Wednesday, April 22, 2009

…And Then There Are The Others…

It’s always great, and sometimes even moving, when you’re watching a movie or TV show or reading a book and come upon little nuggets that make the scene worthwhile—that rise above the norm, that give you more meat than the usual “Hi, how are ya” types of interchange—such as the couple of quotes we’ve mentioned from Stranger Than Fiction. Kind of renews your faith in writers and scriptwriting, at least in the broadest universal sort of sense.

Unfortunately, then there are the other lines that do the opposite.

I’m not talking about lines written for deliberate shock value, outrage, or humor, although heaven knows we’re up to our proverbial eyeballs in vulgar, lowbrow sarcasm and just plain filth that passes itself off as “humor” nowadays. (The sad thing is, it gets away with doing so because many of our kids, growing up with Simpsons and South Park [despite our best efforts!], laugh uproariously at things that, a generation earlier, were called sophomoric—and that didn’t mean they belonged in a college student’s lexicon.) On the contrary…the line I encountered this past weekend was in a movie that was aimed at an audience light-years away from the bathroom-humor crowd. Which is what made it all the more jarring.

The movie was The Holiday—not the classic Holiday with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (one of my all time favorites) but the more recent movie, with Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz. For those of you who don’t know the story, the premise involves two women, an ocean and a lifestyle apart, whose love lives are in shambles; they each decide they need a change of scene, exchange houses for the Christmas holiday, and—naturally—in those new situations, find the loves of their lives. It’s romantic, and of course, it pushes a lot of delightful “buttons,” all the way from two adorable kids (No, really. Truly. Adorable. And I hate kids in romantic movies.) to a script that’s on the whole pretty squeaky-clean.

…except for one setup that I still haven’t forgiven the writers for, one I’m surprised Ms. Diaz was willing to do with a straight face.

The scene occurs after the house exchange has happened; at that point, Ms. Diaz’s character, Amanda, is settling in to a cottage somewhere in Surrey…and discovering that the “peace and quiet” she thought she sought is actually boring her out of her mind. Enter her hero-to-be, the original occupant’s brother, who arrives more than a little drunk and clearly expecting to crash at his sister’s place. After a few catchup explanations, Amanda invites the brother to sleep things off there, prepares to go get him a blanket and a pillow and put him on the couch—the usual things. But then, suddenly and for no real solid reason…the brother kisses her. And she likes it, and asks him to do it again.

And then the next thing out of her mouth? “Well, yanno, with this situation—I mean, we’re never going to see each other again, I’m leaving, and you’re really good-looking…I think we ought to have sex.”

To which my daughter and I said, in unison, “HUH?”

Of course, the brother’s more than willing to take her up on it—which in this age of STDs, is at best disingenuous—and they proceed to act accordingly. Not on screen, at least. We get the usual morning-after scene, we get Amanda reassuring this guy she’s not going to fall in love with him, yatta, yatta, yatta. (Considering she’s just broken up with a guy she was living with the day before, the odds are that she doesn’t know how to love anybody, period. But I digress.)

The problem was, no matter how they “salvaged” the story or kept it PG-rated at that point, the damage was already done. We went from feeling gently amused and laughing at the heroine’s crazy Type A behavior to sputtering at the screen in indignation and incredulity. Or, as my daughter put it, “What a whore!” (Which I thought said it all quite well.)

I doubt this is the reaction the writers wanted from a twenty-something who otherwise is caught up in the romance of the thing. I really doubt they wanted us muttering for the next few minutes to ourselves about women who are too stupid to live. Nowhere else in the movie do they stoop to pandering; so one has to ask oneself, why then? Why there? Why that dialogue/scene at all?

It may come down to the simple fact that Hollywood doesn’t know how to express attraction, romantic sparks, or a carefree attitude toward life except by having their characters engage in free and easy sex. It may have been a temporary brain spasm on the part of the writers. It may be that they literally didn’t know how else to bond these people on screen, so they took the cheap shortcut.

What it does mean, sadly, is that no one had the good sense, the talent, or the taste to step back from the script for a moment and say, “Whoa, wait a minute, this is not going to work!” Which baffles me, since in the context of the rest of the screenplay, the writers hit home run after home run. So why did they let that major-league fly ball just drop through their hands in favor of the cheap injection of sex?

I don’t know. I still don’t know. But for all the world, I want to write those screenwriters and say to them, “Look, you don’t have to do things this way to prove you’re not religious-right nutjobs. This was just plain stupid in any context, even yours. Next time, use the red pencil God gave you and make yourselves do something more creative.”

The only reassuring thing about that scene, I suppose, was my daughter’s reaction to it. Not moral outrage. Not tsk-tsk. Not wink-wink, nudge-nudge. Just plain irritation and disgust at a character who threw herself around so cheaply. Which, in reflection, is a good thing for a twenty-something to be thinking about thoughtless sex with a stranger: “Not on my watch, thank you very much.”

If that was the lesson these screenwriters were trying to teach…they succeeded. But somehow, I doubt their motives were anything near that lofty. And that’s too bad. Because romantic, lighthearted, positive, and uplifting movies deserve better than heroines written in at any part of the story as little more than whores. It’s time someone in the entertainment business learned to trust their audiences enough to leave some things out that ought not to be there in the first place. We’ll still enjoy the story. Some of us will enjoy it more for that restraint, and we’ll keep coming back to those people for more stories…

…which I always thought was the whole idea.

Isn’t it?




Deb said...

See, this is partly the reason I see so few movies. When H'wood doesn't know how to move a story, they insert the Sack Scene. Which can either make a good story bad, or can make a bad story completely unacceptable.

Good on your daughter that she calls it like it is.

There are moments, I must confess, when I'm writing something and I catch myself thinking, "If these characters were normal present-day people, they'd probably be Doing It about now."

Then I remember: I am writing about more interesting people than that. I'm writing about folks who can feel the heat of passion and still think. I'm writing about women who are not TSTL and men with something between their ears besides testosterone.

And as far as a real-life sojourn in a boring cottage in Surrey -- lead on! I'm all for it.

Janny said...

"There are moments, I must confess, when I'm writing something and I catch myself thinking, "If these characters were normal present-day people, they'd probably be Doing It about now.""

Long ago, in another incarnation of VOI, I was having an online conversation with many fellow writers and we were bandying about the whole sexual tension versus resolution/consummation thing, and these women were utterly BAFFLED that I was not showing Lachlan and Amanda in the sack. One of them actually said, "Are your characters passionate? Are they attracted to each other? Then they HAVE to Do It. They're going to do it, whether YOU like it or not."

I found that comment rather...disturbing, and do to this day. Turns out that also long ago, apparently that was the reason St. Martin's passed on it. They cloaked it under the verbiage of "hero and heroine's relationship wasn't developed enough." I had to have a St. Martin's author translate what they really meant. :-)

Our time is coming. People will get sick of this cheap, incessant humping on screen and look for characters who think with gray matter rather than endocrinal impulses. And then, you and I will be rich. And then you can afford your dream getaway cottage in Surrey!


Deb said...

So a "relationship wasn't developed enough" is pub-speak for "they didn't have sex, and they MUST." Who knew?

There are still publishers, I maintain, who know how to recognize a story that doesn't descend to the Sack Scene in order to develop character relationships. Sheesh.

Pretty soon we'll get the "character is not sufficiently contemporary" comment, which will mean she/he doesn't have fangs and drink blood.