For a film student, I don’t watch all that many films. I’m more of a TV person. Television series have a larger scope for storytelling, because they’re not limited by the same time constraints as film. In all forms of media, the story is what matters to me most.
This week, however, I watched three films. One I hadn’t seen before, and two I’d watched a few years ago. Rewatching films is an interesting experience, because the way we interact with filmic texts is affected by our personal biases and ideologies. As we grow and change, our experience of media changes with us.
A couple of days ago, I watched the film “When Harry Met Sally” for the third time. I can’t remember how old I was when I first watched it, I think I was in my mid teens. The second time I watched it was about nine months ago. It is a film I’ve held somewhat of a grudge against, at least for the past couple of years. It’s a good film, it is enjoyable to watch. But ideologically it pushed my buttons.
For the rare person who is unfamiliar with the plot of the film, “When Harry Met Sally” follows a man and a woman, who (you guessed it!) are named Harry and Sally, over the course of 13 years. At the beginning of the film, Harry tells Sally that men and women can’t be friends because sexual attraction (or at least, the possibility of it) will always get in the way. Harry and Sally then become friends. You can see where this is going, right? After 13 years of “will they/won’t they?” they realise their mutual undying love for each other, and get together and live happily ever after.
I love romantic comedies. They are perhaps my favourite film genre (in spite of their many problematic tropes, but that’s the subject for another blog, or maybe my dissertation next year). I didn’t have a problem with the film being predictable, there’s a certain comfort to predictability and well-worn genre conventions. The thing that bothered me about “When Harry Met Sally” was the way the premise of the movie bled out into people’s real life expectations.
If you have never had a platonic heterosexual male/female friendship, let me enlighten you on how they work. 1) everyone will assume you’re secretly in love with each other. 2) everyone will assume you’re secretly in love with each other. 3) everyone will assume you’re secretly in love with each other.
I’ve had two really close male friends in my life, and both times, without fail, have resulted in people saying “do you have a crush on him?” “he totally has a crush on you” “you two would be such a great couple if you could just get your shit together and realise you’re made for each other” “he’s jealous that you like so-and-so” “are you jealous that he likes so-and-so?” We live in a society that doesn’t let men and women be “just” friends. Once you add into the mix the fact that I’m a really affectionate person, it only makes matters more complicated. With my female friends, I’ll hug them constantly and kiss their cheek and tell them they’re beautiful. Whilst I do hug my male friends, I’m wary of any other show of physical affection, because I worry they’ll take it the wrong way. Or that everyone else will take it the wrong way. I know I shouldn’t blame a film for this, but “When Harry Met Sally” perfectly embodies the trope people have projected onto my friendships.
However, when I watched it this time, my attitude changed. I can still find problems with it. For one thing, Sally’s only defining personality trait is that she’s picky about food. And Harry’s a complete dick. They’re not three-dimensional characters, though this in itself is almost a romcom genre convention.
The fact they ended up together in the end no longer bothers me. Rather than looking at the “male/female best friends must end up together” trope in a vacuum, I considered it in relation to other romcom tropes. For example, “love at first sight.” I’ve never been bothered by films that follow the narrative of: boy meets girl, boy has known girl for all of 0.5 seconds, boy is madly in love with girl, they get married and live happily ever after when they’ve known each other for a week. When I think about it, this trope is far more problematic.
If you fall in love with your best friend, at least you’ve fallen in love with someone who knows you inside out, someone who supports you and cares about you, someone you can trust. But falling in love with a stranger after knowing them for two minutes and marrying them by the end of the month? That perpetuates the idea that love is something aesthetic rather than emotional. Furthermore, it undermines the notion of what love is. Love cannot thrive without trust, and trust is something that takes time to build. There have been too many times in my life when I thought I was in love with people, and I barely knew them. It doesn’t matter what idea I have of someone in my head, or how much I’ve stalked their astrology and think I know them inside out… The only way to know someone is to consistently spend time with them, to see how they respond in different situations, what their defense mechanisms are, how they act under pressure, whether they keep their promises.
One of my all-time favourite films is “Love Actually”, but as I write this I am picking it apart in my head, thinking of how all the “love” storylines fall short. For example, Jamie and Aurelia fall in “love” when they don’t even speak the same language. He learns Portuguese and travels to a different country to stalk (I mean, confess his love to) her. Sure, it’s a grand romantic gesture, but is it love? No. Attraction, infatuation? Sure. But that’s not love.
For all its flaws, “When Harry Met Sally” is at least somewhat realistic. When you’re close friends with someone, there is a foundation of love and trust there. Sometimes, that foundation can be built upon, and the nature of the love changes. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Because the trope is so prevalent in popular culture, it can make a person wonder whether their friend is secretly in love with them. It used to bother me, that the trope was so ingrained into my mind that I would question everything. My brain would be like “if this was a movie, this is where we’d realise we’re in love with each other” and we’d be standing on a bridge, watching the sunset, loving each other as platonic friends, and that annoying little voice in the back of my head would whisper “this is like a scene from a movie” and I’d be like “shut up, brain.” For some people those moments turn into a real-life version of “When Harry Met Sally”, and for others, they don’t.
What bothers me is when society doesn’t allow people the time and freedom to figure it out for themselves. If you fall in love with your friend, good for you (assuming they love you back, otherwise that’s gonna get super awkward). There’s nothing wrong with being a cliche.
But if you know a guy and a girl who are friends, and you think they would be good together, you don’t necessarily need to mention this fact to them.
I say this as a film student, and as someone who’s pretty sure her life is a work of fiction: sometimes a film is just a film. Just because a cliche plays out multiple times on a screen, it doesn’t mean it will always be the reality. And as fun as it is to “ship” your friends and tell them how great they’d be together, it’s better to give them space to let that cliche blossom into something authentic, if it’s meant to. People aren’t movie characters, they’re three-dimensional, and their feelings are often more nuanced than the neat little categories we want to fit them into.
Only so much character development can occur within the space of an hour-and-a-half. I can watch a film and appreciate why the characters are two-dimensional and follow their genre conventions rigidly. If I didn’t, I would have lost my love of romcoms long ago. It’s simply a matter of separating fiction from reality, which is something I often struggle with. I’m fairly convinced my life is a TV series, so you can see why I take my media consumption a little too seriously. I can love films that are nothing but an endless parade of overused tropes, so long as those tropes are not conflated with reality.
The other film I rewatched this week was “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, as part of the cult film class I’m taking this semester. I first watched this film in my early teens. My sister is really into musicals, and I watched “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, along with “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables” et al because she was watching them. As a thirteen-year-old (or whatever age I was), it’s safe to say many qualities of the film went right over my head. I disliked the film, and it wasn’t the special breed of dislike I saved for most media my sister was passionate about (mention “Twilight” to me and I will practically growl with disgust). The film was unaesthetic. I like beautiful things, and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is garish, and the 70s vibes are too strong. It didn’t appeal to me because of its surface qualities.
I have a special place in my heart (or brain) for films I’ve studied in class, even ones I despise, because I gain a more nuanced understanding of them. When I think of the dreadful Hammer Horror film “Beyond the Rave” it takes me right back to A Level Media Studies, and I almost forget how truly crap of a film it is. Just like how when I think of “Star Wars” I think of the brilliant film lecturer I had last semester, whom I would literally sell my soul for. But as I watched “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” this afternoon, I saw it in a new light for non-sentimental reasons. It was too early in the learning process to view it with nostalgia.
Instead, I viewed it with understanding. I’ve studied film for two years now, and studied media for four. I can watch a film academically, and appreciate it in spite of my personal bias. Furthermore, I can enjoy a film even if it’s not visually pleasing. Substance should matter more than aesthetics, and even though “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” isn’t particularly my cup of tea, I found myself laughing almost from start to finish, and enjoying the film for what it was, rather than what I wanted it to be. One of the things I love most about being a film student, is the way my taste has changed. I am more open to new things than I used to be.
I don’t have “highbrow” taste in film, or music, or literature, and it’s something people have made me feel ashamed of in the past. I like romantic comedies, I like Taylor Swift, I like sitcoms. I like things that are light and cheesy, especially because my mind can often be such a dark place. Because it took me so long to own this about myself, I often find myself rejecting more “highbrow” media on principle. I tell myself I don’t have to like things just because I “should”, and I don’t give them a chance even if they deserve it.
I’m not calling “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” highbrow, not by any definition, but my snobbish (or anti-snob snobbery?) attitude towards the traditional film canon extended to a snobbery towards many cult films too. If someone can say “how are you a film student and you haven’t watched this?” about a film, I will be disinclined to watch it, primarily because I like to go against people’s expectations. If someone tells me I will enjoy a film, my usual reaction is to think “ha, you really think you know me that well?”
A few months ago, a friend of mine told me to watch the Anime film “Spirited Away”, and I was completely certain I would hate it. I was all ready to despise the film simply because I didn’t believe someone could possibly know me well enough to know what type of film I’d enjoy. What happened when I watched it? I loved it. I loved the aesthetic, and the character development, and the narrative. I was wrong to think I’d hate it (and I received a massive “I told you so”, obviously).
It is impossible to be without biases, and it is impossible to consume any kind of media without interpreting it through our own lens, but as a human and a film student, I need to learn to look past my biases. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that the universe likes to have a good old laugh at us. If I’m biased against a certain type of film, I’m guaranteed to end up studying it. If I’m biased against a certain kind of trope, I’ll one day end up living it. Life is one great big lesson, and often the things that press our buttons most are the things that will come back to bite us if we’re not careful. By exploring the origins of my biases, and realising my opinion isn’t always the highest authority, I can stop rejecting things that are meant for me simply because they don’t meet my expectation of what I wish to happen.