Going to the Movies. Or Maybe Not.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidBrowsing Netflix the other day, I came across Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I loved it when it first came out, so I clicked on it and started watching.

I quit halfway through.

Understand that I adored Paul Newman and recall with fondness his movies with Robert Redford, of which this was the first. And tongue-in-cheek westerns with funny dialogue help me deal with my complicated relationship with my Texas heritage. I wanted to enjoy this movie again.

But I was bored.

It’s not just that it fails the Bechdel test. (I think Katharine Ross is only in the movie to make it clear that the boys are heterosexual.) When I was younger I dealt with this problem in movies and novels by identifying with the male characters. I find that harder to do these days, but I knew this was a buddy movie.

It’s that witty dialogue between two guys being chased here and yon isn’t enough to keep me watching anymore. There’s a potential for substance in this movie – western outlaws who have outlived their era and refuse to change – but it’s played for laughs.

And I know all those jokes.

I’m a hard sell on movies these days. I saw Gone Girl the other day, and while I thought it was well done, I didn’t particularly like it. (I can’t quite put my finger on why. It might just be that I don’t like stories like that.) The only movies I’ve really liked in the last couple of years have been indie or foreign films, and I don’t even see many of them because so often they are dark stories full of angst. I like that kind of story every once in awhile, but not as steady diet.

What I really like is a good adventure story, but as my reaction to Butch Cassidy indicates, I’m incredibly picky about adventure stories.

  • I want to see women having adventures, preferably without a tragic backstory that has driven them into the adventurous life (abuse, the loss of a child, the loss of a lover). Also without a high level of camp that is supposed to telegraph the idea that we all know women can’t really do these things.
  • I don’t want to see the death of innocents dismissed as collateral damage or characters who are not affected by violence and suffering.
  • And I really don’t want to see the recycling of outdated tropes. I’m still annoyed by the beginning of the first of the new series of Star Trek movies, where Jim Kirk’s mother is giving birth to him in the middle of a space battle. That’s supposed to take place in an enlightened future. Shouldn’t his parents have been on leave that close to his due date?

OK, so I know the reason for most adventure movies these days is to play with special effects. Those of us who want complex stories with our adventure are out of luck.

Movies are, after all, a reflection of our place and time, and right now I think most people are more interested in the amazing images being created for the screen, just as they are fascinated by the science fictional gadgets we all use these days. The screen effects are overpowering the stories, but even I can appreciate that they are an improvement over the cheesy stuff in early Doctor Who and The Day the Earth Stood Still. And I love my gadgets, too.

The ongoing dearth of interesting women characters in movies has a lot to do with a moviemaking culture that wants to hold onto outdated male tropes. It probably also has to do with Hollywood’s fear of saying anything controversial on an important subject.

Maybe I should be grateful that the mainstream movies aren’t dealing much with sexism, because I might be even more upset with their answers.

Madeleine Robins wrote the other day about Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (which I’m sure I couldn’t bear to watch these days) and Adam’s Rib. It happens that I saw Adam’s Rib when I was in college. Back in the olden days, some theaters specialized in showing old movies and I made an effort to see as many Katharine Hepburn movies as I could. I don’t remember too much about it, but I do remember both enjoying Hepburn and being upset with the same things Madeleine finds appalling.

I looked it up and found it came out in 1949. I think that movie, and others of its ilk, were aimed at women like my mother, who were able to get interesting jobs during World War II, but were expected to give them up for romance and homemaking after the soldiers came home.

My mother got out of college in 1943 and went to work as a reporter. In a fair world, she would have ended up as the city editor, or perhaps the managing editor, of a major newspaper. Instead, she ran smack into the suburban 1950s. And I don’t think she ever stopped being angry about it.

Now there’s a movie for you: a sequel to Adam’s Rib, with Hepburn’s character at home with a couple of small kids while Spencer Tracy is out building up his legal reputation. She’s angry and trapped, though not crazy. You could have her interview for lawyer jobs, with the babies in tow. You could have her offered a position as a legal secretary.

Nah, wouldn’t work. There’s nothing remotely funny about that.

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Going to the Movies. Or Maybe Not. — 8 Comments

  1. I tried to watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid twice back in the day, and fell asleep twice, at the same moment, when they stopped the story for some self indulgent “aren’t we just too cute to live” antics. I don’t even remember what those were, I just remember the story stopping, and maybe that dreadful song “Raindrops keep falling on my head” playing. (Though that might have been a nightmare–you couldn’t get away from it for the longest time at roughly the same period.)

    Whereas I’ve watched Seven Brides for Seven Brothers since. Yes, it’s teeth-grittingly sexist in parts, but the music is fun in other parts, the dancing terrific, and the cast works together in ensemble in a way that seems as if they were having terrific fun but it’s not self-indulgent, at least to my eye. (I realize that that impression is totally subjective.)

    It’s interesting to see how much more agency female characters had in early films pre-code. It’s as if in “cleaning up” the morals of films Hayes and Co. shoved women into their proper seemingly submissive sphere.

    I just watched Blood and Sand with Rudolph Valentino, 1922, the other day. Nita Nolte’s vamp has tremendous sexual power over men . . . and she gets away with it in the end! (It’s Valentino who has to die the death of transgression, in a rare role reversal.)

    • It’s possible that I had more patience with the “too cute to live” bit when I was younger. And “Raindrops” was an irritating song. The fact that it won the Academy Award in a time when rock ‘n’ roll was at it’s peak is a telling statement on Hollywood.

      Hepburn and others made a lot of movies about strong women in the 30s and 40s and even into the early 50s (African Queen). Yeah, the guy was usually strong, too, and the plot always has a Taming of the Shrew element, but the women characters were not passive and they were more than eye candy.

      You would have expected the movies to build on that, but instead women lost serious ground in the 50s (not only in the movies) and it stayed that way until the Women’s Movement came around.

      There’s a reason why I loved a lot of old movies back in my college days.

  2. I loved this quote:

    “… the reason for most adventure movies these days is to play with special effects. Those of us who want complex stories with our adventure are out of luck.”

    Thanks for making my day. 🙂

  3. I never liked BC & the SD Kid at all. Maybe it’s because I really, really, really HATED the song. Same reason maybe why I hate another film from that era that was all that, A Thousand Clowns — hated hated HATED that song, which was in every scene. Also, adapted from a play and plays aren’t much my cuppa, and especially they are not on screen.

    When I finally got to watch all those Katherine Hepburne films that the cognescenti praised in glowing terms, I was appalled, particularly the one with Spencer Tracy shoving grapefruit in her face, by Bringing Up Baby, in which KH is, well, not sane.

    Love, C.

  4. The thing about Adam’s Rib is that Hepburn and Tracy look like people in their late 30s or 40s. They’re clearly a couple who has either made a deliberate choice to have no kids, or wanted but did not have any. I’ve been trying to imagine a film where this particular couple have kids and Hepburn’s character is the caregiver, and it reads more like a horror film.