Sunday, July 22, 2007

The screwball of our discontent, Pt. II

James Wolcott's noticed the sheer looniness of that David Denby jeremiad published in last week's New Yorker on the condition of modern romantic comedy. Denby writes:

Romantic comedy is entertainment in the service of the biological imperative. The world must be peopled. Even if the lovers are past child-rearing age or, as in recent years, don't want children, the biological imperative survives, as any evolutionary psychologist will tell you, in the flourishes of courtship behavior.

Wolcott counters:
I haven't run into any evolutionary psychologists lately but the go-forth-and-multiply edict from The Taming of the Shrew that Denby puts in patriarchal italics doesn't seem to me to explain in the tiniest bit the appeal or urgency of classic romantic comedies, where if anything the biological imperative seemed to have been suspended, put on hold, magically arrested. Does watching Astaire and Rogers swan together across the dance floor make anyone think of replenishing the species? Does anyone think of Hepburn's tremulous antics with Cary Grant as a preliminary stage to motherhood? It ruined the fun--the floating illusion--of The Thin Man series once Nick and Nora produced offspring. The world has managed to repopulate for millennia without recourse to Hollywood-style romance or wisecracking comedy (though these obviously make life and civilization more bearable), so maybe the underlying DNA for the genre isn't as universalist as Denby believes
When I wrote my own demurral last week, I ignored the objectionable passage, thinking it was too easy to tear it apart, especially since as a practicing homosexual who's befriended plenty of hetero couples for whom children are an irritation I don't trust the biological imperative ("the world must be peopled"). But Wolcott is right: those romantic comedies of the thirties showed plenty of intercourse, but no sex. I can think of nothing more incongruous than imagining Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers arguing about kids. Well, Rogers maybe; Astaire's bones were too fine, his presence too ghostly, for living in the material world.

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