Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Lady Cuts Across the Grain

Characters don't have to be likeable. We don't have to want them for our roommates to enjoy the stories they populate. Most of us acknowledge that. Most of us also know that such unlovable characters inhabit genre's darker corners, namely horror and hardboiled and their ilk. But what happens when they turn up in the sort of story that typically features pleasant protagonists, say a romantic comedy? What happens when it isn't any old romantic comedy, but one for the ages, namely My Fair Lady?

Okay, while you can't absorb American culture for thirty-odd years and not ingest a little of the iconic film, I admit that I hadn't actually watched Lady in its entirety until this past weekend. My wife and I added it to our Netflix queue as part of a project to cull viewing material from
The American Film Institute's 100 best American films of all time. I knew the gist of the plot: Linguistics professor Henry Higgins bets that he can pass off guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle as a lady at a royal ball after only six months' education. What I didn't know was how incredibly nasty both characters are. Besides having manners and language rougher than a ride down a gravel road in a Model T, Eliza likes to fantasize about seeing the self-obsessed Higgins die from disease, drowning, firing squad and beheading. For his part, the professor treats Eliza as an interesting experiment, his personal doll -- but never remotely human. "She belongs to me! I paid five pounds for her!" he explodes when Eliza unexpectedly skips out, a reference to the sum demanded by her extortionist father.

So what does the presence of this not-exactly-archetypal pair do to Lady's narrative arc? Well, the story still clings to the contours of romance: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. But the duo's nastiness forces it to zig where it would otherwise zag, to go right where others turn left. There are no dewey-eyed interludes, just ferocious spats with retorts so sharp your ears almost bleed. Yet far from crippling the narrative, their cantankerousness enlivens it, gives it texture, makes it move in unexpected (but still convincing) ways. Flawed characters have become de rigueur in so much contemporary fiction, a mark of an author's artistic sophistication. Why, then, do they often feel stale and samey? Perhaps because they've forgotten what Lady remembers, namely that we enliven a genre not by simply slapping on a boorish hero or heroine but by intentionally cutting across convention's grain.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


S.D. Smith said...

Great as always, Loren.

I find myslef yawning or being irritated by the snarkiness in so much of the dialogue of contemporary fiction, even from books I otherwise like.

It seems like authors can't imagine a conversation that isn't infested with vitriolic one-upmanship over trivial, or vital (way to vital to snap about) matters.

Turns me off.

That said, I LOVE My Fair Lady. They do something (so many things) right in that movie, in my view.

Loren Eaton said...

Gee, thanks, Sam!

It's funny how that snarkiness can backfire on you, isn't it? I didn't like it all in Juno, but it really worked for My Fair Lady. There's something about the way it challenged the genre that really worked. It was organic, not just for show.

Unknown said...

I had a similar reaction to "Gone with the Wind," which I had always heard described as an epic romance, but which turned out to be the story of two rather evil people and the ways they used (or tried to use) each other to get what they thought they wanted. Much darker than one would think from the wrapping, as it were.

Loren Eaton said...

I'm hesitant to admit this, but I couldn't actually finish Gone With the Wind. Scarlett irritated me so freaking much that I left the room about a third of the way through the film.

ollwen said...

I've been thinking about this without feeling like I had managed any cogent insight until reading these comments.

I think the big difference between irritatingly snarky dialogue and what we see in M.F.L. is that in the latter it's not merely snark, but actual bile from the heart of the characters. In short, Henry and Liza are being genuine. They aren't playing at rudeness as a form of wit for ironic or comedic effect or self aggrandizement, they're just self-centered people. (I'm not positive if this is as chiefly due to great writing, or great acting, or both.) At the same time as being sort of despicable, they were like-able in a way because they were really interesting (and not just interestingly abrasive.)

I think the other facet is that it comes off as real. I remember watching some Gilmore Girls over my Mother and Sister's shoulder and thinking that the writing was sure witty, but EVERYONE in the show was, witty beyond what was believable for actual dialogue between human persons. (I know like two people who are actually that sharp. . . maybe three. . .)

Also, it helps that M.F.L. has some truly fantastic musical numbers, and a great supporting cast, to ease the pain.

Loren Eaton said...

In short, Henry and Liza are being genuine. They aren't playing at rudeness as a form of wit for ironic or comedic effect or self aggrandizement, they're just self-centered people.

I think this nails it. Their verbal sniping isn't self-conscious; it's just how they are. There's only so much self-reference characters (and stories) can indulge in before they descend into parody.