One day SpyGirl and I were talking about Bollywood movies, as we tend to do, and we got to talking about my scorn for most Hollywood movies. Partly because I've embraced the big swoony Hindi romance with so much zeal, and partly, I suspect, because she knows I'm a big ball o' schmaltz in my real life, she asked for some insight into my traditional disdain of the romantic.
First I started thinking about the handful of romances I like: Down With Love (a romantic comedy for people who hate romantic comedies; unfortunately, many people like them, so it was kind of a flop); Earth Girls Are Easy; Strange Days. (That latter I find super-romantic, and I get teary-eyed at the end, which might require some explanation at some other point). Then yesterday I thought, well, I can't be against romance as such, having just purchased a VHS copy of the old Masterpiece Theatre show A Town Like Alice.
That's when it hit me. Problem number one with the average Hollywood romance: the guys. When I was watching unlimited free movies at the nearby cinema where my honey used to work, I saw more current romances than I had in, well, ever. Who were the guys in these movies? Tom Hanks. Harry Connick, Jr. Ben Affleck. Nicolas Cage. Richard Gere. (You can imagine my voice crescendo'ing in disbelief).
And in the movies I like? Hmm. Ewan MacGregor, Jeff Goldblum, Ralph Fiennes, Bryan Brown. (A crescendo of "that's more like it.") Fiennes' movie is more anomalous...sort of like Groundhog Day, also romantic and also one I like, in that the stories are about men finding love, not women. Both characters are also anti-heroes more than they are any kind of traditional romantic leads; Fiennes is too vulnerable, even pathetic, in the role to seem "hot," and Bill Murray plays an abrasive egotist. When "the real thing" comes along for them, that makes it all the more romantic.
Now, the other guys on my list are undeniably hot in their romantic roles, but are actors with real range (all having played their share of anti-heroes themselves). They're not just stuck in there because "hey, you're cute, the chicks will dig you." So they can convince me of the plausibility of their feelings, and I also care more, because they're interesting, and not just "shirt models."
Back to A Town Like Alice. Like Bollywood, it has another advantage over most Hollywood romances in its length (it was a five-hour miniseries, taking up three tapes on videocassette). If you've never seen this (and it's never been released on DVD in the US, grrrr, so if you did, it was probably long ago), the WWII romance between POWs Helen Morse and Bryan Brown is impossibly romantic. Epic, star-crossed, probably completely unbelievable, except as explained by the intensity of wartime. But it never annoys me in the ways romances so often do, and the length definitely helps.
Most films would have to severely truncate the book, and would have to shove the romantic element to the forefront much more quickly. I watched the first tape last night, so that was over two hours, and the romance took up about forty minutes. I know it's going to come back and become the main focus, but the larger canvas embeds the relationship in a larger context.
One of the side effects is that the characters (especially the woman) don't exist for the sake of the romance. By that I mean: she had a whole life before she met the one true love, and a whole life after that. Usually, the larki (the girl) appears, some exposition is set, the formula runs in its various ways, and concludes when she and the larka (the boy) run into each other's arms.
Often, we don't even really see them fall in love, but instead, the storyline just tells us so. (That's where the musical numbers in the Bollywood movies are so helpful, in expressing the characters' emotions). Also, too often the settings around the romances are two-dimensional, full of unrealistic jobs and sitcom supporting characters, all of which adds to that creepy feeling of "she didn't exist before she fell in love."
In five hours, though, that's not a problem. We have the time to get ourselves a fully fleshed-out heroine and well-developed situations. Then, when she finally meets the hero, we get to see them flirt and develop their rapport.
Even better, the available time allows the story to go past the "happily ever after." After they find each other again, and finally declare their love, and all's well, there's like, another hour and a half to go. We follow them as they try to reconcile those dramatic, star-crossed beginnings with their contemporary everyday lives, and the fact that they didn't know each other all that well. When the inevitable happy ending finally comes, it doesn't feel contrived or unearned.
As I've always said: nothing's more romantic than real life.