Death and taxes – those are life’s only guarantees, they say, but perhaps we should add another inescapable to that list – falling in love. Be it for a moment or for a lifetime, we all feel the thrill of the wonder of another person at some point. Some of us are blessed enough to be that thrill for someone else, for those feelings to be mutual, and for that rush to slip-stream into something more more peaceful, just as powerful, that carries us come what may.
As common as it is, romance is also one of the most abnormal things that ever happens to us. It defies explanation. It upends our carefully controlled lives. It causes chaos, yet we allow it, embrace it, celebrate it. We shake our heads and laugh and pour Champaign to see love taking over again.
So of course we tell stories about romantic love, and since though falling in love feels wholly unique to each of us, it is the same for all of us, those stories are all the same too. No other film genre is as formulaic, as predictable. It has to be. We always rely on ritual to give recognizable form and clear meaning to that which is ever beyond our comprehension.
Romantic Comedy, a new documentary from Elizabeth Sankey and the team that made Beyond Clueless, goes deep into its titular genre, exploring the story-form’s roots and patterns and impacts from Shakespeare to today, but mostly since movies came along. The documentary is all clips from movies with unseen commentators chiming in like a Greek chorus on what they love and hate about romantic comedies. Cleverly, the documentary is structured like a romantic comedy as well, following all those ritualistic beats, so that you feel that happy rush you always feel when Meg Ryan (or whomever) finally kisses the man we knew she was supposed to end up with from the start.
Like any ritual, romantic comedies are inadequate representations of the mystery they instantiate and, therefore, ultimately unsatisfying in themselves. They cannot fully actuality their object of adoration. They can only point to it asbest they know how. There are some that do this better than others, some that focus on certain aspects over others, and all can be improved, especially with regards to including those in the retelling of the old, old story who have historically been left out. Romantic Comedy knows this, points it out, and even notes instances where the genre pops up in unexpected places, like any good ritual scholar would.
I watch these kinds of “close reads” of films and film genres often. I sometimes wonder if these kinds of feature length film essays have appeal beyond those of us involved in the film scholarship community. If ever there was one that did, it’s probably Romantic Comedy, because it’s about a genre we all love even when we hate it.