Archive for the ‘film’ Category

TV Tropes

lampshade_logo_blueTV Tropes (2003- ) is a website (tvtropes.org) that talks about tropes on television shows and in other works of fiction. A trope is a story element that you see over and over again – like Black Best Friends, Impossibly Cool Clothes, Conveyor Belts O Doom, Lampshades and Mary Sues. It started out as a website about the American television show “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) but then grew to take in all works of fiction. After all, many of the cheap plot tricks and sorts of characters you see in “Buffy” are as old as dirt.

Like YouTube, it is a form of Internet crack: it is hard to let go – just one more! – but then the next thing you know your clock is saying two in the morning.

It makes you laugh but it also opens your eyes. It talks about all the things you have seen on television over and over again but never had a name for. Like how evil geniuses never just shoot the hero dead but have some overly long way of killing him that is not properly watched over or guarded (Death Trap). Or how showdowns always seem to take place inside dangerous buildings with bad railing (No OSHA Compliance).

It is a wiki, which means anyone can add to it. But unlike the Wikipedia, it is run by some people who do not take themselves too seriously and still have a sense of humour. Nor do they judge what is “notable” and what is not. And it is cool enough to quote the Uncyclopedia.

Most entries name a trope, give a description followed by a list of examples – from television, film, video games, anime, books, etc. Or it can be the other way round: a work of fiction with a list of tropes that it uses.

It covers not just American and British media but Japanese media too. You can find out why the Japanese draw characters with big round eyes and blue hair, for example. And what the Japanese word is for the part of a schoolgirl’s thigh that shows just below her skirt. It is also surprisingly good (but not great) on racism in American media.

I first saw the website two years ago but then got a new computer and lost the bookmark. I found it again the other night when I was trying to find out the word for the trope where the hero is white even though everyone else in the story is not (Mighty Whitey).

Some of the stuff you already knew, like Black Dude Dies First or Not Too Black, but other stuff you did not – like how television stations in the American South used to cut out scenes with black characters (unless the characters played to stereotype, of course).

Because you will know too much about the cheap tricks that writers use to make a story good, they say you will not be able to enjoy television quite the same way again.

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The Bechdel Test (1985) says that a film is not worth watching unless it fulfils three conditions:

  1. It has to have at least two women who
  2. talk to each other about
  3. something besides a man

It comes from Allison Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”. She in turn got it from Liz Wallace at her karate class.

It can apply to any story but Hollywood fails the test at a surprising rate, even now more than 20 years later.

NPR did a piece on the Bechdel Test a year ago. In it Eric Deggans, who writes about television for the St Petersburg Times, gave his own form of the Bechdel Test for race:

  1. At least two non-white characters in the main cast …
  2. in a show that’s not about race.

I did not know about the Bechdel Test till I read about it in Alaya Dawn Johnson’s post yesterday at the Angry Black Woman, but even I had something like it in my head:

  1. At least two black characters
  2. who are not stereotypes
  3. whose love lives we know about and
  4. who have their own storyline

“The Secret Life of Bees” would pass (the storylines of Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo), while the “Imitation of Life” would not (black characters are stereotypes).

Johnson gives the strict form of the Bechdel Test for race:

  1. It has to have two people of colour in it.
  2. Who talk to each other.
  3. About something other than a white person.

Like Deggans, I would add that talking about race would be, in effect, talking about white people.

deniseJohnson says most shows fail, though “Battlestar Galactica”, “True Blood”, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Veronica Mars” pass.

A show can pass the Bechdel Test and still be racist – and, likewise, it can fail and yet not be particularly racist at all. But it is a quick way of separating those that probably are racist from those that probably are not. And, more importantly, it gives you a way of thinking about stories and how white male they are in their point of view.

Deggans says that most shows fail the Bechdel Test because most successful television writers are white men. They just do not know what women or blacks talk about when they are not there.

Jennifer Kesler at The Hathor Legacy says it is worse than that: when she was learning to write for Hollywood they told her, in so many words, to fail the Bechdel Test: main characters should be white men and no one cares what women (or presumably blacks or anyone else) talk about unless it is about the main characters – who are white men!

But why? Because the white men who run Hollywood say it is what the “target audience” wants. But just what is this target audience? Kesler says in their minds it turns out to be “a construct based on partial truths and twisted math – to perpetuate their own desires”.

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bruce_almighty_fullThe magical Negro has been a stock character in American fiction since at least the late 1950s. It is a Negro, a black person, who comes out of nowhere with strange powers or deep wisdom to help white people, sometimes even giving his life.


  • Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost”
  • Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance”
  • Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile”
  • Ruby Dee in “The Stand”
  • Morgan Freeman in “Bruce Almighty”
  • Laurence Fishburne in “The Matrix”
  • Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones”

Magical Negroes are common in the books of  Stephen King.

Will Smith in “Six Degrees of Separation” plays on white people’s seeming need to believe in magical Negroes. It is based on the true story of David Hampton.

Most magical Negroes are not fleshed-out characters that we come to care about – for the most part they are plot devices. They come out of nowhere and often disappear.

Black-skinned people with strange powers is not limited just to American stories in our day. “The Legend of Bagger Vance” is based on an ancient story from India, one where Will Smith’s character was often painted with black skin!

A thousand years ago in China there were stories of black slaves of great strength and secret knowledge, who saved their master’s lovers or found hidden treasure for them. They could cure people with their strange, black skin.

Is the magical Negro a racist character?

Magical Negroes often put black characters in a good light – Morgan Freeman gets to play God and Ruby Dee becomes the wise and good Mother Abigail. It also shows them giving their lives for others – a noble thing.

Their strange powers allow them to escape white stereotypes of blacks as incapable. It allows them to deal with whites on equal terms.

Yet it also shows blacks as being strange and different, as other. The idea that blacks might have some deep power or wisdom comes from viewing them as being closer to animals than whites are and therefore more in tune with nature. It is the same sort of thinking that leads to stereotypes about blacks as being oversexed.

Blacks giving themselves selflessly in the service of whites is something you see in the Mammy stereotype of older Hollywood films. It is an idea that goes back to slave days.

Is Barack Obama a magical Negro?

His blackness makes him a great unknown to many whites. This causes some to fear him because there is no telling what he might do. But it also causes other whites to have unfounded hope in him – because there is no telling what he might do (in a good way, that is). Something that became important after the fall of the Wall Street banks. That is seeing Obama as a magical Negro.

Barack Obama is also a David Hampton character: some whites, because of their hangups about blacks, want to think well of him and, again, have an unfounded confidence in him.

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Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962), the stage name of Norma Jeane Baker, was an American beauty and Hollywood actress. She appeared in the first issue of Playboy magazine and in dozens of largely forgettable films in the 1950s. What she is most remembered for is her beauty and a life cut short.

The best-selling song of the 1900s was written by Elton John about her: “Candle in the Wind”. Andy Warhol’s most famous painting is of her. She is far more famous now than she ever was in life.

Her best-remembered films are “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953) and “Some Like it Hot” (1959). She wanted to be a serious actress, not just a blonde beauty. She modelled herself on Jean Harlow and Lana Turner.

The daughter of a Hollywood film cutter, she grew up in Los Angeles never knowing her father and barely seeing her mother, who was in a rest home. In 1942 she married at age 16. Two years later her husband went off to war. While he was gone, she worked at a parachute factory and started modelling.

In 1946 she signed with Twentieth Century Fox as an actress, making $125 (150 crowns) a week. She coloured her hair, took the stage name of Marilyn Monroe and divorced her husband. “Monroe” was her grandmother’s name.

On May 27th 1949, short on money, she posed naked for some pictures for Tom Kelley for $50 (70 crowns). Four years later in 1953 those same pictures would appear across the country in the first issue of Playboy magazine. It made her famous.

She was different than most Hollywood beauties that came before her. In the 1940s they tended to be thin with dark hair and great legs. But Monroe had light hair (coloured, not natural), large breasts and an hourglass figure. She acted innocent and brainless, not worldly.

She shaped white American ideas of beauty and its effects can still be seen today more than 50 years later. The hourglass figure is out, but the blonde hair and large breasts are still in. Madonna in the 1980s and Anna Nicole Smith in the 1990s both modelled their look directly on hers.

Monroe was briefly married to baseball great Joe DiMaggio in 1954. Then she went to New York to study acting and there she had an affair with writer Arthur Miller. They were married from 1956 to 1961. He wrote “The Misfits” (1961), the last film she appeared in. He wrote her part especially for her.

Some say she slept with President John Kennedy in 1961 and maybe his brother Robert Kennedy. She certainly knew them.

She was found dead on August 5th 1962 at age 36 of a drug overdose. The police called it a “probable suicide”, but some suspect murder, perhaps at the hands of the Kennedys. The police said “probable” not because they thought it might be murder but because it is unclear if she meant to kill herself.

Her body is in a crypt in Los Angeles. Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, owns the place next to hers.

In 1986 feminist Gloria Steinem wrote a book about her life.

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Stuff I Might Like

As we found out in an earlier post, most American writers I like lived in Uptown Manhattan in New York at some point early in their lives. Just like me. But if I like those writers, then I might like others who have also lived there. And maybe singers, musicians and film directors too.

The following lists are hardly complete but they are a start:


  • Harlem: Countee Cullen, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, James Baldwin, Claude Brown, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, Malcolm X, Nella Larsen, Gloria Naylor, Audre Lorde.
  • Barnard: Judith Miller, Anna Quindlen, Jami Bernard, Mona Charen, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, June Jordan, Erica Jong, Ntozake Shange, Mary Gordon, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Fatima Bhutto, Galaxy Craze.
  • Columbia: Mitch Albom, Isaac Asimov, Kiran Desai, Allen Ginsberg, Joseph Heller, Paul Auster, Federico Garcia Lorca, Langston Hughes, Ursula K. Le Guin, Walker Percy, James Blish, Anthony Hecht, J.D. Salinger, Mark Van Doren, Eric Van Lustbader, Eudora Welty, Herman Wouk, Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, Joseph Lelyveld, R.W. Apple, Mortimer Adler, Jacques Barzun, Joseph Campbell, Howard Zinn, Jack Kerouac, Edward Said, Adam Mansbach, Maxine Leeds Craig.
  • City College: Marv Goldberg, Bernard Malamud, Paul Levinson, Mario Puzo, Robert Rosen, Walter Mosley, Madeleine Cosman, Oscar Hijuelos, Irving Kristol, Lewis Mumford.

Film directors:

  • Harlem:
  • Barnard:
  • Columbia: Kathryn Bigelow (“Strange Days”), Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”), Brian De Palma (“Scarface”), Joseph L Mankiewicz (“Julius Caesar”, “Cleopatra”, “The Barefoot Contessa”), Jim Jarmusch (“Permanent Vacation”).
  • City College: Stanley Kubrick (“2001”, “Eyes Wide Shut”), Joshua Brand (“I’ll Fly Away”).

Singers and musicians:

  • Harlem: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, W.C. Handy, Ben E King, Dinah Washington, Sonny Rollins, Tupac Shakur, Cam’ron, Doug E Fresh, Juelz Santana, Mase, Kelis, Kurtis Blow, Alicia Keys.
  • Barnard: Laurie Anderson, Suzanne Vega, Veruca Salt.
  • Columbia: Pat Boone, Vanessa Carlton, Simon & Garfunkel, Utada Hikaru, Charles Wuorinen, Lauryn Hill.
  • City College: The Velvet Underground.

Many of these I already like, such as Billie Holiday, Alicia Keys, Malcolm X, Isaac Asimov, Langston Hughes, Howard Zinn, Ursula K. Le Guin, Lauryn Hill and Stanley Kubrick.

When I saw Joshua Brand’s name appear I knew I was on to something: he created the television show “I’ll Fly Away”. Even though it is about the American South in the early 1960s, it is a perfect example of the Uptown sense of the world. But not till I made this list did I know Brand is from City College!

Pat Boone seems like the complete opposite of Uptown Manhattan. But maybe that is like how Madonna is the opposite of Catholic.

These also seem Uptown to me, though as far as I know none are:

  • People: Shakespeare, Michelle Obama, John Singleton, Marvin Gaye, Common, Chuck D, Sinclair Lewis, Senator Howard Metzenbaum, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Gabriel Kolko, Thucydides, Aristophanes, Noam Chomksy, Jay Bookman, Frank Norris, Ed Zwick, Jamaica Kincaid, Ishmael Reed, Marvin Gaye.
  • Films: Training Day, Boyz n the Hood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  • Television shows: My So-Called Life.

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male gaze

Male gaze (1975- ) is the idea that women are shown in films not as they are but as men see them. The idea comes from feminist film theory but it applies just as well to television, video games, comic books, advertising and even paintings.

As John Berger put it in “Ways of Seeing”: “Men ‘act’ and women ‘appear’. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

Women are often shown in ways that men rarely are.

You see it in hip hop videos. Why do so many have half-naked women? They do not sing or rap, they are not part of any serious storyline. They are just there for men to look at.

You see it in advertising too, Many ads have a pretty woman, the idea being that if you buy what they are selling you will get the girl – or be the girl who gets her man. “Sex sells”, as they say.

At times you see men presented this way, presumably for female viewers, like when James Bond takes off his shirt. But for the most part men are presented not as something to look at but as those who act and move the story along.

Why is this? Because sex does in fact sell. Because film, television, videos and advertising are largely made by men, not women. It is men for the most part who write the lines, direct the actors and man the cameras. Read the credits and see. And they do it all largely with male viewers in mind.

So what about female viewers? They have a choice: either they watch as if they were men or do what advertisers assume they do: see themselves as the woman being looked at and desired.

And so women unthinkingly take in male ideas of themselves as objects to be looked at, desired and possessed. That idea of womanhood is hardly an invention of television or advertising, but they do help to strengthen it.

Feminists say that the male gaze is an example of how much power men have in society, that it affects everything, even something as simple as how women are shown on television.

So while the video vixens in hip hop videos are there for men to look at, it affects the women and especially the girls who watch it too. For good or ill, it helps to teach them what it is to be a woman and does it through how men look at them.

It also affects women when they compare themselves to these women being gazed at. It helps to make them unhappy with how they look.

In America the male gaze affects white women more than black women since the gaze is largely a white male gaze. In some shows it is clear that the white women are being presented to be gazed at but the black women are not. This may be part of why white women are unhappier with their bodies than black women are.

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music library

A music library (c. 2001- ) has music for those who make television ads and shows, websites and films. Most are online or can be reached by computer. The libraries have tens of thousands of tracks or music recordings that can be put into shows and ads and so on.

So long as you can find the sort of music you are looking for, it is far cheaper to buy the right to use it than to hire a musician. A good musician can create just the music you want but it will not be cheap.

It is somewhat like iTunes where you get music for your iPod, but iTunes is different in two important ways:

  1. The music is enjoyed by itself – it is not being added to something else, like a film or television show.
  2. It assumes you already know the name of the song or at least the musician you are interested in.

There have been millions of pieces of music that have been made that could be used in a television show. The trouble is finding just the right piece.

You have a rough idea of what the music should sound like, but you will not know you have found it till you hear it. And you will not know the title and musician until after you have found it.

The library sorts the tracks into different kinds and you look for music that way.

Another thing that makes music libraries hard to use is that most of the music you hear is pretty bad.

Pump Audio, for example, has 700,000 tracks. That sounds great, but most of the music is bad. Pump Audio says they have ten musicians who listen to pieces before they are added, but it seems that Pump Audio went for quantity over quality.

In practice many television shows and others keep using the same tracks over and over again since they were so hard to find in the first place.

Here are some of the top music libraries in 2008:

  • Pump Audio (700,000 tracks) is the largest. In 2007 it was bought up by Getty Images, which already has a vast image and video library. It uses music from thousands of musicians. If you are a musician and Pump Audio likes your music, then they will agree to give you half of any money they make from your tracks. You are free to sell the same music on your own. Pump Audio is used by MTV, HBO, VH-1 and the Discovery Channel.
  • FirstCom Music (186,000 tracks). Based in Los Angeles. Used by Fox Sports, the CSI television shows, “The L Word”, “American Idol” and others.
  • 5 Alarm Music (85,000 tracks). You heard their music in the films “27 Dresses” and “Leatherheads”.
  • Zoo Street Music. Used by HBO, A&E, ABC, DreamWorks and others.
  • Fix is a part of Comma Music in Chicago. Used by ESPN, Wrigley, Northwestern Hospital and others.

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