Thursday, December 29, 2011

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, OR WHY ARE ROMANTIC COMEDIES SO BAD?

 

Warning: possible spoilers for all 5 of you who have not seen the following but intend to someday: The Shop Around The Corner, In The Good Old Summer Time, You’ve Got Mail, the play She Loves Me, the play Parfumerie, and all the others who have ripped off that plot.

Every year, Hollywood throws together a few haphazard romantic comedies in a way that suggests they think it’s the easiest thing in the world to do. Just throw together two good-looking actors, have them fall over once or twice, maybe a supporting role for an up-and-coming comic, and voila! You are done. 


Oh nonononono. This is why, if I say I like romantic comedies, I might as well be saying I like Hummel figurines or velvet paintings of crying eagles. I only like good ones, OK! Of which only a handful have been released since the end of Hollywood’s golden age.

Romantic comedies are actually the hardest genre to get right. A good romantic comedy is a delicate machine of many intricate parts. Remove one, and you fail. To see how a romantic comedy is properly made, let’s look at the greatest one of all time: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner.


1. The two main characters have to be equally interesting and have to have chemistry with each other. Just because you like them individually,doesn’t mean they work as a couple. In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are bland and blander. I have no trouble with them individually (just with most of the choices they make in movies), but they both have a tendency to milky niceness that needs someone with an edge for contrast (I was rooting for Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle--people with allergies need love too). Note to Hollywood: Gerard Butler doesn’t have romantic chemistry with anybody, except maybe that big ol’ Persian drag queen in 300. “Down on your knees,” indeed!


Also, if either of they characters seems like nothing than eye candy, the wish-fulfillment aspect becomes pathetically obvious and ruins it. The one thing that keeps Say Anything from being perfect is that, although Ione Skye’s character is written interestingly, with a whole character arc and everything, the actress is kinda . . . meh. Playing a super-genius whose future work will probably save the world isn’t easy, though. 


The genius of Shop Around The Corner is, we see each character’s every day struggle: trying to get a promotion, get a job, dealing with back-stabbing co-workers and a cranky boss. We also see their hopes, dreams and aspirations for something better and higher as expressed in their letters (maybe a little pretentious and vague, but who’s aren’t?) Each character has their inner sensitive side and the hard shell they have to wear at work. Frankly,  Margaret Sullavan’s character is a bit of a bitch--but 1) her behavior is later explained; and 2) she has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes us love her anyway. 



2. They have to be surrounded by a bunch of memorable character actors. In While You Were Sleeping, they play lip-service to this by having the female lead fall in love with the whole family right along with the guy. Sadly, while the actors playing them were great (Jack Warden! Glynis Johns!), they were pretty much generically nice without much in the way of personality. I think a fractious, eccentric family with some failings, like Cher’s in Moonstruck, creates more of a nice contrast. The henpecked sad sack, slimy two-face, full-of-himself new hire, and possibly bipolar boss make up a whole interesting world in The Shop Around the Corner, one a little heightened but similar to our own. 



3. There has to be just enough conflict to keep the characters apart from each other for 90 minutes, but not too much. This is possibly the hardest part. Why should two attractive people with chemistry not get together immediately? Based on my study of the trailers of Katherine Heigl movies, it’s because she is a snooty bitch and he’s a douchebag. Now, leaving aside the question of why I would want to watch that anyway, when a romantic comedy leaves you with the thought, “I give them three weeks, tops.” it is not exactly successful. That’s certainly what I thought when seeing Knocked Up. The worst movie for that in recent memory was Reality Bites--Ethan Hawke’s character acts like a total tool for every minute of the movie, until his dad died and he suddenly reforms. Once again, totally rooting for Ben Stiller. If there is a serious enough roadblock, like Communism in The Way We Were and mother issues in The Whole Wide World, the story becomes a tragic romance,


The classic roadblock, of course, is the boring but nice fiance, a character embodied for all time by Ralph Bellamy in The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday. Since that’s been used enough for there to be a movie deconstructing it, we should probably retire this trope. Instead, Shop Around The Corner uses workplace conflict. Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson show how a little issue like Clara showing up Alfred when he’s already worried about being in the boss’ doghouse can blow up to create workplace “enemies” of two people who would like each other just fine if they met under other circumstances. 


4. Though the main tone is comic, there has to be some darkness in the background. A lot of people confuse the word “romantic” with the word “sentimental”. Sentimentality is about pretending that the world is all sunshine and flowers and cute little puppies and suppressing all bad things. Romance is about big emotions which have the potential to go very, very bad. There is no romance without the possibility it could go wrong.  As Nicholas Cage’s character says in Moonstruck, “love don't make things nice - it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. It makes things a mess.” In While You Were Sleeping, everyone is no nice and wholesome that we don’t really know why Sandra Bullock has a lousy job and no friends except pure masochism.

Lubitsch and Raphaelson use a light touch to suggest that the outside world is in a Depression and things are actually pretty bad, while never letting it bring us down. We see Clara’s desperation for a job in the very first scene. Pirovitch’s complaints about his wife and the breakup of Matuschek’s marriage makes it clear that true love is hard to find. The darkness makes the romance more sweet. 


While I enjoy bromances like I Love You Man, Role Models, Superbad, and the 40 Year Old Virgin and womances like Bridesmaids and Baby Momma where it’s mainly about friendship and romance is secondary, it would be nice to see a good romantic comedy again. Here are a few that don’t make me want to hurl:



The Shop Around The Corner
The Palm Beach Story
Truly, Madly, Deeply
The Sure Thing
Say Anything
Moonstruck
Music And Lyrics


Any additions?








Wednesday, November 30, 2011

CAVALCADE OF HORRIFYING SCIENCE FICTION COVERS


Those of us who read science fiction know that even SF of the finest quality can be represented by truly fugly covers that cause us embarrassment while riding the bus. The two major ways they tend to go wrong are: 1) attempting to depict scenes in the book photo-realistically while failing in knowledge of basic anatomy, and 2) having way, way too many things (and fonts) going on at the same time. No wonder e-books are so big with the fandom.


This is the one that allowed me to finally realize my dream of having something on Good Show Sir.  Why, hello there, giant-brain-eyeball-octopus-bat-guy! And what’s behind your head? It’s not the moon, because it doesn’t go all the way around. An enormous cantaloupe, perhaps?



This one just has too many elements. Do we really need a blue alien, a rocket, purple tomatoes/pumpkins, pseudo-Mayan panther/snakes, AND a bug-eyed alien with one antenna holding a wine glass? 





If this is about a human who swaps minds with an alien, should he be photo-realistic while the alien looks like a child's drawing? Or is he turning into a child's drawing? It seems the artist was like, "OK, I took the guy from a photo and put it through one of those artistic Photoshop filters, but how the heck do I make the alien? I know, I'll get my 10-year-old son to do it!" That mouth just bothers me.




If you are an artist who can't create the illusion of three dimensions, should you really emphasize the fact with a "3-D" font?  Take a look at the guys nose and hair, not to mention the spaceships, which are like the kind of toys you find in a vending machine. The font, too, is like something I would have doodled in my 7th-grade notebook. What is a "ram song",  anyway, or do I even want to know?


 If you have any favorites, feel free to share, or post them on GSS.  








Sunday, November 13, 2011

I BOUGHT A HEADACHE--OR MY BEEF WITH BILLY BRAGG



Better than just about anything, really*


Someone recently brought up Billy Bragg to me as an exception that I should make to my curmugeonly, folkie-hating ways. Well, I did see him back when young and less set in my convictions, and he did not impress me that much.

(Now, I want to preface this by saying that I do not feel the burning hatred of a thousand suns for actors or musicians who express political opinions, such as some conservative commentators feel for all those not named Ronald Reagan.  If you go to far in that direction, you might as well say anyone who was not actually a politician couldn't comment on politics, and how sad would that be? It would eliminate both Noam Chomsky (linguistics professor) and Glenn Beck (morning drive-time DJ). Glenn Beck isn't wrong because he's self-taught, he's wrong because he thinks Obama will give the United States to George Soros to make into his own personal socialist fiefdom.)

Bragg started out with a recording of "That's Entertainment" by the Jam just before he started out, which was a bad idea, since it was better than anything he had to offer. Bragg has one great song, and someone else did it better than him. He proceeded to give us about 1/2 hour of music and 1/2 hour of not-very-good preaching to the converted. If you don't know the difference between Eugene McCarthy and Joe McCarthy, you really should not be talking. I personally don't know the names of a large amount of British politicians, but I don't go to London and harangue people about them. I mean, the United States gets into all sorts of messes abroad, so go ahead and criticize us, but "Saddam Hussein is a bad man--but war is wrong"** is not really news to those of us who have a Nation subscription.

If I was at a protest or political rally, I expect that sort of thing--but when I pay for something I expect entertainment. When I see Lightning Bolt or Melt-Banana or the Cows I know they aren't everyone's idea of entertainment. but they do give their all. That's all I ask. If someone from the entertainment industry wants to write political commentary or run for office, fine by me. I will buy the book or vote for the candidate on their merits.

Too many folkies just do thing things half-assed in my view--the music's doesn't have enough weight on its own, and the lyrics wouldn't be good enough on the printed page.  I'll say it again--I like music for the music that's why it's called music.




*Bruce Foxton--great bassist or greatest bassist?

**I swear he really said something very similar to that. This was in relation to the first Gulf war.

Monday, October 31, 2011

HALLOWEEN 2011






























Photo by Brea B.

I had a fun Halloween spreading cheer as a Harajuku fairy. JSeux was horrific as usual, but I love my man a little monstrous.

Wearing a corset was not bad. It's fine as long as you can sit up straight or stand (or even dance), it's just like someone is hugging you all the time. It's hard for maneuvering, like getting out of a car. It would keep me from slouching pretty well, though. I figure I can wear it for a steampunk or Wild West look in the future.


What were you for Halloween?