Sunday, September 2, 2012

A Love-Hate Relationship

Want a dichotomy? I hate romantic comedies, and my favorite movie is a romantic comedy.

What's my favorite movie? A Japanese film called Densha Otoko, or Train Man. It's the true story of an internet phenom known only as “Densha”. He stands up for a woman on the train when a drunk harassed her. He got her phone number out of the deal, and, being a geek, he turned to internet forums for advice on what to do.

The movie is split between the 2chan segments, where Densha seeks advice and empties his heart online to a rotating cast of listeners, whose forum speak is portrayed excellently onscreen through kinetic typography, and the dates with his dream girl, where he awkwardly and cutely tries to pitch woo.

From there you can probably guess the rest. He screws up and almost loses her, he works out his problem and gets her back, and they live happily ever after.

It's not the best movie I've ever seen. Citizen Kane is better, obviously. So is Ben Hur, Sunset Boulevard, Seven Samurai, all the standard choices. In terms of being a great movie, Densha Otoko isn't even in the top 100. I'm not even sure if it's really a good movie.

But, it is my favorite, and not as a guilty pleasure or “so-bad-it's-good” thing. In terms of pure enjoyment, this formulaic and only slightly visual innovative romantic comedy is my favorite film of all time.

And yet, I hate the romantic comedy. I hate it as a genre. Not universally, obviously, but the odds are really high that if you show me a romantic comedy, I will hate it. Not just dislike it, mind you, I will find it an utterly loathsome film.

Why do I love a formulaic romantic comedies, then, if I hate the genre? That's why I hate it. Because it is a genre which has perfectly good potential, and Densha Otoko's example shows off perfectly what the failings of this genre are.

So, at its core, the romantic comedy is the story of a relationship. The conflict starts with them apart, and ends with them together. That's the problem.

Love is... essentially... a selfish motivation. There's nothing wrong with it, I'm not against love, mind you, I want it like any red-blooded American. But, if I were to meet a girl and strike up a relationship I would not expect anyone else to be invested. It is between me and her, and, although ideally it will benefit both of us, it won't make the world better for our friends or coworkers or society in general.

If I'm watching a movie about two people falling in love, why should I care about them? There's nothing inherently heroic about what they were doing, and nothing at stake beyond one relationship not working out. So, why should I give a crap about your characters and care about your story?

Well, in Densha Otoko I care because they make a point about why I should care about Densha and want him to succeed. He's a geek whose life has been limited to online interactions, so much so that he uses it as a crutch to live his life for him. By pursuing this girl, he grows in confidence and interpersonal skill. His relationship is not the ONLY aspect of his character that grows.

That's good drama, a character starts out as flawed but sympathetic, and over the course of the story he improves as a person. It's why I love the character, it's why I love the movie. It's not just some wish-fulfillment fantasy about getting women, it's about realizing that you can be the person you want to be if you have confidence.

So, let me ask you: Why is that so rarely the case?

Romantic comedies, as a rule, fail to remember this very necessary element. The hero is almost always just someone whose life is fine but they don't have a relationship. Or, if it's a man, usually that he has tons of sex all the time but no desire for a relationship.

Who cares? Why should I want to follow the story of someone who has 99% of their life in order and every reason to be happy but for one last luxury. Well, most movies don't give you a reason. There is no growth outside of the relationship and that just makes for a frustrating movie, not only because it isn't very dramatic but because the subtext is insulting: The pursuit of personal joy is enough to carry a movie.

It isn't. That's not good storytelling, it's just wank. It's just wank. It's just pure, self absorbed wank of people saying “Look how awesome are attractive people are and how awesome things happen to them. Although there's some entirely survivable slapstick antics.” At they're worst, and they commonly reach the worst, the characters are hopelessly unlikeable, since they've benefited from negative behavior their whole lives without any real consequence.

I've been told that people who are actually in relationships like these movies sometimes. Just like people who are parents like movies about kids with no real story value.

I can't tell you enjoyment is wrong, but I just want you to recognize why these movies just don't have a lot of logic or real drama to them. It's cool if you like it because you like seeing happy things be happy, but the genre is capable of more.

Go watch Densha Otoko. That is the watermark, that manages to have everything the average romantic has plus a solid character arc and genuine likability. So, I don't feel bad saying I hate romantic comedies because I have a solid standard to hold them to.

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