiers and civilians alike.

One could say there is a lack of subtly in Ayer’s approach to violence; there’s never any allusion to it, we get it served straight up cold on a plate. For the most part I would say this is a fair argument. That tank looks like it’s about to roll over a soldiers head… You’re going to see that soldiers head explode in a bloody mess no question. People being burned alive… Ayer’s got you covered and then some. But let’s be honest, the men on the battlefield were not spared a quick camera cut away from their friend’s bullet ridden bodies so why should we? Stuff like that happened in WWII. It happens today. For all the gore in this film (and yes it is exceptionally gory, you know, like war) it never felt like it was being exploitative. Ayer captures the audience in a vice, proclaiming ‘See! See! This is what happens in war!’ The film’s imagery is shocking yet it is by far its strongest element. Because the film has problems. Boy, does it have problems.

Many fascinating true stories of bravery against impossible odds emerged from the hell that was the Second World War. Fury is not one of them. The events of the film are not historical fact they are the product of Ayer’s imagination. Now, of course, not all films have to be based on a true story just because they’re set in a historical time period. However, it does make the film seem all the more ego-stroking.

One of the biggest themes the film was trying to convey was that war consists of individuals with personalities, likes, dislikes, friends, lovers and what not rather than just faceless masses of marching brigades. And yet the humanity of the American characters is only confirmed through the dehumanisation of the German soldiers. We’re supposed to feel deeply saddened when an Allied troop dies, yet feel a sense of smug satisfaction when a soldier on the Nazi side perishes – it’s an uncomfortable contrast and somewhat undermines the overarching concerns of the film.

Ayer had the perfect opportunity to explore the grey area of conflict but instead decides to stick with the comfortable (but inaccurate) ‘we’re the good guys; they’re the bad guys’ shtick. Disturbingly enough it also means that the atrocities committed by American forces-such as gunning down children are somehow justified in this context. At one point the by now not so dewy-eyed Ellison actually screams out “Fuck you Nazis! Fuck you!” A lack of nuance in the depiction of violence is forgivable but this is just bad dialogue.

The film is also riddled with clichés. Wardaddy is the gruff, all-American, Nazi-killing badass, who is also intelligent, thoughtful and even sensitive. Pitt delivers a pretty solid performance but it’s difficult sometimes not to hark back to his other Nazi-killing performance in 2009’s Inglorious Basterds. You must agree: if you make more than one Nazi film where you’re the slaughtering hero it’s a fetish. Lerman is also quite watchable but his character does stink of the old younger-boy-joins-an-established-group-to-prove-himself-and-is-then-taken-under-the-wing-of-the-leader-cos’-he’s-like-the-son-he-never-had trope. All the other characters also play to a certain ’type’- the ignorant swamp hillbilly, the pious preacher (though I must say LaBeouf gives it his all here) and the ethnic token. That said, the tension that would arise between five men stuck for so long in such an enclosed space is captured surprisingly skilfully. They’ve all been driven a little mad by the horrors they’ve seen yet remain steadfast to their goals and, ultimately, to one another.

We get glimpses of real brilliance and ingenuity in certain parts of this film. It’s just frustrating that Ayer could not sustain this throughout all aspects of Fury, depending on tired clichés to carry the rest. If nothing else, this film will stamp one distinct message into your mind: war is bad.

Ellen Murray

15A (See IFCO for details)

134 minutes

Fury is released 24th October 2014

Fury – Official Website

 

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Fury Trailer

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Check out the trailer for Fury, David Ayer’s new film that stars Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf.

Fury is an intense action movie about a crew of soldiers who embark on one last epic mission in the chaos of the war’s final days. The film is released in Irish cinemas on the 22nd October 2014.

April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) commands a Sherman tank and his five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered and outgunned, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.

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