Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Stoning the Romances

More film. Over at the New Yorker, David Denby has a long piece discussing the evolution of romantic comedy. It's a nice enough piece, though how someone can write a mini-history of the genre and not mention Billy Wilder (or Lubitsch, or Donen) is beyond me.

Denby's central thesis is that the recent spate of what he calls 'slacker' films, represents a reversal of gender roles in the movies, with the earlier formula of "she has to grow up and he has to get loose" being effectively inverted. In the old days, Denby tells us, men in romantic comedies fell into two distinct types - financial whizkids or cartoonish intellectuals. At any rate, they were all successful achievers, all men who "wanted something". Now they're just uncouth losers with no ambition whatsoever.

It's an intriguing observation, but I'm not sure it's true. Denby provides a number of examples, but I think he's cherry-picking. Take Cary Grant. In I was a Male War Bride his Henri Rochard is tetchy, immature and inept - there's even a scene where his girlfriend's friends sit around wondering what she sees in him. In The Awful Truth he certainly seems successful, but if we're ever told what he does (or whether he does anything at all) I'm sure I don't remember. And while there are certainly a number of driven, ambitious men in The Philadelphia Story, the character Grant plays is a former alcoholic who used to be a boat designer but has been spending time in South America working for Spy Magazine. In fact, the main reason for the failure of Grant and Hepburn's marriage in that film is that she needs to loosen up and he needs to grow up - exactly what Denby claims is the norm now. And while it would be hard to call either Ann Sheridan in I was a Male War Bride or Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth uptight, it's certainly true that they both come across as being the more grown up of the twosome - emotionally mature, clear about their own feelings and just trying to figure out how to get their male counterparts to see the obvious. And on the flip side, it's hardly as though male leads in romantic comedies have to be unsuccessful or scruffily dressed.

I'm not saying Denby doesn't have a point, just that he's exaggerating the difference between the movies of old and the new slacker films. It is true, I think, that male romantic leads in the old films were invariably dapper and well-dressed, and also often rich enough to not let anything get in the way of their romantic interests (as Denby puts it, they needed "to be wealthy in order to exercise their will openly and make their choices"). But their wealth, often inherited or somehow accruing to them as a kind of privilege, was merely a background fact, and didn't necessarily represent an ambition to get ahead or make an impression on the world in general. If that has changed today, I suspect it has more to do with contemporary definitions of what is stylish, and the greater acceptability (remember, we're comparing to the 30's and 40's here) of the casual, almost slovenly look. There's also, I suspect, a more active interest in what the main characters actually do, and a sense that the action of the romantic comedy should be more grounded in the everyday lives of its characters, rather than taking place removed from it all.

Where Denby is right, I think, is in the declining attractiveness of both male and female leads in these films. If male leads have become less ambitious and less elegant and less charming, so that you often find yourself wondering what women see in them [1], female leads, as Denby (accurately, I think) asserts, have become blander and less joyful. Less sparkling wit, more stolid self-seriousness.

In the old movies, recognition, for the audience, was instant. You only had to watch the first five minutes of the film to know that these two people, both almost supernaturally attractive in their own right, were meant to be together, and you watched with amused delight as they parried and fenced their own way to this conclusion. In the new films the attractiveness of both parties is a little less obvious, so that the character's discovery of who they were meant to be with closely parallels (and sometimes outstrips) the audience's equivocality about the character. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how you feel about realism in romantic comedy, but there it is.

What's interesting, and what Denby doesn't speculate much about, is what's driving this shift (whatever that shift may actually consist of). One could argue, of course, that changing gender roles in society, and the growing independence of women has caused male anxiety to get sublimated into a changing romantic equation in the movies - with slack, unsuccessful men being feted as (unlikely) heroes and successful (and therefore threatening) women being portrayed as bland, joyless corporate slaves - so that the new romantic comedies are merely a prop against male emasculation. But that's too easy.

What I think is really going on is that the increasing directness of socio-sexual relations is forcing filmmakers to find new difficulties to place in their protagonist's path. In a world where the proprieties had to be maintained and there were rules about how men and women were supposed to behave, getting to the point where you both acknowledged your interest in each other required the mannered dance of repartee that the old comedies were built around. If you were a woman interested in a man, for example, you couldn't just come out and tell him so (at least not in the movies), you had to manipulate him into asking you. That worked in the 40's, I suppose, because it reflected the social realities of the time, but in our more communication obsessed age it would seem just silly. If two such incredibly attractive were to meet in a movie today, they could (horrors!) just tell each other that they were interested and be in bed before the ushers had finished seating the last stragglers. And without the problems of parental disapproval, family feuds, class distinctions or any of the dozen other tropes that our own Bollywood films have long survived on, what would stop them, at that point from living happily ever after? Since Shakespeare (if not before), romantic comedy has been built on the knowledge that "the course of true love never did run smooth" - and making the two people involved only dubiously attractive is just the latest (and perhaps the cleverest) of all the traditional difficulties that lovers have to surmount. If there is a reversal here, it's from the question "what's stopping these two from getting together" to "what's making these two want to get together" - the resolution of that question, in each case, being the substance of the film.

Personally, the thing that's always struck me about the new romantic comedies vs. the old ones is that the old classics seem to understand that they're meant to be comedies, and romantic is just an adjective, signifying only that one element of the plot is the love of two people for each other. Watch The Awful Truth or Bringing up Baby and you'll be laughing right through to the last scene, but watch any of the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks schlock that passed for romantic comedy when I was growing up (and gave, in my opinion, the genre a bad name) and you'll get about a half an hour of clever laughs, followed by another half hour of borderline bittersweet amusement, followed by a final half hour of the most sickeningly saccharine sentimentality, complete with eyes brimming with tears and plaintive jazz. Obviously, there's a selection bias here - I'm sure there were plenty of such movies made back in the 40's that simply haven't lasted - but I think the real test of a great romantic comedy is whether you're still laughing in the last ten minutes of the film.

Phew! All that said, it's an interesting article, and how can you not love a man who, in speaking of Annie Hall and Manhattan says "they took romantic comedy to a level of rueful sophistication never seen before or since". Hear, hear!

[1] Okay, so I'm jealous. But let's face it, if you were me, wouldn't you want to live in the Woody Allen world where gorgeous women regularly fall for physically unimpressive, smart-talking, Bergman-loving neurotics, instead of a world where women will fall over themselves to date some uber-cool slacker dude who owns a used record store, provided he looks like John Cusack?


Alok said...

That worked in the 40's, I suppose, because it reflected the social realities of the time, but in our more communication obsessed age it would seem just silly.

entirely agree with this central point but only at a general level.

even with this communication obsessed age there are people who do find it difficult to talk about things which really matter. the existence of dumb reality shows or Oprah-style talk shows where people cry in front of millions, doesn't necessary mean that it has become any easier for people for open themselves up. in fact i would say because of all this commodification of emotions, the problem of self-alienation has only become worse, which can be a great source of a romantic comedy (something woody allen mined on of course) but there are just not enough writers/filmmakers doing that.

reg, the footnote I would be very happy to go to movies and visit art galleries and talk about existential reality with those Diane Keaton types... but affair, marriage or living with them... that's out of the question. Isn't that a nice lesson you learn from films like Manhattan (i just saw it on big screen last week, that too in manhattan!!)

Falstaff said...

alok: Good point about the difficulty of expressing emotion. I think the trouble is that making comedy out of self-alienation takes a very special talent (which is why Allen is so brilliant). There are dozens of movies made every year about our inability to express our feelings, but they tend to range from the somewhat bittersweet to the downright depressing. Making a romantic comedy out of that premise is hard, simply because how do you show people struggling to express themselves and keep them both laughable and sympathetic.

As for not wanting to be in a relationship with Diane Keaton, I see what you're saying but a) At this point I'll take what I can get, b) while I agree in theory that neurotic women are hell to be in relationships with, this has never stopped me falling in love with them, and is unlikely to in the future and, most importantly, c)the point about Manhattan is that he doesn't just have Diane Keaton willing to date him, he also has (inexplicably) Mariel Hemingway crazy about him. Contrast this with something like Hi-Fidelity, where I end up with social life of the guy played by Todd Louiso. See what I mean?

km said...

Why is "Knocked Up" getting such high praise? It was very funny, sure, but IMHO, it was a racier update of "Nine Months".

??! said...

am not sure you can classify all romantic films into the categories Denby and you claim. Surely there are enough such films in which both the male and female leads are mature and successful, or where both are no-hopers who need to grow up.
If anything, Denby's example of "Adam's Rib" was contrary to the rest of his article - the film was about how two successful people still get along. Sure, their personalities were different, but neither was uptight, while the other was juvenile.
In recent times, what about One Fine Day (successful-successful), or Frankie and Johnny (hopeful-hopeful)?

Falstaff said...

km: search me. I haven't even seen the film and, despite all the hype, am not convinced that I want to.

??!: Oh, I agree. In fact, part of my trouble with Denby's hypothesis is that he's trying to establish a narrow pattern in what is a very broad spectrum of films. That was the whole point about cherry-picking. I'm not suggesting that the true pattern is the opposite of what Denby is saying, or that there is any pattern at all. I'm just providing examples that work against his thesis to show that there's more variety in the old films than he suggests.

That said, I'm not sure One Fine Day is a good counter-example. It's been years since I saw the film, but I seem to remember it as being very much in the 'he needs to grow up, she needs to loosen up' mode. Sure, both characters are successful professionally, but that's not what this is about.

??! said...

right, get the point.
and yeh, perhaps OFD wasn't the best example, but it was just off-the-cuff - which probably points a lack of really good recent rom-com films one can point to (again, your point).

Anonymous said...

i think (IMHO,i may add!)you'r bound to take the fun out of living with so much of analysis