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The Bonnie and Clyde complex

January 26, 2014

He stands framed in the doorway, a silhouette made purely of cocky charisma. She looks back at him with an expression that suggests she’s seen a ghost, though perhaps this ghost is particularly amusing and turns up often, because she often wears a weird smile while she’s at it.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he says, or some other cliché. He might just announce his towering presence by uttering a cool, casual: “Hello, X.” In fact, he might as well actually call her X, since that’s what she almost certainty is to him. “It’s been a long time.”

It’s been a long time for him, that’s for sure. He looks about 60, but that’s OK, because he’s got that rugged, war-torn, world-weary, chiselled, well-preserved handsomeness that we’re all supposed to love because, y’know, he’s a big star and you have to respect the fact that he’s still churning out movies that are usually reserved for people about 40 years his junior, the game old bloke. She, on the other hand, hasn’t aged a day, because she’s being played by the same person who played a highschooler not eight months before.

Depending on how self-conscious the film-makers are about this curiosity of Hollywood, the male character might say something along the lines of “You look as beautiful as the day we met. Do you remember?” which helpfully opens to door to a series of short sharp exchanges about how The Past Is The Past and Things Have Changed, though precisely what has changed, we won’t find out yet, if ever. Perhaps she has given birth to a fully formed teenager who could be mistaken her sibling, and if the chronology matches up, could well be the man’s offspring, though with any luck we won’t get into that.

Or, if the film-makers are having a laugh with us, she might give him a fond smile and say something ridiculous like: “You haven’t changed a bit.” Sadly enough, she’s referring, quite accurately, to his outlook rather than his appearance. At this point, the audience know they are in for two hours of watching the tragic sight of a fifteen year old boy trapped in a 60-year-old’s body, performing feats that would make your dad pass out from exhaustion if he so much as dreamed about them.

He’s here to ask her to help him do One Last Job. That One Last Job will, of course, not be filing or astrophysics, but rather an extraordinary heist that will, counter-intuitively, clear his besmirched name so he can finally retire peacefully with his family; the family who he will spare nary a thought for during the course of the entire movie, except perhaps a torturous phone call to a precious woman-child daughter or an actual child too young to be his, who will be eye-wateringly and ear-piercingly cute to tug on our heart-strings. His own heartstrings will remain curiously untugged, however. He will try to muster an emotion from deep within his tough but charming soul, to no avail. His charm, his endless charm! All his emotion is channelled through his charm. When it’s time to Be Sad, his charm is forced out to make way for something with more substance. Unfortunately, it turns out that his casual cocky expression is the only thing still holding up his face.

She gives him a wry smile. After turning him down repeatedly, when she hears that his very being depends on her help, her inner Good Samaritan leaps out and she agrees to help him do the One Last Job, on the understanding that they are categorically not going to be getting back together.

Whereupon we know that our characters most certainly will be getting back together, or at the very least engage in some kind of fling; a passionate snog that lasts forever (what’s going on in there? Has he found the one true Holy Grail hidden behind the last vestiges of her breakfast?) or a few seconds of clumsy and ponderous naked-to-the-waist fumbling on neat white hotel bedsheets which magically appear before them. Where are all the frustrated calls to the front desk and painstaking attempts to make your wishes understood at the check-out desk, before finally giving up and confessing the mood has evaporated?

I suppose the film-makers are just giving us what we expect to receive and argue that if audiences don’t get it, they’ll be lost forever and profoundly irritated. This is how tropes become clichés – they cease to become necessary devices for telling a story and instead become London tour bus guides which lazily ferry you around the story, waving their hands emphatically to draw your attention to all the things you’ve seen a million time before while you settle into a depressed slouch and wonder why you wasted your money.

I find it tedious that we can rarely ever have a male main character and female support (that’s usually the way around it is) without them either having A History Together or A Future Together, or both.

It doesn’t matter if they’re exes who had very good reason to split up and are highly unlikely to make the same mistake twice; exes who split up for a poor reason but don’t really regret it because they’ve moved on, but decide to bugger everything up by succumbing to the old spark anyway; colleagues who have shared no spark whatsoever at the office water cooler but find they do when out on the rough streets of L.A. chasing impoverished black children for wearing hoodies; casual acquaintances who dislike each other intensely and argue all the time but find that being trapped in a speeding car with each other turns all that dislike into fiery attraction; old friends who have had a platonic relationship together for 20 years and realise they are In Love because one of them gets shot; or old neighbours who coincidentally both divorce their useless / evil spouses only to suddenly realise that The One For Them has been living next door the whole time. Everyone’s at it.

I always like to argue it from the other direction – there are a fair few gay and bi people in the world, as some of us are beginning to discover. If you aren’t attracted to the same sex, imagine you are, and all those scenarios occurred. There wouldn’t be a single person who you hadn’t fucked.

Maybe I’m falling short of my life’s goal, but I’m fairly sure I have not shagged every single member of the opposite sex whom I have ever met. Nor have I attempted to, wished to, or thought about it. By the same token, I have become close with non-family members of the opposite sex who I have not have sex with. Even if I’d wanted to, their emotional complications, relationship status and attraction would be factors that might prevent it occurring. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, due to of a mixture of these factors, I don’t have the option of having sex with the vast majority of opposite-sex people I meet.

In films, we work from the faulted idea that you can shag everyone of the opposite sex that you like because there are so few of them. Either you just happened to find The One For You in the back seat of your car by dumb luck, or they were one of many prospects and you aren’t too fussy. In ordinary society, you’d be limited by other people’s selection process. In films, this selection process is non-existent so the number of people who’ll have you sky-rockets, but the number of eligibles falls because members of the opposite sex are in curiously short supply. Since these scenarios usually occur with our male in the main character position, it makes it look as though men are the majority and thus, only a small number of people you are likely to meet will be women, when actually the opposite is truer (there are marginally more females in the world).

Refusing to have characters of opposite sexes react to each other as colleagues, acquaintances and friends stops them from being people and makes them into rewards, undermining the message of any movie that is about achieving some greater good outside of yourself. Stopped an alien invasion? No good, unless you also got the sex. Foiled a terrorist plot? Not worth it, unless someone offers you the sex afterwards. Became President of the United States, ended world poverty, became rich and retired early to spend blissful quality time with your many grand kids? Well, the key note of all that was, of course, the fact that you had the sex at some point.

This is particularly true of any film where our main characters are these lovable rogues who commit crimes because, I suppose, they’re dead cheeky like that. They couldn’t possibly go all through that together without getting’ it ohm It’s just impossible. There is no aphrodisiac like nearly being responsible for each other’s permanent incarceration. Honestly, Grand Theft Auto V, for all its alleged faults, is better than that – at least you can get highly efficient female heist members who aren’t there primarily to decorate the arm *cough* penis *cough* of the main men.

In films, I call this obsession with the romance of rogues the Bonnie and Clyde complex. If you haven’t seen Bonnie and Clyde, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but they die. Bonnie and Clyde were real people, but their relationship was absurdly romanticised in the film – current speculation is that Bonnie was rather taken in by Clyde but the feeling was not reciprocated. He drew her into his world of crime and she went along with it because she loved him. I have my suspicions about arguments that diminish the criminal responsibility of women on the grounds that Love Conquers All – including morality – but either way, Clyde was, by all accounts, a nasty piece of work. They certainly did not have the kind of let’s-elope-to-the-hills-and-yodel-our-love-for-one-another-in-the-bracing-wind kind of relationship the movie portrayed.

It’s a great movie, I love it. It’s human but still exciting and block-buster and its characters are interesting, making you empathise with them even though they can be unpleasant. But because it makes its main characters lovable rogues and then kills them off, it leaves its audience feeling sorry about their death (not me so much – I like the finality of it. No danger of a hashed up sequel). This causes troupes of film buffs who eventually become directors to make their own loveable rogues live long and enriched lives together forever. The bad taste of premature death and doomed love left in the mouths of people with romantic souls leads them to think: “A, let them be together… Just this once!”

Unfortunately, there are more of these types then there are those who will happily kill off their characters. Thus, we find that every time we get films with women and men alongside each other, we run the risk of this eyelid-drooping trope. Your only safety from it is if the woman is old, because old couples or young-man-old-woman couples are both big no-ons in the moves Since anything unusual meets with my approval, ordinarily I’d celebrate an increase these unspeakably “alternative” couples, but so tedious is the Bonnie and Clyde complex that I think I would probably just roll my eyes, the way you do when you can see that someone has made a concentrated effort to re-work an old cliché rather than do the sensible thing and chuck it out.

The reason we should chuck it is because it gets in the way. It makes the central point of the film not its originality, but its familiarity – always a mistake. In a world where we’re working on adjusting gender equality in films, you obviously can’t have a film with no women in it whatsoever. When I think about moves I’ve liked that couldn’t be considered sexist, I find, ironically, that films with all men or only one woman per a dozen men (The League of Gentleman, Oceans 11, Fight Club) are some of the least problematic.

This is simply because, if you don’t put women in your moves, you can’t get women wrong. It may lack representation, but in a way, poor representation is just as bad if not worse than none at all. Icky, all-female casts of giggling, cat-fighting girls in skimpy outfits is infinitely more damaging than just leaving them out of it. After all, you do get all-male groups, sometimes – not that I’m suggesting that realism is ever a good reason for your choice of casting; in a fictitious universe where empty deodorant bottles spontaneously self-combusted and wipe out entire cities, it seems comparatively reasonable to pretend that black people were aristocrats in medieval England, as the obvious anachronism at least creates equal work opportunities for actors. No, my point is simply that when it comes to writing, you should always write what you know and play to your strengths. If you can’t do women right, don’t do women.

This begs the question of why they can’t be done right. I think it’s because somewhere in the back of our minds we think of the relationship between men and women as being primarily sexual and other emotions as being secondary. That’s absurd when you consider that that, all things going well, we spend years of our lives without sexual contact, but plenty of contact with with opposite sex, by way of parents and siblings. It’s like we’re trained into thinking there’s something unusual or unimportant about it when actually it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Being platonic friends with someone of the opposite sex is not unusual and shouldn’t be seen as such in the movie business that still runs off the motto “Sex sells”, ignoring the fact that bad sex and bad chemistry doesn’t sell at all. Neither does gratuitous, unconvincing sex. Once again, if you can’t do it right, don’t do it. There should be more of a point to a film relationship than simply: “Help, she’s there, he’s there. Why wouldn’t they fuck?” It makes it seem like the director is a teenage boy who resourcefully threads all his hobbies together in such a way as to make room for porn every alternate half-hour.

It may sound nit-picky, but we can’t move on in film until we abandon the whole concept. Romantic entanglements clutter up stories that have nothing to do with romance. They serve no purpose other than to convince impressionable people that it is impossible for women and men to work and mix with each other without people leaping on each other during the office Christmas party and humping on the threadbare carpet while all their co-workers avert their eyes awkwardly. Books and blogs galore have been written on how men and women are Fundamentally Different, as assuredly as one might say the same of wombats compared to primeval ooze.

Yet clearly we know in the back of our rational minds that this is untrue, that mature adults engage in professional and platonic relationships all the time. Call me naïve, but in some ways I imagine that a heist crew is rather like a group of web page designers; camaraderie, jargon, occasional team speak, its own work dynamic and rules which everyone must take seriously in order to get the difficult work done efficiently and on time. If whirlwind romances don’t often occur in the boss’s office at Web Pages ‘R’ Us while he’s out to lunch, they probably don’t occur as the SWAT team bursts in through the door of the bank. It would just be a silly idea.

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