He Said, She Said

(Ken Kwapis & Marisa Silver, USA, 1991)


This film has an interesting conceptual premise: the story of a modern relationship told first from the man’s (Kevin Bacon), then the woman’s (Elizabeth Perkins) point of view – with the two parts directed by a real-life directing couple, Ken Kwapis and Marisa Silver.

The really interesting filmmaker of that pair is Silver; I have particularly admired her teen movies Old Enough (1984) and Permanent Record (1988). Her film before He Said, She Said was Vital Signs (1990), a rather formulaic entry in the young-medical-student cycle that has also included the flamboyant Flatliners (1990) and the intriguing A Cut Above (aka Gross Anatomy, 1989). In recent years she has turned to fiction writing (the novel No Direction Home [2005] and story collection Babe in Paradise [2001]).

Like Vital Signs, He Said, She Said surfaced in Australia on video; and also like Vital Signs, it has a strangely alienated sheen about it. However, this alienation is probably the most interesting thing about it. The principal intertext of the film is the array of popular lifestyle magazines (like Cleo) that talk out endlessly the differences between male and female psychology – not in order to change men and women or even necessarily to bring them to a mutual understanding of their differences, but in a sense, to generate some compensatory frisson out of the total abyss between the sexes, the complete cultural alienness of each sex faced with its opposite number.

In contemporary mainstream cinema terms, this puts He Said, She Said clearly in the train of When Harry Met Sally (1989) – a hugely successful film taking off from the old-but-newly-fashionable assumption that, in relationships, men want casual sex whilst women want romantic commitment. When Harry Met Sally is a neo romantic comedy (like Green Card, 1990), but one needs to see clearly the difference between these new romances and a film like Adam’s Rib (1949). Cukor’s film, too, was a celebration of the differences between men and women; but in the classic romantic comedies there was always the possibility of a dynamic interchange of traits designated male and female, a generative reciprocity between men and women.

He Said, She Said is simply content to play out the amusing stand-off of the sexes. Indeed, even its genuinely poignant moments – the way the lovers separately agree, unbeknownst to each other, to drop their own beliefs and accept those of their partner, and the scene of Bacon confessing his true feelings of love to Perkins while she is asleep, with the later revelation that she was indeed awake but didn’t let on – hold to this contemporary "wisdom".

The film’s structure – 45 minutes of his version, then 45 minutes of hers, with a framing device that rather mechanically brings the couple together at the end – doesn’t really take advantage of the possibilities of the contradictory points-of-view concept. It’s very unlike the scene, say, in Annie Hall (1977), where Allen uses a jazzy split-screen to immediately compare-and-contrast a man and a woman’s attitude to the relationship they share; here, you have to wait an hour for some of the best pay-offs and reversals. And a serious thematic problem of the structure is that getting so much "he said" at the start tends to make us accept his version as some kind of baseline reality or truth, against which her version can be checked for its exaggerations, lies and distortions – although this is not strictly what the film says, or means to say.

There are a number of interesting elements in the film, considering it further in terms of its contemporary genre/intertext. On one level, the film is part of a largely unheralded post-thirtysomething movement in contemporary cinema: relationship-centred films (including the underrated Immediate Family, 1989) that focus on the everyday lives and loves of ordinary yuppies. This is a genre that, like any other, deserves careful attention rather than knee-jerk derision, since it is where a certain very honourable tradition of quiet, sometimes subtly disturbing drama has reappeared today – with the same attention a dramatist like Chayevsky once paid to the minutiae of mortgage payments or suburban apartment-block living now trained on the consumer paraphernalia, cultural tastes and personal spaces of the professional middle-class.

Since He Said, She Said is also a film about a couple who play out their relationship in the eye of the media – first in print, then on television – it also picks up on other neo-romantic comedies like, especially, the fascinating Broadcast News (1987), and the Front Page remake, Switching Channels (1988). What we are seeing in this cycle is an intense contemporary take on the His Girl Friday idea of romantic fun – living and loving and working together, breaking the big story whilst on honeymoon.

Yet in He Said, She Said, another reduction of the classic romantic comedy equation takes place: rather disconcertingly, the film cheerily upholds the neo-entertainment idea that, on television, all that matters is the charming and dynamic interplay of personalities, not issues, ideas or opinions. The television series Murphy Brown leaves itself at least a little room to be cynical about such a state of affairs, as Broadcast News is both cynical and saddened – while neither have anything to propose in its place. He Said, She Said simply smiles and acquiesces – that’s the way it is, let’s enjoy it. This is of course what clinches the film as a light comedy – or, more exactly, taking Raymond Durgnat’s suggestion, a comedy of manners, a genre almost always committed to "the way things are".

Kevin Bacon’s character is the most interesting of the two (something that further unbalances the film in his favour). He has a complex that I haven’t seen before in a light comedy: basically, a death-wish, expressed in a worship of icons like the Wolf Man and Dracula, and in his recurring early morning terror-fits. As in John Hughes productions like Only the Lonely (1991), the distant neighbour heavy genre of horror is fleetingly evoked (windows slamming shut on the entrapped Bacon) to embody the fierce double-bind of the character’s deep longing for, yet defensive reaction to, commitment.

The film gives short shrift to at least two things (strategies of evasion and sleight-of-hand in recent films like this and Once Around deserve extended consideration). First, Perkins’ intellectualism – which is never granted the status of a complex or fascinating trait, like Bacon’s death-wish. She’s dismissively tagged by the film as a liberal – which means that she reads, has leftish political opinions and befriends artists. Only in the wonderful (and too-brief) scene of her family at dinner – a spirited, opinionated bunch of liberal thinkers – does the film even attempt to give the character her rightful aura of specific social difference.

The other thing elided in the course of the film is sex – specifically, the great sex that Cleo-style magazines used to promise came with great romance plus a great career. The only great sex mentioned in the film is the sex Bacon used to have with his casual girlfriends (whereas it is implied that Perkins and her artist-politico ex had lousy sex). When they get together, you wait for the warm, celebratory gags about the wonderful time they’re having in bed – like the way Shirley MacLaine eulogises her relation with Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment (1983). But they never come.

For these yuppies at least, romantic fulfilment seems to include all the joy-and-pain of getting together, breaking up, and working out a detente, but no sex. This seems like a strange alienation indeed.

MORE Kwapis: Dunston Checks In

© Adrian Martin September 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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