We Know How the Story Ends—An Exploration of Narrative in Film, Part 1: Romantic Comedies

A few years ago I presented a paper at Garrett's Student Theological conference, where I was attending seminary. The topic that year was "death" and I decided to discuss how death, violence, and sentimentality are portrayed in pop culture, specifically in film. Among other things, I put 13 Going on 30, Kill Bill, and 2001: A Space Odyssey in conversation with each other (read on to see which of those films I have the most criticism for). Then, for contrast, I juxtaposed those narratives with the "Christian Narrative." 

Then, a few weeks ago a guy I used to go to church with in the Chicago area released a wonderful episode on he and his friend's podcast surrounding the work of Quentin Tarantino. You can listen to that episode here:

Can We Still Be Friends Episode 8: Quentin Tarantino

One area surrounding Tarantino's work which they discussed at length was his use of violence and their ambivalence towards it.  So many of their thoughts related to what I had said in my essay I went back and revisited what I had written. The essay is a bit long, but I wanted they guys on "Can We Still Be Friends" to be able to read it and I wanted to share it with everyone else as well. So here now is part 1 of "We Know How the Story Ends—An Exploration of Narrative in Film." Part 2 (on the work of Tarantino) can be found here and part 3 (on 2001 and the Christian narrative) is here.
We Know How the Story Ends—An Exploration of Narrative in Film, Part 1: Romantic Comedies
The plot is a familiar one: a woman (sometimes a man) is trying to make her way in the world.  She is young, affable, ambitious, and beautiful, but of course she has her hang-ups.  Or perhaps she is homely, intelligent, and an independent thinker who has not yet broken out of her shell.  Either way, what this woman needs, whether she is aware of it or not, is a man.  Sometimes, she is too caught up in her own ambition or stubborn pride to see it, while other times she is so desperately aware of her need that it is only men who are blind to her romantic ideals.  Eventually, through various pratfalls, misunderstandings, self-protecting white lies, betrayals, and deus ex machina, the woman and her man-of-destiny realize their undying love for each other and thus decide the rest of their lives should be lived in undiluted bliss, whether as husband and wife or in common law cohabitation.  

Any number of these and other varying combinations make up the perfect archetype for the plot of a romantic comedy.  This kind of paint-by-numbers plot structure is one of our cultural institutions, one that has long been recognized as tired, overused, and hopelessly clichéd.  A constant criticism of romances is their lack of realism; that the way they portray people falling in love and staying in love is unquestionably improbable.  Love is not that easy, we say.  Life is not that easy.  That perfect man our archetypal woman gets married to might end up abusing her, or perhaps their bliss is interrupted by a terminal illness.  Permeating “real” stories, we think, is the looming inevitability of death, coming in either physical or more figurative forms.  

In fact, the imminence of our death is a reminder that our stories cannot help but end in sadness.  It would seem our palette as a culture has seemingly shifted from stories with happy endings, to stories that portray "life as it really is", with all its heartache, confusion, and scandal.  An article from Time magazine, “Who Killed the Love Story?”, acknowledges our new taste in cinematic indulgence, citing how big name actors are continually eschewing the sweet and saccharine for the hard hitting brutality of real life.  In it, Richard Curtis, the writer/director of such contemporary romance classics as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting HillBridget Jones’ Diary, and About Time laments that

If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind…Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental.
Unconsciously, Curtis here is acknowledging another underlying reaction to love stories, which is that to watch good things happening to good people (or at least semi-good people) is essentially boring.  While a story without conflict is in fact uninteresting, Curtis’ quote also exposes the reoccurring bias of those who like more “realistic” fare, which is that violence and not compassion is the true pulp of reality and death is the true summation of life.  

But here is my contention: those who deride romantic comedies are overlooking one of their key glutinous elements: the conflict that brings the love interests together. These onscreen conflicts make the movie compelling and cause us as an audience to connect the characters with our own conflicted lives.  What critics often fail to acknowledge is in order for the characters of these films to become fulfilled and happy, they have to go through a sequence of deaths, either physically, spiritually, or emotionally.  Through these deaths the characters are transformed and learn to give up what they once cherished. They obtain their happiness, but at a cost.

One such film is 13 Going on 30, a seemingly typical and perhaps entirely forgettable romantic comedy.  Following the usual formula, the story follows Jenna Rink, a thirteen year old girl who carries all the pubescent self-esteem issues of a normal teenager.  Her dorky but caring next door neighbor Matt Flamhaff is in serious like with her.  Jenna’s struggles with wanting to look older and be popular come to a head at her birthday party where she rejects Matt for the attention of the popular girls she invited to her party.  Despite her efforts, in the end, she is still rejected and used by them.  

In the midst of this turmoil, through the use of some “wishing dust”—i.e. our designated deus ex machina—Jenna wishes to be “thirty and flirty and thriving”, a request that is granted at once by the magical powder.  Jenna (played as and adult by Jennifer Garner) wakes up to realize she is a successful glamour magazine editor, who rides around in limousines, has a hockey star boyfriend, and a nice pair of “boobies”.  What Jenna soon comes to realize however is the thriving thirty year old she has become has no real friends, is having an affair with a coworker’s husband, does not talk to her parents, and is no longer friends with her childhood friend Matt (played as an adult by Mark Ruffalo).  She has turned into a self-obsessed power hungry metropolitan socialite and she soon realizes this is nothing she wants to be.  In reaction to this realization she then reconnects with Matt, starts treating everyone with dignity, and learns to work honestly and with integrity.  
In the end, the biggest lesson she learns is to put someone else’s happiness before her own when she willingly lets Matt marry another woman.  Of course, through another sweep of “wishing dust” Jenna finds herself back in her thirteen year old body and some years later walking down the aisle with Matt, thus obtaining the required wedded bliss.  

To only focus on the ending of the film would be to deny the transformation that has taken place within our heroine.  Maybe everyone’s story does not end so picture perfect, but at least the world presented here is one where people can change and learn from their mistakes, often through many hardships and losses.

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