Do even anti-segregation films have no roles for women?

Whether it is done as intentionally as in <em>Elysium</em> or not, films and TV series form part of a lens that shows us distorted refractions of our world.

Elysium is excellent. As with District Nine, director Neill Blomkamp takes social inequality and shows it to be ridiculous and indefensible, while still letting you enjoy watching sci-fi. In doing so he may make as much difference as anyone striving for social change. Suddenly directors are members of the front line, part of the people that change the world. Just one question then, isn’t it ironic that a film about segregation contains only one fully-rounded female character, and even that role was originally written as male?

When I left the cinema my first thought was not “why aren’t there more well-written women?” It was how much I wish that I had written it. Yes, it’s a similar topic to his first film, yes, it’s also made from a short and that shows, but the impact of the agenda is undeniable. If he never works again, Blomkamp can retire knowing that influenced how people think about the way we live. Andrew Ellard, writer and script-editor, has written Tweetnotes on Elysium, as he does on many films (@ellardent). I knew he was critical of this one, and was looking forward to arguing, but he makes good points on the lack of depth to the world, characters, and plot, and the bolt-on nature of the love-interest heroine, Frey, and he is right. The film could have greatly benefited from his insight at a rather earlier stage than this. I still wish that I had written it. Why did it take Ellard to tell me that the character of Frey was not fully-integrated or even fully-formed? I didn’t just fail to object, I didn’t notice, and I’m a girl. I watched a film in which the second female character is a two-dimensional plot device and I just didn’t notice. I’ve seen this done so many times that I have clearly developed some dedicated neural pathways for just waving it through.

Blomkamp set out to write a film with “at least one central female character”, not an overly revolutionary aspiration in a film about equality. Elysium has a central unromanticised female character, but one that was only switched to female when “it suddenly occurred to him the character could be a woman”. Like the heroines of Salt and Flightplan, this role is strong partly because it was written to be a character before it was rewritten to be female. I don’t know why he needed to spot a character that he could gender-switch, rather than writing a decent female one from the start, and I don’t know why he felt that other characters could not be switched. I am aware that Blomkamp has taken on a role where you can never be good enough: fight normative values, and your film will always still be too normative. Even if it doesn’t contain only wealthy, white men, even when it critiques that very gated community, a film cannot avoid reflecting the wealthy, white male perspective that usually funds, supplies and distributes it. This is a film that sets out to teach an anti-segregation message and still failed the Bechdel test, which checks that at least two women in a film talk to each other about anything other than a man. We’re used to seeing films with only token female characters, and tests like the Bechdel help alert us to what we’ve stopped noticing, if not when we stopped noticing them.

It’s been a long time since comedian Richard Pryor balked at the all-white casts of films like Logan’s Run, musing that the future setting implied that “White folks ain’t planning for us to be here”. He did it so acutely and so wittily that he got people to listen. He didn’t single-handedly create a perfect and equal world, but he did start a gradual change in perceptions that got people to realise what they were acclimatised to. A similar creeping shift is gathering around Game of Thrones’ exceptional lead Peter Dinklage. It is hard for an actor who is four foot five to be remembered for his brilliant way with dialogue, but then it is hard for an actor who has to compete for screen time with zombies and dragons to be remembered at all. Dinklage’s dwarfism has nothing to do with his perfect acting, but it does dictate that the role he plays must be appropriate to his size. In the glamorous world of the on-screen, unusual physiques are disproportionately under-represented, yet Dinklage does not play a token role focussed on his stature or enabling the remaining cast. He portrays a complex and multi-faceted part, flawed, three-dimensional, award-winning, and now carrying top billing. Versions of the limited-range excuse have been used by many writers seemingly incapable of including fully-formed female characters, because women can only play women, and apparently these writers can only envisage men. Perhaps it is time to change what we envisage. We don’t need more strong representative characters, we need more characters who happen to be representative and happen to be strong. Characters who are casually short-statured, or female, or black, or transgendered, and also interesting, because of their personalities, motivations and conflicts, or anything that actually matters.

Whether it is done as intentionally as in Elysium or not, films and TV series form part of a lens that shows us distorted refractions of our world, that shapes the way we think, that reinforces and ideally challenges our values. If I’m shown a world with one central woman in it, I should notice. I should be surprised. I should not be impressed, I should be disappointed. As Pryor said, perhaps it is time we got on with making our own movies. Then we’d be in them.

A still from Neill Blomkamp's new film Elysium.
Sian Lawson is a scientist who writes about our Brave New World and being a woman in it, in the hope that with enough analysis it will start making sense.
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A renaissance of conductorless orchestras reveals the limits of traditional leadership

What could the modern counterparts of the first conductor-free orchestras, once a socialist utopian vision, teach our politicians today?

Moscow, 1922. In the bitterly cold first months of the year, word spreads among concert-goers of an innovative concert soon to be held in the Hall of Columns in the House of Trade Unions, in the Kremlin. The concept? A conductorless orchestra.

It was called Persimfans (an acronym: Pervyi simfonischeskii ansambl bez dirigera) – or First Symphonic Orchestra without a Conductor. By doing away with the conductor – the musical figure of authority – its founders sought to embody the egalitarian ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution; Persimfans was a microcosm of socialist utopia.

Before the Revolution, Persimfans’s founder, Lev Tseitlin, had travelled to the United States, where he became disillusioned with the structure of modern orchestras. He loathed their latent hierarchies; the ultimate authority of the conductor, the leader, section principals, trailing all the way back to the fourth desk of double basses. Under this system, Tseitlin believed, musicians were reduced to mere “mechanical keys”, which the conductor simply “played”.

In Persimfans, Tseitlin turned the internal mechanics of an orchestra on their head. Hierarchies were dismantled and socially egalitarian principles were instilled; all members received equal pay, players were free to choose their voice or desk (traditionally viewed as a measure of ability), and committees were established for decisions regarding performance and interpretation.

Players were required to study the entire score, knowing the part of every player in the orchestra (in traditional set-ups, players are only given the music for the instrument they play). The musicians faced each other directly to maximise rhythmic homogeneity, with some even having their backs to the audience. Any arrangement that implied authoritarian motivations was eradicated, replaced by a system that prioritised the collective.

Persimfans was fairly successful for a number of years. The enormously influential Otto Klemperer, after having heard a Persimfans concert, is reported to have said: “If this kind of thing continues, we conductors will have to find a new trade.”

But despite the orchestra’s initial popularity – and imitations cropping up in Baku, Kiev, and Leipzig – it had been disbanded by 1933. The exact reasons why are unknown, but it’s likely economic forces eventually took their toll, with players working long hours for poor pay – that, and alleged ideological fights within the string section (some things never change).

Once the original fell by the wayside, so too did the concept and – apart from a few exceptions in Eastern Europe – conductorless orchestras largely disappeared for a number of decades.

However, in the 1970s, conductorless orchestras underwent a renaissance. And now, numerous orchestras operate on both sides of the Atlantic with great success.

One of the first to appear in that decade was the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, based in New York. Although free of the ideologically-laden mission of Persimfans, many of its core tenets resemble its ancestor. It aims to “create extraordinary musical experiences through collaboration and innovation”, “challenge artistic boundaries” and “inspire the public to think and work with new perspectives”.

The orchestra’s musical plaudits are now numerous, having won a Grammy in 2001 for a brilliant album of Stravinsky’s orchestral miniatures. The orchestra also appears annually at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall.

But does the premise of a conductorless orchestra have any real-world currency? As Tim Thulson, a cellist with Washington DC-based conductorless orchestra Ars Nova, tells me, “artists thinking about political problems are, admittedly, like poker players who aren’t betting real money”.

Well, in 2007, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra became one of the first winners of the Worldwide Award for the Most Democratic Workplaces – an award that recognises organisations “based on freedom, instead of fear and control . . . allowing people to self-govern and determine their own destiny”.

How are the ideals honoured by the award practically enacted? And how do those qualities instil leadership?

Firstly, the principle that anyone can influence artistic direction remains paramount. “We must have all our players ready and willing to speak up, to stop the orchestra, to argue for their ideas,” Thulson says. “Even if they’re in what’s traditionally a non-leadership seat. If the presumption is that high voices get to lead, we have to treat that as a fragile presumption . . . We can’t let traditions make us boorish or lazy.”

But another, crucial, principle concerns sound – and how audiences react to the difference in sonority of conductorless orchestras. Whereas traditional concert-goers talk about “the composer, the sonata form, or the great recordings they’ve heard”, Thulson explains, Ars Nova audiences discuss their “concert experience”; the dynamism of the players and “how exciting it is to hear the inner workings of the music”.

This is a common positive appraisal of conductorless orchestras – their demonstrative, vital and dynamic nature. It’s an attribute often credited to the diversified origin of the artistic ideas that make up a musical performance. As opposed to the single vision of the conductor, audience members hear the collective conception of between 30 and 40 musicians.

Thulson views this premise as having broader social implications. “Pluralistic society,” he says, “gives us more sources of social good of all sorts, whether that’s ethical traditions beyond our own or simply global cuisine.”

Notions of pluralism are under intense scrutiny in the current US presidential election. Now more than ever, diversity and difference are under attack from the narrow-minded politics of Donald Trump. Harvey Seifter and Peter Economy, the co-authors of Leadership Ensemble: Lessons in Collaborative Management from the World’s Only Conductorless Orchestras, think the Republican nominee could learn a few lessons from the tenets of conductorless orchestras.

“Leadership ensembles are high-performing multi-leader teams that share and rotate leadership roles based on knowledge and expertise, and operate collaboratively on trust, mutual respect, emotional intelligence and integrity,” Seifter says.

“In each of those respects, they are the antithesis of the politics of Donald Trump, and the ethos of Trumpism.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Thulson argues, is the leader representative of collaborative politics. “Good leaders are servant leaders . . . They’re moderators whose first responsibility is to make sure everyone’s voice gets heard.”

Although a conductorless orchestra may seem like a radical parallel to draw, and while listening to the public may seem like a basic point to make, recent political events – the ascent of Trump, Brexit and broader euroscepticism – have shown what happens when the fundamentals of democracy are forgotten.