Monday, 12 September 2011

Book Review: Britton on Film


I'm happy to be able to provide a link to downloadable version of a book review I wrote for CineAction; the book in question is the indispensable Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, edited by Barry Keith Grant. Britton is one of my very favourite film critics, so it was a pleasure to be able to delve in detail into his work and argue its merits. Thanks to editor Richard Lippe for permission to reprint the article online.

Here's a brief extract to give a flavour of my approach:

Andrew Britton believed in setting out his stall. A merciless critic of hypocrisy and evasiveness in others, in his own work he sought always to declare his attitudes and assumptions as explicitly as possible, often opening articles with declarations of principle that served as landmarks for the field upon which battle was soon to commence. As he writes in ‘The Philosophy of the Pigeonhole: Wisconsin Formalism and the “Classical Style”’, “If readers do not know where the critic stands in relation to the work, they have no means of defining or assessing the critic’s judgments” (p. 125). In tribute to such candor, let us begin this review with the conclusion I hope will be reached by anyone upon closing this book: the marginalization of the work of Andrew Britton by the field of film studies must be regarded as nothing short of a scandal. This review will in large part attempt to argue why I consider such a conclusion unavoidable.

Originally published in CineAction no. 84, (2011), pp: 44-49.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

"For me, the root cause of this mindless selfishness is [...] a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society - people allowed to feel that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities, and that their actions do not have consequences."

- David Cameron, 10/8/2011

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Notes on Empathy in the Quirky: Bunny and the Bull

In his book Wes Anderson: Why His Movies Matter, Mark Browning objects to Anderson's supposed occasional shifts from 'ironic' detachment to moments of 'sincere', melodramatic engagement with characters' emotions:

It is very difficult to maintain a dominant tone of detached quirky irony and then expect audiences to engage emotionally with characters to the level where tears are expected. This kind of tonal seesaw does not really work. (62)

I remembered this passage whilst watching one of the first British films to be transparently influenced by what I've defined as the quirky sensibility of American indie cinema, Bunny and the Bull (2009). If Wes Anderson is guilty of mismanaging his tonal ironic detachment to the point of seriously endangering our ability to empathise with characters at moments of pain and suffering, then Bunny and the Bull should be convicted ten times over.

In my view, Anderson is on the whole extremely skillful in the way he envelops his entire films in largely the same melancholic, yet gently amused, tone. Comic moments tend always to still be slightly sad, sad moments still slightly comic. Even the funeral in Darjeeling Limited (2007) is dealt with using the director's trademark slow-motion-and-retro-song combination, which encourages us to reflect on the extent to which the film is in a significant sense performing this gesture of transcendence and seriousness. (I'd need more time to get across this completely convincingly, but allow me to take this point as read...)

Bunny and the Bull, by contrast, is a film which most certainly for the most part strives to "maintain a dominant tone of detached irony". Strongly cribbing from the quirky - and particularly Michel Gondry/Jared Hess - most of the film is told via a flashback that takes the form of highly stylized cut-out-cartoon locales and unreal landscapes. See, for instance, the restaurant near the opening:

There's nothing to say that, just because the places they inhabit are always patently artificial, we couldn't empathise with this film's characters - it could mobilise any number of conventions or devices to try to bring the viewer into a close empathetic relationship with its central figures. However, despite the seemingly clinically depressed nature of the movie's main character, Stephen, the film is determined always to undercut the integrity of its world and the feelings it potentially has at its disposal - often via either absurd surrealist humour that places us near the realm of Monty Python (see: Julian Barratt's dog-suckling cameo), or through bathetic bawdiness (at the moment when our hero finally goes to bed with the girl of his dreams, the camera pans away and we hear "Hmm, nice penis!"). Basically, this seems to be a film that is unconcerned with placing us into a relationship of empathy with its characters and reality - more Mighty Boosh than anything else.

And that would be fine. Except that, very close to the end, the film reaches the primal scene it's been hinting at throughout: Bunny's fateful encounter with a bull in the field. And at this moment, the film really wants us to feel something. The problem is that the trauma comes so suddenly, emerging unheralded from beneath the veneer of "detached irony", and doing so all but literally.

The sequence begins with us in the artificial, naively-rendered fantasy world that the majority of the film has taken place in, with Bunny on the field with the (at this point mechanical) bull...

...and Stephen watching from the wings by a nearby fence:

However, just when it seems that Bunny might have bested the beast, dark music begins. At this, we begin quickly intercutting shots of what we have till now seem only as a Mechano-like toy (on a patchwork rug) with a real-life bull (in a real-life field)...

As it begins to charge Bunny, this pattern continues - frantic cuts between the stop-motion animal and its real-life counterpart...

From the moment it makes contact with Bunny, we're exclusively in the 'real world' - a world we've never before seen in this film. Stephen scrambles terrified over the fence, pursued by a handheld camera (a further aesthetic signifier of 'real'), over to his fallen friend, who is now dead...

So, seemingly believing that - if it wants to elicit empathy from the viewer (which it quite clearly does) - it is necessary to strip away 'artifice' wholesale, the film at this moment transforms itself into an entirely different sort of aesthetic object than it has previously been. The result is a huge tonal lurch which the movie cannot handle, feeling entirely unearned - precisely the kind of "seesaw" effect Browning claims takes place in Anderson's films.

But no Anderson film attempts anything as clumsy as this. Indeed, Bunny and the Bull makes you realise quite how impeccably nuanced and coherent Anderson's approach tends to be, reminding us that the reason the quirky sensibility works (at least, when it does) is that it is concerned above all with tonal balance, not tonal shifts. While clearly a descendent of the sensibility, Bunny and the Bull doesn't have enough faith in this fundamental lesson of quirky cinema: empathy doesn't require a 'real', merely consistent relationships and attitudes towards the 'real'.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

V. F. Perkins on 'Inception'


"‎ANATOMY OF A MURDER could run for another three hours after the end titles, cover another three years in the life of its hero, and we should still be no nearer the truth of the case. In LA NOTTE the ‘real ending’ is knowable, but has been withheld. The picture would need to cover at most another two or three hours in its protagonists’ lives in order to resolve the ambiguities of its last sequence. In Preminger’s movie the story ends with a major issue unresolved. In Antonioni’s the story is abandoned when it has served the director’s purpose."

- Film as Film (1972: 148)

Sunday, 29 May 2011

On the Feminism of Sucker Punch


I have a new article over at Alternate Takes about the much maligned and misunderstood Sucker Punch. I think that there have been few more fascinating Hollywood blockbusters, so I was very pleased to be able to delve into this movie - both its strategies, and its reception. An extract from the piece:


Sucker Punch seems to me to be one of the most widely misunderstood films of recent years. By this I don’t just mean that it’s underrated - though in my opinion it is also that. I mean that an alarming number of commentators (i.e.: almost all) somehow seem to have failed to grasp its basic aims, and thus haven’t been able to assess it appropriately.

Other than the many complaints about the lack of narrative tension and rounded characters (neither of which, as I suggested in my short review, need necessarily be seen as significant problems), the main objections to the film have, of course, tended to be made on the grounds of its sexual politics. I want to address this matter head-on, looking at some recurring complaints about the movie’s approach to gender, and argue that most of them stem from a fundamental misperception of what the film is trying to do. I should also say that I’m certainly not going to argue that the film is unimpeachable - only that it’s far more interesting than it has usually been given credit for. My point is essentially that, before we call a film a failure, we first need at least to be sure what exactly it is failing at.

The thing that seems to drive people crazy about Sucker Punch is that it appears to offer “faux feminism” but in fact constitutes a “fantasia of misogyny”. Yet I think that the film, far from offering something like lipstick feminism, does in fact genuinely strive to be a rather forceful and angry feminist film, and comes closer to earning the title than most have acknowledged. The thing is: its attempts at feminism aren’t to be found in the areas where people have generally been looking. Stated briefly, this film is primarily about itself - that is, it’s about the problems involved in trying to find positive images for women within the kind of popular culture which it itself embodies. Of course, given that this strategy naturally involves irony and flirting with having-your-cake-and-eating-it, this is a difficult and dangerous game to play - and one that Sucker Punch is perhaps only half-successful in. But it is frankly bizarre that so few people seem to have noticed that such a game is even afoot - preferring to say that the movie’s problems stem from stupidity rather than over-cleverness (which would be closer to the mark). But this is to get ahead of ourselves...

Read the rest of the article here. Hope you enjoy!

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Does the Hollywood Happy Ending Exist?


I am happy to be able to provide a link to a downloadable version of my first published piece on the Hollywood 'happy ending' - the subject which was the focus of my doctoral thesis. This essay, the opening chapter of an edited collection called Happy Endings and Films, offers an account of the invariably negative critical reputation that the 'happy ending' has acquired in film studies, arguing for the need to interrogate this reputation. Along the way we touch on David Bordwell, 'Screen theory', the 'self-consciously artificial' happy ending, and Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956).

A brief extract:

"We tend to assume we understand the ‘happy ending’ of Hollywood cinema – both that it exists, and what it is. This essay will question that assumption. [...] Although the term is used again and again in discussions of Hollywood, it is startling to realise that the cinematic ‘happy ending’ has received barely any sustained critical attention, nor has an adequate definition of it ever been agreed upon. [...] It is my belief that most film studies discussions of the ‘happy ending’ reflect less a wish to meaningfully discuss the feature than a widely-discernable desire to construct it as a critical ‘bad object’."

Many thanks to the editors for giving me permission to reprint the piece online.

MacDowell, James. 'Does the Hollywood Happy Ending Exist?' Happy Endings and Films. Eds. Armelle Parey, Isabelle Roblin & Dominque Sipière. Paris: Michel Houdiard, 2010. 15-27.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism - Issue 2


For anyone who may not have come across the news elsewhere, I'm very pleased to announce that Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, of whose editorial board I am a member, has published its second issue (available here).

One thing I find particularly exciting about this issue is the form of our tribute to the late Robin Wood: several rare pieces by Wood, including his first published article - on Psycho (from Cahiers du Cinema, published here both in its original French and in English) - as well as several pieces he wrote for the Times Educational Supplement during the 70s.

The contents of Issue 2 are below; I hope you enjoy it.



Susan Hayward in the 50s - by Edward Gallafent

Madame Bovary, C’est Moi – Signed, Vincente Minnelli - by Mark Rappaport

Fritz Lang Dossier, Part 1 - by the editorial board

Notes on Metropolis - by Michael Walker

M: Leading the Blind - by Douglas Pye & Iris Luppa

Das Testament des Dr Mabuse - by Michael Walker

Robin Wood: A Tribute - by the editorial board

Psychoanalyse de Psycho / Psychoanalysis of Psycho - Robin Wood

Attitudes in Advise and Consent - Robin Wood

In Memoriam Michael Reeves - Robin Wood

Sense of Dislocation - Robin Wood (about Last Tango in Paris)

Signs and Motifs - Robin Wood (about High Plains Drifter)

Moments of Release - Robin Wood (about Cries and Whispers)

Call Me Ishmael - Robin Wood (about Fanny and Alexander)

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Thumbsucker and the Quirky


Apologies for the lack of updates recently. Two main reasons for the drought are that I have been busy with helping prepare the new issue of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism (which should be appearing before too long!), and managing/contributing to Alternate Takes.

Given this, allow me to indulge myself by pointing to a piece which addresses a subject I've written on in both these places: 'quirky' American indies. I first attempted to tackle this concept with this rather informal piece over half a decade ago (yikes...), then approached the matter far more extensively and academically in this article for Movie. I have now written another piece for Alternate Takes which strikes a tonal balance somewhere between these other two.

There's something fitting about this, and not only because I myself am interested in such balance in criticism, but also because the quirky itself - as I define it - is a mode of filmmaking defined by balance; as I put it in the most recent article:

this is surely a sensibility made up of tensions: between indie and mainstream, comedy and drama, naturalism and artificiality, innocence and experience, and - perhaps above all - ‘irony’ and ‘sincerity’.

I recently rewatched a movie that seems to me to reflect this fact particularly clearly: Mike Mills' Thumbsucker (2005). This film follows Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci), a suburban Oregonian teenager living with his parents (addressed only by their first names, Audrey [Tilda Swinton] and Mike [Vincent D'Onofrio]). Putatively structured around Justin's struggle to let go of the titular childhood habit, the film is part bildungsroman, part a modest tapestry of unsatisfied American lives. In their own way, each character in the movie struggles with the pains of either growing up or growing old, and with questions of at what point goals transform into fantasies, coping mechanisms into crutches.

The movie can usefully be seen as expressing many of the productive tensions often found within the 'quirky' sensibility. Firstly, as a semi-independent film (produced independently, distributed by major subsidiary Sony Pictures Classics), the film unsurprisingly indulges both commercial and more niche impulses: starring an unknown actor, yet also populated by major players; handling drug use and addiction fairly lightly, but concerned to wean its characters off the lifestyles they encourage; dealing primarily in disillusionment, yet offering the possibility of redemption. The movie lives a million miles from, say, the wholly bleak teenage wasteland of a film like Gummo (1997), but also far from the milieu of mainstream teen pictures. Narratively, Thumbsucker emerges as an amalgam between a meandering patchwork piece and a more goal-oriented mode of storytelling - an approach in fact entirely appropriate to depicting the lives of purposeless characters refusing to give up entirely on the search for 'purpose'.

Thumbsucker's use of the tonal possibilities common to movies of its ilk locates it in a similarly ambivalent middle ground. This comic drama is nowhere near so whimsical as, for instance, Napoleon Dynamite (2004), nor so comparatively naturalistic as, for example, The Squid and the Whale (2005), though contains elements of both. One measure of this is that it can encompass both a vignette about anal drug-smuggling gone gorily awry, and pretty, pink-tinged dream sequences set in something like a candy-floss Heaven. This is very much a movie struggling to temper grounded reality with the liberating possibilities of fantasy, something which again reflects a central thematic concern.

Virtually all the characters pursue artificial solutions to their problems: prescribed medication, corny psychological mysticism, dreams of a lost career, desire for a beautiful star from “out there in 'picture land'” (as Mike puts it), and so on. In their stymied dreams of greatness, these people in a sense feel like indie characters striving to achieve the eminence of Hollywood heroes - a predicament familiar from the work of Wes Anderson, but one that feels slightly less safe when taking place in a less fanciful and hermetic context than Wes's worlds. The film may contain escapist dream sequences, but we never forget that they are indeed dreams - temporary flights from a far more disappointing reality.

Yet, this being a 'quirky' movie, it does not finally encourage us to despair. All the characters are subject to a degree of criticism from the film - Justin himself often appears misguidedly petulant towards, rather than unfairly wronged by, those around him - but we are ultimately nudged towards sincere empathy rather than ironic disengagement. The tension between pessimism and optimism at the film's heart is neatly conveyed by the songs which punctuate it - half of them having been written by the wistful Elliott Smith (who committed suicide before completing the project), the remainder by Tim DeLaughter of the notoriously joyful Polyphonic Spree. Were Smith to have scored the film in its entirety, it would undoubtedly have a different feel than it does. As it is, somberness coexists here with a quixotic triumphalism, and we are permitted to leave the film's world with a characteristically quirky sense of qualified, but nonetheless enveloping, hope, as Justin runs excitedly towards an uncertain future.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Alternate Takes


A site that I set up six years ago, but which has been on a long hiatus for the last two, has just relaunched. It is edited by me, and written by myself and an assortment of excellent film critics, most of whom have studied the subject at university, but who also desire a less purely academic outlet for their cinematic musings.

I offer a few extracts from 'The Alternate Takes Approach', an article that offers some thoughts about the ethos and methods of the site...


While obviously recognising that both popular film reviewing and academia can serve very valuable functions, Alternate Takes seeks to contribute to this intriguing space that exists somewhere between the two. [...]

A problem for much movie reviewing is the issue of ‘spoliers’. Arguing for the fundamental need to ‘spoil’ aspects of a film in order to discuss it properly, Jonathan Rosenbaum has said, “it’s impossible to function as a critic if one can’t describe anything in a movie or a book in advance. So if I’m expected to write a review of something, am I also expected not to analyze it?” We might say that this speaks to a basic distinction between reviewing and criticism: film reviewers have to assume that their readers haven’t seen the film under discussion, while film critics can assume that they have. To this extent, Alternate Takes practises both reviewing and criticism. [...]

The most obvious way by which we bridge the gap between reviewing and criticism is that we write about new films twice. First there is a short, evaluative piece that ‘spoils’ as little as possible about a film, but still grants a sense of the sorts of pleasures, or otherwise, that it offers; this is a review to read before you see a film. After you return from the cinema, you can read our Alternate Take - a longer, more in-depth critical analysis that discusses whatever the writer found to be most interesting about the movie. [...]

Speaking very broadly, film journalism tends often to write to the taste of its presumed readership. A film fan or movie geek might read, say, Empire, whose focus is skewed towards mainstream pictures, while a self-defined cinephile might read a more ‘high-end’ publication like Sight and Sound or Film Comment for its coverage of arthouse or festival films. Concerned first and foremost with evaluation, both these kinds of writing usually share and encourage assumptions with their readers about what sorts of films are worth discussing. Film studies, on the other hand, while certainly not immune from issues of taste, isn’t nearly so often interested in passing judgment upon a film’s value - at least not overtly. This in turn opens up the option of writing about a film for a multitude of other reasons - what it might tell us about a social issue, for instance, or an industry, or a genre’s history, or a philosophical problem - and thus means that any film can be treated as interesting for reasons other than whether or not it might be up the critic or reader’s alley.

One problem with writing overtly to a particular taste is simply that it can mean that - due to pressures of space - films which lie outside the taste bracket become sidelined. Thus, Empire gives a film like I Am Love (2010) a positive review that nonetheless runs to a mere 107 words, while the usually more loquacious Sight and Sound grants a movie such as No Strings Attached (2011) just two paragraphs (see the April ’11 issue). This, surely, is because both publications assume that their core readership just won’t be interested in reading lengthy pieces on these sorts of movies. [...]

Of course, it would be foolish to claim that any of our critical judgments can ever be free from personal taste (something acknowledged in our scoring system [...]). But it would be equally foolish to deny that there are degrees to which taste dictates the focus and tone of a discourse. Alternate Takes tries to adopt something akin to film studies’ more democratic attitude towards cinema, but without abandoning the evaluative dimension of journalistic film reviewing. The result, hopefully, is an approach that considers any kind of film worthy of detailed discussion, but which assesses that film on its own terms rather than chastising or ignoring it because it isn’t something that it never attempted to be. We may not always be successful in this aim, but it seems an ideal to strive towards.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Kiss. Fade Out. The End: Embracing the Happy Ending


The following is a conference paper delivered at
Rom Com Actually: A Two Day International Conference on Romantic Comedy in Film and Television, held at De Montfort University, Leicester, 2 – 3 March, 2011.


In the 1964 romantic comedy
Paris When it Sizzles Richard (William Holden), a screenwriter, tells Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn), his secretary, that a Hollywood film necessarily ends in the following manner:

The climax. The music soars, and there, totally oblivious to the torrential rain pouring down upon them, the two fall happily and tenderly into each other’s arms. And as the audience drools with sublimated sexual pleasure, the two enormous and highly-paid heads come together for that ultimate and inevitable moment: the final, earth-moving, studio-rent-paying, theatre-filling, popcorn-selling kiss. Fade out. The end.

Accordingly, this film, which is dedicated throughout to sending-up various cinematic clichés while simultaneously enacting them, does itself end in precisely this way. Speaking of the new script Richard is writing, Gabrielle asks, “It will have a happy ending, won’t it?” The couple then intone Richard’s earlier words to one another (him: “Theatre-filling…”/ her: “Popcorn selling…”) before falling into a passionate embrace as the words, “Kiss. Fade out. The End.” are typed onto the screen; we fade to black.

David Bordwell has said that “few conventions of the Hollywood cinema are as noticeable to its producers, to its audiences, and to its critics as that of the happy ending”. Robin Wood calls the happy ending the “most striking and persistent of all classical Hollywood phenomena”. Assumptions like these are widespread. It’s exceedingly common for critics to precede the term happy ending with words like “standard” (Dolar, 1991: 38), “standardised” (Mulvey, 1977: 54), “typical” (Booker, 2007: 42), “usual” (Žižek, 2001: 7), “traditional” (Benshoff & Griffin, 2004: 61), “formulaic” (Umphlett, 2006: 38), “conventional” (Dunne, 2004: 78), “clichéd” (Orr, 1991: 380), “expected” (Rowe & Wells, 2003: 59), “predictable” (Schatz, 1991: 152), “customary” (Sterrit, 1993: 10), “inevitable” (Kracauer, 1960: 65), “necessary” (Mayne, 1990: 363), “required” (Sharrett, 2007: 60), “requisite” (Tally, 2007: 129), “statutory” (Brownlow, 1987: 122), “mandatory” (Kapsis, 1990: 39), or “obligatory” (Shapiro, 1995: 197).

Despite being viewed in this way, the 'happy ending' has received barely any in-depth attention from film studies. This paper is an extension of my doctoral work, which is dedicated in part to dispelling some myths about the convention. In particular, today I want to discuss the kind of happy ending familiar from so many romantic comedies: the kind in which ‘boy gets girl’, which for convenience’s sake I call the final couple.

In a sense I feel that this conference may actually be one of the few places where I’ll be preaching to the choir, since romantic comedy criticism has produced probably the best work on happy endings thus far. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll bear with me.

In a 1947 article called ‘Happily Ever After’, Fritz Lang wrote:

The traditional happy-ending story is a story of problems solved by an invincible hero, who achieved with miraculous ease all that his heart desired. [...] Boy will get girl, [...] dreams will come true as though at the touch of a wand.

I think we can see something like this description as charting the basic discursive field surrounding the ‘happy ending’. Of course Lang isn’t right when he calls this ‘happy ending’ “traditional”; instead it is prototypical. This is the abstract
idea of a happy ending – exaggerated and hyperbolic. Because it has never been unpacked or interrogated, I think that this image has also tended to control film studies’ own attitudes toward happy endings, causing us to construct it as a critical ‘bad object’ rather than engage with it in detail.

That is to say:
the ‘happy ending’ is an amalgamation of the kinds of exaggerated images conjured up here, or presented in a film like Paris When it Sizzles. Rather like the way in which genres are sometimes treated, it is essentially a Platonic ideal, existing in the minds of critics, filmmakers, and audiences, and often exerting its influence most forcefully by what it represents as an ideal. Just as Hollywood cinema has plainly produced a great many of what we call Westerns, but never the prototypical Western, so has it produced a great many of what we call ‘happy endings’, but never the ‘happy ending’. Yet, unlike the case with genre, this oversimplified conception of the ‘happy ending’ is still rife in film studies, and is what has allowed the convention’s reputation as a whole to become what it is today. It’s what permits critics to speak of “the Hollywood happy-ending convention” (Buckland, 2006: 219), or “the Hollywood convention of the always-happy ending” (Bratu-Hansen, 1997: 101).

It seems to me that in any happy ending there are two happy endings at play:
the 'happy ending' – this clichéd, perfected ideal – and the actual happy ending we are watching, which will almost always be more ambivalent, or at least in some way distinguishable from its Platonic counterpart. I think we need to always to be aware of which we're talking about at any given moment: the 'happy ending' (which requires quotation marks), or a happy ending?

I’m also interested in the interplay between these two endings – the imagined and the real, and I’ll talk today about some assumptions about the former that are complicated if we pay proper attention to the latter – in particular, assumptions about the clichéd, ‘closed’, and ideological character of happy endings.

First though, we need to ask: why does the happy ending have such a negative critical reputation?

The Happy Ending in Film Theory

In 1967 Frank Kermode wrote in his seminal book The Sense of Ending that there had developed “a modern degree of clerical skepticism” towards narrative in general, and endings in particular. This skepticism has only increased and diversified within critical and theoretical discourse since.

Perhaps the most central reason for film studies’ hostility towards the ‘happy ending’ is its perceived links with narrative closure. Since the 1960s various theoretical approaches to both film and literature have managed to draw metaphorical parallels between narrative closure and virtually every ‘conservative’ impulse in Western culture: capitalism, patriarchy, masculinity, the Oedipal trajectory, bourgeois ideology, and so on.

It was a central tenet of '
Screen theory' in particular that a Hollywood movie usually strives to be what Commoli and Narboni called “a closed circuit, endlessly repeating the same illusion”. Theoretical models like Colin MacCabe’s ‘classic realist text’ regularly described Hollywood aesthetics using terms such as a “heavily ‘closed’ discourse”, and so on.

Of course, the excesses of '
Screen theory' – such as the concept of the classic realist text – have now received decades of critical drubbing, and its shortcomings on this particular matter of closure are easily diagnosed. The convention of closure, in-and-of-itself, conveys no ideology whatsoever. It is merely a formal device that can be used in the telling of a radical story as easily as a conservative one. This is because, a Andrew Britton says, a film’s ideology can “be gauged not by the fact that it uses certain conventions but by its use of them”.

Yet the critical enmity towards narrative closure
per se on ideological grounds certainly outlived the 'Screen theory' boom, and can be seen to have continued through psychoanalytic approaches of various stripes, feminist film theory, postmodern theory, and still persists today.

One measure of this is the survival of a concept that was central to 70s
Screen's dealings with Hollywood closure.

The 'Self-Consciously Artificial Happy Ending'

The theoretical climate that abounded in film studies' early years essentially made it necessary that, if one wishes to make positive claims for a ‘closed’ happy ending, one needs to argue that it doesn’t in fact convincingly ‘close’ the film. This produced a very prevalent – and resilient – category: the “happy ending in which the mechanics of cinema are exposed” (Geraghty, 2009: 106), because it seems “unmotivated” (Neupert, 1995: 72), “ironic” (Grant, 2007: 79) or “forced” (Pollock, 1977: 109). We can call this overarching critical category what Shingler and Mercer dub the “self-consciously artificial” ‘happy ending’. This model was very useful for the development of ‘Screen theory’ as a whole, playing a key role in the development of a concept that Barbra Klinger has dubbed “the formally subversive ‘progressive’ text”.

But the model is by no means confined to this period or theoretical tradition. For instance, in
The Classical Hollywood Cinema – which is still one of the most influential of film studies books, and is critical of much 'Screen theory' – David Bordwell writes that an “unmotivated happy ending” can “break down the ideological unity of the classical Hollywood film”. And today we can still regularly see readings which suggest that an individual happy ending is either tacitly ironic or unintentionally unconvincing, thus counteracting closure, and thus containing some sort of progressive potential, or at least additional interest.

An important point to make about this argument is that it is based on the assumption that, unless it’s being subverted, a happy ending is likely to merely conform to the standardized Platonic happy ending of our imagination. A second point is that ‘open’ and ‘closed’ aren’t static categories which endings simply are or are not – there are infinite shadings of closure. We can see this by looking even very briefly at a handful of individual final couples.

Variation and 'Closure'

The final couple is regularly assumed to guarantee complete closure – the resolution of all crises and contradictions through romantic union. Sometimes it does, but it needn’t.

The uncertainty of the future may be literalised openly. In
Double Wedding (1937), Margit and Charles ultimately lie knocked out on the floor after a brawl at a misfired nuptial, a wreath reading “Good Luck!” strewn over their unconscious bodies. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) sees its couple on the verge of restarting their marriage but with Gary Cooper in a straightjacket and rendered virtually mute by rage and sexual frustration. More recently, I Could Never be your Woman (2007) has its heroine admit of her new relationship “So, it might not last...”

Equally, the lovers might not finally know each others’ true identity.
The Lady Eve (1941) famously ends with Hopsy still not having realized that Jean has been pretending to be two different people. In Bachelor Mother (1939) David finally remains under the illusion that Polly is the mother of the abandoned baby; Charade (1963) ends with the line "I love you, Adam, Alex, Peter, Brian – whatever your name is…”; Housesitter’s (1992) last words are “I love you, Gwen.” / “Actually, it’s Jessica…”

As an aside, it’s also worth briefly drawing attention to a very common strategy of romantic comedy of all eras, which is to use an epilogue, not to shore-up closure, but to follow a final couple with a dissonant gag. This may perhaps refer back to an earlier issue between the couple – say,
The Ugly Truth’s (2009) final faked-orgasm gag – or it might bring back a secondary figure of fun – in Ninotchka (1939) we finally cut to the protesting Russian envoy. Equally, Four’s a Crowd (1938) has Errol Flynn accidentally kiss the wrong new bride before switching to his actual wife, while their car is being pursued by hunting dogs, dispatched by an angry father . As Kathrina Glitre points out, “far from reinforcing the return of the status quo, [...] the Hollywood romantic comedy epilogue tends to destabilise the final union by the return of a source of conflict”.

My point isn’t that these films necessarily encourage us to envision
pessimistic futures, but only that the problems of the narrative need by no means be unilaterally closed by a final couple. Furthermore: it is crucial that no ‘subversion’ of a prototypical model is required in order to create these happy endings which are equivocal, ambiguous, or in some other way simply distinctive. Celestino Deleyto is in my view absolutely correct when he says that “a closer look at this [...] convention proves that ambiguity and variety are relatively frequent”; more to the point, he is virtually revolutionary when he goes on to suggest what no other critic has ever acknowledged: that such ambiguity and variety are “even part of the convention itself”.

And indeed, we should probably admit that this ambiguity is unsurprising, given that the final couple is simultaneously the most familiar of endings and also manifestly a moment of
beginning – the beginning of a romantic relationship. This is something that particular happy endings acknowledge to varying to degrees, but it’s always central to the convention, and can be one reason for the relative ‘openness’ of particular final couples.

Another reason it’s unsurprising that we should find moments of equivocation in many final couples is because of the overbearing weight of the clichéd, Platonic image of the 'happy ending'.

This is something that has often been acknowledged about contemporary rom coms, or New Romances, which often display, as Frank Krutnik puts it, a “knowing embrace of the artifice of convention” – with the 'happy ending' high on the list of conventions regularly considered artificial. A famous example of this is
Pretty Woman (1990), which ends with a modern version of the fairytale-style rescue of a princess by a prince, followed by a chorus-like figure announcing “this is Hollywood, land of dreams!” I would agree with the numerous critics of romantic comedy who argue that this trend needs to be explained at least partly in relation to the rise of postmodernism.

But it also needs to be seen on a continuum with the far older convention of drawing attention to the clichéd nature of the final couple. We’ve already seen
Paris When it Sizzles parodying the 'happy ending' back in 1964. We might go back to Platinum Blonde in 1931, which finishes with the hero talking to the heroine, telling her about the happy ending of a play he’s writing, whilst acting out that ending with her. Or we could look at Sherlock, Jr. in 1924, which shows Buster Keaton taking romantic advice from a movie playing onscreen...

...until the film-within-a-film shows its onscreen couple kiss, then dissolves immediately to a shot of hero and heroine holding several babies; Buster is left looking confused.

In fact, as far back as Shakespeare we can see the final couple being treated as a hackneyed convention – towards the end of
Love’s Labour’s Lost Berowne comments on the interruption of the play’s courtship plots by observing that “our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill”.

This is because for hundreds of years it has been true that, as David Shumway puts it, “‘Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back’ is exhibit A of standard plots in all fictional media”. Given this, while postmodernism might have caused what was once, in Jameson’s terms, ‘residual’ to have became a ‘cultural dominant’, the clichéd reputation of the final couple has long been one of its defining features. This in turn would seem to mean that, just like many film scholars, most romantic comedies are
themselves suspicious of this prototypical image, and thus tend to find ways of avoiding conforming to it uncomplicatedly – either via the kinds of minor dissonance mentioned earlier, or by, as Kruntnik puts it, presenting “the fulfilment fantasy of heterosexual union, while underscoring that it is only wish fulfilment after all”.

Of course though, it isn’t just its clichéd nature that regularly causes anxiety about the final couple, but also its perceived politics.

Variation and Ideology

Other than perhaps somewhat outdated de facto associations of closure with a reactionary ideology, the main reason for political suspicion of the final couple is because to end in this way both sets up marriage as an ultimate goal, and necessarily consigns it to a narrative afterlife that remains unrepresented, and thus unchallenged .

Yet the fact that this genre often ends with marriage (or more broadly monogamy) doesn’t mean it always seeks to relegitimize it, nor that it is unable to represent anxieties about the institution. While of course usually framed within a comic mode, marriage can be criticised in romantic comedies for many reasons.

For Gillian in
Bell, Book and Candle (1958) marriage “would mean giving up a whole way of thinking, behaving – a whole existence”, while Tira in I’m No Angel (1936) sees marriage “only as a last resort”. Following the fall of the Production Code the critiques have only tended to become more overt: “You want a happy marriage?” Mac asks Eddie in The Heartbreak Kid (2007), “Do what I do: plaster on a fake smile, plough through the next half century, sit back, relax, and wait for the sweet embrace of death.” Marriage is described in contemporary romantic comedies variously as “something that’s got about a fifty-fifty shot of making it out of the gate” (27 Dresses [2007]), a “patriarchal” form of “ritualised property transfer” (The Bachelor [1999]), “a prison” (Forces of Nature [1998]), “a form of institutionalised rape” (Forget Paris [1994]), “not natural” (What Happens in Vegas [2008]), “filled with loneliness and sadness” (Bride Wars [2006]), and accused of being based upon “a bourgeois desire to fulfill an ideal that society embeds in us from an early age to promote a consumer-capitalist agenda” (Definitely Maybe [2008]). Even the assumed ideological link between marriage and the 'happy ending’ can be explicitly called into question: “Then what happens?” medical student Paige asks of a burgeoning relationship in The Prince and Me (2005), “We get married and live happily ever after? Then all my hard work goes down the drain because I’m too busy shopping for groceries and picking my kids up at soccer.”

Of course, though, these dissenting voices tend not to have the ‘last word’, since the narrative does indeed usually culminate in the beginnings of a romantic relationship. But it has too often been assumed that, whatever progressive potential a romance narrative may possess, the final couple which
ends it will always signal a return to conservative values. Of course, I don’t wish to suggest that final couples can’t serve to, say, ‘tame’ strong women, and it is certainly valid and necessary to pay attention to what Laura Mulvey calls “the amount of dust the story raises along the road”. This should not, however, come at the expense of asking how much “dust” can also be raised by a final couple. We’re free to view as equally conservative all endorsements of any monogamous heterosexual couple if we wish. However, this view will logically leave us entirely unable to differentiate between the ideological meanings of one couple and another.

I think it necessary to adjust our thinking and recognise that the final couple, while always dealing with similar ideological concerns, will nevertheless have different meanings depending on its specific treatment. As Kathrina Glitre puts it,

It is not enough to claim that [...] simply by ending with the union of the heterosexual couple, romantic comedy is about the traditional institutions of patriarchal society and must be inherently conservative. The context of The End must be taken into account.

It is true that romantic comedies usually encourage us to endorse their ultimately united romantic couples. But that couple will be different in each case, which will in turn change the implications of our endorsement of it. More important than the fact of the final couple is the kind of future a final couple invites us to imagine – as well as
who the people getting married are, and how equal their relationship is. Two final kisses shared by the very same stars within a couple of years of one another can have extremely different ideological overtones depending on - to take one blatant example - who has been pursuing and educating whom. We can see this in the huge gulf separating the sexual politics of, say, The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).

The first of these final kisses has been arrived at after two hours of male characters paternalistically putting Tracy in her place; the latter is the end result of the couple's joyous escape from virtually all traces of patriarchal dominance in their relationship.

There are lots of questions we must ask of individual final couples if we wish to move beyond a view which accuses every romantic comedy ending of conveying the same ideological message.

For instance: is the final couple predicated on the woman having to give up a career opportunity, as in
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), or is it founded explicitly on her professional success, as in something like His Girl Friday (1940)?

Is the woman desperate to be a wife, as in
Every Girl Should be Married (1948), or is she finally reluctant to wed and has to be talked into it by the man, like in Indiscreet (1958)?

Is the final marriage presented as the fulfilment of all the woman’s dreams, as in
27 Dresses (2007), or does it seem strangely threatening, as in She Done Him Wrong (1933), which ends with Cary Grant telling Mae West “you’re my prisoner and I’m going to be your jailer for a long time...”

Whereas the final couple under the Production Code tended to be synonymous with marriage, now it need only constitute a committed relationship. Given this, if a contemporary film wants to marry its couple off, does it make this seem logical by structuring its entire narrative around weddings, as in
The Wedding Planner (2001), or does marriage seem a strangely anachronistic tacked-on addendum, as in Blind Date (1987)?

If the couple is already married by the start of the film, does the movie flirt with but finally steer clear of adultery, as
Wife vs. Secretary (1936) does? Does it suggest that an infidelity can actually save a marriage, like Kiss Me Stupid (1964)? Or is the final couple itself adulterous, as in Same Time Next Year (1978)?

What age is the couple? Teen romances can often make their final couples feel tentative and provisional. The teenage heroine of
A Cinderella Story (2004) says in voiceover at the end of her film “and we lived happily ever after. At least for now – hey: I’m only a freshman!” In Clueless’ (1995) final scene we cut to a wedding that we expect to be that of the main couple, only to be told “as if!”

While the marriage can seem to be all about the couple, it can also focus far more on the friendship between two women, with the husbands cast as merely incidental, as in, say,
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), or more recently, Bride Wars (2008).

All these things will have distinct significance for the politics of particular final couples. And this is before we even start talking about happy endings which don’t feature a final couple at all, like
Roman Holiday (1953), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Prime (2005), and so on.

So – to wind things up...

The assumption that a happy ending fundamentally requires irony or subversion in order to avoid being monolithic and conservative is a damaging one. While film studies may have largely left categories like the standardised classic realist text firmly behind, those surrounding the standardised ‘happy ending’ tend to continue unabated. Though it certainly does have its uses, the model of the self-consciously artificial 'happy ending' is a rather anachronistic remnant of an earlier critical climate, and deserves to be rethought.

Because the final couple
is so widespread a feature of Hollywood conclusions, it can be tempting to assume that it will always be the same and mean the same thing. Yet I would suggest that its very prevalence should in fact encourage a contrary assumption: that this convention will be bound to serve many varied functions depending upon the needs of varied films. If we recognise this, it will allow us to see the 'happy ending' for what it is: a tenacious Platonic ideal whose influence is important for our understanding, but which can by no means tell us all we need to know about what can be conveyed by 'Kiss. Fade Out. The End'.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Sex, Rom Coms, and Final Couples, Part 2


It has come to my attention that there are, not just one, but two 'casual sex' romantic comedies on the horizon: No Strings Attached (trailer here), and the even more literal-mindedly titled Friends With Benefits (trailer here). This is on top of last year's Love and Other Drugs, the raunchiest mainstream rom com for some time (even if it does develop, not entirely convincingly, into something of a melodrama).

As I've said before, many (academic) critics like to characterise contemporary romantic comedy as perversely chaste, suggesting that these movies usually find some reason or other to keep couples out of each others' beds. This just isn't true, however, as the appearance of films like these makes all the more obvious.

The final couple happy ending has long been seen as a standardised, conservative end to a genre that is concerned in virtually every instance to repeat the same mantra regarding marriage and monogamy. Yet I'm more in agreement with Celestino Deleyto when he says that the main purpose of romantic comedy is

the artistic articulation of current discourses on love, sex and marriage - discourses that [are] multiple and contradictory. The apparent universality of the happy ending and its obvious conventionality have led many to defend a homology between the genre’s narrative structure and a stern defence of monogamy and heterosexuality, distorting what, in my view, is its main discursive space: the exploration of love and human sexuality and its complex and fluid relationships with the social context.

There have certainly already been plenty of romantic comedies in which casual sex or one-night stands have taken place between final couples (only to lead to something more), but these two films - taking, as they do, the parlance of our times in their very titles - make it very clear that they are concerned to explore this particular aspect of their "social context". Urban Dictionary's first entry for the phrase 'friends with benefits' seems to have appeared in 2003. Well, better eight years later than never.

Of course, it is almost certain that these movies will end with their final couples deciding that they want to try for a monogamous relationship; but meaning doesn't just reside in the ending - it's also conveyed by the beginning and middle. Equally, one final couple can mean something very different to another depending on what has come before it. For instance, once it has been demonstrated that sex can be separated from emotions outside a relationship, it follows that they can also be severed inside one. I predict tentative conclusions.

Regardless of how they turn out, though, what could make more clear the rom coms' desire to wrestle with changing sexual politics than the appearance of films with titles like these? How long until we see a movie called Fuck Buddies?

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Ellipsis and Occlusion in Rear Window


I provide here a link to my first academic article to appear in print, 'What We Don't See, and What We Think it Means: Ellipsis and Occlusion in Rear Window' (The Hitchcock Annual, Vol. 16. New York: Columbia University Press. 2010: pp.77-101). Thank you to the editors of The Hitchcock Annual, Sidney Gottlieb and Richard Allen, for their permission to republish the piece online.

An extract from the article to give a sense of what it's about:

In the line from Rear Window that inspired this essay’s title, Lisa instructs Jeff to “tell me everything you saw, and what you think it means.” David Bordwell has said that this line “concisely reiterates the film’s strategy of supplying sensory information [...] and then forcing Jeff (and us) to interpret it,” and furthermore that, in this sense, “every fiction film does what Rear Window does.” The line is similarly cited by Richard Maltby to help make the point that “when we remember a film we [...] tell ourselves what we saw, and interpret it. The result is a story.” It is easy to see why these words might be alluded to in illustrations of the processes by which we understand film, given that they combine the visual, narrated, and interpretive aspects of filmic storytelling and viewing in a pleasingly economical way. If we are serious about using the line as a metaphor for the spectator’s activity, however, it is worth pointing out that what it does not include is any acknowledgement that what we don’t see in a film also plays a very important role in our sense of what we “think it means”.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Encounters With Moments: Before Sunrise

Partly because I'm currently reading the fascinating Film Moments: Criticism, History, Theory, it has occurred to me that one nice ongoing project for this blog might be to occasionally point to some particularly striking critical attempts to describe cinematic moments, along with an image or two which evokes them. Sometimes I may offer my own description of these moments, at other times not. Either way, I intend the series to stand as a tribute to one of the prime tasks of the film critic - as Victor Perkins put it: "to articulate in the medium of prose some aspects of what artists have made perfectly and precisely clear in the medium of film". As any film critic knows, this process constitutes an always challenging, and often exhilarating, experience (as Girish, with the help of Stanley Cavell and Christian Keathley, begins a discussion about here).

It seems strangely fitting to begin with an instance of a critic finding that words in fact fail him when faced with a moment he especially prizes: Robin Wood, speaking of a scene from Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) in his book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film. Wood's admittance of failure here is a touchingly honest reminder of the difficulty of our endeavour when we try to put into words the ineffable.

Wood writes,

"I have to confess, at this point, to a failure: even on first viewing I told myself that I would 'one day' analyze in detail the scene in the listening booth of the record store, in which nothing happens except that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy either do or don't look at each other, their eyes never quite meeting. After a dozen viewings I abandoned the project. I suppose one might try an elaborate system of charts and timings, annotating 'direction of the gaze', when and how long each looks (or doesn't)... which would demonstrate nothing of the least importance. With no camera-movement, no editing, no movement within the frame except for the slight movements of the actors' heads, nothing on the soundtrack but a not-very-distinguished song that may vaguely suggest what is going on in the characters' minds and seems sometimes to motivate their 'looks' ("Though I'm not impossible to touch / I have never wanted you so much / Come here"), the shot seems to me a model of 'pure cinema' in ways Hitchcock never dreamed of (not merely 'photographs of people talking', but photographs of them not talking), precisely because it completely resists analysis, defies verbal description. All one can say is that it is the cinema's most perfect depiction, in just over one minute of 'real' time, at once concrete and intangible, of two people beginning to realize that they are falling in love."

A number of years ago I attempted my own partial account of this moment, focusing on one aspect of it in particular, in this piece comparing Linklater's movie with Minnelli's The Clock (1945). Yet neither Wood nor I have captured its essence; both despite and because of its simplicity, it remains elusive, "at once concrete and intangible".

I look forward to revisiting other instances of critics trying to do justice to their encounters with moments. The amazing thing is that, sometimes, we almost succeed.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Sex, Rom Coms, and Final Couples


In a 1948 article called ‘The Argument of Comedy’, Northrop Frye made a playful aside suggesting that “the average movie of today is a rigidly conventionalized New Comedy proceeding towards and act which, like death in Greek tragedy, takes place offstage, and is symbolized by a final embrace.” It is certainly true that, thanks to the Hays Code, Hollywood movies made between approximately 1934 and 1967 were generally required to abstain from sex in order that “pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing”. Thus, since marriage in narrative so often comes at the end rather than the beginning or middle – if, that is, we’re talking about happy marriages (it’s so hard for actual depictions of wedlock not to become melodramas!) – a final couple happy ending did indeed very often serve the function Frye suggests. Film critic James Harvey has a blunter way of describing this narrative pattern: “the delayed fuck”.

Of course, this didn’t stop classical films from letting our imaginations wander, with ellipses between scenes sometimes offering tantalising hints of hank panky. In the excellently-titled article ‘A Brief Romantic Interlude: Dick and Jane go to 3 ½ Seconds of the Classical Hollywood Cinema’, Richard Maltby spends a great deal of time explaining that a single shot of an airport tower in Casablanca (1942) intentionally left contemporary audiences the option of constructing two opposed interpretations of what exactly Rick and Ilsa get up to in Rick’s room.

However, regardless of the extent to which a studio-era movie might flirt with its possibility, the eschewing of sex was nevertheless for the most part necessarily maintained (at least as far as the final couple is concerned: heroes and heroines were frequently suggested to have had sexual relationships with ‘unsuitable’ partners). This meant that what a final kiss often symbolised was indeed, to a significant extent, activities proper to the marriage bed, which could only take place after the camera stopped rolling. I’ve always felt that Teresa Wright’s hat falling from her head in the final shot of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) gives a particularly nice indication of this.

More subtle at least than, say, North by Northwest’s infamous concluding images.

Of course, the absence of sex is particularly important for genres such as the romantic comedy, which are so much about sex. As well as knowingly nudging audiences in the ribs in the manner of North by Northwest (1959), classical rom coms could also make jokes about the narrative structures that the Code’s moral prescriptions so often led to. For instance: I Married a Male War Bride (1949) sees its couple wed about two-thirds of the way into the film, only to continually frustrate their attempts to consummate the marriage until the very last seconds. Meanwhile, Lover Come Back (1961) marries its couple in order to allow them to have sex, then divorces them, then has them remarry once again in the final scene whilst Carol (Doris Day) is in labour with their child; “Now that’s what I call cutting it close!” comments an onlooker.

But what of romantic comedies made after the fall of the Code in 1968? Some commentators predicted an explosion of sexual activity that would effectively put the genre out of business by ridding it of the sense of frustrated desire that so often served as its central motivation. And for a while during the 1970s the genre did indeed seem to be in bad health, with only a few movies by directors such as Woody Allen keeping the comic battle of the sexes waging. Of course, this changed in the 1980s when there began appearing a trickle, and then ultimately a flood, of comedies that have come to be called the ‘New Romances’; by the 1990s and 2000s the genre was back to the level of popularity it enjoyed during the height of the studio period.

Yet many critics have suggested that these new romantic comedies are peculiar precisely for the fact that – despite the lack of moral censorship, the centrality of sexual desire to the genre, and the rise of post-60s permissiveness – they feature barely any sex. Pat Kirkland for instance asserts that in modern films “sex is an activity indulged in only by non-central characters”, and Tamar Jeffers McDonald suggests that such rom coms “have to find ways to explain why sex is not happening”.

It is certainly true that there exist films like, say, Sleepless in Seattle (1993) or Serendipity (2001) which ensure the sexlessness of their central relationships by keeping their couple far apart for most of the film’s running time, and, in the process, imbue their endings once again with the kind of meanings Frye identified. This pattern has, however, been greatly overstated, as I have discovered whilst watching copious contemporary romantic comedies over the course of my research. Though it is true that we seldom actually see couples having sex (the ellipsis once again becoming handy in this respect), sexual relationships are nevertheless extremely common between modern (unmarried) romantic comedy heroes and heroines, meaning that sex is by no means something reserved until after a final fade-out.

Thus, for prurient posterity – and in the style of something a pre-internet 12-year-old might construct – I offer a brief list of the times at which some contemporary romantic comedy final couples have sex:

A Lot Like Love – 4 minutes in
Fools Rush In – 12 mins
Speechless – 13 mins
Housesitter – 15 mins
What Happens in Vegas – 17 mins
Pretty Woman – 29 mins
Down to You – 30 mins
Splash – 35 mins
Failure to Launch – 40 mins
The Back-Up Plan – 42 mins
Lucky You – 44 mins
Along Came Polly – 47 mins
Shakespeare in Love – 47 mins
Sliding Doors – 50 mins
Happy Together – 53 mins
I Could Never be Your Woman – 55 mins
Head Over Heels – 56 mins
Something’s Gotta Give – 1 hour
The American President – 1 hour
America’s Sweethearts – 1.05
Mannequin – 1.07
When Harry Met Sally – 1:07
Overboard – 1:16
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days – 1:23
Chasing Liberty – 1:24

Needless to say, there are infinitely more examples than these – the above list consists merely of moments about which I happened to remember to make notes during viewings.

While it’s convenient for critics to speak of the perverse chastity of modern rom coms (it helps reinforce the sense of the genre as a whole as conservative), such assertions don’t actually stand up to scrutiny. Now severed from its earlier function of symbolising “an act which [...] occurs offstage”, this, then, is one unambiguous way in which the final couple has changed its ideological meaning over time.