Guilty Pleasures is a movie about romance, by which I mean the genre, as told through three readers, a writer, and a cover model (Sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it?. It premiered in the US in North Carolina at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and mega-power librarian Jennifer Lohmann went with her book club to see it. What follows is her review and reaction. I found it very fascinated particularly in light of my own questions about the Mr. Romance pageant at RT, and the ever-changing way in which romance and its readers are portrayed in documentary film. I know that there’s another documentary about romance in the works, and I am cautiously optimistic about it – but only because I’ve met the filmmaker and know she’s awesome. I can only hope that project yields a more different portrait of the romance reader.
On Thursday night, my romance book club and guests went to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival opening night film, Guilty Pleasures. The showing was followed by a moderated discussion with filmmaker Julie Moggan and Stephen Muzzonigro, one of the movie’s subjects. Before I talk about my reaction to the film, I want to thank Full Frame, which made sure my book club got tickets to this movie. The opening night movie sells out very quickly and we really, really wanted to see this movie. Without Full Frame’s help, we probably wouldn’t have been able to purchase tickets.
I didn’t intend to write a review or reaction to the movie. We were just going to go as a group, watch the movie, go out for drinks afterward to talk about it, and be done. However, the more I thought about the movie and the more we talked about it, the more I wanted to respond. This is my response to the movie. I’m sure members of the book club had different impressions and opinions. They usually do, which is why our book club meetings are so fun.
Thinking about the movie changed my reaction to it. Sarah F. from Dear Author and Teach Me Tonight asked me what I thought about the movie as we stood outside the theater. I said I enjoyed watching the movie, but it was an outsider trying to look inside. Like most outsiders, I don’t think they really got what they were looking at; an outsider doesn’t know the best jokes. And, watching the movie, I did enjoy it. During the movie, I reacted like the movie maker wanted me to react. I laughed when she wanted me to laugh, I cheered when she wanted me to cheer and I disliked the characters she wanted me to dislike. But the more I thought about the movie, the more shallow I felt the movie was and the more upset I was.
The movie has five protagonists. Roger is an author who writes in the Mills & Boon medical line. Stephen is a book cover model in search of love. Shumita lives in India and has been separated from her husband for five years. Hiroko lives in Japan and is married with two kids. She learns to ballroom dance because the dance scenes are the favorite part of the books. Shirley lives with her bipolar husband in northern England. He is her third serious relationship, following several years after an abusive relationship. Moggan alternates among Roger’s comments and the lives of the three readers and one model as they look for love or reinforce the relationships they already have.
The best moments in the movie center on Shirley and Hiroko. Hiroko’s husband is the hero of the movie. Hiroko loves ballroom dancing and would like to participate in a competition with her instructor, but the cost is prohibitive. Her husband learns to ballroom dance because he’s sick of being jealous of Hiroko dancing with other men. They enter a competition, which they win.
When the movie starts, Hiroko talks about her marriage being less passionate than the books she enjoys and her husband shyly (and looking a bit like a nerd) says how she wants him to say things to her that he’s not comfortable with. He’s glad she has the novels to say such things to her. In the middle of their story, we see him playing catch with his kids and fishing as he talks about how he wants more children. He grows from a nerd to a sweetheart who adores his kids and wife. Hiroko starts looking a bit like a complainer when in the face of such a man. Then, when he learns to dance, we see joy in Hiroko’s face as she dances in a competition with her husband in her arms. She’s happy to win and she’s happy to dance with her husband.
Shirley and her husband find little ways to make their lives together more romantic. She loves that he doesn’t plan adventures but just gets on the highway and drives. She compares their little adventures to the adventures in romance novels and the spontaneity of the hero and heroine. Her husband, Phil, is bipolar and sometimes their plans for a romantic evening are interrupted by his illness. She worries about him and takes care of him as best she can while he is having a low period. They do sweet, affectionate, and thoughtful things for one another and try to make everyday moments special and romantic.
The description of the movie on the Full Frame website reads:
Guilty Pleasures is a celebration of the desires and realities of the people it portrays. In sympathetically depicting the collision of fantasy and day-to-day life, the documentary offers a salutary combination of levity and heart.
and I think it is in the lives of these two couples that the movie works best. The realities of these two couples are celebrated. They are happy, loving couples working through their problems and standing side-by-side as they face the world. However, I don’t think that there was the collision of fantasy and day-to-day life. The women know what is fantasy and what is real life. If you were to ask them, they would say that they are not seeking a romance novel in their real lives. When they were searching for love, they were looking for the type of relationship and man they currently have, not the fantasy man from the romance novel. Collision implies a conflict between fantasy and reality and I don’t think, ultimately, that these women had a conflict, even Hiroko with her desire to ballroom dance.
The movie tries to make a collision between fantasy and real life in Shumita’s story. Moggan said in the discussion that the romance novels lead Shumita to believe that romance would be very different and that Sanjay might change. In this case, I think the movie and Moggan misunderstood Shumita and the romance novels.
Shumita has been separated from her husband for five years and he has been living with another woman during that time. Sanjay drives a fast car and likes to live large. He makes comments about her weight. He deliberately leads her to believe they will get back together while he means nothing of the sort. His bedroom looks like that of a teenage boy with a calendar of scantily clad women, one that says “shit happens” and a plastic snake handing on the wall.
As one of the book group members said and all readers of romance know, Shumita’s problem is that Sanjay is the not hero in her life. Sanjay is the jerk the heroine dumps so that she is ready for the hero. A fast car does not make a hero. Kindness, thoughtfulness, and affection (the attributes of Phil and Hiroko’s husband) make a hero. A romance novel hero can be a total jerk at the beginning of the novel, but he has to have the potential for change and, after five years, Sanjay has used up his potential.
Shumita says real life is what happens when the romance novel’s pages end. She knows real love takes work and isn’t always pretty. What she is slow to realize is that Sanjay isn’t the right person for her. That’s not the fault of the novels. The novels never tell her that he’s the hero and, while I feel badly saying this about anyone, Sanjay’s just not hero material.
I have few quibbles with the portrayal of Roger, the author. I felt like he was generally a good representation of an author in that he respected his readers, genre, and the other authors and was intelligent and interesting. He is not, however, a woman. Sarah F. asked Moggan why she had a male romance author and she replied that there is more comedic effect in the male author. That’s probably a true representation of her motives, but the movie confirmed incorrect stereotypes for people about romance authors. Those of us involved in the romance industry, even as a librarian and reader rather than a writer/editor, know that most romance authors are intelligent, savvy women with a professional, business-oriented approach to their craft. However, in the movie, Roger is portrayed as a mother hen to the little old-lady pensioner chicks who come to hear him say romance heroes can’t have back hair. If a moviegoer left the movie thinking, as Roger says, that romance authors are very smart with a steely determination, they did so in spite of the visual portrayal of the movie.
There were moments of levity and humor in the movie, but those came at the expense of the characters. We laugh at Shirley reading her romance novel while eating chocolates and Phil putting on a clip-on tie. We laugh at Roger’s bald head while he describes the physical superiority of a romance novel hero. We laugh as the movie cuts from frumpy Shirley reading her books to Stephen on the beach in his swimsuit. None of these moments are a critique of romance novels or their readers. They are cheap shots which elicit a laugh, but don’t provide any greater meaning. I had an emotional response to the movie. I am angry about the movie, but I don’t think I’m angry because the movie was critical of the genre. I’m angry because Moggan was disdainful of her characters and her image of them was unkind.
Overall, I was left with the impression that Moggan had no desire to actually understand her subjects. She was an outsider looking inside a culture and she made a shallow effort to learn why Roger wrote a novel and Hiroko, Shumita, and Shirley read the novels but ultimately it was a superficial effort. She read hundreds of Mills & Boon, but I get the impression that she allowed them to confirm her stereotypes of the genre rather than opening herself up to a new understanding. Perhaps she is confusing understanding with endorsement and, in her effort to make sure she didn’t endorse the genre, she forgot to try and understand it.
This makes me wonder about the audience. I worry the non-romance readers in audience left feeling like they learned something about the genre when, in reality, stereotypes of romance novel and their bonbon-eating readers were confirmed. Moggan made a movie about three readers and one author who writes for one category line in a very large industry. While she attempts to make a global statement about fantasy and reality, ultimately her conclusions are provincial.
I also have a criticism for Full Frame, if they were the organization that selected the moderator. The discussion was moderated by Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish. What does Daniel Wallace know about romance novels? The answer to that rhetorical question is nothing. He admitted that he thinks romance novels are at the bottom of the genre barrel. Why choose Wallace as moderator? The Triangle area of North Carolina is not of short best-selling, award-winning romance novelists, many of whom write for Harlequin/Mills & Boon. Look at that list – did all of those authors turn Full Frame down when invited to moderate a discussion or did Full Frame not even think to ask? The post-movie discussion moderated by Sabrina Jeffries or Claudia Dain would have been far more interesting and insightful than any discussion moderated by Daniel Wallace.
I’ve not yet said anything about Stephen, the cover model. I’m saving both the best and worst for last. The depiction of Stephen is the most interesting part of the movie and the most shameful. Let me first say that Stephen is BY FAR the most attractive person I’ve ever seen in the flesh. He was at the movie, sitting a couple rows in front of us, and had an unearthly handsomeness to him. Strangely, I don’t find him sexually attractive, but that’s a discussion for another time. Let me assure you that he looks in person like he does on his agency page.
I mention this not to drool, but because it’s relevant to the movie. In the movie, Stephen comes across as vain, shallow and dim. Between shots of him in his swimsuit at the beach, exercising, worrying over his calorie intake, talking about his dream wall, his true flame, and reading Deepak Chopra or books on tantric sex, the audience is left with the impression that Stephen can’t think of anything beyond his own hotness and we laughed. I want to be clear—we laughed at Stephen. We did not laugh with him.
At the end of the day, Stephen is a type of athlete and, like an athlete, relies on his physical prowess to feed and clothe him. If a swimmer talked about the care they took to moderate their caloric intake and their body hair maintenance regime, I would admire their dedication and willpower. Why did I laugh at Stephen for the same dedication?
If he’s vain about his looks, he has a right to be, just like Stephen Hawkings has a right to be vain about his intelligence. Both may be luck of genetics, but both Stephens spend time working to maintain and improve upon their luck. Also, I wonder how dim Stephen really is. He didn’t sound nearly so dim in the moderated discussion as he did in the movie. Not once did he sound uneducated. This makes me question whether he is as shallow as he appears in the movie or if the non-shallow Stephen moments were edited out.
Ultimately I am left with two questions regarding Stephen and the movie. The first is what does Stephen think about Moggan’s portrayal of him? Is he really so dim that he doesn’t notice the audience laughing AT him? Has he come to expect such treatment from people who consider themselves thoughtful intellectuals and, if he doesn’t like it, is at least no longer surprised by it? Or, is Stephen secure enough in his good job at which he works hard to be able to completely ignore such derision?
My last question is more troubling. How did Moggan intend the audience to feel about Stephen? Did she intend to make a point about the vanity in us all as we reflected with shame at the ease with which we laughed at another human being? Or, is Moggan so vain and shallow, wallowing in her own intelligence, that she cannot see herself reflected in her portrayal of a romance cover model?