The Movietrailer

Why are the three books angsty teenagers everywhere cite as their sacred texts all going celluloid at the same time? Can the world handle all this tender breathlessness, or will it make like a fabulous roman candle and explode like spiders across the sky?

 

 

Sorry, Orlando, but the American accent didn’t work in Elizabethtown (although really, what did?), and it isn’t working here.

 

 

Same goes for you, Emma, although because I like you a lot you get points for trying.

 

 

I would just like the record to show that Baz Luhrmann is possibly the last man I would have picked to direct this movie.

 

Ok, moving from angst to passionate, deranged ghostyness.

 

 

This might actually be ok? I like how silent the trailer is.

 

Not sure what to make of this one yet,

 

 

except that I used to have those overalls and want them back.

 

And finally (sensitive viewers, skip this one):

 

 

I’m glad that this avoids a Pretty Woman narrative in favor of two women building a business and a friendship. Brownie points.

BUT I am getting prettttty fed up with this whole “sex work is so boho-chic and empowering as long as it takes place in a completely non-threatening white middle class millieu!” trope. More on this later.

Ok, that’s all, folks. Any interesting coming-soons that I missed?

 

Update: OH WAIT. We should sneak a bottle of whiskey into the theater and go see this.

 

 

This is exactly the kind of movie they invented brown paper bags for.

 

Ruby Sparks

Ruby Sparks markets itself as sweet romantic comedy, opens as delicious satire, slides seamlessly into third-act feminist horror film, and blows it for a closing bid at bittersweet romantic comedy. Surprisingly, it’s not at all confusing to watch.

We meet Calvin at his vintage typewriter. Calvin is a Sensitive Male, you see, and sensitive males write their novels on vintage typewriters. They also sport gingham socks, scruffy hair, and tortoise-shell glasses. They may or may not hold a teddy bear on their shrink’s couch (I blame you, Sebastian Flyte), but they always display a profound self-consciousness and halting inability to connect with others (Calvin is almost a recluse).

This is especially pronounced around women, towards whom they assume a posture of wistful self-deprecation and impotence–until the right girl, the special girl, the volatile and warm and artistic girl waltzes into their lives and unearths the gems that they are.

Of course, if these girls prove a little scarcer-found off the silver screen, you can always write one off the page and into your life. Ruby Sparks creates a brilliant premise out of a simple truth: the manic pixie angel dream-healing indie-man-whisperer whatever is entirely a construction of the immature male psyche. So they made a movie where the manic pixie is literally a construction of the immature male psyche. It’s awesome.

Right after Calvin meets Ruby and wraps his head around the fact that yes, she is real, they have a moonlit poolside tete-tete. Why did you date those jerks, he asks (he, of course, has written her as sexually vulnerable). Because I hadn’t met you, she says, or something along those lines.  You can see Calvin’s face light up, or maybe I just imagined it, because finally, everything is making sense–finally these beautiful girls are realizing that it’s they who are only partially whole without him, that they’ve been making all the mistakes–finally, he’s getting the adoring sprite he deserves for being sensitive, and sad, and purposely emasculated, and Such A Nice Guy, dammit.

It’s sharp spotlight on the cult of the dreamy sad-sack, and the subtly narcissistic version of male entitlement that often pervades the identity. A particularly deft touch is Calvin’s brother–a matter-of-fact, iron-pumping, casually chauvinistic he-man who is nevertheless both the only character in a mature and responsible relationship, and the film’s moral compass.

The movie is full of these great parodic  moments–my favorite is when we meet Calvin’s mother, who lives in a sort of California jungle-treehouse, and she waxes mystical about her manic pixie dream home: “We got the wood from Amish-land (it’s blessed), and the bricks are from a torn-down Catholic school!” Thank you, lady, for reminding me why I hate the rich and artsy.

[Ok people, here come the spoilers.]

As refreshing as the respect afforded ordinary decency over piquant bohemianism is, things really get going only as Calvin’s inability to relate to anyone outside the confines of his own head becomes increasingly clear. As he more and more willingly controls Ruby’s emotions, actions, and character through his typewriter, he enters a spiral of  manipulation that culminates in one of the most disturbing and riveting scenes of vicious abuse the genre has ever produced.

Rarely are romantic comedies so honest about the implications of the relationship patterns they portray; rarely do they confront the audience with raw horror as the price of all that cute. Ruby has never existed for herself–only to titillate, inspire, and affirm Calvin. As Sady Doyle says

“If you think this relationship is going anywhere but to a scene of Ruby forced to shout “you’re a genius” over and over, tears streaming from her eyes, then you’re one of the world’s true optimists.”

The scene is more than a clear-eyed look at the brutality of narcissism,  however–it’s a damning indictment of what the romance of romance does to women everywhere. Ruby is a perfectly subject construction, born of Calvin’s need for control and superiority; as such, she can be jerked around, posed, made to speak strange languages, humiliated, imprisoned, and finally, whirled and twirled into tortured, abject submission. And of course, Calvin never gets his hands dirty–the glory of his total rule is that he can make her do this to herself.  While she is spinning and sobbing, Ruby becomes everywoman–every girl who has stifled her own thought and desires, who has twisted herself up into unnatural contortions social and physical, in whom bodily and mental traits has been ruthlessly moulded or excised to fit some standard of perfect womanhood that exists to annhilate her in favor of a two-dimensional role.

Because this scene is so great, because it takes Ruby Sparks from a clever, gentle spoof to incisive social commentary, everything that happens after it is doubly frustrating. Horrified at what he has done, and loving Ruby, Calvin types that she leaves the house, forgets the past, and is freed of the typewriter’s power. He trades in his magic machine for a Macbook, writes a best-selling, bittersweet novel about his experiences with her, and lives a chastened, wiser man until, mirabile dictu! He meets Ruby in the park. He still loves her, she has no memories of their past, and in Calvin’s introduction and their gentle flirtation, we see the possibility of a fresh start at a healthy relationship. Finis.

I’m sorry, what?

This is problematic on both levels on which it works.  As a conclusion to the story of their romance, it’s terrible–this man has manipulated and abused her in awful ways. It’s nice that he’s realized his error, but his typewriter didn’t cause his behavior–it only enabled it. This is not someone Ruby should go back to–especially since she has no memory of her past, and no way to make an informed decision about her ex-boyfriend. Calvin still holds all the power in this relationship, and he’s still abusing it.

Equally frustrating is the fact that Calvin only “liberates” Ruby through an exercise of power. Had the movie’s resolution involved the imprisoned Ruby waiting till the dead of night and smashing Calvin’s typewriter into a million tiny pieces, I would have stood up and cheered. Instead, Ruby only gains some measure of agency by Calvin’s decision to write her that way; he still is responsible for the content of her character, experiences, and now, even her memory. The Ruby he meets in the park is even more of a blank slate for him to write his story on. She has been freed to make her a fitter mate for Calvin, who has gained enough sophistication to prefer his women cage-free.

For all its insight on the manic pixie dream girl mythos, Ruby Sparks only succeeds in being a subtler version of the trope. Ruby, in the end, exists only for Calvin–to provide with artistic material, romantic fulfillment, and some measure of moral growth. I’m glad Calvin realized that a relationship of absolute control makes both parties unhappy. Unfortunately, neither he nor the film seems to realize that using power more gently isn’t the same as giving it up.

Unconnected Thoughts on the Death of a Chick Flick Queen

“Look, by this argument, it is impossible to have a subtle, complicated, adult romantic comedy in which the main couple ends up together.”

Nora Ephron, rom-com royalty, died on Tuesday. Here is an article/debate about her most famous work, in which Williams argues that When Harry Met Sally firmly enshrined the myth that men and women can never be friends in the pantheon of cultural pseudo-knowledge.

To me, this seems an example of the Pride and Prejudice effect: an excellent, clever, and complex work becomes defined in the popular imagination primarily by an appalling lesson or narrative based on a widespread but breathtakingly clueless misreading. So, with Pride and Prejudice we skip over Lizzie’s refusal to be loved on terms that pit her against her community, or Austen’s use of romantic love to demolish, purge, and reconstruct social norms, and learn that arrogant assholes are the real catches, because their jerkish behavior is proof of their smoldering love. Plus, they’re probably rich. (This, of course, is the real danger of the P&P myth: encouraging marriage for money is one thing, but they’re supposed to love us as well?)

Obviously, When Harry Met Sally isn’t in the same league, or even playing the same game, but the same thing happens. The dynamic duo ends up together and hey-presto! Harry was right all along! They really couldn’t be just friends (of course, “just” is doing all the work in that sentence, and in our ridiculous “friend zone,” with its definition of friendship as something limited and exclusive). It ignores the fact that Harry and Sally’s fall into bed occurs only after several years of chaste friendship, and their fall into love is impossible without them. Harry’s discomfort after the sex isn’t just a jab at the emotional differences between men and women–their coupling is disconcerting, awkward, and out of place because nothing about their prior relationship suggests sex as a natural step. It functions as the catalyst for their romance, but only accidentally, and only because the strength of their friendship sees them through the mess. Ephron’s point is not that men and women can’t be friends, it’s that men and women must be friends.

Friendship requires adult choices–the choice to deal honestly and virtuously with desire and concupiscence, and to see men and women as persons rather than one-dimensional categories in our relational schemas. So unused are we to seeing erotic emotions as something that can be directed or controlled that we’ve become terrified of them. When someone asks if our best pal might be a boyfriend, we respond with a shriek of disgust and a quick castration: “Ew, of course not! He’s my friend.”  Something along the lines of “X is my best pal, and we’re not pursuing a romantic relationship” would be much more healthy.

Because as it stands, with everyone from the libertine masses to sententious youth pastors warning us of almighty Eros in one form or another, men and women really can’t be friends–or at least, they’re not supposed to be. And this is greatly to the detriment of both–it drives the sexes farther apart and props up their fantasies about each other. It warps sex, too, by placing upon it the unnatural weight of men and women’s entire emotional life in relation to each other. Not only does the prohibtion-by-disbelief encourage artificial and selfish courtship norms, it sterilizes the social sphere by bringing a claustrophobic pressure to bear on every flirtation, date and interaction–if only one type of serious relationship between men and women is legitimate, we doom ourselves to a compulsive grasping after it.

Yes, barring external constraints or the sort of relationship usually developed only in childhood, there will probably always be some sort of erotic possibility in a man and woman’s friendship. Who cares? Are we teenagers that we should be so afraid of our own sexedness?

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Ephron’s movies are not always intelligent or morally insightful, or anything close to the thorough excellence of the 30s/screwball tradition she drew inspiration from (You’ve Got Mail is a remake of Lubitsch’s perfect The Shop around the Corner). They are always light and charming, however, qualities sorely missed in the current rom-com landscape dominated by the witless, cloying, and dully vicious.

I don’t see anyone replacing her soon, but something interesting is coming out of the Saturday Night Live crowd. I’ve always thought that the opposite of comedy is not tragedy, but horror: tradedy deals with the cyclical and fundamental–comedy and horror tend to come at the social and circumstantial from opposite angles. If Alien and Friday the 13th depict modern moral unease about lost sexual taboos through primal fear (Steven Greydanus has a great article on this here) romantic comedies navigate shifting anxieties about manners and mores. Ephron’s famous 80s and 90s movies explore and exploit a restless loneliness and displacement most obviously manifest in the fraught world of dating–consider the gimmick of You’ve Got Mail: a relationship conducted not even with the tangibility of letters, but in abstract cyberspace, while the heroine loses the business she has inherited from her mother. What is it Kathleen Kelly says–“good night, dear void”? Or Sleepless in Seattle, its cover depicting the protagonist staring wistfully into space, their cities, on opposite sides of the country, in the background. And of course the fear, in that  scene where they discuss the chances of getting married after 40 versus getting killed by a terrorist–that you could be as beautiful, charming, and successful as Meg Ryan’s characters always are, and still have to face aging and insignificance quite alone.

Insofar as directors aren’t just cutting and pasting the usual montages, runs through the airport, and mood music, romantic comedies have moved to something different. It started with Juno, or maybe earlier, and continued with Knocked Up, The Backup Plan, The SwitchBridesmaids, What to Expect When You’re Expecting and now, Friends with Kids. Many of these films look heinous, and several walk or blur the line between romantic comedy and simple farce, as the CVs of their actors might suggest. However, all of them put romance in some kind of a larger context–whether families, children, sexual consequences, small towns, or female friendship. If the 90s dealt with the frightening severance of sex and fulfillment from community, we seem to be working through the realization that sex is in fact inescapably communal, and more importantly, that we have no idea what to do with that.  No one seems to have much to say or any sense of purpose aside from highlighting our tense cluelessness, but sexual love and desire is no longer solely a one or two player bid for romantic fulfillment. Worth keeping an eye on.