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Bechdel Test Canon: Volver

This entry concludes the Bechdel Test Canon. I've had a blast putting it together over the last two months, connecting films thematically and attempting to incorporate a variety of textual and extra-textual concerns. First of all, I'd like to thank Kelsey Wallace, Kjerstin Johnson, and the rest of the staff for their characteristically sterling work and support. I extend that appreciation to all of the great commentary from readers who went along with the exercise, made recommendations, disagreed with me, and in some cases rewrote my entries. I'm also excited to continue reading JDTress' series on Oprah's final season and Chally's investigation of feminist literary writers and characters and hope you all follow along as well. If you want to keep up with me, check out my blog Feminist Music Geek.

Finally, I'd like to acknowledge some films I didn't get to talk about. While I didn't think I needed to say any more about mainstays like Thelma and Louise, Heathers, But I'm a Cheerleader, and the work of Nicole Holofcener, I wish we could have discussed (among others) Daisies, In My Skin, Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Nobody's Fool, Me Without You, The Watermelon Woman, I've Loved You So Long, Set It Off, D.E.B.S., High Tension, Agora, Bagdad Café, Tiny Furniture, For Colored Girls, and Made In Dagenham. It's comforting to know that so many interesting films pass and challenge the Bechdel Test, as well as explode staid notions of what a film canon is and should be.

Irene and Raimunda

It's appropriate that I conclude with Pedro Almodóvar's 2006 feature Volver, which in Spanish means "to come back." In many ways, this film is responsible for the series. Late last year, two friends had a disagreement over it. One ranked the best films of the decade on Facebook. The other noted that Volver was missing, prompting the list maker to dismiss it as "overrated." Responding out of frustration with this list—which lined up with several reputable publications—we noticed many of the supposed "best" films didn't prioritize female contributions to acting, directing, and screenwriting, nor were they especially invested in telling compelling stories about women and girls. So we recruited a cinephile friend to draft a manifesta that included a list of films from the decade that celebrated these achievements, as well as emphasized global cinema and contributions from media producers who are queer and/or people of color. Many of those features were included here. But Volver got us started.

It's also as emotionally devastating as it is visually stunning in its focus on the fraught relationships between generations of female family members haunted by the ghosts of past memories and tragedies. Penélope Cruz should have won an Oscar for her performance, but the six principal actresses richly deserved the Best Actress award they received at Cannes. Cruz stars as Raimunda, a resourceful working-class woman. She is fiercely dedicated to protecting her teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), who she loves deeply despite the horrible origins from which she emerged. She forges complex, interdependent relationships with her female neighbors, divorced sister Sole (Lola Dueñas), and cancer-stricken family friend Agustina (Blanca Portillo). She also reconciles with her mother Irene (Carmen Maura, one of Almodóvar's earliest muses), who reveals herself after the death of her sister Paula (Chus Lampreave) despite reports that she died in a fire with her husband several years ago. In actuality, she went into hiding after avenging the sexual abuse Raimunda suffered at the hands of her father, committing arson to the love nest he shared with Agustina's mother with them inside. The thought of female family members sharing and keeping secrets amongst themselves and mothers tending to unfinished family business weighed so heavily on my heart that I called my mom immediately after the screening I caught and may have made lunch plans with my aunt later that week. It remains one of my all-time favorites, both within and outside of the director's filmography.

I mentioned Tyler Perry's film adaptation of For Colored Girls earlier in the post. In the Salon review linked above, Matt Zoller Seitz suggests that Perry is cribbing from Almodóvar, whose work influenced Precious director Lee Daniels. Though regarded by some as a baseless comparison, I gather the similarities. Though I haven't seen For Colored Girls yet, titles like Madea's Family Reunion, Why Did I Get Married I and II, and I Can Do Bad All By Myself employ high melodrama, divulge blood-curdling family secrets, focus on female survivors based on women in the filmmakers' family members who overcome suffering at the hands of abusive men, and showcase bravura ensemble performances from formidable actresses.

For Colored Girls film cast

The same is true of Almodóvar's oeuvre. Like Perry, Almodóvar has also been taken to task for delving into sexist stereotypes and representing his female protagonists and their exchanges as two-dimensional. I don't think those criticisms are invalid, though must counter with his efforts to incorporate queer themes and be trans-inclusive in his representations of female identity, which contrasts sharply with Perry's work. Ultimately, as director Michel Gondry points out in the liner notes of his Directors Label DVD, most of Almodóvar's films revolve around friendship and people helping each other. Thus while I am uneasy about Almodóvar's earlier work, which tempers frank representations of sexual violence and abuse with camp, I find the interplay of humor and tragedy in later efforts beautifully unsettling. Films like Volver potently strike this balance, which is why I keep returning to it and continue to search for films invested in exploring female identities in all their rich complexity.

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

thank you!

Alyx- I have so enjoyed reading your posts for the last two months (I can't believe it's been that long!). I decided in the last year or so to start holding the movies I watch to much, much higher standards, only watching movies that I think will teach me something, from directors, actors, and production companies that are interested in honest, thoughtful storytelling. Your series has given me more ideas AND been valuable as I look back on movies I have seen that I didn't delve deeply into while I watched. Thank you so much for your posts!

Oh, that's very sweet! Thanks

Oh, that's very sweet! Thanks for reading, Katie.

Alyx Vesey

Sad to see you go!

This has been a most excellent series :).

Thanks, Chally! I'm really

Thanks, Chally! I'm really glad you're on board right now. I found out about you via your interview with Kjerstin and have been following you since. Keep up the great work!

Alyx Vesey

moar! :-)

"So we recruited a cinephile friend to draft a manifesta that included a list of films from the decade that celebrated these achievements, as well as emphasized global cinema and contributions from media producers who are queer and/or people of color."

Any chance we could get a link to or copy of this manifesta & list? I've been making my own for a while but I know my scope is narrow still...

Thanks!

All right, M. Kitka -- here

All right, M. Kitka -- here you go. I removed our names in case the other two authors want their privacy. But this is the whole thing. I squeezed as many of these titles into the series as I could and am still working through the list. Enjoy! :)

*****

We understand that creating a list isn’t the best way to summarize a decade’s worth of films. In fact creating a list is akin to creating canons – and we recognize that canons have traditionally silenced, marginalized, and absented female artists and female-oriented texts, queer artists and texts, and artists of color and texts that probe race and race relations (and not in that Crash sorta way). However, we feel it is important to give a response to the lists that tend to praise (nay worship) white straight men (whether in the role of director or protagonist).

This list focuses on exactly those groups generally absent from such “Best of . . .” lists. Are these the best films of the decade? I’m sure many of you will disagree and wax on about There Will Be Blood or The Wrestler or some other straight white male movie. But for us – as both moviegoers and academics – we often have to search and dig deep to find representations that speak to our experiences and move us emotionally and/or intellectually.

Though we don't agree about all of these movies listed here in terms of personal preference, we believe in cataloging a diverse range of film texts by women, queer folks, and people of color, no matter how problematic. This is far more interesting to us than once again drudging up a list of predictably (re: normatively) "important" films of this decade.

Although we have tried to produce an inclusive list, we realize that our list is not all-encompassing, and unintentional exclusions may have been created (for example, there is a notable absence of Native American cinema). However, we present this list as a starting point, a first step toward undoing the status quo canonization of the straight, white male.

Ghost World (2001)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Persepolis (2007)
4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days (2007)
Frozen River (2008)
Let the Right One In (2008)
Girls Rock! (2008)
Teeth (2007)
Saved! (2004)

In America (2002)
Sherrybaby (2006)
The Last Mistress (2007)
The Headless Woman (2008)
Whip It! (2009)
Punch-Drunk Love
Penelope (2008)
Ellie Parker (2005)
Cadillac Records (2008)
Gerry (2002)

Hurt Locker (2009)
Volver (2006)
Descent (2007) (***not to be confused with The Descent***)
Far From Heaven (2002)
Coraline (2009)
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
You Can Count on Me (2000)
Vera Drake (2004)
Away From Her (2007)
I’ve Loved You So Long (2008)

Lady Vengeance (2005)
Ginger Snaps (2000)
Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Year of the Dog (2007)
Girlfight (2000)
Mean Girls (2004)
Pieces of April (2003)
Bad Education (2004)
Mysterious Skin (2005)
Wendy and Lucy (2008)

Marie Antoinette (2006)
Precious (2009)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
I'm Not There (2007)
Monster (2003)
Revolutionary Road (2008)
The Queen (2006)
La vie en rose (2007)
The Savages (2007)
Grindhouse (2007)

Juno (2007)
Morvern Callar (2002)
I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007)
A Christmas Tale (2008)
Julia (2008)
The Piano Teacher (2002)
Broken English (2007)
Stop-Loss (2008)
Frida (2002)
Whale Rider (2002)

Sugar (2008)
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
Water (2005)
Say My Name (2009)
The Princess and the Warrior (2000)
Paranoid Park (2007)
Tarnation (2003)
Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)
What Time Is It There? (2001)
The Wayward Cloud (2005)

Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Tropical Malady (2004)
Elephant (2003)
Doubt (2008)
Honeydripper (2007)
The Baader Meinhoff Complex (2008)
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
By Hook or By Crook (2002)
The Raspberry Reich (2004)

Otto: Or, Up With Dead People (2008)
Born Into Brothels (2004)
When the Levees Broke (2006)
Me, You and Everyone We Know (2005)
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001)
Shortbus (2006)
American Psycho (2000)
The Lollipop Generation (2008)
Goodbye Solo (2008)
Chop Shop (2007)

Man Push Cart (2005)
Ramchand Pakistani (2008)
Spirited Away (2002)
Fat Girl (2001)
Green Days (2009)
Hump Day (2009)
Look At Me (2004)
Blissfully Yours (2002)
Before Night Falls (2000)
Chuck and Buck (2000)

The Hours (2002)
Trouble the Water (2008)
Hollywood Chinese (2007)
Colma: The Musical (2007)
Saving Face (2004)
Li Tong (2009)
Thirteen (2003)
The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2000)
Family Fundamentals (2002)
The Golden Compass (2007)

Last Days (2005)
Kill Bill (2003)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
A Single Man (2009)
I’m The One That I Want (2000)
Rise Above (2003)
Bamboozled (2000)
Brother to Brother (2004)
Dream Girls (2006)
Baadasssss! (2003)

Swimming Pool (2003)
Lost in Translation (2003)
The Education of Shelby Knox (2005)

Alyx Vesey

COLMA!

I'm thrilled to see Colma: The Musical here. I have literally never seen or heard someone mention Colma in a forum that was not specifically about it. While few films top it in my book, Ginger Snaps and Saving Face are also in my top ten (as is D.E.B.S., which you mentioned it the post.) Still, I know this list is great because even the movies on it I wish I hadn't seen, eg. Descent and Mysterious Skin, are compelling and unusual.

In any case, I'll join the chorus of deserved thank-yous; this series has been wonderful, Alyx. As with Tuning In, I'm sorry to see it end, and I'll continue to follow your work!

Thank You

I'm saddened that you're out of time and thus can't write about Daisies, one of my favorite feminist films. Thank you simply for mentioning it; it's really underrated as far as I know. I'm glad that you made complex Almodovar's role as a filmmaker--yes, his early work is problematic. Yes, he incorporates trans and queer discourse rather than relying on stereotypes for comedy. He's a complex filmmaker and should be regarded as such, equally criticized and lauded.

Me too, KatyaKahlo! If I

Me too, KatyaKahlo! If I could ever do a second installment, Daisies would be the kick-off. It's so anarchic and important and silly and weird -- I still don't know what to do with it. Thanks for reading!

Alyx Vesey

Question

Has anyone ever tried to look at movies that would not pass the Bechdel test with the gender roles reversed?

Yay!

I've really enjoyed reading this series. Thanks so much for your contribution and insight on these films. I saw Volver in theaters and really liked it. One of the things I liked about Volver was the relatively not glamorous character portrayed by Penelope Cruz, especially compared with her character in Broken Embraces, which I also saw in theaters and hated.

Quick question: Have you seen the latest adaptation of True Grit, and if so, what were your thoughts? I rather enjoyed it, but had a few reservations regarding certain scenes. Thoughts?

Also, it's a bit old, but check out The Secret of Roan Innish, directed by John Sayles in 1993. It's a kid's movie, but it's pretty interesting in terms of ethnic identity and family.