Sara Brenes Akerman | Love stories — surreal and satisfying
A Likely Story | We love rom-coms despite — and because of — their implausibility
November 16, 2011, 11:34 pm·
A Likely Story
I was never one for Disney princesses or Prince Charming. They were never quite to my taste — the princesses seemed too conceited, and the princes struck me as too old-fashioned.
But the truth is that I never needed them; I had Meg and Tom. It would take me many years to realize that their characters were as implausible as any Disney creation. But, by then, the harm had been done.
I had fallen in love with romantic comedies. And my love has proven to be as enduring as the brand of romance that they so relentlessly attempt to portray.
This is a difficult thing to admit. We have come to think of the genre as fluffy and meritless, filled with fixed conventions that make plots predictable and stories contrived. Even worse, mainstream examples remain almost exclusively heterosexual and predominantly white, bringing into question the validity and fairness of their representations.
And yet, we love them. I love them. They allow those willing to suspend disbelief to find a renewed sense of hope, happy endings and uncomplicated love in the middle of a sunny afternoon. Yes, they’re candy. But as long as you know that too much is bad for you, what’s the harm in treating yourself to some every now and then?
Cinema Studies professor Meta Mazaj, who teaches a class devoted to the genre, argues that the widespread appreciation for watching people fall in love on screen comes from its universality. Romantic love is one of those things that everyone can relate to and understand. Even if these movies are formulaic, Mazaj argues that we derive pleasure from recognizing the formula and seeing its variations.
It might have all started with a famous tramp and a blind girl. City Lights, Charlie Chaplin’s heart-warming 1931 film, is possibly the first romantic comedy ever screened. The story of a tramp who manages to give a blind flower girl back her sight, it ends not with a kiss but with an uplifting promise of future romance.
Many variations later, from the screwball comedies of the 1930s (It Happened One Night) to the sex comedies of the 1950s (Pillow Talk), we get to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The film turned romantic comedy tropes upside down by having the leads go their separate ways, expressing the anxiety of commitment and exposing the impossibility of the conventions in a realistic setting.
But this subversion did not stick. According to Mazaj, before long, neo-traditionalist rom-coms were back, and they were as conservative as ever, gluing back together what Woody had tried to disassemble.
Think back to the ’90s. Think Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. As a genre, romantic comedies are probably among the most self-referential and both of these Nora Ephron-directed films reference beautifully.
As a movie fan, I can’t help but love seeing Sleepless in Seattle pay its respects to An Affair to Remember or be a witness to You’ve Got Mail’s reverential bow to The Shop Around the Corner. Mazaj calls this “Nora Ephron’s obsessive intertextuality” and argues that it points to a “cynical awareness of the cliched formula.” By exposing itself, it acknowledges the heightened nature of its reality.
And, for this, I love Ephron romantic comedies the best. She understands perfectly that the love for the genre is born from consciously deciding to overlook our own awareness of the implausibility of the stories. She makes us aware of the constructed nature of the film and asks us to enjoy it simply for what it is, without looking for any greater meaning. She asks us to believe, but only for two-hour periods, in the dream of Sam Baldwin and Annie Reed, Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly, Harry and Sally.
Beyond the history of romantic comedies, the last-minute kisses and the hard-to-believe characters, they’re simply satisfying. We watch romantic comedies for many of the same reasons that we watch Disney fairy tales — not because we believe in the reality of their worlds, but because we hope for the promise of a happily ever after.
Sara Brenes-Akerman is a College senior from Costa Rica. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. A Likely Story appears every other Thursday.