Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hollywood Fails Romance

Romance is a very popular movie genre in America.  The American Film Institute even made a list of the top 100 American romance movies.  It seems to be largely a genre for women.  I'm not sure if this has always been the case, but it at least seems sensible, although I myself like what I consider to be good romance movies.  Many people consider Hollywood to be very good at making romance movies.  These people apparently come with different expectations than myself.  I find Hollywood romance movies to be dishonest, emotionally manipulative and shallow.  The Hollywood narrative form fails the romance genre probably more than any other genre.  It is incompatible to the way real relationships work.  With all these faults, it seems that the best Hollywood romance movies are the ones that are best able to conceal the genre's inherent shallowness.

Romance movies do not reflect reality.  I don't
mean this in a cynical, romance doesn't exist, sort of way.  I mean that the Hollywood narrative form of the action-oriented story movie does not have the same structure as a relationship.  Real relationships are usually not very dramatic or are at least not very dramatic most of the time.  They are made up of little moments that are much too boring to put in a movie.  These moments can be quite special to those involved, but that is because these moments belong to them and the couples involved are in love with each other.  A loving couple can imbue chatting about their day at work or the latest Steeler game with loving touches, but the outsider probably doesn't care for a stranger's small talk.  Is it wrong to not want to put boring elements in a movie?  Alfred Hitchcock once said, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."  This idea is problematic to the romance genre because it is the little moments of a relationship that make it not shallow.  Big romantic moments are expressions of the love built up in small, everyday moments.  Hollywood romances involve romantic platitudes, characters making out and intense dramatic moments.  Heavy romance without character development is shallow.  What are these characters falling in love with if there is no character development?  They are just archetypes filling in a role.

Why does Hollywood avoid character development in romance movies?  First, there is a presumed element of being boring.  This does not have to be the case.  We enjoy these moments in life.  Why can a movie not engage us on this level and encourage our enjoyment?  If movies can tap into our emotions with big things, then why not with small things?  The right movie can be more like a life experience than a movie.  I'm not saying every mundane scene made by anyone should engage everyone, but I definitely believe there are ways of doing it.  Interesting characters can carry a movie and their stories carry more weight because they are realistic and original as opposed to contrived archetypes.  Another reason that Hollywood avoids these slice of life moments is that they are hard to write.  Just as in our own lives where meeting someone new or filling up time with another can be challenging, writing these moments can be just as challenging.  Movies have an existential crisis which is avoided by contrived, simplistic action that we can easily wrap our heads around which of course gives the characters something to do.  The little moments are often rushed through in wordless montage sequences, but savvy audience members can see through the cop-out.  It is not the same.  Some movies that do happen to have character development turn it into neatly packaged character exposition.  This very noticeably removes the random spontaneity of real conversation.  The conversation feels less spontaneous, real and exciting and more utilitarian towards the purposes of the story.  Great art is manufactured spontaneity, but finds a balance between narrative needs and goals and natural-feeling spontaneity.

What about cases where a quick, shallow falling in love is more plausible?  Sometimes people have been known to bond quickly over extreme situations.  To put this in a movie could be to examine something shallow without the movie itself being shallow.  The problem is that movies usually indulge us in the shallow fantasies of their characters and leave no room for anyone but the sanest viewers to admit that it will never work out in the long term, which is of course to stubbornly defy the actual message of the movie.

Why are the problems of the Hollywood narrative form less inherent in other genres?  Largely because other genres actually involve action.  In a movie like Black Hawk Down, I assume that the events of the movie were all dramatic.  There were no everyday, throwaway moments in the middle of that war zone.  The unity of the piece makes sense because I safely assume that those soldiers were very focused and action-oriented and things moved.  There's not a shallow way to do a military mission.  Sure, the characters should have some hints of personality, but the expectations in that area are not as high.  Most other genres by the nature of their content involve action and clearly defined objective goals.  They are objective oriented.  A romance is not objective oriented in the same way.  While the content of many genres better fits the Hollywood narrative style, romance is failed.

Are any movies of this style good?  I personally believe the answer is yes and I have much critical opinion to back me up.  How can this work?  Well the inherent shallowness of the genre and the idea has to be masked.  You need to make the audience feel that it can work or do a good job of implying what the movie glossed over.  A movie that many would consider the greatest romance movie of all time is Casablanca.  This movie is carried by considerably more elements than the whirlwind romance of Rick and Ilsa.  I would say the soundtrack and the song As Time Goes By really carries the movie and serves to show theirs as a distinct and not merely archetypal love due to the distinctness of the song although it would later become the archetype for many other movies.  The scenes from Paris, although a bit of a cheat montage, are well-done, have good dialogue and also involve the emotionally gripping invasion of Paris by the Germans.  You can imagine emotions running high in those days.  Lastly, I think what is most gripping about the movie is not the love story itself, but the moral dilemma of Rick.  Even if their love is purely emotional, those emotions are real and strong, thus making the dilemma of Rick challenging and deeper.  The love lost to higher ideals makes the movie great even if the romance in Paris was somewhat of a shallow indulgence by the characters.  Another old movie that gets it right is On the Waterfront.  This movie does involve character development, awkward moments and throwaway conversations as well as the high drama of the story.  Terry talking about Edie in grade school does not feel like narrative utilitarianism, but it still holds interest.  We believe in the characters' relationship.  The old movies of this style could be seen as more likely to be superior because they were made in a spirit of genuineness and reflection on their subject matter as opposed to just being postmodern homages to cinematic predecessors.

The romance genre is meant to tap into one of the universal themes of the human experience: man's relational element and our need for companionship and love.  Romance movies range from the deep, moving and insightful, to the relatively innocuously fluffy and shallow, to the dangerously dishonest.  At the end of the day, a movie should aim to be good, romance or otherwise, which depends on a multitude of factors.  The nature of the content in the romance genre provides increased challenges within the mix of realism and drama, but artists should rise to this challenge rather than dishonestly avoiding it.

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