25 October 2007

Truths Universally Accepted at the Movies

I coulda stayed home and read a book.

I did not go to hear Mika in concert yesterday evening. I waited until the last minute, or nearly, before deciding that I really couldn’t face the crowds, the noise, the youth. I chickened out.

“Chicken” may not be the apt word, given the difference between my age and Mika’s, but so be it. Instead of attending a pop concert, I went to the movies: Becoming Jane last night, and Knocked Up today. As a result, I have come to the conclusion that movies exist primarily to make men feel superior about themselves. And if I were a woman, I might never go to the movies again at all.

This conclusion has been long a-borning. The first clue comes from almost any picture, in which it is considered perfectly normal for the hero to bed or even wed a girl young enough to be his granddaughter: no one even mentions it. If a heroine dates a man only a few years younger than she, the circumstance automatically becomes the main plot of the entire film.

There’s another school of movies in which the leading man is thoroughly repellent, and yet the leading lady finds him a paragon, for whom she will sacrifice everything, for whose every transgression she will make pardon and excuse, for whose every shortcoming she will find strength to overlook. The model of these pictures is Leaving Las Vegas, in which Nicolas Cage treats Elisabeth Shue terribly, whenever he isn’t throwing up on her or passing out. Nevertheless, she’s devoted to him. She’s a hooker (because in movies hookers always look like Elisabeth Shue), but she doesn’t even charge Nicolas Cage for her favors, on the rare occasions he’s conscious enough to sample them. On the contrary: she pays him.

And what is the job description of Nicolas Cage’s character? Why, he’s an unemployed Hollywood producer, funny you should mention.

The picture is a producer’s wet-dream fantasy: I can be a complete slob, lose my job, and still get Elisabeth Shue.

What’s wrong with this picture? Knocked Up

You’d think Leaving Las Vegas had the last word on this sort of story. Nevertheless, Knocked Up gives us a hero (Seth Rogen) who’s less pathological yet just as much a loser, and we’re supposed to believe that the sublime Katherine Heigl will keep his baby — and ultimately fall for him — after a drunken one-night stand and an awkward morning-after. He’s a fat, unemployed, ambition-free, immature stoner, while she’s a rising television star who looks like Katherine Heigl, and she’s smarter and funnier than Rogen, too. Even his goofball roommates are more interesting than he, yet somehow we’re supposed to think it’s a good thing when Heigl and Rogen wind up together at the end of the picture.

Who the hell writes this stuff? Men do.

Yet surely some of the women involved in the production must have tried to take the men aside and to explain to them that Transformers had a more believable plot.

You’d think Jane Austen would be safe from all this idiotic movie machismo, but she made the fatal error of writing too few books that turned into too many successful screenplays and that therefore demand sequels. Of which there are none. So we’ve seen updates of her plots and revisionist remakes, trying to show how the Austen plots speak to today’s times. In most cases, these have required unbuttoning the passions and unlacing the bodices, as well, to address our post-Romantic aesthetics and our need for explicit sex in entertainment. Darcy, Heathcliff, Rhett Butler, the English Patient, what’s the difference, as long as people buy tickets?

When Byronic met Ironic: James McAvoy and Anne Hathaway
in Becoming Jane

But Austen wasn’t a Romantic, and to try to turn her into one is a colossal mistake: do it, and you rob her of her principal interest. Her characters feel deeply, yes, but they conceal their own feelings and guess at each others’, just as society demands. To write these stories required tremendous psychological insight and a complete grasp of the dominant social order. Romanticism came after Austen, and the two don’t mix. The minute Keira Knightley has an emotional outburst in a cloudburst, on a wuthering moor no less, you’ve entered Romantic territory and your adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is lost.

Becoming Jane tries to present Austen’s early life as fodder for the novels she would write later. There’s scant historical evidence to support such ideas, but that’s almost irrelevant. For not only does Becoming Jane present us with a quasi-Romantic Jane Austen, a rebel artist defying societal conventions — it shows us a Jane Austen who requires a man to show her how to write.

I am amazed that no one burned down the theater.

That man is a drinking, whoring, arrogant, penniless gadabout who dares criticize her writing after hearing — not even reading — a single composition. By the way, he arrives late and falls asleep before she’s finished that reading. Rather than cut him or slap him, she heeds his advice and seeks out more, then falls in love with him. Inspired by their experience and by some of the characters they know, she sits down and scratches out the entirety of Pride and Prejudice in (by my count) three sittings.

Who writes this stuff? Not Jane Austen, certainly.

The actress who plays Jane is the aptly named Anne Hathaway, an alumna of Vassar College. Perhaps when she is a little older she’ll find the courage to tell the people who make movies that their scripts are offensive. Either that — or we can look forward to a lush historical romance in which we learn that Vassar was a school of no account until it began to admit male students.

I should have gone to the concert.