Me Myself I
Pip Karmel’s lively Me Myself I was promoted on its release as “a romantic comedy about oneself” – a strange, intriguing and thoroughly modern concept. Aren’t romantic comedies meant to be about magnificent couples, like in the great screwball classics of yesteryear? It Happened One Night (1934), The Awful Truth (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949), Teacher’s Pet (1958): these movies from Hollywood’s golden era are about witty, feisty relationships built on an ideal of equality between the sexes – at least, as conventionally gendered.
Mixing up sex and work, thought and feeling, elevated dreams and everyday tensions, these classic films have come to stand as one of the supreme embodiments of the notion of love – what it is and how it goes – in 20th century popular culture. Yes, the plots are unreal and fanciful, the stars (Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne) glamorous, the sentiments proudly optimistic. But none of that alters how deeply, how sweetly these films can move, inspire and instruct us.
Me Myself I is not about two people destined to meet each other on the job, or in the street, or over a cup of coffee. As the title indicates, it is firmly centred on an individual, Pamela (Rachel Griffiths), and the life choices with which she is faced. These choices present themselves to Pamela’s consciousness in an unusual, supernatural way: a nasty bump one day sends her off to a parallel reality.
Now, as well as the defiantly single, sometimes melancholic working girl she is in her normal life, Pamela is also the woman she once dreamed of being: a wife and mother, married to her teenage sweetheart, Robert (David Roberts). In fact, Me Myself I is at heart a trading-places story: while unmarried Pamela visits the daggy world of domesticity, married Pamela disappears into the foreign land of serious work, casual dating and time alone.
Wisely, writer-director Karmel (whose IMDb listing has no further directorial credits after 1999, and only one writing credit on the TV series Olivia Newton-John in 2018 – an all too typical trajectory for women in the mainstream industry) does not attempt to frenetically intercut both of these life paths, à la the Gwyneth Paltrow hit Sliding Doors (1998) or, in art cinema mode, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique (1991). The plot sticks with Pamela 1, as she starts her new life with nothing to do but lie about and bonk her eternal beloved. But soon she finds herself stumbling through a minefield of unexpected truths, trials and intrigues lurking beneath the facade of suburban life.
What does Me Myself I have to do with the great tradition of romantic comedy? Certainly this much: women in such plots have often been faced with the conflicting lifestyle options represented by two starkly differentiated men. For Pamela, this amounts to the equivocation between not-what-he-was-once-cracked-up-to-be David and sensitive-but-apparently-already-attached New Age guy, Ben (Sandy Winton). It was a similar dilemma for Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, poised between staid, folksy Ralph Bellamy and fast-talking city-slicker Cary Grant; and the trend continues through to such Sandra Bullock vehicles as While You Were Sleeping (1995).
The choice for the 20th century woman of romantic comedy often boils down to this: security on the one hand, adventure on the other. This was always Katharine Hepburn’s problem, in classics such as Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). And no matter what preparations were in train for the old-style heroine – the marriage ceremony about to begin, the house already bought, the friends assembled at a party – it was always possible to throw it all away and take a chance on love with the wild guy in the wings.
These days, however, the men who represent those twin options of security and adventure both tend to come with considerable baggage attached. In contemporary American comedies about love and relationships, such as One Fine Day (1996) and the dismal The Story of Us (1999), kids are ever present – whether it is a question of a marriage in crisis or single parents dragging themselves, after a long break back, into the dating game. Modern romance, in these films, is instantly a question of family, its demands and responsibilities (and sometimes its delights, although Me Myself I has a tough time imagining anything splendid about raising children in suburbia).
In the classic romantic comedies, there were almost never any kids around to get in the way of love’s dream. Today’s niche marketeers might well conclude that it was a genre about single people and for single people. But this would be to miss precisely what constitutes the fond fantasy of these movies: their wishful, utopian aspect. British critic Andrew Britton argued in the 1980s that the best romantic comedies of the past were an intuitively radical bunch of films, anticipating the agenda of post 1960s sex-and-gender politics. They were radical precisely because their whimsical plots and characters “dissociate marriage from reproduction, or the prospect of it”.
Simply put, these heroes and heroines don’t need kids because they are still kids themselves – in a sophisticated, polymorphously perverse kind of way. For Britton, these characters happily fuse qualities of child and adult normally kept separate in our world: “The partners engage in rough-house and in epigram and repartee; the anarchic consorts with the urbane; the infantile drives which precede maturity and civilisation are suddenly definitive of them.”
In other words, the great romantic comedies delivered a fantasy image of the couple as whole and complete unto itself, unburdened by the larger, social obligation to procreate and all the values it drags in tow. These films needed to create a weightlessness, a lightness around their lovers because they dared to imagine some other, more passionate, more inspired way of living and behaving, of organising relationships.
Contemporary romantic comedies, by contrast, often feel compelled to grapple with a certain dose of realistic content – which almost instantly takes away the giddy edge and the utopian possibilities.
The presence of kitchen disasters, incommunicative children and a hideous circle of friends in Me Myself I is symptomatic. They indicate that, by the time the conventions of classic romantic comedy have breached the shores of contemporary Australia, so much seems to have changed; the balance of elements is out of whack. There’s romance and there’s comedy, sure, in Australian films of the past decade including Strange Fits of Passion (1999), Dating the Enemy (1996), All Men Are Liars (1995) and Strictly Ballroom (1992). But the esteemed, magic formula of romantic comedy is much more than the sum of these two discrete parts.
At least, in the era of queer cinema, there is a new avenue of escape: defiled and downtrodden youngsters can finally realise their love for each other, and give up on the opposite sex altogether. Both Me Myself I and Strange Fits of Passion arrive at a somewhat gentler but no less level-headed conclusion: that a woman’s relation to her own development and self-esteem matters more than desperate dependence on some dream-man to make her a whole person.
There are many kinds of neo romantic comedy – a form which usually refers, in a lightly mocking, tenaciously affectionate, bitter-sweet way to the imaginary, magical world created within the classic romantic comedies. In fact, the inaugural image of this trend was probably Gena Rowlands and her older, best female friend in John Cassavetes’ Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) – watching Casablanca at a revival house, then going home to get drunk and have a good laugh or cry about the distance between movie mythdom and their daily, unglamorous reality.
Australian filmmakers have often made films about this distance between ideal screen dreams and sad, struggling real life. Brian McKenzie’s Stan and George's New Life (1992), John Ruane’s Dead Letter Office (1998), Paul Cox’s Lonely Hearts (1982), even Strictly Ballroom in its quiter, melancholic interludes: these movies recall the sensibility of the contemporary Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki, whose plaintive films (such as Drifting Clouds, 1996) set inarticulate, wistful couples against the slow corrosions of quotidian, social life, at home as in the workplace.
A more assertively joyous type of neo romantic comedy is the kind – spearheaded by films including Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Go Fish (1994) – which celebrates new lifestyle options and arrangements. In this bag we find the Australian movies in which love, sex and relationships are inflected by something novel – whether the comminglings of friends in a share-house (Fresh Air, 1999), the non-stop recording of a video camera (Video Fool For Love, 1996), or the dizzying confusions and possibilities of university student life (Love and Other Catastrophes, 1996). Gay and lesbian romances are spotlighted in many shorts, such as Kelli Simpson’s Two Girls and a Baby (1998). In fact, many viewers will rightly conclude that same-sex love seems generally a much sunnier and lighter topic, much more adaptable to the romantic screen formulae of yesteryear, than heterosexuality with its apparently ceaseless rifts, guilts and torments.
The question remains as to why so few Australian romantic comedies seem to really deliver the goods. Yes, the world and its once (supposedly) innocent traditions of popular cinema have changed. But does that mean that our film-makers can entirely excuse themselves as mere victims of this history? That their only recourse is to dive for the pale sub-species of the genre, all those bleak or ironic or facile forms offered by modern romantic comedy in its retro, anti and neo modes?
On one level at least, our national cinema must stand condemned. Whereas, in the great era of romantic comedy, men and women on screen enjoyed a parity, a true give-and-take reciprocity of wills and wits, these days Australian filmmakers are often too content to reiterate modish truisms about the abyss between the sexes. The spark between lovers never quite happens in Thank God He Met Lizzie (1998), Me Myself I or Strange Fits of Passion. In Strange Planet (1999), everyone comes on like a solipsistic, two-dimensional poseur. All Men are Liars and Bob Ellis’ The Nostradmus Kid (1993) are lazily, mindlessly misogynistic in their male-centred trajectories – no wonder so many films by and about women are plumbing for solitude as the best solution to the sex war.
Over in the realm of sombre drama, in the gruesome social-issue tragedy The Boys (1998), there is not even the faintest echo of love or laughter left between men and women. But why must we all be so deterministic and fatalist – especially where love, and the screen dreams devoted to love, are concerned?
© Adrian Martin March 2000