Jan. 26, 2011 - Issue #797 : Ann Vriend
BoyGirls who like GirlBoys
Genre- and gender-busting in the romcomCinema’s more genre-divided than almost any other medium. Just think about how much something as seemingly narrow as ’40s and ’50s noir—a genre that came out of an aesthetic, the shadow-play of German Expressionism—still lights up film, from the Coens’ work to LA Confidential and Sin City. One distinction between “movies” and “films” (if there is one) may be that movies basically stick to genre, while films somehow get beyond them, something like beach-reading or most best-sellers versus “literature.”
Take Carlos, Olivier Assayas’ 5 hrs-plus dramatization (originally for TV; the shorter, two-and-a-half hours film version is opening in Edmonton soon) of the 20th Century’s most notorious mercenary/terrorist, Carlos the Jackal. It seems like another entry in a popular recent, narrow spin on the epic—the epic criminal/revolutionary biopic. 2008 brought Jean-François Richet’s two-part, 4-hrs Mesrine and Soderbergh’s two-part, 4 ½ hrs Che. Beyond Assayas’ clear skill as a director, though—after such seemingly varied works as Demonlover, Irma Vep and Summer Hours—Assayas’ larger interests, connecting his films, are globalization (most obviously in the international corporate neo-noir of Demonlover) and shifting between outside and inside views. Irma Vep involved a Hong Kong actress’ view of the French film industry; Summer Hours had a sister who was living in New York, a brother who was moving to China, and another brother coming together in France only to disperse and break up their late mother’s art collection; Carlos was a Venezuelan who studied in Moscow, trained with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, fought in Jordan and carried out attacks in Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin.
These days, I’m not sure there’s a movie genre more undefinable yet somehow instantly recognizable than the romance and its partner in bed, the romcom. Used to be that the comedy and romance were pretty much defined by their ending—like a Shakespearean comedy, all’s well that ends with wedding bells. A movie concluding with a man and woman’s marriage, or a proposal, or an engagement, or just all signs pointing to happy-ever-after for our straight-laced couple, was a romance or a romcom.
Commitment meant marriage, even in the world beyond the movies (though Mona Lisa Smile and Reservation Road show the post-Second World War restrictions on women well enough), as Louis Menand noted in The New Yorker in his recent article on the significance of Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. Even 40 years after getting the vote, “it was almost taken for granted that the proper goal for intelligent women was marriage—even by the presidents of women’s colleges. ... Friedan quoted the president of Mills College citing with approval the remark ‘Women should be educated so that they can argue with their husbands.’”
Until recently, romance and romcom movies hadn’t moved much beyond this Mad Men era. But as divorce rates jumped, birth rates fell and the gay rights movement grew, Hollywood couldn’t ignore the obvious reality—the two-parent, two-plus kids family was an exception, not a rule—forever. Even so, recent romcoms are often “bromances” about a guy’s hangups with commitment to a woman or sex with a woman or the complications of a relationship with a woman—take most of Judd Apatow’s movies. (The now-fading “mumblecore” movement tends to go in a more interesting direction mostly through style and pace, using a more off-the-cuff, slacker/hipster sensibility to suggest the looseness of modern-day relationships.) Some of these guys—even in a failed romance, like Blue Valentine, where Ryan Gosling’s Dean cries, expresses frustration or offers up his feelings even as Michelle Williams’ Cindy is remote and repressed—act more emotional, honest, and are pretty verbal. So they’re acting in the ways the typical woman used to in an old-school romance or melodrama.
So, to make up for that, in lots of romances and romcoms, girls act like guys, helping their straight men—of course we’re straight! they squeak even as they worry, unsure of how to assert their toughness—feel less threatened by the advances pushed and criticisms made by Simone de Beauvoir, Friedan, Germaine Greer, Susan Faludi and other feminists out there, where women are, slowly, catching up to men in income and professional status. In the Farrelly brothers’ third film, There’s Something About Mary (1998), Cameron Diaz’s Mary is a Niners fan and says, “I want a guy who can play 36 holes of golf, and still have enough energy to take ... me to a baseball game, and eat sausages, and beer.” In The Dilemma, just out, Jennifer Connelly’s Beth wears a cool old guys’ T-shirt while playing ping-pong with her man in their loft and a Blackhawk jersey when she goes to the games with him.
And then, when they get back home? Well, sex on film was unthinkable in Hollywood just 50 years ago. Now, romcoms are all about sex first. In last year’s Going The Distance, Justin (Justin Long) and Erin (Drew Barrymore) tried to deal with just being sex-partners for a few weeks in NYC before she had to move back to San Francisco. Cheating spouses used to be the concern of the gumshoe in a noir film. In last year’s The Freebie, a couple gave each other license to cuckold for a night, with no repercussions. And in the Farrellys’ upcoming movie, Hall Pass, two so-cool-with-it wives give their hubbies a free pass to have sex with whomever for a week.
“Fuck buddying” is the latest thing. In Easy A director Will Gluck’s upcoming Friends with Benefits, Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and the gender-ambiguously named Jamie (Mila Kunis) pal around in bed. Don’t confuse it, though, with the 2009 movie Friend with Benefits, also about easy-lay friendship.
Right now there’s No Strings Attached, from director Ivan Reitman and screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether (a playwright who’s also part of “The Fempire,” a group of women screenwriters including Diablo Cody, who teamed up with Reitman’s director son Jason for Juno). Meriwether’s script, like Scream with horror tropes, is self-aware of the rom-com clichés—almost immediately after Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) agree to “Use each other for sex at all hours of the day and night, and nothing else,” Adam notes that, obviously, “you’ll fall in love with me.” Of course, the vice-versa happens, as it’s Emma who’s the guy: emotionally reticent, averse at the mere mention of a date, and basically commitment-phobic (though she has good reason to be, as her mother’s brief but touching explanation of Emma’s self-numbing reveals).
Before Adam falls for her, though, there’s a little of the usual bromance-bullshit where guys talk garbage about women because they feel hurt, a bit of dick-obsession and then there’s all the sex. At first, Adam high-fives a pal over having sex with Emma—does anyone really do this outside a frat house?—and the “sex friends” text each other, back and forth and back and forth, with some banal messages. The usual romcom stuff starts creeping in: a guy competing for Emma confronts Adam and warns him that he’s the mature one who “can actually take care of her”; Emma and Adam rather sloppily try to make each other jealous. That old, patronizingly patriarchal element of so many romcoms past—that the man takes care of the woman—is turned by Emma into a reason for not having any strings attached at all: “I take care of myself.” The difficulty with romance and romcom clichés, too, is that as much as they ring true, they also ring out as echoes of so many other movies. When Portman’s Emma later says, “I can’t do this,” those words are the same ones uttered by Michelle Williams’ Cindy in Blue Valentine and Barrymore’s Erin in Going The Distance and ...
But in a 24/7 streaming porn universe—Adam’s buddy complains to him that “I can’t focus on my porn with all this real sex going on all around me”—sex just can’t be that big a deal anymore in the bourgeois romcom world, a fact that Meriwether’s script smartly plays on. Sex and genitalia—even menstruation, in a refreshing addition here—are mentioned as often and as casually as mushier emotions would’ve been in a romance or romcom from an earlier era.
Now, beyond the physical and digital, love’s the real obstacle. Emma doesn’t want to hear the word. To her, rituals of romance are childish, so, later, their first date is couched by Adam as just pseudo-romantic foreplay to sex: “a real date ... and you can reward me with an over-the-jeans cockrub.” It starts off as a half mock-date, half meta-date. Adam, the aspiring TV-comedy writer, brings a bouquet of carrots and an itinerary, while Emma, the medical intern, brings a card with an anatomical picture of a human heart on it. Soon, fighting with him in a forest of streetlamps—a modern-art installation (Chris Burden’s 2008 work “Urban Light,” outside the LA County Museum of Art) of those moody little towers of light so associated with the noir and the romance on film—she ends the date prematurely. The story even, in the end, twists up the predictable panties of the romcom when it comes to the clichés of “go—get him!” and the wedding ending.
So, what’s next for the romcom or romance? Maybe a mainstream release that’s not so much what happens post-sex as “post-gender”? Where a film can involve non-hetero combinations and not be rainbow-labelled as gay/lesbian? (Swede Lukas Moodysson’s brilliant debut Show Me Love escaped that pigeonholing by embracing another genre—the high-school coming-of-age picture.) Or a post-human romance, where the romantic obstacles are beyond-the-flesh, even unearthly (as in Swede Tomas Alfredson’s vampire coming-of-age picture Let The Right One In)? More post-couple romances, finding love in threes, fours, and beyond (the HBO series Big Love is most delightful in its scenes where polygamist Bill Henrickson’s got not one but three headaches after making a dunderheaded decision in his extended household)?
I suspect the basic, perhaps comfortingly quaint, conservatism of the romcom and romance genres—a man and a woman, matrimony, love—will remain, but, like any relationship that’s been going on a long, long time, it’s most exciting, dramatic, and sometimes funny when it’s spiced up, its boundaries pushed, its lines crossed.
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