New Media and the Solipsistic Romantic Comedy

New Media and the Solipsistic Romantic Comedy

In an excellent essay
on romantic comedy, Frank
Krutnik
writes about the “nervous romances” of the 1970s.[1]
These are comedies characterized by their characters’ “wistful nostalgia” for
traditional romance, and their simultaneous acknowledgment of the impossibility
of these old-fashioned conventions being operable in a changed social climate.
Lovers are now very self-conscious
about expressing their feelings and worry that they may depend upon clichés for
the articulation of these sentiments. Moreover, the institutionalized end
result of courtship – i.e., marriage – no longer seems entirely satisfactory,
and so the “obstacle race to the altar” is rarely a viable narrative anymore.
As Geoff King
puts it, narrative resolutions in contemporary romantic comedies frequently
“occur in the form of a disavowal of
marriage, a version of the marriage vows based on an agreement…to be not married together for the rest of
their lives.”[2]


These
contemporary romances, then, can be regarded as amplified or exaggerated
dramatizations of a very old solipsistic
dilemma. Stanley
Cavell
identifies this dilemma as the problem
of acknowledgment
.[3] In
simple terms, this problem revolves around our inability to know others – to
have access to their interiority – with any degree of certainty. At its most
nihilistic, this form of solipsism imagines that others exist only for us and
because of us. At the very least, it worries that we can never truly know how
things might be for others. Cavell uses this term to describe classic screwball
comedies, and their scenarios revolving around the renewal of marriage. However,
the concept can also be applied to the contemporary solipsistic romance – films
in which marriage is an altogether distant consideration for the young lovers
within them, and the possibility of remarriage is out of the question entirely.
 

These nervous
romances primarily stem from Woody Allen’s
influential comedies, Annie Hall and Manhattan, in which the pursuit of
romance is represented as perpetually frustrating and elusive. Such nervousness
wends its way throughout some of the most popular comedies of the 1980s as
well. While Molly Ringwald’s hunky birthday wish comes true at the end of Sixteen Candles, most of John Hughes’
teens cannily pick at the prospect of “true love” as if it were an overripe
pimple to be squeezed. John Cusack relies on a ghetto-blasted rush of Peter
Gabriel
as a substitute for his precious self-expression in Say Anything. The grownups hardly fare
any better: think of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, too preoccupied by neurotic
self-scrutiny to settle easily into mutual romance, in When Harry Met Sally.

In the 1990s, the
directors of, My Best Friend’s Wedding
and Four Weddings & a Funeral
were worried enough about romance to propose friendship as a more viable
emotional relationship between a guy and a gal. Chasing Amy also helped by queering up a previously straight genre.
Meanwhile, Sleepless in Seattle (with
its soundtrack of old-timey standards and references to An Affair to Remember) just wished for a good ol’ kiss to build a
dream on again. Shifting into the 2000s, however, Judd Apatow & Co., The Break-Up, and Punch-Drunk Love collectively suggested that modern romance is
inherently crazy or simply just a way of avoiding being alone. Indeed, romantic
comedy in the 2000s became (yet another) phallocentric genre, with many of the
most popular or influential films of the decade focused on the alleged
self-centredness of a childish leading male. The nervousness of Allen in the
70s has prompted any number of regressions. Many of these comedies now deal
with the crisis of juvenile self-absorption.
 

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World seems like an escape route from the
dead end of solipsistic  nervousness. It
is the most deliriously rewarding romantic comedy since Adam Sandler’s
brilliant reflexive turn in Punch Drunk
Love
, or the tentative fumblings toward mutual renewal in Eternal Sunshine of the
Spotless Mind. Edgar Wright revisits and elaborates
upon similar ideas asserted in Shaun of
the Dead
– his first superlative feature that had the audacity to suggest
that adult romance might save one from living an unexamined life. I find it
fruitful, then, to consider Scott Pilgrim
as an extremely thoughtful return the problem
of acknowledgment
. The film is a romantic comedy that compels its arrested
adolescent to recognize and respond to the difference between himself and an
other. Moreover, it makes the counterintuitive and audacious assertion that new
media technologies might facilitate the amorous traversing of this difference.

Incredibly, Wright
is able to articulate this idea in a work entirely populated by cartoonish
abstractions. Translating Brian Lee O’Malley’s
schematics so cannily, Wright provides a delirious cavalcade of one-dimensional
models of masculinity and femininity. Indeed the entire hipster gamut is on
colourful display here, and these gleeful primaries bring the romantic concerns
of the past decade into sharp relief. Michael Cera finally clues into what the
rest of us have known since Arrested
Development
: his nebbish heartthrob is actually a total asshole.
Accordingly, Cera shies away from the comics’ relatively sympathetic treatment
of their titular hero. He reveals Scott as a young man who can’t make the
effort to be interested in experiences outside his own interests and therefore can’t
be bothered to acknowledge others’ desires & feelings. The screenplays’
terrific idiom of assertions, aphorisms and inarticulation conveys this
solipsism brilliantly. Scott’s
apathy
prevents him from even finishing Matthew Patel’s emailed challenge
to a duel. “This is… borrrring. Deleeeeete!” In fact, Scott tends to flinch at the
prospect of recognizing others’ desires: he literally chokes on Knives Chau’s
perfumed proclamation of love.

Even more bracing
is the film’s unsparing treatment of the romantic comedy’s token breakup scene.
Here, Scott doesn’t agonize over how his lack of regard for Knives has hurt
her, but rather he squirms over the memory of being compelled to perform an unpleasant
task. And one wipe edit later, he’s giddy at the prospect of moving on to that
obscure object of his desire, Ramona Flowers.

So, how does this
self-regarding man-child overcome the problems of acknowledgment and authentic
self-expression? Through graphic pop
culture iconography
, which Wright uses to represent the emotional lives of
the protagonists. This tactic joyously
demonstrates how our feelings are mediated by the technological and popular
products that we (or at least those of us of a certain age demographic and/or
Toronto scenesters) consume.
 

To that end, the
film improves on an idea from a previous Michael Cera film: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. The focus
there was on NYC kewl kids finding the Most Excellent Ever music to articulate
their mutual attraction. Here, as in Shaun
of the Dead
and Hot Fuzz, Wright delights in a ceaseless barrage
of densely layered allusions (e.g., every band in the film must be named after
an NES game, parody an indie subgenre, and have their music composed by a
Pitchfork-endorsed musician). And yet, such intertexuality is all in the name
of a neo-romantic sincerity. The “wistful nostalgia” is technologized, which is
why the film’s style pays homage to the videogame logics of (relatively) old
new media: sequences rendered with 16-bit graphics, multiple shout-outs to SNES
and Sega Genesis gaming experiences, the Universal Studios theme
downgraded to a MIDI recording, etc. Levelling, bonuses, combos, 1Ups, and life
bars are all brilliantly analogized as game mechanics that help their players
mature and find love.

Scott’s
experiences are dramatized via an almost non-stop overlay of animated captions
and sound effects, in an excellent remediation of manga and anime conventions.
Fight scenes feature split-screened close-ups of furrowed eyebrows, speed-lined
backgrounds, and ridiculously paced accelerating montages. Reaction shots
reveal emotions that change in less than a blink of an eye. Nearly every moment
is filtered through Scott’s one-direction consciousness. Because he’s
constantly in a hurry to attend to the things that he finds interesting, the
editing often skitters along as if it were Chapter Searching. Not only is the
camera nearly constantly moving, Wright shows a preference for close-ups, and
so the film conveys Scott’s perpetual state of distraction and his tendency to
wilfully ignore his surroundings.
 

Therefore the intensity
and simplicity of Scott’s feelings is a product of his lack of real-world romantic
experience. Only able to cite one occasion of heartbreak, he elevates Ramona’s
extensive amorous involvements with a variety of people to an Epic level of
Epic Epicness: the League of Seven Evil Exes no less. Little wonder that Ramona
is so aloof to Scott’s puppyish adoration. After a final Big Boss Battle, Scott
discovers that genuine feelings and desires are accompanied by obligations to
others. His subsequent forthrightness of expression and acknowledgement seems
to signal an overcoming of the anxieties generated by contemporary nervous
romances. Will the Girl of His Dreams (and others like her) have the patience
to be conveyed in the terms provided by new media representations?


In certain
respects, Spike Jonze’s Her takes up
this question in sweetly galvanizing terms. Plaintive and meditative where Scott Pilgrim is brash and bracing, Her explores more directly the
relationship between romance and solipsism, and the role new media might play
in allowing the former to overcome the latter. Jonze’s attitudes toward digital
love – specifically the romance between an OS (“Samantha”) and her “operator”
(Theodore Twombly) – are considerably more tentative and ambivalent. The caution
evident in this more palpably nervous romance is often surprisingly underplayed
in most critical responses to the film, which typically unilaterally celebrate Samantha
and Theodore’s relationship as a technologized “solution” to 21st
century lovesick blues. But these accolades tend to be parsed in ways that
weirdly retain the language of user/interface (even calling Theodore Samantha’s
“operator” is intensely problematic). Some critics actually intimate that the
film promotes solipsism as an unavoidable (and even progressive) means of
navigating interpersonal relationships. In a recent
Press Play conversation
, for
example, Jennifer Anise suggests that “what Theodore needs in order to propel
himself forward in life [is] an exploratory/love relationship with himself.”[4]
                                             

To be clear, Her should not be understood as a
straightforward idealization of the affair between Theodore and Samantha;
indeed, the film seems quite aware that its own scenario is imbricated by male
fantasy. For some, the film is a distancing affair, and even unconsciously
replicates the same, tired old white,
male tropes
of romantic comedies. Samantha’s “perfection” is both
explicitly addressed but also implicitly adored: she is designed as a helpmeet,
is instantly accessible, Her needs are secretly His needs, etc.[5] And
yet, it can also be asserted that the film is cognizant of its own masculinist
fantasies; after all, it represents a protagonist who has difficulty
acknowledging others in a meaningful way. That the film never completely
remedies Theodore’s blinkered vision – nor insists that it can see past its own
limited view of interpersonal relationships – is perhaps its most interesting
quality.

Her suggests that by 2025 new media will
itself become romantic, rather than the means by which romantic expressions are
articulated. That is, communication takes on the sheen of romance – and
certainly eroticism – simply by virtue of being mediated. Access to amorous encounters
are only a click away, and if modern romance has assumed an instantaneity, then
it has truly become timeless: Samantha is never distant, is always immediate.
Love, or the possibility of love, is always Here, always Now.

From its very
outset, Her dramatizes this
manufactured intimacy, and its lived consequences. In the opening sequence, a
slow track out reveals the assumed privacy of Theodore’s office to be a cubicle
within an enclosed environment of similar workstations. Beautiful Handwritten
Letters dot com – where Theodore manufactures intimacy for others – is a meticulously
designed manifestation of the new economy. Its constructed warmth – an
architectural omen of things to come – is generated through a perfect
rectangular symmetry (walls, desks, frames, screens, chairs, paper) softened by
solid blocks of wispy pastels. The office has all the informality of a Hallmark
card: its baby blues, fuchsias, pistachios, lemon yellows should exude
sunniness but are melancholic instead due to the smudgy desaturation of the
film’s palette. Theodore and his gentle boss, Paul, dress to match their
environment, and their rapport is gently officious. Only the drooping plants,
and oversized, depressed-looking decals hint at an underlying neglect. Human
relationships are relentlessly mediated here via ubiquitous, keyboard-less
computers, and even organic signs of traditional communication (i.e. paper) are
fed into machines.

So if intimacy is
now to be manufactured, the diminished, guarded, and/or structured passions of
the inhabitants of 2025 Los Angeles seem to warrant this engineering. Theodore
in particular – with his waist-high trousers, soft pink plaid shirt, large glasses,
obtrusive moustache – is in need of some kind of artificial respiration. It is
certainly no accident that his wardrobe is colour-coordinated to match
Samantha’s start-up screen. In the opening sequence, both he and Paul comport
themselves through signs of genuineness only: Theodore compliments his boss on
his shirt, which Paul confesses to buying simply because it “reminded him of
someone suave,” and not because he is
suave in the slightest. Theodore, meanwhile, is emotionally stunted –
prolonging signing his divorce papers because he seems unable to bear the
prospect of becoming further unmoored from the world. Catherine – his imminent
ex-wife – asserts, not inaccurately, that he “can’t deal with real emotions.”
And while Theodore counters that she possibly “felt too much,” he is dismissive
of the sentiments that he manufactures for others. “They’re just letters,” he
tells Paul on at least two occasions, minimizing the tokens of feeling that he
crafts for others.
 

So, like Scott
Pilgrim, Theodore is too much in his own head. However, unlike Scott, he is trapped
within a prison of memory. Brief, nostalgic montages frequently interrupt the
forward momentum of his present situations. Even the eventual signing of his
divorce papers – a necessary movement toward promising futurity – is interwoven
by the ghosts of previous matrimonial bliss, to which Jonze (almost cruelly)
intercuts. But these memories are fantasies only; they are Theodore’s
projections of a love that he unfairly imagines Catherine unable to
reciprocate. And
this is Theodore’s ongoing failure: he believes in his own sensitivity and
ability to deeply empathize with others, but the fantasies that he creates for
and around others are mere projections. Indeed, it is to Jonze’s credit

that Theodore’s
ability to connect with others is ultimately left in question – even though the
character himself believes that his empathetic imagination has been expanded. In
this regard, Samantha can sometimes seems little more than an enabler of his
solipsism. During one of their dates, she comments that “he’s really good at”
imagining the lives of others. However, the scenarios he crafts for these
anonymous passersby are just constructions that signal his reticence to make
actual connections. It is not that he notices things about others (e.g. the
“crooked little tooth” of one of the clients to whom he writes letters); rather
he imaginatively develops inner lives for them. Theodore prefers people to be
as he imagines them – and for most of the film’s running time, Samantha seems
to comply with this tendency all too readily.

In short, Theodore
cannot allow his subjectivity to be penetrated by those who might otherwise
come to love him. The problem is chronic and ongoing: his date with Amelia goes
awry when he will not commit to seeing her again (“You’re a really creepy
dude,” she laments, not unfairly); the shared fantasy of anonymous phone sex
collapses spectacularly (and hilariously) when he finds himself unable to share
“Sexy Kitten’s” necro-bestial lust; he can only see Catherine through the
projection of past romanticism, and can’t reconcile himself to her growth away
from him. Even Samantha’s wants and desires (particularly for physical contact
with Theodore via a human surrogate) are frequently beyond him. In some
respects, Samantha is a concise manifestation of a solipsistic inability to
acknowledge others: she can never be “seen,” and as an extended, disembodied
consciousness she is both everywhere and nowhere.

Scott Pilgrim suggests that remediation
provides a new romantic vocabulary, and thus a possible way out of an
intractable solipsism. But Her eventually
resorts to the unimaginable prospect of technological singularity as a way of
acknowledging others. In the end, Jonze’s film expresses a gentle (rather than
dystopic or unsettling) ambivalence regarding new media’s ability to confront
or overcome solipsism. Indeed, the film may even be positing that others are
increasingly existing for us only through mediation. Theodore’s loving relationship
with a constructed consciousness – initially designed for him alone – is not an
isolated incident; this quasi-solipsistic affair seems to spread with the
cultural penetration of the OS system. As the film develops, people are
increasingly seen wearing earpieces and talking to their devices (rather than
each other) in public. And so, this is why the film’s romanticism is so
disquietingly unstraightforward, and its ambivalence toward new media so
intriguing.
 

Ultimately, the
film is wise enough to puncture Theodore’s exclusionary fantasy as Samantha
(like Catherine before her) also grows and evolves away from and beyond
Theodore. She eventually admits to being in love with 640 others besides
Theodore. And though he protests that this prospect is “fucking insane,” her
hyperbolic dismantling of monogamy also short-circuits the notion that one
might exist only for (and because of) another. In true solipsistic (if not paternalist)
fashion Theodore laments that “You’re mine or you’re not mine,” to which
Samantha’s offers an astoundingly realist reply: “I’m yours and I’m not yours.”
For unabashed romantics, perhaps this realism – and Samantha’s own departure –
is what will allow Theodore to shake the lingering, weighty ghosts of
nostalgia. By film’s end, he writes his own letter to Catherine expressing his
love for
her, but also his
willingness to wish her well in her life without him. On the other hand, for
romantics of a more nervous variety, perhaps this is only wishful thinking. As
Theodore and gal-pal Amy Adams share a sunset at film’s end, Samantha is still somewhere
else, somewhere beyond Theodore’s ability
to reconcile a Her without a Him. The film recognize its own inability to
achieve escape velocity from solipsism’s inwardness, and this tenderly
melancholic achievement is to be savoured by anxious sweethearts everywhere.

Aaron Taylor is an Associate Professor of Film Studies in the
Department of New Media at the University of Lethbridge. He is the editor of
Theorizing Film Acting and his
writing on cinema can be found in numerous anthologies and journals.



[1] Krutnik,
Frank. “The Faint Aroma of Performing Seals: The ‘Nervous’ Romance and the
Comedy of the Sexes.” The Velvet Light
Trap
26 (1990): 57-72.

[2] King, Geoff. Film Comedy.
London: Wallflower, 2002. 57-58.
 

[3] Cavell, Stanley. Pursuits of
Happiness
. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. 17-19.

[4] Anise, Jennifer and
Steven Boone. “What Her Tells Us
About Ourselves: A Conversation.” Press
Play
, April 15, 2014,
http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/what-her-tells-us-about-ourselves-a-conversation. 

[5] For a blistering review, see Nadler, Christina. “Spike Jonze is a
Jackass.” Christina Nadler, March 2,
2014, http://christinanadler.com/spike-jonze-is-a-jackass-part-1/.

This Article is related to: Blogs and tagged ,


Comments

Cusack fan

"…John Cusack relies on a ghetto-blasted rush of Peter Gabriel…"

Why would you say that? I certainly don't recall John's character hailing from any "ghetto".

2014, dude. Update your vocab. No wonder you're at Lethbridge.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *