Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Nick and Norah" and genre

I watched Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist with some friends two weekends ago. 15 minutes in I knew that it was going to make for an interesting discussion - not because the movie was particularly good or bad, but because it I knew it was distinctly cruder than some of the people I saw it with were expecting.

Briefly, then: two of our group found the film discomforting, with their main complaints relating to the unrealistic handling of Norah's drunk friend and Nick's ex-girlfriend's interest in Nick. Why, they asked, was the film so casual - or, rather, irresponsible - in its failure to address the risk of sexual violence posed to the drunk girl, wandering the bars and streets of New York, and to the ex-girlfriend, who Nick abandoned while she was stripping in a parking lot? And why the hell would the ex-girlfriend have wanted a nerd like Nick in the first place, much less want him back?

Good questions, both. And also, I countered, somewhat unfair. What they should have been critiquing, rather than the film, I suggested, was its genre - because Nick and Norah is a genre film in the now-familiar (well, evidently not that familiar to my two friends) American Pie/Apatow model in which young people do ridiculous and self-destructive things, discover important stuff about themselves, and rarely pay any sort of consequences. And it makes as much sense to criticize these films for their failure to address sexual violence as it does to criticize, say, an action film for misrepresenting the accuracy of handguns and failing to address the real danger of getting shot and bleeding profusely. (A la the old 'it's just a flesh-wound' joke.) There's a sort of apoliticism at work in both forms that seem to ask that we don't take them all that seriously, that we recognize there's a sort of fantasy at work and that it's not really like real life.

That's not to say, of course, that the absence of sexual violence in the former genre and death of the hero at the hands of gun-fire in the second is not problematic. Quite the opposite, in fact - that genre fiction of any kind misrepresents real life for the sake of narrative ease and intelligibility (I mean, we couldn't laugh at the movie or want Nick and Norah to get together if Nick's abandoning his girlfriend led to her sexual assault) is totally something that we should acknowledge and discuss. And if we start to mistake their genre fantasies for real life, well, that's also hugely problematic - which is why I go to the trouble of asserting Nick and Norah's genre-pic status in the first place. But is it ultimately fair to ask for that kind of self-reflexivity of a genre pic, to expect it to address these issues and asks these questions of itself? No more fair, I think, than it is to ask Die Hard to explicitly disclaim its own ultra-violence as needlessly sensational. It's not individual action films or romantic-comedies that ruin people - it's their refusal to see these films as action films or romantic-comedies.

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