Monday, 16 February 2009

Film: Surviving a Romantic Comedy

This weekend, I found myself wondering how many couples don’t survive a romantic comedy. If you type “Romantic Comedies build high expectations + Study” into Google, you will be astonished at the number of sources that will tell you that studies have shown that a romantic comedy will ruin you relationships, tarnish your expectations and probably run off with your partner in the process.

I can see how this happens. You picture any romantic comedy that you might have seen, and no matter how cool and clever you are, you will have seen one at some point, and try to imagine the dialogue between a couple immediately after:
- “Wasn’t it sweet when [character] did [disgustingly sweet thing]?”
- “Yeah, I suppose it was.”
- *pause*
- “Why do you never do that sort of thing?”

Whenever something sweet happens in one of these films, you can practically feel the disappointment steaming out of one part of a partnership as the events are so dissonant with people’s personal experiences.

Romantic comedies are incredibly sickly sweet, specifically designed and constructed to tug small strings at the side of your mouth forcing you to smile shamefully, or feel waves of relief when things work out well. They also do just that: they work out well. Everything falls into place, there’s never any real ambiguity and if you can’t see the ending coming within the first few minutes then you’re probably asleep. It is an absolute no-brainer that this level of ease with which the specially-designed-to-be-liked-and-pitied characters trip through their problems builds up highly unrealistic expectations.

I was dragged along to see “He’s Just Not That In To You”, which considering it is a film based on a book based on a line from an episode of Sex and the City, it wasn’t bad, but at the same time it was still a romantic comedy building up unrealistic expectations. The irony here was that for about 90% of the film, it was trying to say that unrealistic expectations are unrealistic. The theme is that people torment themselves by avoiding the obvious truth of somebody not really liking them by making up stupid excuses. I liked this, until it completely phoned it in at the end and flip flopped back to a traditional RomCom ending where everyone lived happily ever after. It was almost as if they had a complete film with the exception of a final scene, and the producers decided that nobody would publish the damn thing unless it had a positive ending and everyone ended up paired off, compromising the rest of the film’s message that it had been building up to moderate levels of success.

The “everyone getting paired off together and being happy” aspect isn’t new. It is in fact an aspect of Shakespearean comedies that all characters, even the little side characters that get hardly any stage time, get paired off in the closing scenes. If you think about any film that purports to be a comedy, not just romantic comedies, this is incredibly common and by now appears to be built in to the genre. It has been taken to a whole new level with romantic comedies as not only does it adhere to this aspect, but the whole story itself builds up to that end. It’s no longer an aspect of the ending, it is the ending. If you take an example of one of the worst offenders at this, “Love Actually”, one of the most annoying titles in the history of film, this appears to be a film entirely crafted on the aspect of building up to happy ending whilst complete eschewing any form of coherent plot. All you have left is a series of character obtaining various different relationships, and the characters are all tenuously connected to each other, which sometimes gives you a cheap thrill at trying to work out how or why they’re in the film in the first place but that's about it. The only real twist in Love Actually is that a couple of the relationships don’t end in a traditionally happy sense, which may be a new trend that’s worming its way into films now, as there’s a similar aspect in “He’s Just Not That In To You”, but it still doesn’t too anything to take the “sickly sweet” subject matter anywhere near the territory of “Edgy”.

What the film did have a lot of is “if [your partner] is doing [something], then it means [something else] is happening” and the something was one of several things that happens in every relationship, and the something else was always something very negative. As Fien and I were leaving the cinema, we agreed that the film could have been more of a relationship killer than people may have realised before going into it, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few slightly perplexed boyfriends and girlfriends finding new reasons to analyse their partner’s behaviour.

I’m not showing a bitter streak here, and if I am, it’s not my intention. I don’t hate these sorts of films. I’d like to, and they aren’t things I go out of my way to see, but when I do find myself watching them I regrettably sometimes enjoy them, even if it is only for a few short laughs. “He’s Just Not That In To You” was faintly depressing in the way it revolved around a host of characters obsessed by who they were or were not in a relationship with, or who they were or were not sleeping with and constantly leaving messages on answer phones saying “call me” in slightly shrill desperate voices and wondering why things weren’t working out like they do in a romantic comedy, which of course they did in the end for the most part. However, at the same time there were some amusing moments, even if some of those amusing moments came from the group of girls in front of us grasping pivotal plot moments just a couple of seconds after they appeared on the screen.

It’s difficult to distance reality from fiction, even cliché ridden seen-it-before-a-million-times fiction, and there will often be a little shred of doubt after having seen a film of this nature that maybe everything that just happened on the screen is accurate and what’s meant to happen. Maybe the makers of these films are trying to help people and warn them not to fall into unfulfilling relationships and maybe I’m barking up completely the wrong tree by complaining; after all, I met my girlfriend through the most improbable and unexpected of ways and we’re for the most part blissfully happy together, so maybe I should be standing on my soap box saying “it’s all true!” but for the time being, I can’t help feeling that too much escapism will make you think you have no choice but to escape.

Additional Notes:

Admittedly the first couple of sources for romantic comedies ruining your life are a blogspot blog, and you should never believe anything you read on a blogspot blog, and the daily mail, so it’s probably best to take that with a bucket load of salt. I do however distinctly remember reading it from somewhere respectable, I just can’t remember where, hence why I was checking google in the first place.

This isn’t a bitter post about how a film destroyed my relationship. Fien and I survived Valentine’s Day quite happily, because Fien is a fantastic girlfriend and I am very lucky. I’m hearing from a lot of friends and colleagues that their day was marred by arguments and in the worst cases, actual break ups. I think a much larger, more bitter and bile fuelled post could be made about the problems of February 14th but I’m not in the mood to write it down this year.

A few of you may remember I mentioned a boycott on Odeon cinemas that I occasionally break because I’m weak willed, making it less of a boycott and more of just a periodic whinge. This was another moment that I broke said boycott, and was once again driven insanely cross by seeing a whole bank of premium seats that sat in the best part of the cinema that were once again empty, because nobody will spend twelve pounds on a cinema ticket. You can’t blame economic crisis, it’s just too expensive. What makes it even worse is that the bank of seats in question easily took up more than half of the cinema, meaning less people were probably in there than wanted to be, and they have to employ an extra person to sit through the whole film guarding the seats in case anyone has the audacity to move onto them once the film starts. ….I’m going to have to leave this here before I start shouting and drawing attention to myself again.

***UPDATE*** War Against the Spellchecker: The grammar checker suggested that the very last sentence should have read “I is going to have to leave……” Apparently Ali G works for Microsoft now.

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