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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (8/24/09) 4:29pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Some Kind of Wonderful
TV:  <none>
Books:  Henry V [Arden, 3rd ed.]

Some Kind of Wonderful
Some Kind of Wonderful is the last of the John Hughes 80s teen dramas.  It's not as well-known as movies like Pretty in Pink and Ferris Beuller's Day Off.  In fact, I hadn't even heard of it until Hughes' death (*sigh*) a couple of weeks ago.  I'd heard good things about it, so I figured I would give it a shot.

It wasn't that promising at the start.  The characters seemed simple and broad -- in particular, the 'small child with a 35-year-old's vocabulary' has become a tiresome cliché.[1]  And then there was the stalking.

I'm irritated that I have to deal with yet another romance that glorifies stalking.  Yes, Keith spends the first act of the movie following Amanda around, staring at her constantly, spying on her house, drawing her in his sketchbook.  Really, just a slight alteration to the breezy-synth soundtrack and you've got the audience warning Lea Thompson, "Don't go in the house!  He's got a knife!"

And frankly, I wonder what romance writers are supposed to do these days, because stalking is all but built into the 'movie romance' formula.

Yeah, I can hear all of you grousing, "No it's not!" and "A movie romance can be whatever it wants to be!" -- but here's the thing:  no, it can't.  Movies, all movies -- even the awful ones, even the arty ones -- are as rigidly structured as limericks.  A movie is about somebody who wants something, and wants it really really badly, and works to get that thing, and faces crazy obstacles to get it.  Sure, you can write a script that doesn't follow that formula, and somebody who's batshit insane might decide to shoot it, but that's not a movie:  that's just ninety minutes of footage.

Even the Dude wanted his rug back.

So when you're putting together a romance, and you expect people to actually watch it, it's really easy to fall into stalker territory.  It can't just be "boy kinda-sorta likes girl".  Go that route, and you don't have a movie, you just have the sort of meandering teen anecdote that makes you wish the teen had responded with a standard/curt "Fine." when you asked them how their day was.  No, it has to be "boy desperately likes girl."  And how are you going to show this without making people think uncomfortably about stalking?

And then, once you've got "boy desperately likes girl," where do you go from there?  Well, you could say that "then the girl likes the boy too and off they go," but that isn't a movie.  That isn't a story.  That isn't wanting something and fighting to get it.  That's just *waves hands* stuff happening.  So there has to be adversity, and the simplest way to introduce adversity that is to have the girl reject him.  And now the boy has to take extreme action to pursue her, and the whole thing feels even more stalky.

So even if there's no conscious or even unconscious *desire* to glorify stalking behavior, it still just shakes out from how movies are put together.[2]  Lord knows what effect it has on society.  All I know is that it felt creepy, watching Keith silently follow Amanda and her boyfriend around all day.

Maybe screenwriters will unravel this problem someday.  For now, we have Twilight.

Once the movie gets going, I'm much more on its side.  Some of the characters get layers and nuances.  For example, we see the younger sister deal with her family, and her friends, and the cool kids.  The biker gets the best line of the show when he gestures at the detention hall and says, "I don't *live* here."  So that's something.

But mainly what I liked was how quickly the plot becomes a great big mess -- and I mean that in a good way.  This is not "Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back again."  This is more like "Boy pursues girl who's already with a jerk; girl goes with boy to irritate jerk and get jerk into line; meanwhile, other, more self-conscious girl pines fruitlessly over boy; then things get complicated."  That feels accurate to high school, where the interpersonal drama requires several chalkboards' worth of football diagrams to properly explain.

Granted, sometimes the movie feels like it's on autopilot, showing standard-issue confrontations between (say) the cool rich kids and the outsider.  Yeah, never seen that one before.  But occasionally it hits these perfect, Freaks and Geeks-like scenes where everything feels uncomfortably real.  When Keith first asks Amanda out, he can barely force the words out.  When Keith and his dad have their no-holds-barred argument about college, it's one of those arguments where both parties actually listen to and respond to each other instead of just repeating themselves.

So all in all, I liked the film.  Also, I should watch Freaks and Geeks again.

Henry V [Arden, 3rd ed.]
After my brief foray into new material, I retreated back into reading a play I'd already read.  This might be the most accessible of the history plays, just by dint of its clear, obvious structure:  England fights France; England wins.  Even though the play takes erudite detours into Salic Law and monarchial negotiations, an audience is hard-wired to follow a story of two bunches of guys who are trying to kill each other with pointy sticks.

The introduction to this edition is -- well, it's not all that great, but it's different, and that's something.  Editor T. W. Craik takes detours into speculating about how the audience responds to the play in performance[3] and what Shakespeare might have intended by structuring it the way he did.  It's not necessarily rock-solid academic scholarship, but it makes for a welcome break from the usual dry dissertations about disputed authorship dates, obscure putative sources, and vacuous "figurative-language clusters".

The play itself was an odd little read for me.  It's just really tough for me to get into the standard "rah rah, our country is at war" story, since modern times are characterized by far more ambivalent meditations like Generation Kill.  Shakespeare tells us outright not to worry, that it's a just war, and that this isn't about any uncomfortable questions you might have along those lines, but I just can't shut off that part of my brain.

This is not to say I didn't enjoy it.  I liked switching back and forth between the noble king and his noble war, and the comic characters bickering in his wake.  I liked having an exciteable chorus in place for to skip over all the dull parts.  (I suspect that this is the best possible usage of voiceover.)  And the bits that are famous and constantly quoted are justly so.

All in all, it was a pleasant read.

Side note:  the footnotes were rather extensive in this edition, though not as insane as the Arden Richard II.  Again, I took the liberty of skipping the footnotes' extensive quotations from Holinshed in the original Early Modern English.

More Intelligence Squared this week.  I find myself getting pissed off when panelists argue badly.  It's not quite to the point where I'm shouting "YOU'RE ANSWERING A DIFFERENT QUESTION FROM WHAT YOU WERE ASKED" at the car stereo, but it sometimes gets close.

For next time:  more Intellgence Squared, more Pushing Daisies, and I'll start in on Coriolanus (A play I haven't read before!  Aieee!).  Then:  off to vacation-times, and very little media consumption.

[1] Give the kid full-on Asperger's Syndrome, and maybe we're getting somewhere.  Ah well.

[2] Oddly I'm reminded of a joke that apthorpe told me:
Q:  Why are there so many phallic symbols in Top Gun?
A:  Because it's hard to make a giant metal vagina go Mach 2.

[3] Craik's description of a hypothetical audience's profound and constant confusion while watching a performance of the quarto edition of Henry V was one of the high points of the introduction.

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Date:Monday (8/24/09) 5:11pm
A movie is about somebody who wants something, and wants it really really badly, and works to get that thing .... Maybe screenwriters will unravel this problem someday.

I realize how facile this is going to sound, but, uh, maybe the first step is in not regarding The Girl as a thing? As something to be gotten?

I mean, I'm not objecting to your using the word here, both because you were just making a general point about plot structure and because, sadly, the word is pretty applicable in this and many other cases.

But seriously, the more pop media I consume the more this drives me crazy, and it turns up even in stuff I quite like: the whole Quest To Win/Deserve The Girl narrative. (See: Groundhog Day, a movie I love, but which has a love interest who's an inspiration for the hero's emotional development and an object of longing, but who at the end of the story doesn't know WTF is happening or why her new guy has "suddenly" become a paragon and deserving of her wide-eyed admiration. He now knows way too much about her, and we already had a demonstration of why that's creepy. Is he going to fill her in on that, someday, or what?)

Maybe that's how it still feels to a lot of guys, and that plot is an expression of that, but it feels like part of the whole weird morass of perceiving women as unknowable, probably unreasonable Other who must be catered to and strategized about and sometimes lied to, but is so seldom actually approached in friendly good faith.

See Say Anything for a good counter example. I know very few women who don't swoon over Lloyd Dobler. Meanwhile, Diane has her own story going on which is not principally concerned with getting a guy. They get to be co-main characters.

If you really want an answer to the question of where romance should go from here, well, there's a whole Romance section in every bookstore, mostly written by women, and there are a lot of women online who like to write romantic stories.

These kinds of romances are not usually about just one character trying to get the other. They're about two characters interacting. Sometimes one character is the clear protagonist; more often there are POV shifts between the two main characters. But they're both given agency, and they both have objectives which may or may not revolve around getting the other. (Also: what does the term "getting" imply, here? Sex, commitment, a date to the prom, marriage and a big house? What?)

And if you want a dated but still hilarious illustration of why reducing a love interest into something to build elaborate fantasies about doesn't really work out, I recommend The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn Monroe's character is actually listed as "The Girl."


ETA: Mind you, I haven't seen Some Kind of Wonderful in, like, ten years, so the above rant might actually not be all that applicable. Nevertheless.

Weird fact, though: Twilight? Despite being currently synonymous with stalking? Is really not about the guy wanting the girl and going all-out to win her over. Kind of the reverse, really.
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Date:Monday (8/24/09) 7:06pm

First off:  sorry to have touched a nerve there. :(

I think we're in accord on several points here:
1.  That was some really unfortunate phrasing on my part.  I offer my apologies, even if nobody is asking for them.
2.  The objectification of The Girl in so many film scripts absolutely stems from sexism, both in the industry and society at large.
2b.  The glorification of stalking in so many film scripts does too, and therefore --
3.  Less sexism would indeed be a sensible first step to correcting these disturbing tendencies.

Moving on to the "telling innocentsmith stuff she already knows" part of this post, I'd say that even if there were *no* sexism in the world, we'd still have The Girl problems.  Why?  I believe movie scripts are an inherently "other-ing" format.

Let's pick a goal that has nothing to do with romance.  Let's say a guy is trying to win a hot-dog-eating contest (and twelve-year-old me titters uncontrollably).  Say the guy has a coach.  That coach might have his own agency, plot, goals, etc.  But all he really needs to be for the movie to work is somebody who encourages the hero and provide helpful advice.  In a lame script, that's all he does.

Put another way:  the bare minimum that a character provides to a film is their role as it relates to the hero.  A *good* movie will provide all the characters with their own inner life, their own agency, their own... well, 'character'.  But most movies are not good movies.  And in a bad movie about love, well, the bare minimum you need the love interest to do is to sit there and be hard to win over.  Like a thing.

(Side note:  many argue that this 'goal-oriented' nature of movie storylines is inherently masculine.  I'm agnostic about this, but note that it would make sense, given that the industry is run by men and geared towards teenage boys.)

So, again:  agreed that this objectification reflects sexism in society.  My point is that this objectification resonates really strongly with the quest-y way movies are put together, and that sucks.

Regarding romance in prose fiction, it does make a lot of sense that a medium written largely-by and largely-for women would reflect less of these sexist tendencies.  I suspect, though, that the medium also has an effect.  It's much easier to create a *novel* in which multiple characters have inner lives and agency than it is to create a *movie* with those qualities, no?

I'm out of my depth here, but I would suspect that romantic films aimed at women would do this worse than romantic novels aimed at women.  Furthermore, I would suspect that those same films would still do better than movies made by-and-for men, movies that would much more strongly reflect that society-wide, woman-as-prize-thing narrative.

Of course, sometimes when a film does go the dual-protagonist route, it pays off big-time.  Say what you will about Titanic, but Jack and Rose both had their own storylines going on.

(And good point about Twilight -- I hadn't thought of it like that.)
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Date:Tuesday (8/25/09) 3:59am
It's not so much that you struck a nerve as that, well, I'm interested in the whole question of fictional romance and how it represents prevailing gender roles. I hope you're not reading this as a criticism of you personally, because it's really not! You just raised some questions that I have strong opinions about. ^_^

Regarding romance in prose fiction, it does make a lot of sense that a medium written largely-by and largely-for women would reflect less of these sexist tendencies.

Oooh, boy, I wouldn't be too sure about that, though. Women are by no means immune to institutional or personal misogyny. It's just sort of differently aimed.

I had a super-long expansion on this theme typed up, about fandom misogyny and the conservative streak of most mainstream romance and how that all relates to tropes set up back in the days of gothic romance about female power being suppressed and then at last released in the end through the socially acceptable outlet of happily-ever-after, but I'll spare you. Just: this stuff is damn complicated, and the wish fulfillment-story of a woman (or a male character, in slash) becoming empowered and fulfilled through true love tends to require the character to wade through an awful lot of trauma first. Sometimes really serious trauma. Sometimes trauma actually inflicted by the actual love interest. Because otherwise how would she deserve her happy ending?

It's just that the story there is like: if you overcome these obstacles and are sufficiently awesome, then the guy will be unable to resist that awesomeness. As opposed to the male story as discussed above, which is more like: if you try hard and persistently enough to wear down the girl's resistance, perhaps you will become more awesome in the process. This isn't a perfect expression of either plot, I know, but it's the best I can do at the moment. :/

Neither of these tropes is winning any awards for gender equality, of course. But then, a lot of traditional romance starts with the premise of gender inequality in society.

My point is, there's plenty of great classic literature that follows this pattern; there's also plenty of tripe. So really, there's no requirement that the work be good; it just requires a different expectations about objectives, and how those can or should be expressed.

And as to the novel vs. movie question, I could write a pretty damn long list of screwball comedies and romances of the 1930s and 40s. A pretty good number of Katharine Hepburn's movies; a lot of Audrey Hepburn's, too. Barbara Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell.

given that the industry is run by men and geared towards teenage boys

But, see, I don't think this IS a given. Not really at all. Women have been in the movie industry from its inception, and even if a lot of their work was pushed aside or marginalized, they haven't ever been absent. They're increasingly present, now.

And geared towards teenage boys...well, a lot of the blockbusters, big action movies and comedies, sure. And those are big money makers. But I don't think Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts or Reese Witherspoon would've had careers if this were really true. There wouldn't be a lot of weepies, or costume dramas either. There's a lot of cluelessness, sometimes, about how to make movies appeal to women, but that doesn't mean nobody's trying.

And there's always the teenage girl audience, too, which can be an absolutely huge force of revenue, and frequently doesn't require especially high quality any more than the teenage boy audience does. It's just a different set of buttons being pushed.
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Date:Tuesday (8/25/09) 6:37am
"and the wish fulfillment-story..."

Interesting - when I read the Twilight series that's exactly how I phrased it, that it was some of the purest wish-fulfillment fiction I had ever read. I didn't actually care about any of the characters (mostly wanted to laugh at them, smack them, or both) but I was totally hooked - I really, really wanted to know what happened next at any given point in time. It was a very odd experience...

On an unrelated and potentially amusing note - one of my (female) friends from high school is now a romance writer and her books' titles are: Her Irish Warrior, The Warrior's Touch, Her Warrior King, Her Warrior Slave, and Taming Her Irish Warrior. Although I haven't read any of them yet. :)
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