Naked Lena, Oscarless Leo: The Week's Best Pop-Culture Writing

The most intriguing articles about entertainment we've come across in the past seven days

Click the links in the article titles to read the full pieces, and let us know what we've missed:

20th Century Fox

The Bechdel Test Sets the Bar Too Low. Let's Write a New One.
Katy Waldman

I reached out to some female critics and writers to get a sense of what their revised BT might look like. What should we ask of movies in terms of depicting women creatively, responsibly, compellingly? One theme I heard repeatedly was that the current BT remains a useful diagnostic tool. “I do think that it's such a low bar for good reason,” writer Michelle Dean emailed to me. “If movies can't even meet that low standard, that says something. And most movies don't meet the Bechdel test now, so I'm not sure the thing is ripe for a revision.” Yet, as film critic Karina Longworth argues, the criteria are “too easy to satisfy in a superficial way. Just because a film includes a scrap of conversation between two women about something other than a man does not necessarily mean that the film has any meaningful interest in women.” For my colleague Amanda Hess, the problem lies in trying to derive best practices from what was, originally, “a hilarious and eye-opening point about the lack of fully-realized female characters on film,” not an earnest solution. “The point of the Bechdel test has been lost in [the test’s] obsessive application,” which now “comes across as arbitrary.”

So what’s a better measure? “I'd like to see more abstract discussion among women in film, about books, politics, philosophy, anything but the nurturing side of female existence,” said Dean. “If there's a single thing I'd like to see more films do, it would be to take female desire (sexual, sure, but also *every other kind*) seriously,” added Longworth. Hess made a pitch for more visible Platonic male-female relationships: “As important as it is for films to feature women talking among themselves, I think it's just as crucial to feature men and women talking to each other for reasons unrelated to eventually hooking up,” she wrote. (Also, women should talk to themselves more onscreen: “Sandra [Bullock, in Gravity] … talks to herself a lot. That should count!”)

Wikimedia Commons

The Boston Globe
How Figure Skaters Pick Their Music
Shira Springer

Bobby Martin, who also coaches at The Skating Club of Boston in Brighton, likens skating music selection to song selection in “American Idol.” “If there’s a country music artist, you’re not going to have them sing [a rock anthem from] Pat Benatar for the finale,” said Martin. Translation to figure skating: Classical, elegant music often works best for balletic, graceful skaters, while edgy, dramatic music typically fits better with powerful, athletic performers.

But there’s more to music selection with short (two minutes, 50 seconds) and long programs (four minutes plus) designed to entertain and incorporate required elements. In Olympic years, with big, international audiences and international judging panels in mind, skaters, coaches, and choreographers select music with wide appeal, something fans and judges in Boston can relate to as easily as fans and judges in Sochi.

Above all, the skaters must connect to their music and the characters they take on because of the music, whether it is a princess or James Bond. They must also like the music enough to listen to it day after day, though Miner confessed that skaters tire of hearing the same songs at practice.

Wikimedia Commons

Revealed: The Hall of Fame Voter Who Turned His Ballot Over to Deadspin
Tim Marchman

It's Dan Le Batard, the respected ESPNer and longtime Miami Herald columnist. Why did he agree to take part in this farce? Here's Dan to explain:

[...] I hate all the moralizing we do in sports in general, but I especially hate the hypocrisy in this: Many of the gatekeeper voters denying Barry Bonds Hall Of Fame entry would have they themselves taken a magical, healing, not-tested-for-in-their-workplace elixir if it made them better at their jobs, especially if lesser talents were getting the glory and money. Lord knows I'd take the elixir for our ESPN2 TV show if I could.

I don't think I'm any more qualified to determine who is Hall of Fame-worthy than a fan who cares about and really knows baseball. In fact, many people analyzing baseball with advanced metrics outside of mainstream media are doing a better job than mainstream media, and have taught us some things in recent years when we were behind. In other words, just because we went to journalism school and covered a few games, just because accepted outlets gave us their platform and power, I don't think we should have the pulpit to ourselves in 2014 that way we did in 1936.


Girls Whiplash Report: Why, Despite Everything, Lena Dunham’s Nudity Is Radical
Michelle Dean

Look. We live in a world where beauty standards for women are in a terrible place. I’d like to blame that on men alone, but I can’t. Crappy, thin-white-dressed-to-the-nines beauty standards are delivered to a supermarket near you by the Vogues and Elles of this world every month. They’re on television, when even on the most female-centric shows, powerful, independent careerwomen still wake up in the morning already in perfect hair and makeup. The need to look perfect, is still the #1 demand in most women’s lives. And women suffer for that perfection — perfection being defined in ever more difficult and expensive and literally painful (think plastic surgery) ways. It’s unattainable. It’s impossible. Even the actresses with the round-the-clock trainers and stylists and makeup artists complain about how impossible it is, and end up in those “NO MAKEUP KILL YOURSELF” spreads in the US Weeklys of the world.

I say all of that because it seems this hasn’t sunk in for some people yet. I used to think that everyone who wasn’t a completely horrible Patrick Bateman type, lacking empathy and human decency, knew that beauty culture was terrible in a deep way. Then I realized that we live in a world where the (gender-neutral!) Patrick Bateman types still have all the money. The money which produces the television shows and fashion magazines in which women always look picture-perfect, no matter what it costs them. These are images which women end up internalizing.

In her way, Lena Dunham has changed that.

United Artists

Remembering Rain Man: The $350 Million Movie That Hollywood Wouldn't Touch Today
Matt Patches

Rain Man effortlessly achieved four-quadrant — the industry term for demographically universal — success, despite mixed reviews. Legendary New Yorker critic Pauline Kael notoriously battered the movie into a bloody pulp, calling it “wet kitsch” and writing of its lead performer, “Dustin Hoffman hump[s] one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes.” But Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel praised Hoffman and Cruise with two thumbs up. Rain Man became classic watercooler fodder, raising awareness and curiosity about autism while taking flak for inaccurately portraying the disorder. Still, audiences flocked, including the discarded demographic: women. The Los Angeles Times reported in February 1989 that MGM/UA research studies found that the film's average audience was 55 percent female and 45 percent male, with two-thirds of the audience over the age of 25.Rain Man was a movie for everyone made for no one in particular.

Rain Man was also a global success, earning more than $182 million in foreign markets (according to Levinson, there was even a dream weekend when the film topped the box office in each country it was playing in, like stars aligning). To this day, the director is somewhat baffled by the universal appeal of Rain Man. During the press tour, he and Hoffman visited Japan and were met with raving fans. “It was huge. Huge,” he says. “It seemed to capture an emotional quality they were able to relate to.”

Flickr / danielle_blue

Hooded Utilitarian
When Is a Job Not a Job? When It’s in the Arts, Apparently.
Isaac Butler

There’s a term for this kind of work—professional grade labor that goes unpaid (and is thus amateur)—and that is “pro-am.” We’ve all witnessed how the internet has created an exploding pro-am writing sector. This has been positive in all sorts of ways. There is more great writing being produced every day, easily available at little to no cost for the reader. And as long as the reader’s costs are the only part of the story you’re interested in, it’s incredible.

I started working as a theatre professional as an actor in my teens. In the twenty years since, I’ve witnessed a similar explosion in the pro-am sector in the dramatic arts. Undergrad and graduate theatre programs have grown in number and size, and the number of paying jobs outside of academia hasn’t kept pace. This dynamic has both depressed wages and fueled vibrant pockets of “independent theatre” in many American cities, as artists have come together to create work for little to no money.

Given this reality, perhaps the right question then is… what’s the line? When does something stop being a pro-am labor of love and start being something more problematic?

AP / Joel Ryan / Invision

The Dissolve
For Leonardo DiCaprio, Always a Golden Globe, Never an Oscar
Jen Chaney

The problem is that a lot of people don’t particularly care to see assholes—literal or metaphorical—in extreme close-up for three hours. Hence, the swirl of controversy that has surrounded The Wolf Of Wall Street since its Christmas Day release. On social media, in numerousthinkpieces, and in segments on the Today show, a conversation has erupted about whether Scorsese, DiCaprio, and Co. are glorifying Belfort’s behavior or satirically commenting on it. Personally, I believe they’re clearly doing the latter, even though I still hesitate to officiallyplace the movie in the comedy genre. That’s because its satire is sly and the movie’s tone—which veers just as blatantly toward drama in many scenes—is slippery. I don’t think the movie condones what Belfort and his cronies do, but I do think it pops enough corks and air-blasts enough confetti to understandably blur the lines for some people. Irony doesn’t always come across. This is why so many actual Wall Street scumbags revered fictional Wall Street scumbag Gordon Gekko as their lord and savior, including, for the record, Jordan Belfort.

How does this all relate back to DiCaprio? It’s pretty simple: Some members of the Academy may feel like an Oscar or even a nomination for DiCaprio is an endorsement of his character’s behavior in Wolf Of Wall Street. (Admittedly, this recently circulated DiCaprio videodoesn’t help his case.) The Academy members skew old, and some of them may not appreciate the movie as a form of social commentary, or at least not feel strongly enough about it to want to deal with the inevitable, post-DiCaprio-win shrieking about how Hollywood has no morals. In short, the film’s edginess could be DiCaprio’s undoing.