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  Romantic Comedy: take I



Despite the current longevity of this site - nigh on twelve months, now...and a veritable epoch by current reckoning - I’ve yet to have any reply to mine flat refusal to review films, of whatever age...

This - along w/the drastic paucity of almost any form of reply to what I’ve hereto posted - has genuinely disappointed me. Hence, I’m gonna issue an open invite here: if there are any fans of romantic comedy films out there - and, I don’t care of what sort - please attempt some sort of reply to this one...if’n you read it...

Cause I’m getting damn-well sick of addressing a blank page throughout this process.


Enough of my complaints, eh? - and (clearly) time to cut to the chase...


Reason I came up w/this paricular outburst right now is simple... I’m damn-well sick of my favourite movie genre being (oh-so cuttingly) dismissed as mere “chick-flicks” - the latest excuse for non-”serious” critical attention - whilst purely one-dimensional (but highly-stylized, mind you) and testosterone-laden nonsense...like the Frank Miller-scripted Sin City effortlessly garners (in some ways unearned) critical plaudits...

Now...as one old-time Frank Miller fan - dating right back to the (groundbreakingly brilliant) work on Daredevil that launched his career - I’d have to say that I’m (deeply) sorry to deliver such a verdict on his big screen debut. After all, this is one of the very finest graphic storytellers of recent times...and, yet, I’d still have to say that his characterizations - particularly of women - have, in recent times, fallen off to the point where they come across as nothing but negative parodies of the worst excesses of film noir at its most one-dimensional.

This - to put it bluntly - is horseshit masquerading as character - and, lest you be mistaken...p.c. has absolutely nothing to do with said verdict.

Cause, my problem is...just when I was damn-well excited about a viable Frank Miller film adaptation, along comes this bloody excerpt (amidst a rave review, I’d have to say) that left me in gales of suppressed laughter. Because this wasn’t the sort of nonsense that any sensible viewer could (viably) treat as a “real” character... And, yet...here were (two) highly-regarded critics - one of them female! - falling over themselves to award said film high scores?


What goes on, I asked myself?


Answer is - and I should’ve spotted this easily - is that our post-Formalist take on all the arts overly privilege overt manipulation of formal devices over the (much more subtle) arts that realistically portray the nuances of individual character. Sure, this is an exaggeration...but, it’s a damn-well accurate one. As well - getting right back to the point at hand - it also helps us to make sense of the (consistent & very real) devaluation of romantic comedy in (all) critical approaches to film extant...

Cause...that’s exactly what I’m going to address in the remains of this essay.

Allright - one truism of comedic direction is that you shoot comedy at midrange - no (or only fleeting) closeups...and few distance shots...the sort that allow archetonic-style direction the chance to frame (mere) human action against some implacably artistic background.

So - right away - you’ve ruled out two of the major tools of direction, the favourites of, say Frank Borzage & King Vidor (to stick to the classics)... And, on top of that, the veritable guts of romantic comedy are the actors & the script. Consequently, a brilliant piece like Breakfast for Two (1937) - despite a marvellously witty/heartfelt script & consummate acting performances by all concerned - is (currently) still relegated by the critical establishment to the sidelines...despite the opinion of most who’ve recently had the fortune to view it...simply because its director was (basically) a hack...

And the rot doesn’t stop there... Not only are scriptwriters and actors - despite the (repeated) pleas of literateurs & (most) film fans - ignored by the (filmic) children of Formalism... No, then there’s also the - formidably negative - litcrit history of both romance and comedy to contend with...irrespective of “modern” film critics (repeated) claims that they’ve cast off such outmoded shackles...

Because, dating right back to the very beginnings of the “critical” enterprise - read: Aristotle & co. - the “elevated” genres - epic & tragedy - were privileged over the “lower” forms...read: comedy (especially) and also anything that dealt - in any way - w/ordinary people. And, well-over two thousand years later, we’re STILL damn-well offered-up the same bloody condescension that this model implied!

So...you wanna know what this means today? Well...I’ll tell you - and the (accidental?) confluence of Classical & Formalist “artistic” criteria is damn-well fatal for my favourite film genre. Firstly...any genre that plays the “unhappy ending” game is in (read “tragedy”). Secondly, action films - as the natural inheritors of the epic form - are definitely privileged over more intimate modes...(unless - and, it’s a BIG “unless”) they succeed in adhering to model number one...

Now...given that - in “real” life we do (actually) encounter happy endings - albeit they don’t always last, eh? - exactly WHY are these somehow verboten in critically-rated visual storytelling today? Well, I’ve given you the answer - right here - albeit in a schematic form...because the confluence of these two dominant critical traditions has meant that any genuinely useful critical appraisal of forms - such as “romantic comedy” - that fail to meet their so-called “standards” has met with crushing condescension...even before their (actual) merits are even addressed.

As soon as I lay said criteria out so bluntly, I’m sure you can (easily) think of exceptions to same. Still, any honest reader of this essay will have to admit these two points: unhappy endings are (much) more popular w/all the critics (read: tragedy), and filmic stylization (read: against almost any attempt at intimate modes in middle distance) is likewise privileged...

The Prosecution rests.

Cause, that was exactly the point I was trying to make. Romantic comedy - per se - is damned to condescension on two fronts...and, consequently, supposedly “attractive” pastiches (such as every Meg Ryan film I’ve attempted to sit though...not to mention the - truly - nauseating Shakespeare in Love) are saddled w/similar ratings to edgy contemporary works such as One Fine Day...or any genuinely warm (and risky) film like Ever After.

This - to put it bluntly - is condescension masquerading as criticism. And it damn-well ought to stop right now. Because...all fans of this - most-dismissed - genre should be able to EXPECT (just like the rest of the film audience) some real divergence amidst critics...and, hence, a real chance to build some reliable reliance upon those whose tastes correspond w/ours...

Instead, what we’re “offered” is, basically, a bland appraisal of the “plausibility” of the script, and the actors in said roles...shorn of any real engagement w/the film as an experience...despite the (undoubted) fact that, since the thirties (at least) films answering to this description have been prominent among the finest that have ever been produced.

End of rant...

Now, the main reason that I produced this essay today - albeit I’ve been stewing over its main points for the last few years - is that I just (finally) got around to viewing Amelie (2001)...having previously (and stupidly!) been put off by some critical comments re the film’s “sentimentality”. What I found, instead - and, I’m still cursing myself for having unthinkingly given-in to such unabashed snobbery - was an amazingly successful amalgm of traditional romantic comedy, self-conscious story-telling (read, for the unenlightened, “postmodernism”) and a variety of filmic techniques - especially the close-up - hitherto considered “inappropriate” to said genre. This is - purely - a ground-breaking masterpiece, and...it made me laugh and cry - repeatedly - but, I suppose, this is not within the critical “canon” as so far construed...

Joke is that - (correctly) shorn of its (supposedly) “postmodern” trappings - self-conscious narration has its origin in what we would now - unfortunately - view as “sentimental” fictions. The birth of same - as Wayne C. Booth established - was in Cervantes’ marvelous Don Quixote...and, if you don’t think the Don was “sentimentally” portrayed, then I’d have to say you haven’t even read the damn book! However - and, this is the clincher - the key link between same and all subsequent “self-conscious” fictions (given that this one substantially upped the ante) was Laurence Sterne’s The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman...and, you’ll forgive me for the pedantry here, as mine own Honours thesis was devoted to this (wonderfully-strange) novel...and I have a surpassing fondness for its unique blend of self-conscious narration, sentimental effusions, and an irony which enriches rather than impoverishes the reader...

And...as you might guess from that aside, I feel that Amelie similarly blends these - supposedly - incompatible “virtues”. To be sure, it isn’t as outrageous a meld as Sterne’s masterwork. On the other hand, I suspect that the film form - literally - would not allow such a hybrid monster to function effectively...and, that it was only the (peculiar) state of mid-eighteenth century written fiction that enabled it to be birthed in the first place. Still, that takes absolutely nothing away from Amelie, properly conceived. For artistic forms have their own strengths - and weaknesses - and now, finally, the romantic comedy film has also offered up a truly successful model that takes in, at least, some of the favoured devices  of formalist critics.

However...let us (please) hope that, in the wake of this, such critics will bother to subject their baggage to the same unblinking scrutiny that they have, hitherto, reserved for the long-suffering films under their gaze. Because, if they do - and are honest in their self-appraisal - it should become nakedly clear to them just how indebted they have been to long-discredited philosophical models of what art “should” be...and, how much better off we would find ourselves if they cast off said shackles...and genuinely tried to engage every work upon its own ground...



John Henry Calvinist