Cinema: Boy meets Girl meets Genre
I had an interesting chat with film studies academic Tamar Jeffers McDonald on this week's Viewfinder, the cinema programme that broadcasts Thursday evenings on Dublin City Anna Livia FM.
McDonald has written an analytical history of the Hollywood romantic comedy, charting its development from the screwball comedies of the 30's and 40's to the sex comedies of the 50's and on to their radical 70's incarnation and finally the sanitised formulaic efforts that have dominated since the eighties.
At first blush, such films may not seem a 'proper subject of study' but then you need only recall the importance both the Soviet and the Nazi regimes (I'm not aligning them by the way) placed on popular cinema in the cultivation of mass feeling to accept their relevance.
Screwball comedies were characterised by pithy innuendo and sparkling dialogue between the likes of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in 'It happened one night'(pictured above) or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in 'Bringing up Baby', creative responses to the repressive Hays Code, which censored any overt sexual reference in films made in post-Depression America. This reminded me of what Philip Roth said on returning to the States after visiting the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War: "There nothing goes and everything matters. Here everything goes and nothing matters."
Negotiating when the sexual act would occur, either before or after marriage, appears to have been the preoccupation of romantic comedies of the 50's when the optimism of the post-war generation ushered in a new candour while at the same time retaining a sense of propriety. Contrary to received opinion, McDonald pointed out that Doris Day, the doyenne of these movies, only once played a virgin in all of her thirty nine films, indicative of the fact that the era was not so sugar sweet as is usually assumed.
What changes in the 70's is the recognition that pursuit of love does not always end in happiness as a more cynical, or perhaps realistic, mood becomes apparent, notably in Woody Allen's Annie Hall where the couple finish apart, the last shot being of a busy street where we expect the pair to reunite but never do. However, with Annie Hall, Allen also bequeathed the standard 'framing shots' for every subsequent romantic comedy- New York streets and parks- which are to be seen in When Harry Met Sally, You've got Mail, Maid in Manhattan and on ad infinitum.
What McDonald dislikes about these films is that they lack invention or wit and instead have become mechanical product that verge on the puritanical. Indeed she has gone so far as to write a list of their recurring tropes such as the embarrassing public display of affection invariably made by the male lead or the inevitable 'spill scene' where the heroine splatters her hitherto pristine outfit with coffee or juice thus making her appear more vulnerable and to the audience more likeable(think Julia Roberts in Notting Hill).
Whether the form can be revived remains uncertain but McDonald has spotted some new directions like The 40 Year Old Virgin, a romantic comedy for men that combines gross out humour and the quest for love. But in the main contemporary romcoms, by sticking rigidly to formulae set down in the late Eighties, are failing to do what their predecessors managed, that is to accurately reflect social change. The consequence is that they are acquiring an eerie repetitive feel that lacks both romance or comedy.