Sunday, July 22, 2007

Modern Romance

I've seen six of Albert Brooks' seven films to date, loved all of them, and would say that four--Real Life (1979), this 1981 feature, Defending Your Life (1991) and Mother (1996)--are flat-out masterpieces. Modern Romance, Brooks' second film, can be seen as the middle part in a loose trilogy of films about the intersection of life and the movies along with Real Life and Lost in America (1985). It can also be seen as the final nail in the coffin of a cycle of personal films to come out of Hollywood in the 1960's and 70's: the story suggests a thinking person's Raging Bull (1980), and Heaven's Gate (1980) is referrenced in the dialogue.

The film belongs to a subgenre of romantic comedies, the relationship movie, whose most famous practitioner in America is Woody Allen (in France, Agn├Ęs Jaoui is only the first example that comes to mind, and indeed, Allen has a huge French following), but where Annie Hall (1977) is strenuously apolitical, consumerism is a core theme throughout Brooks' ouvre. In Lost in America, a bigger home and a new car are symbols of moving up the corporate ladder, so when advertising exec David Howard/Brooks doesn't get the promotion he's expecting (vertical) but a transfer (horizontal), he suddenly realizes that everything he's worked for is a lie. Here, Robert Cole/Brooks is an editor in Hollywood and his clothes, car, home and possessions suggest a successful--and therefore attractive--bachelor. After breaking up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Mary Harvard/Kathryn Harrold, Robert goes on a buying spree. The two stores we see Robert walking into, a health food store to buy vitamins and a sporting goods store for running shoes, are both in the business of selling an image of a healthy living. "I'm starting a new life and I think running should be a part of it" is a key line. When Robert begins to suspect Mary's already seeing some one else and impulsively decides he wants her back, he buys her a stuffed giraffe and leaves it on her doorstep.

In Real Life the intersection of cinema and reality is a head-on collision between a documentary film crew and a middle-class American family; in Lost in America David and his wife, Linda/Julie Hagerty, are inspired by Easy Rider (1969) to quit their jobs and drive across the country in an RV. Here it's suggested that Robert has inherited all his ideas about love from pop culture (the soundtrack is full of syruppy romantic ballads, including "You Are So Beautiful" over the opening credits), and as a portrait of male insecurity and obsessive jealousy, the film sometimes feels like an illustration of Laura Mulvey's thesis in "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Mary is an ambiguous character to say the least though not quite a femme fatale. After making up with her, Robert finds a phone bill showing that she made two extended phone calls to a number in New York in the middle of the night; at first she lies and says it's a woman, but when Robert tells her he called the number and a man answered, she defends herself by saying they were broken up at the time. Robert's jealousy may be well founded in reality (just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't plotting against you) yet we can't help but feel that Mary shouldn't have to defend herself to him, even if discovering the phone bill wasn't an intentional violation of her privacy.

It's fitting that the film-within-the-film which Robert is editing is an impersonal and evidently schlocky science fiction movie because, after the 70's, the costs of film production rose to such an extent that it's become almost impossible to make a personal film inside the mainstream; even what passes for independent fare these days (Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways, etc.) is disappointingly safe, apolitical and unchallenging. Brooks is a filmmaker with a voice so distinctive that one learns to recognize it the same way one recognizes certain novelists; there's a world of difference between the films he only acts in, even good ones like Broadcast News (1987), and the films he directs. In ways big and small, from his use of scrolling text at the end of many of his films to his openness in allowing the viewer to empathize with multiple viewpoints (in Modern Romance, Robert and the director of the film he's working on/James L. Brooks argue about how a scene should be edited and both points of view are perfectly valid), Brooks has created a body of work as distinctive as Yasujiro Ozu with whom he shares a taste for long takes, minimal camera movement and domestic drama. None of his films have been big hits, but most of them are on DVD; is there any director better hidden in plain sight?


  1. I saw this a few weeks ago and liked it, but the final shot bugged me. Did Brooks think the irony of the ending was too subtle, and that only cute captions would have the sufficient effect? It was one of those little touches that bugged me and left a bad taste in the mouth. Other than that, solid. It kinda reminded me of the one Hong Sang-Soo film I've seen, in its detached, passively observational tone that allows us to scrutinize its flawed male characters. Surprisingly languid for a Hollywood comedy, and admirable for making Brooks' character almost completely unlikeable and identifiable at once.

    Anyway, I'll take your reco's.

  2. I don't think the ending would work without the captions at the end; basically you would have a film about a dysfunctional relationship that ends with a marriage proposal which could be read either as a redemptive ending or an extention of the on-screen misery.

    I actually haven't seen any of Hong Sang-soo's work; I suppose I should put in a request where I rent videos that they get a copy of "Woman Is the Future of Man" but I keep forgetting to do it. Of course, who wants to request a movie called "Virgin Stipped Bare by Her Bachelors"?