The Rotten Core of The Rom Com



Write something about Love they said. Ok I’ll write something wry and amusing about what I learnt about love through watching teen movies and rom coms I said.

It started harmlessly enough, by thinking about what I had seen as a young impressionable idiot that had left a lasting impression on my view of sex and love. As always when thinking of my teens my thoughts turned to John Hughes and the bratpack. It was all teen angst and unrequited love for Molly Ringwald round my way – the crazy dash across campus to tell the girl I loved her or standing on my car outside her house with ghetto blaster held high above my head. Her dad wouldn’t like me but her mum would see the diamond in the rough I really was. She might not know it to begin with but through my relentless pursuit she’d learn she loved me really. She might say no but she really means yes.

Hang on, I’ve heard that phrase somewhere before and I don’t remember thinking it was a particularly good one. With the recent #metoo revelations I’ve already found myself looking at my own romantic history and checking my behaviour to make sure it matched up to my perceived standards of gentlemanliness. Now I’m looking through a newly cleaned lens at these cinematic examples of romantic ‘shenanigans’ I’m not so sure the lessons I learned are quite as benign as I thought they were. Teen movies like Pretty in Pink or Say Anything actually imply that some low-grade stalking is a good way to go; and, if I cast my net further afield than ‘80s teen flicks, things only get worse.

Take the oft repeated movie scenario in which the female protagonist tries to leave her man, usually during some kind of argument, only to be forcibly stopped by the bigger, stronger male. Typically after an initial struggle the woman melts into the mans arms – the implication being: she said no, but she meant yes. The John Wayne pulling a fleeing Maureen O’Hara back and kissing her in the Quiet Man (as watched by ET then re-enacted by Elliot), Richard Gere stopping Debra Winger leaving the motel room in Officer and a Gentleman. Even in the cosily sentimental, It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart, as the heroic George Bailey, gets weirdly forceful and aggressive with Mary, played by Donna Reed,  resulting in their first kiss. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to romantic cine-depictions of what is, essentially, assault.

Take another look at Richard Curtis’s pirate radio set The Boat that Rocked. In one scene, we find Nick Frost’s character, under the cover of a darkened room, amusingly allowing the naive wannabe DJ to take his place in a prearranged love tryst, so the younger virginal man can “get his end away” This is, effectively, a depiction of rape as a ‘hilarious’ right of passage. Over and over again this kind of tableau is played out in mainstream films and I’ve never really questioned it before. Now, just talking about it can be pretty difficult.

A wry look at rom-com tropes is probably not what anyone wants or needs right now, and I’m definitely not trying to make a case for excusing male behaviour with a treatise on the influence of popular culture; but having started the process I thought I should finish it. That is more involved though than knocking out a quick essay, paying lip service to a movement with a discreet pin badge, or deciding that you can no longer watch such-and-such’s films. I think all I’ve got right now is the ability to call out inappropriate male behaviour when I see it. 

Looking again at the melting in his arms cliché, what I see now is a decision to yield rather than fight, because fighting could be so much worse than the result of the yielding. And there is nothing romantic about that.

(originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 40 – Spring 2018)

Warning: may contain spoilers



For me the joy of watching a films or T.V  has always been the talking and the dissecting afterwards. My earliest memory of going to the pictures is seeing Raiders of The Lost Ark with my brother and then spending the whole journey home choosing what our ‘best bit’ was (incidentally the best bit is when Bomber from ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ gets his head chopped off by the propeller of a biplane).
At school we would greedily dismember Ghostbusters or Teenwolf or The A-Team and then put them back together in the playground, playing out the action and reliving the experience. Sometimes we would have done this before we’d even seen the film, when one lone lucky prophet having been taken on the opening weekend to see The Goonies, memory clouded by a lethal cocktail of poppets and kia ora, would recount the action like some kind of fever dream, mis-remembering whole swathes of the story for us to reenact. The less said about the bizarre game involving a man who could turn into an owl whilst wielding a massive hatchet that came from just hearing the title of Bergerac, the better.
Slowly though this kind of enthusiastic need to know everything about a story, to own it, even before we’d been to see it was overtaken by a desire to be surprised instead. Trailers spilling the beans on every plot point, that would turn the need to even go to the cinema into a box ticking exercise, would be avoided at all cost. At least with a TV series you could be sure that everyone had seen the latest episode of ‘The Tripods’ and were able to discuss the impunity. That is until the arrival of VHS into seemingly every home of every kid in my school ,changed the way we watched telly overnight. The opening conversational gambit of “did you see ‘V’ last night?” shut down immediately with the reply of “No, taped it – Don’t tell me what happens.”
Even then though, you usually only had a couple of days to wait until your friend had caught up and you could discuss the thrilling face ripping-off rabbit-eating lizard-aliens of that particular seminal work in-depth.
Recently though there came a whole new hurdle to this kind of cultural excavation with the development of streaming and the rise of time shifted viewing. Seemingly no-one is watching anything when it actually goes out. The idea of a simultaneous collective viewing experience seems to have gone completely out the window, except for live reality competitions.
Around the fabled water cooler you can no longer be sure if the person you were talking to has seen up to which episode of ‘Mad Men’ until they clasp their hands over their ears with a shout of “don’t tell me I’m only on episode six”, so instead you preface every conversation with a vague abstract discussion of where you might both at in the action. Has that thing, you know, with the mower – has that happened yet?
So you retreat to the virtual water cooler of the online message board to discuss your latest viewing views only to find that the definition of a spoiler is even more prosaic than you thought possible. Take a trip down the rabbit hole of a discussion on Den of Geek or Bleeding cool and risk the disapprobation of legions of film fans for whom literally anything can be viewed as a spoiler. Knowing the cast list for an upcoming film can reveal everything about the story. A single still can leave them bereft in the knowledge of some finer plot point. It is almost impossible to read or say anything without prefixing it with ‘Warning may contain spoilers’.
The only certainty you are left with is that no-one, but no-one will reveal ‘The Twist’.
M Night Shamalayan has based an entire career around ‘The Twist’, to the point it is almost the entire purpose of the films. Quite often the twist ending seems to actually take the place of storytelling. It doesn’t matter how preposterous or nonsensical the outcome is as long as you didn’t see it coming or know about it before you entered the cinema. But it does matter if that outcome doesn’t follow the films own internal logic. For instance why in The Village (it’s the modern-day) does one of the elders, who knows the secret not just volunteer to be the one who travels through the forest to get the help they need rather than having to reveal all to poor blind Bryce Dallas Howard who is then terrified and confused by the whole damn affair. Rather than making us, the viewer, complicit in the deception along with the elders, we’re just played like some gullible mark by a po-faced con artist because for Shamalayan all that seems to matter is that he gets to spin round in his big high-backed chair with a smug look on his face and says “gotcha – I bet you didn’t see that coming!”.
Some films have great twists that make you want to re-watch the film to see if you can spot it earlier like Momento (the story runs backwards) or The Usual Suspects (he’s Keyser Soze) (even Sixth sense (he’s a ghost), to give M.Night his due, manages to do this pretty well) but if this was all they were I doubt we would continue to return to them. They offer more than just ‘The Twist.’
A brilliant example of this is The Crying Game (she’s a he) for which the keeping secret the ending became a cause celeb in itself but actually the film is far more than it’s twist. In fact the Twist itself left me confused when I first saw it as it seemed so obvious to me, I was certain that the twist was going to be that Forest Whittaker was an American pretending to be English soldier hence his appalling accent. Once the surprise was out-of-the-way the film becomes a much more nuanced study of love, loneliness, betrayal and redemption rather than a one note reveal. The problem with relying on the twist is that once it has been unwound there is nothing left to hold on to. Still at least Shamalayan has never actually used the “but it was all just a dream” clause – I’m looking at you Martin Scorcese! Just because ‘The Dream’ was a psychotic delusion doesn’t make Shutter Island (he’s a patient) acceptable.
I can understand not wanting to know a twist ahead of time but I can’t understand the obsession with spoilers in general. If a story is good enough it will sweep you up no matter how much you know about it before. How else is that we can watch films over and over again and keep getting more and more from them. After all I’ve known how Romeo and Juliet ends (they both die) since before I read it as a play, saw it as a film or watched ‘West Side Story’ and it’s devastating every time.

(originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 38 – Spring 2017)