‘Are romantic movies one big set-up?’
I find the title of this NPR piece about as offensive as some of the comments.
I have to say that I was pretty horrified after listening to a very simple piece on NPR earlier this week, and as much as tried to let it go and stop thinking about the interview between the three commentators, I just couldn’t.
Just to point out the link opens up a conversation between Air Talk’s Larry Mantle, Henry Sheehan, and Variety’s own Lael Lowenstein.
Let me qualify and state simply, that I’m a male viewer and I have a strong preference for romantic films and romantic comedies. I’m not a huge fan of action or horror movies, and I know that might sound foreign to a lot of people. But it’s rather simple actually, having seen enough brutality and violence in real life, I have no desire to sit and watch material like this played out for me on the screen. To note, this was recently a topic discussed on NPR in a different interview back in December of last year. My response is actually pretty text-book for people that have experienced trauma in life or have combat experiences. Unfortunately, I have both.
My wife, who is obsessed with action and horror movies, laughs at me openly because I get so much mileage out of these kinds of films and movies. Dr. Zhivago being the ultimate of time-suck for me some weekends. She put Saw 6 on the other night and I disappeared into my office and shut the door. She doesn’t even flinch or blink when people get mangled or lose a limb. She can do it, but I can’t. Watching Dr. Zhivago she balls up her fist and shakes it at the television. “He’s cheating on her with that tramp again!”
It is my opinion, but I am very critical of the gratuitous use of violence in film and movies these days. I also believe that when it comes to violence, the ante has been upped so much that directors will double-down on violence almost as a mainstay in places where it’s completely unnecessary and also out-of-place and they do so as almost like a new form of exposition.
The argument that I hear from my wife who only watches action and horror films, is that these are the things that the genre calls for, it’s not real and that she’s watching it for fun.
For almost every Sunday for the last decade, we’ve had ‘Casablanca Sundays’ at the house and with as many viewings that we’ve had, the film still has appeal and is a talking point between us all the time, although I’m not aloud to quote it anymore. We used to watch Blade Runner every Monday for almost as long (obviously not a romance), but that gave way to her busy schedule and now, I’m relegated to watching that alone a few times a month whenever I have the two hours plus at night.
The comments that were off-handedly punted towards Lael towards the end of the interview where she starts of with:
“Just to circle back, my husband loves Pretty Woman ...”
Larry and Henry: “Haha … a prostitute in a bathtub is the ideal woman?”
Maybe it was that statement that bugged me the most, because I really did find it not just dismissive towards Lael, but also incredibly insensitive and, well … shortsighted.
In a movie like Pretty Woman, you have to go back and consider what the screenplay looked like or maybe even if you have the chance, give it a read. It’s not hard as you think and very easily downloaded from the internet. But the thing that jumps off the page with Pretty Woman is the ‘themes’ that are layered into the script. The story has a Cat on a Hot Tin Roof kind of appeal to it. You’re discussing the idea of a man who has everything in life, runs in ‘first world’, jet-set circles and yet feels hollow and empty and cannot find a mate that emotionally and personally grabs him. Through the course of the film he finds a woman who has flaws, is not perfect and if taken at definition probably wouldn’t be all that much to look at either. Young girls who operate a ‘career’ on the streets as the film clearly evinces for Julia Roberts, don’t age very well and they do so very quickly. The point is that the theme of the film is actually incredibly noble, and where the woman looks objectified, it may not have ever been the intent of the original screenplay. Gere finds something real in someone real and that’s actually a very profound message, especially in times as these. But you don’t need to read the screenplay to get this, just watch the film, but do so realizing that you have to strip away some of the more offending layers and view it with a critical eye.
When Michael Curtiz was working his flock of craftsmen on the set during the production of Casablanca, no one knew they were making a masterpiece. In fact, Ingrid Bergman was so much in a hurry to get off set and begin working on the next picture, she cut her hair without a second thought. She had no feeling of trying to ‘archive’ her look for whatever press tours she might go on for the film like it is these days, because the simple fact is – no one knew how destiny was going to deal such a hand for the film. If you listen to the commentary on the Casablanca DVD by Roger Ebert, he’ll weave you a story about how the film was a box office failure. It did get good reviews, but it wasn’t singled out as one of the greatest films of all time. That came much later. Strangely, the same can be said of some of the modern romance films that have come our way, much like Notting Hill, The Princess Bride, Pretty Woman or You’ve Got Mail. Rob Reiner stated, regarding The Princess Bride, that the studios had absolutely no idea how to market the film and if people would even bother to go see it.
Meg Ryan’s films are actually a whole other animal as well. Time will probably be better to her than to most films of the same age.
I think the attitude that Hollywood films made in the 1990’s, and many of them seem to unfortunately fall into the pit with critics, are just self-indulgent drivel or sickly-sweet candy is pretty much off the mark and the critics like Henry Sheehan and even Larry Mantle who openly poo-poo’d some of the choices are guilty of doing what they were discussing in the interview, and that is marginalizing a film because of the genre and not on the merits of the film. But don’t get me wrong, there has been a lot of trash generated in the last twenty years that in a few years, people may just start removing from their DVD libraries voluntarily.
In fifty years, some bright spark will decide to remake a film like Pretty Woman or Notting Hill, and let’s just say for the sake of argument that they’ll unknowingly make a ‘Best Picture of the Year’ film, too. For the documentary and press kit, someone will trot off to New Lhasa and interview Julia Roberts, now in her eighties and she’ll talk about how Richard would’ve loved to see this film if he were still alive, because nobody knew back then what we were making. “To us, we were having a really good time and it truly was a golden age.” – and so on and so forth. People are going to look back at some of these films that we think are very forgettable and hold them up as some of the greatest examples in film because that’s what time does to all cinema. When you strip away the perspectives and bias of the present time, you get to see these things as they truly are.
It’s the themes that people talk about years later in films. It’s the depth of the story that students discuss in film class. The reason why Henry Sheehan was so effusive about Frank Borzage was for directly this reason. We can look at those Borzage movies in a very detached manner that we still can’t do with films like Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, The Notebook and so on.
In all honesty, I’m not really looking forward to the septuagenarian version of Hugh Grant tell us about the original version of Notting Hill, and how he returned for a cameo in the 2051 remake set in Japan. He’s the guy that comes into the travel bookshop and asks for ‘the new John Grisham thriller …’
“Sorry, sir. We wouldn’t actually have the new John Grisham thriller, er … because we’re a travel bookshop.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
“And besides, John Grisham’s been dead for over thirty years. It would be difficult to get anything new out of him. Wouldn’t it?
“Mmm. I see. Have you got ‘Winnie The Pooh’ then?
“Neville! Your customer!”
I have a lot of male friends that have never seen Notting Hill, and it doesn’t surprise me. I never tell them, ‘Oh, dude, you have to see this film called Notting Hill. It’s a romance and it’s cool.” No. I actually show them a youtube clip of Hugh Grant walking through Notting Hill and the seasons of the year changing around him through the beauty of movie-magic with Bill Withers playing soulfully in the background. It gets them every time. Why? Because most men are caught by simple things like the intelligent use of CGI, a well placed soundtrack and some good ol' male suffering. It’s the trifecta when trying to trigger a response from the male psyche. Ladies, take note.
What makes a film like Notting Hill so good, is not that it equally plays to both sexes, because it doesn’t. It plays to certain truths in life. Most men, in the course of their life will go through a relationship where they’ve placed a woman on a pedestal and made her out to be more than she might be. Julia Roberts plays this well and embodies the archetype of the ‘one that got away’ and the ‘out of reach lover’ by being the famous actress. It works, because when the relationship fails, the man goes away and almost ‘mourns’ the relationship for some time and all men have done this at some point. The ones that deny it, are the ones that never dealt with it or confronted themselves directly. Hugh Grant rejects Julia Roberts in the end because he says that ‘he’ll be buggered because he’ll see her picture everywhere.’ Well, that’s about as true as it gets and also a nice device when they show her movies posters zipping by on the double-decker buses. Talk about going to hell. Most men have gone through that and that is why Notting Hill, pictured on the Air Talk page, is the film that just won’t go away. And let’s be honest and admit that Hugh Grant actually is the white-collar everyman.
“Women are underserved in Hollywood.” Henry says, in a way that makes one think that he, another man, has the answer and how to better serve women and produce films of a higher caliber that aren’t the drivel that can be seen in movies like Under the Tuscan Sun and Sex In The City. Talk about making yourself irrelevant in a quick twenty minutes.
I wrote about the film Pretty Woman in this post, not just because I've used it as a plot point in a book before, but because the writing has some of the same strong plot and story qualities of a Steinbeck piece. Just because the film failed to really bring it out in an obvious nature to the general viewer, doesn't mean that it's absent. I found the movie very interesting on a deeper level, but like I said, 80's/90's films are going to need time to be seen as they truly are.
And yes, there is a difference between a film and a movie, in case you may be wondering because I’ve made the point of making the distinction several times. The Reader is an excellent film while Failure to Launch is a movie, and a very bad one at that.
Lastly, please don’t take offense or think that I was bashing either Larry Mantle or Henry Sheehan as I do respect and enjoy both of their work. I just happen to disagree with them here – immensely.