Stalkers in CinemaComplications Ensue
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Saturday, May 30, 2009

I've been reading Gavin de Becker's book THE GIFT OF FEAR, about how you should pay attention when your intuition tells you that the person in front of you is dangerous.

He makes an interesting claim about movie romances: that a lot of them glorify stalking, and / or abusive behavior.
It was The Graduate. In it, Dustin Hoffman dates a girl and then asks her to marry him. She says no, but he doesn't hear it. He waits outside her classes at school and asks again, and then again. Eventually she writes him a letter saying she's thought it over carefully and decided not to marry him. In fact, she is leaving town and marrying another man. That would seem a pretty clear message -- but not in the movies.

Hoffman uses stalking techniques to find her. He pretends to be a friend of the groom, then a family member, then a priest. Ultimately he finds the church and breaks into it just seconds after Katharine Ross is pronounced the wife of another man. He then beats up the bride's father, hits some other people, and wields a large wooden cross against the wedding guests who try to help the family.

And what happens? He gets the girl. She runs off with Dustin Hoffman, leaving her family and new husband behind. Also left behind is the notion that a woman should be heard, the notion that no means no, and the notion that a woman has a right to decide who will be in her life.
I dunno. Is that still true? THE GRADUATE was a long time ago. Would we find Ben's behavior a bit stalkery now?

On the other hand, Disney's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is about a guy who threatens a girl's father with death in order to get her to move in with him, prevents her from leaving, yells and screams and breaks things, generally terrorizing her ... and she falls in love with him.

On the other hand, Disney movies often have terrible morals. I can't help watching THE LION KING and wondering why Simba deserves to be king of anything, and why the animals of the savannah don't deserve a say in who's going to be their ruler.

Do movie romances still glorify stalkery and abusive behavior that's excused because we see everything from the deluded point of view of the hero? Discuss.

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I think the interesting thing about The Graduate is that we don't really get the sense that Katherine is at all happy about her choice. Remember that last scene on the bus? She looks like she's thinking, "Oh crap, what the hell did I just do? This guy is crazy!"

But it's true that movies often glorify stalkerish behavior. I think that's because often writers and directors want to really underline how desperate and/or committed the lead is. Those things that characters do in movies are things most of us only think about. But because most people do, at one point or another, think about doing crazy things for love, it's easy to identify with the character, so that you're simultaneously rooting for and cringeing at them. But you also want them to succeed, because it sort of validates your own crazy urges.

That's my theory, anyway.

By Blogger Raz, at 11:19 AM  

I think it goes past films though - if you look back into literature and plays that we honour as "high art" (I'm lookin' at you Shakespeare) we get worse in most cases - Oberon makes Titania fall in love with a donkey, Viola disguises herself as a man to be near her lord, Romeo sees Juliet across a room and BAM.

If you consider that's one of the major influences, it comes down to questions of who it is exactly we see as the hero - in the Graduate, hey, he keeps going. He's perserverent.

The point of most of these comes to a "change" over the character (a Galatea-figure, if Pygmalian works) and then you end up with the fact that the "lovers" need to change to get what they want - a forced change that wouldn't really happen in life. So perhaps not to be seen as stalking, but an example of un-realistic goals and reaches...that eventually overcome.

Yes. In short: yes. But I don't think that it's supposed to LOOK like stalking.

By Blogger Elize Morgan, at 12:15 PM  

Yep. And women seem to love it, as long as it's on screen. I mean, Twilight. Come on, he watches her sleep for godssakes!

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:30 PM  

I watched The Graduate for the first time last year, and Ben seriously creeps me. He's a weird little dude who latches onto this girl who actually has a life, and I know weird little dudes who do that. It's creepy.

Not heroic. Most of the people who like The Graduate are guys... I wonder if that's true beyond my acquaintances.

By Blogger Emma, at 1:34 PM  

We also love movies that glorify killing and stealing (The Professional, The Score). A writing professor of mine once told me it's not the writer's job to make moral judgments when writing, it's the writer's job to write a compelling story. The reader/viewer can come up with their own moral judgments just fine.

I think a part of what makes characters who go against society's morals so compelling is it's something most of us would never do.

By Blogger Lyle Jantzi III, at 2:07 PM  

Yes, absolutely they still do. And Ben's behavior is definitely stalkery and creepy. That's a great book, btw, The Gift of Fear.

By Blogger Marly K, at 2:57 PM  

Absolutely it's still going on in movies. Think of it in terms of dramatic structure. The hero has to overcome obstacles. One obstacle is that the girl doesn't like him.
Two further thoughts:
1) If we like the characters/actor and know that they're harmless, the threat is removed.
2) It may be more common now than ever, because there are fewer social obstacles to romance (class, race, no longer a virgin) than there used to be. So the remaining obstacle is personal preference

By Blogger Andy M, at 3:35 PM  

A modern example is Twilight. Yeah, Bella likes Edward. But think of the things Edward does -- he tells her she's not safe as he could lose control, he wants to drink her blood, he tries to control every facet of her life to stop her being in danger, he TAKES OUT HER CAR ENGINE to stop her going to see another guy.

By Blogger snowinhell, at 7:40 PM  

The most bizarre stalkery behavior I can think of in recent years is Superman's behavior in Superman Returns. Lois Lane is living with another man (can't remember if they were married or not) who is supposedly the father of her child, and Superman floats outside their kitchen window eyeballing them while they have a private conservation, and uses his super-hearing to listen in on what they're saying, which is partly about him to boot. That's pretty much the point when the movie lost me.

Regarding Twilight, isn't Bella actually the one kind of stalking Edward? He keeps trying to keep to himself and she keeps trying to pry into his personal life. I'll be honest, I can't understand anything about that stupid ass movie. It was one of the worst films I've seen in years.

By Blogger Nima Yousefi, at 8:56 PM  

Yeah, it's a regular plot in romantic comedy, where the woman (usually) wants nothing to do with the man but his persistence pays off. Sometimes the genders are reversed. Somehow what would be stalkerish in real life is dressed up as romantic and I can usually shut my brain off an enjoy it, because we know deep down she really wants to be pursued (which is what stalkers believe too, but most of us are pretty good at distinguishing fiction from reality). Yet of all Studio 60's faults, I couldn't forgive it for the Danny stalks Jordan storyline - that one crossed the line for me.

By Blogger Diane Kristine Wild, at 9:14 PM  

On a similar, but different note, why do so many romantic comedies feature guys who are complete assholes, but in the end transform and get the girl. Is this female fantasy that prevalent? Unfortunately, it's not true 99.99999% of the time. Assholes stay assholes, even after they get married. Someone who treats women like dirt doesn't suddenly start respecting them. He just is able to hide it for a while.

By Blogger Tim W., at 12:32 AM  

@Tim, I think it's a male fantasy, that even though you're an asshole, the girl will still fall in love with you. How many of those flavor of romcoms are written by women?

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 8:29 AM  

"On a similar, but different note, why do so many romantic comedies feature guys who are complete assholes, but in the end transform and get the girl."

So true. It's extremely irritating and, I think, dangerous. It's not a female fantasy, like Alex says. Not by a long shot. I think it IS part of this fantasy that true love is unconditional and that someone will love you no matter what. Which is only true of your own mother, for goodness' sake.

By Blogger Marly K, at 10:12 AM  

This makes me think of the Sleepless in Seattle mash-up, "Sleepless," which makes Meg Ryan look like a deranged stalker.

It's true that stalkers are glorified in movies. Every young girl should have to watch Eric Roberts's performance in Star 80, to see the other possible ending.

By Blogger Unknown, at 10:50 AM  

The same thing happens in WEDDING CRASHERS in which Owen Wilson's character busts in as a waiter in an engagement party. It doesn't seem stalker-ish if there's a decent motive behind the actions. Blind lust would be stalking, but in the case of WC, there's a severe miscommunication between Wilson and McAdams that makes him want to clear the air.

Another example pops up in EUROTRIP in which Scotty skips from country to country to meet some chick he met on the internet. It's all still acceptable pretty much. The poor schlep that will do anything to get a girl. (I have to admit I stole that last line from David Hasselhoff in THE NEW GUY lol)

By Blogger Andrew Kosarko - Screenwriter, at 11:12 AM  

I think that it creates a lot of confusion in young women, too, because whether we want to admit it or not, we get a love of our romantic education from the movies (especially if you grow up without a figure of the opposite sex.) On some level there's the danger of thinking that if the guy pursues you very hotly, then that is flattering and that proves just how much he likes you, etc. The other thing about real stalkers is that often in the beginning of the relationship, they are big on romantic gestures such as buying you flowers, wining and dining you, etc. Lastly, to get back to movies, in a lot of movies the woman, the female object of desire, is a total blank. She is hardly ever written as a real person. She's just this pretty and nice woman who, for whatever reason, the guy latches on to and must win at all costs. Since she's hardly ever written as a real person, then the pursuit of romance in modern movies becomes really a narcissistic venture and that extends to this total lack of indifference about what the woman herself might actually want and need. There's hardly ever any exposition in which her character is built up nor is there any time taken to explore the female character so that the audience gets a sense of why the guy gloms unto her. He just decides that he must have her and that's it, never once taking her actual self into consideration at all.

By Blogger Marly K, at 12:10 PM  

Groundhog Day is a perfect example of a 'redeemed stalker' movie.

By Blogger blogward, at 12:45 PM  

In GROUNDHOG DAY, Bill Murray's character wins Andie MacDowell's character not by pursuing her, but by showing her what an awesome guy he has become, so that she is drawn to him. Nothing wrong with that.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 12:46 PM  

That's one of the reasons it's such a great movie. Also, it shows just how HARD it can be to change. I mean, there's one character who definitely earns the changes he brings about. If that makes any sense.

By Blogger Marly K, at 8:15 PM  

With a romantic comedy, there needs to be something keeping the romantic leads apart, or else there's no story. Unfortunately, the easy solution is 'she/he doesn't like him/her', so it becomes the default. However, a much more interesting movie comes from both sides of the equation wanting the other, but BOTH have reasons to keep apart, hopefully different reasons, ideally MUTUALLY INCOMPATIBLE reasons (ie if one is solved, the other can't be).

By Blogger M J Reid, at 5:22 AM  

Re Groundhog Day: Bill Murray does everything wrong to start with. Andie MacDowell isn't impressed by his awesomeness, but by his genuine redemption into a straight-up guy from a miserable, stalking jerk.

By Blogger blogward, at 1:01 PM  

Yes, most movie romances glorify behavior that would be unacceptable in real life. It makes sense from a story perspective, but since movies influence culture, it unfortunately promotes extremely unhealthy romantic ideals.

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By Blogger ragon101, at 9:20 PM  

Another example which I think sort of lampoons the genre, but still does the same thing is 'Something About Mary'. Ben Stiller is basically stalking her, but he's got competition from a bunch of creepy actual stalkers. His saving grace is that he's the least creepy. Maybe there's just an element of stalking in male/female relationships in reality that comes out in these films and people relate to. You have to make some effort to get the one you want and win him/her over, right?

By Blogger Blue Horseshoe, at 8:45 PM  

Something to remember is that when this plot was used in comedies of the 30s and 40s it was usually about a female (say Kate Hepburn) pursuing a male (say Cary Grant). Reversing the genders makes the whole situation quite a bit more icky.

By Blogger Mama's Boyfriend, at 1:45 AM  

In response to the blog entry:

It seems to me that it may be the case. There are lots of items in the media that actually encourage stereotypical behavior. Villains get rewarded.

This also reminds me of another thing, which is the Great Men Theory, if I remember correctly in my lessons on historiography. It describes a certain history in which the events revolve only in a particular character, and in which all other characters revolve around that 'great man's action. I find that a bit like a sociopath's perspective.

There are lots of realities that continue to perpetuate this kind of point of view, like, for example, reality shows, which allow one to be voyeuristic without the danger of getting caught. This allows one to be 'in control' of the situation. But perhaps, everyone of us has this hidden desire to rule the world, but that would not allow us to survive in a society, and therefore that would not allow us to survive.

I'll just cut it short and say that there are a lot of situations that the media is irresponsible. One thing would be the perpetuation of restrictive behavioral gender stereotypes (ie men have to be aggressive and women shouldn't be able to 'take control'), or blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. If not kept in check, these things slowly creep into our minds, and eventually will affect the way we view the world. It is indeed overwhelming to realize how powerful the medium of screenwriting is, for example.

My point is that we should be more careful about the things that we put on air. Not only about the things we write explicitly, but also if the things we write also has a large chance of implying certain other things like stereotypes. Although that may be important in comical characterizations, it still is a double-edged sword.

I'm sorry if this might seem to be rambling, because it's already early in the morning, and I should be sleeping. But hey, I'm back after more than a year.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:32 PM  

Sure, it's stalkery...but he's our protagonist. We're following him, siding with him - and that makes all the difference.

And as Raz said - what's so great about that ending is the expressions on their faces. It's definitely not a happily-ever-after.

By Blogger Amanda, at 12:20 AM it because we see everything from the deluded pov of the hero? No, I don't think that is the only reason why romance heros are stalkerish.

I think there is a (non-pc?) part of the female psyche that wants to be pursued and protected. In a story, that behaviour can be gratifying.

Of course, lots of gratifying behaviour in movies isn't ok in rl.

I do worry that Twilight is setting up millions of young men and women to believe stalking is an appropriate expression of love. However, despite the writing and the acting, there was something about Twilight that turned it into a guilty pleasure for me. Hmm. I think I'll watch it now.

By Blogger tnt, at 10:14 AM  

We must distinguish between 2 different scenarios here.

The Meet & Clash is a common story convention that is usually resolved about 1/3 of the way through the film. By that stage we know that the couple are thinking about coupling. And long before that, we suspected that the hostility was just a front for "interest". To have such a passionate aversion to someone is a sign to the audience, especially if other characters like the person in question.

But if either person (hero or love interest) makes a conscious decision that they definitely do not want to be romantically involved with the love interest (and we believe them), then there is nothing the other character can do about it. There is no romance, and the pining character cannot argue with them the way Benjamin does. The key is that any romantic interest must be voluntary and sincere. The stories are about finding THE perfect partner, the one who completes you, not about finding A partner.

This is also why most romances do NOT have one character following the other demanding a date. Even if they begin that way, the story has the indifferent character quickly become interested (The Notebook) or the story ends up clamping the couple together and the change of heart happens slowly along the way, NOT through stalking or one character nagging another. The couple are forced/fated to spend time together, and eventually there is a change of heart.
It Happened One Night
When Harry Met Sally
Crocodile Dundee
The Proposal
Moonlighting (Pilot ep + first 2 seasons)
Romancing the Stone
French Kiss
Only You
Gran Torino
etc etc etc

This crippling love story mistake to make one character explicity have no romantic interest in the other, but then make the dumped character spend the story trying to convince them otherwise is done surprisingly often, usually when there is a fluffy little hero to try to mask the mistake. It doesn't change the fact it's unromantic.
My Best Friend's Wedding
Cinema Paradiso
Bed of Roses

However, stalker stories when we know the hero is being "rescued" by the fun-loving love interest are cut a lot of slack by an audience.
Bringing Up Baby
What's Up Doc?
Charade (sort of)

Those first 2 are explicit stalker films, but the stalker is a woman who makes us laugh, and the hero is a nerdy, unsatisfied guy with a clearly incompatible partner. Even so, the couple are once again clamped together for an adventure, NOT for 85 minutes of the stalker girl demanding the hero fall in love with her. The change of heart happens along the way.

Re Groundhog Day, stories about redeemed scoundrels are age old. Perhaps at first it was some moral tale, or even "have their cake and eat it too" (show the debauchery, and claim some religious ending). Whatever. The main thing is such a large change is interesting, and scoundrels (in stories, not real life) are interesting. "It's always a badass that makes a girl's heart beat faster." Unfortunately there is some truth to that, in the same way many guys drool over powerful, bitchy, arrogant women. One thing is for sure: there is nothing more boring than a "nice, perfect" character. These types usually play the finance figure for a reason: they are dead boring. We like flaws and we like the possibility that under the charade, the person really does have a heart of gold. Imagine Casablanca with Rick as a nice guy who cared about everyone at the start of the story. Same goes for Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. He has to be self-centred. The whole story is about learning to care...about the people you're stuck with.

By Blogger Cody McCormack, at 12:25 AM  

All good stories are about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of extraordinary obstacles. Sure, there are stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things in the face of ordinary things, but they are usually not as striking as the first category.

People watch films to see the actualization of the human potantial, good or bad. This is why news all around the world cover the most violent stories so frequently. When the other end of the spectrum (good) is investigated, it becomes a heroic story. And when you analyze the actions of a hero (say, Jack Bauer, Batman, Spiderman), you see that they are borderline psychopathic, only to be excused by a decent motive.

I believe that stories have to be this way, out of the ordinary, in order to 1) capture the attention of the audience 2) to explore the farther reaches of the human soul. Otherwise, they would not differ from the yellow pages.

By Blogger gsezgi, at 8:57 PM  

- "All good stories are about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of extraordinary obstacles. Sure, there are stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things in the face of ordinary things, but they are usually not as striking as the first category."

You left out good thrillers, which are about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in the face of extraordinary obstacles. ;)
Extraordinary heroes are often dull.

By Blogger Cody McCormack, at 8:48 PM  

I should have said "ordinary people with the potential of doing extraordinary things,..." (I think I was carried away with the rhyme :)) because even when you pick an ordinary person as your hero, you should choose the one with such an aptitude so that when the push comes to shove, he has some interesting plans of action in his arsenal.

By Blogger gsezgi, at 10:53 AM  

But much of that has to do with the situation you mentioned. It's like a rat in a cage. The minute you corner any meek little schmo, they'll fight for their life to get out of it. That's why it's so important to put the hero through hell, not just a bad hair day. :)

By Blogger Cody McCormack, at 9:43 PM  

I disagree. Panic Room or Alien would be totally different films (they might not even have been made) if Jody Foster or Sigourney Weaver were replaced by ordinary people with ordinary plans or reaction patterns. Ordinary people (in thriller films, for example) are only good for being the first victims, victims to be saved, or annoying screamers. From a Darwinian standpoint, the ordinary-looking hero must possess some inherent/dormant capabilities which will enable him/her to survive the hell the writer puts him/her through.

By Blogger gsezgi, at 9:34 PM  

I don't believe in characters with built in mechanisms. I believe character is what you do, regardless of what that is.
In Straw Dogs, Dustin Hoffman is a pacifist intellectual who finally strikes back. IMO it's not because he's pre-disposed to act that way. It's that he's been pushed far enough and the storytellers want him to act that way and it is believable enough to the audience that a person in that situation would act that way. Sure, the character's outlook is an important justification, but it's merely audience information to control the narrative contrivance. The character isn't real. They can have him do anything, as long as they come up with an acceptable justification that the audience lets slide. Character/personality is just more info as far as I'm concerned. But that character/personality is simply information for the audience. It is not anything more or deep than that. It's a trick, really, but an important one nonetheless.

But I certainly agree that it's fairly useless if your story concerns a woman trapped in a confined location with something that wants to kill her, and all she does is stand there catatonic. I'm just saying that most people don't do that, so it's perfectly reasonable to an audience to see loser dad Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds become a Hollywood hero when he has no choice. Same with the Alien and Panic Room: they have no choice but to fight for their lives, if only because the story ceases to exist if they do.

So what we're actually disagreeing about is what character is. You seem to be saying it is a concrete thing out of which the story evolves, or at least from which the hero's reactions within a situation evolve. I am saying it is an illusion in the audience's mind. Ripley isn't making her decisions. The storytellers are. But if her decisions seem unreasonable, we notice the strings being pulled and fall out of the story. So they must mask the contrivance with personality and habit and actor/genre convention.

By Blogger Cody McCormack, at 10:56 PM  

Something About Mary. Yes, one of the ultimate stalker movies!

It's interesting though that the pleasure from these is a little different from romance, IMO. For instance, when Matt Dillon shafts Ben Stiller and says Mary is fat white trash with a litter of kids, we hope Ben finds out the truth...esp when we see he still hasn't judged her. He's a nice guy. (We knew that 30 seconds into the film when he sticks up for Mary's brother)
BUT when Matt moves all the way to Florida and goes through this elaborate charade to win Mary ("I work with retards"), we (or at least I) kind of want him to succeed. It's certainly not romance driving it. More that a loser who has strong enough feelings for someone to move to Miami and go through this process deserves a break. He may be fake, but he's not mean or aggressive to Mary, so as a viewer I let it slide. Of course, that changes when I see Ben Stiller driving down to find her. He deserves her more, but only if she wants to be with him too.
I have a similar reaction to Lee Evans and his cripple routine. At the end when you find out he's just a love sick loser, you sympathise with him.

I wonder if the stalker thing is more like teen "lose your virginity" films. It's not romantic if they're only trying to get laid, but we often go with them because they are losers who deserve a little victory for once. (Whether the victory is moral in the real world or not is another thing, but on screen we can justify it as harmless enough)
It's the same feeling in Groundhog Day with Phil trying to get into Rita's pants via the French poetry and ice sculpting. We can't help but go with it because he is such a put-upon character. As bitter and self-centred as he is, things go wrong for him early on. He's a loser who we think deserves a break. This is very different to Benjamin in The Graduate. In that the only thing that can drive the stalker third act is romance, which is non-existent. He is not a loser who deserves a break. He can go back to his casual sex with Mrs Robinson and his lounging around in the pool. Hardly put-upon.

By Blogger Cody McCormack, at 11:32 PM  

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