Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Who Said Romance Was Dead?

Over this past Valentine's Day weekend it may have been me saying it. But personal drama aside, I'm really not cynical enough to completely disbelieve in it altogether. Like all good Americans I've gotten pretty much all my ideas about romance from the movies, and I often wonder if all my real life relationships haven't been totally sabotaged in advance by all that movie watching.

Last week, Nora Ephron published a list of her favorite romantic comedies in the Daily Beast. It's a very good list, but there are a few truly glaring omissions and one inclusion that truly baffles me. I mean, there's no arguing with likes and dislikes but calling Casablanca a romantic comedy at all strikes me as bizarre. One important thing she fleetingly mentions as being very important are plots. That romantic comedies seem to work best when they're about something besides the romance. This was also discussed this week here, on Alyssa Rosenberg's excellent blog. I completely agree with her that the exclusion of The Lady Eve and Trouble in Paradise are completely indefensible. I think what everybody is really talking about here is stakes. Which in the current crop of romantic comedies, simply don't exist. If the girl and the guy don't wind up together, what exactly will happen? Um, nothing. I mean, who cares? And the movie isn't about anything else so it becomes a totally pointless exercise and incidentally totally unromantic because it's just completely annoying and solipsistic and you wonder who would put up with these stupid self-centered people for more than five minutes. That's one of the reasons Jane Austen's stories still work so well. The stakes are sky high. If the Bennett girls or Anne Elliot don't marry they are doomed to terrible lives of penury.

There are some other films that I think are really worth talking about in the context of romance. Ephron's list has very few films from what we'll call the modern era: Hannah and Her Sisters, Splash and Sense and Sensibility (which hardly counts). None from the past ten years. I'll probably be pilloried for this, but I honestly believe something from the Apatow oeuvre belongs on the list. Crass they may be, but they are actually funny. They are surprisingly romantic and the women in his films fare much better than they do in most current Hollywood product.

But the biggest modern omission of all is Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight. This was one of the best movies of the '90s and completely and criminally underrated and ignored. Granted, much of the movie focuses on crime and prison and heists. But the romance provides the structure and it's achingly romantic in a way movies have mostly forgotten to be. I think it's George Clooney's best performance by about a mile and Soderbergh somehow managed to wrench a decent turn out of Jennifer Lopez. There's a scene early in the film where Lopez, a Federal Marshall, is being held hostage by Clooney, who has just escaped from prison. The two of them are locked together in the trunk of a car and they begin to talk. They mostly talk about movies, and it's one of the great falling in love scenes in film. He's certain that he's found his perfect woman, but the obstacles are legion. He's a bank robber who doesn't know how to do anything else. And she's Federal Marshall who wouldn't ever even think about neglecting her duty. After that great early scene, they only meet face to face three more times. Once, he waves to her from an elevator as she stands with the SWAT team sent to capture him. Then they meet in a bar, half pretend they are other people, and have sex (he refers to it as a time out, from their real lives, from crime, from inevitable disaster). The third time, she shoots him. But it's essentially a comedy, if a dark, violent and bittersweet one.

But to get back to Nora Ephron. I think this is as good a time as any to take a look at her directing career and to add her to my sporadically added to list of women who direct movies. She comes from a family of screenwriters (her parents wrote Desk Set), and was once played in a film by Meryl Streep. Her first screenplay was for Silkwood (also starring Streep). I saw it in the theater when it came out and have been using the phrase "scrub oneself like Karen Silkwood" pretty much ever since. I haven't seen the movie in almost 30 years, so I hesitate to say much about it. One thing I do remember was it was the first time I ever saw oral sex being performed on a woman in a movie (very eye opening). She also wrote the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally. The first film she directed, This Is My Life, is mostly forgotten, which I think is unfortunate as I liked it. In it, Julie Kavner (most famous for being the voice of Marge Simpson), the single mother of two young girls (Gaby Hoffman and Samantha Mathis), begins a new life as a stand up comedian. I love movies about women and their careers and their relationships with other women. They so rare, I can basically count them on my fingers. Bedchel's Law is rarely adhered to in Hollywood (or anywhere else to be perfectly honest). This is the point in her career where things get a little dicey. She proceeded to direct the two most successful romantic comedies of the 1990s - neither wound up on her list, by the way, and rightly so. They both starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The films are not aging well to say the least and the second one (You've Got Mail) is particularly risible for both its moral sogginess and its desecration of The Shop Around the Corner. She made a few other forgettable, poorly received comedies. But then last year she made Julie and Julia. She went back to writing about what I believe she's best at - women and their careers and their relationships with other women. It's adapted from two memoirs (Julia Powell's titular one and Julia Child's) so she doesn't get all the credit. But there are so many places where this movie could have gone wrong and it didn't. Both women have men in their lives and to my great joy, they are each relegated to the roles most commonly played by women: the spouse who either spends the whole film going, "I believe in you, honey, go do that thing you do!" or conversely, saying, "This thing you do is tearing our family apart!". But it's a wonderful film, about hard work and food and finding joy through one's passion and through marriage. My feelings about Ephron are so mixed, as what I'm now referring to as her mid-period was just completely horrifying to me. But in many ways both her first and her most recent films point to a mainstream, feminist cinema that seems to reflect the sensibilities of ordinary, modern, working women.

8 comments:

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

You know, besides Soderbergh's natural magic, I think part of why Lopez is good in Out of Sight is that the script was built to use her natural flaws as an actor. Despite her "Jenny from the block" image (sassy, in-your-face homegirl), on screen she comes off more like Joan Collins---she tends to be stiff, cold, and withholding, even asexual. Soderbergh had the bright idea of *using* that disparity, and it works wonders (as well as pairing her with a guy who could melt Venus de Milo with his purring voice).

And speaking of "chick flicks", did you ever see Alice Doesn't Live Here Any More, Martin Scorcese's 1970s women's lib tale? It's (surprisingly?) terrific. And for Bechdel's Law, Altman's Three Women remains at the top of the list.

Caviglia said...

I think you're right about Lopez. He's very careful to ask anything of her that's too far out of her range. It doesn't hurt that everyone she interacts with is really fantastic.

I could swear I've seen Alice, but I think I may be hallucinating. On to the Netflix queue it goes!

Another thing the film This is My Life got me thinking about is how few American movies are about mothers and daughters. I think I see another blog post happening if the Theraflu doesn't slay me first.

Caviglia said...

I just wanted to add that I adore both Collins sisters and J.Lo doesn't have the chops to shine Joan's Ferragamos.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Not just keeps her within her range, but actively turns her drawbacks into virtues. Her disconnected bitchy hauteur works really well for the character, and gives Clooney something to bounce off of.

And yes, there is a terrible lack of good mother & daughter movies. Someday I'll get to make my gender-switched remake of The Seagull, and that'll all change!

Caviglia said...

Oooh. What can I do to help you with the gender switch Seagull because this has to happen!

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Er, raise the vast amounts of money and star power actors I need to make a movie that requires two different shooting engagements in Alaska (or at least Northwestern Canada)...

CONFESSIONS OF A JEWISH SEX GODDESS, a novel said...

I have fond memories of "This is My Life." Much better than the novel on which it's based, by Meg Wolitzer. Gaby Hoffman is actually Abbie's daughter. Carolyn, have you read Mona Simpson's "Anywhere But Here"? Primo mother/daughter novel. Movie, feh. But the novel, something else.

Caviglia said...

I have the Simpson novel sitting on my shelf, but I haven't read it yet. I actually liked the movie. Gaby Hoffman is Viva's daughter and grew up in the Chelsea Hotel. Her father wasn't Abbie - just some random actor. Pretty serious counterculture pedigree, anyway. I saw her in the revival of Bogosian's Suburbia and she was very good.