I was ill recently (nothing serious, but if you want to send chocolates and flowers I’ll readily provide my mailing address) and while I was suffering I needed a movie. Netflix provided me with so many choices that I rapidly alighted on Sabrina, the 1995 remark of a Billy Wilder film. (I would have preferred Wilder, but the original was not available.) It turns out that, rather than being a classic romantic comedy, this film is a sloppy dollop of schlock.
In this case, house policy will be ignored, and the plot will be revealed in dreary detail. Partly because this film was made twice in my grandmother’s lifetime, so if you haven’t seen it yet that’s on you — but mostly because it’s a steaming heap of fairy tale that will suffer nothing in the diminishing.
Sabrina is the gawky, nervous, chauffeur’s daughter. Her father drives the richest man in America, Linus, to work, from his house in Long Island, where Sabrina and the chauffeur live above the garage. Sabrina is obsessed with Linus’ younger brother, David, and spies on him all over the “very, very large house, almost a castle” — yes, that’s a quote, and there’s plenty more where that came from — most especially during family parties when mother Maud springs from senator to mayor to emissary. Sabrina dreams of being David’s conquest. She knows all his moves. Slow dancing. Slipping off to a quiet part of the gardens. Champagne. Romantic music from the orchestra. This is — of course — a hopeless obsession. She is invisible to David. Her father sends her to Paris, where the rich family have got her a job at Vogue, to help her break out of this delusion.
Before we go on, I should tell you: Linus, the older brother, is serious, hard working, and eventually realises that “there is something missing from my life… Life.” (Yes, really.) David, the younger brother, is an impulsive, work-shy, womaniser.
While Sabrina is in Paris, learning French, becoming glamorous, and discovering herself while listening to the river’s secrets (they say that at least twice), David is being set up to marry a gorgeous paediatric doctor — who is also the daughter of a tycoon that big brother Linus wants to cut a billion dollar deal with. (The tycoon makes screens that cannot be damaged, even by shooting them with guns — an obvious way to make a billion dollars. Just think of all the screens you have damaged by seeing how they respond to being shot.)
Guess what happens… Sabrina, sleek, sophisticated, and with figure-hugging outfits — not to mention eyelashes that could have worked as doubles for Disney Princesses — comes back from Paris and turns David’s head. The merger and the marriage are on the rocks. Linus intervenes. He cruelly and heartlessly makes Sabrina think he loves her so she’ll stay away from David and enable the merger-marriage to happen.
Eventually Linus feels bad, confesses, sends her back to Paris alone, and is about to call off the deal when David discovers this ploy, hits his brother in the face, realises in fact that he does love the doctor-who-happens-to-be-a-strategically-convenient-heiress and sets things up so that emotionally stunted big brother Linus can follow his true heart. Cue a race to the airport, Linus appearing in Paris, and he and Sabrina falling madly in love. (Love, you see, crept up on Linus while he was plying his devious (and tedious) scheme.) David takes over the family business — and is going to be just fine because he’s been secretly reading the quarterly financial reports in between sybaritic/romantic excursions for the last fifteen years.
Oh, I forgot to mention Sabrina’s father, the humble chauffeur (an honourable widower who spends his whole life reading), used to drive the old man who originally ran the family business, picked up stock tips while he did so, and made himself just over two million dollars investing his savings. He gets married at the end too.
There are people, I believe, whose suppurating wound of existential despair is soothed by this sort of brazen lying. It makes me feel like witch hazel is about to be liberally applied to the scar of my existence by a middle-aged school nurse who long since lost her sense of satisfaction in her work.
The problems with this movie are endless. The sexism is so plain and vapid it is inexcusable and offers nothing of artistic value. If you want to re-make Cinderella, please do remember to include some wicked sisters. Everyone in this rotten film has a happy ending. The story line makes little to no sense. We go from the brothers punching each other out to calling the family plane to enable a romantic airport dash in about five minutes. I enjoy a good airport chase scene as much as anyone, but not like this. (If you want a really good airport chase, read On Green Dolphin Street. If you want a really good chase scene with Harrison Ford, watch pretty much any other movie he ever made, I guess.)
The real trouble with schlock, though, is that it is almost true. Despite the fact that it may as well be thickly crusted with pink sugar, there is just enough life in this art-forsaken movie to keep it going. People do go and listen to the secrets of the river to discover themselves, they do daydream about being given two million dollars by their secret-investor-but-morally-unimpeachable-widower-father on the same day that the as-yet-unrealised-love-of-their-life does an airport dash for them on the way to Paris. There is a pervasive sense among the weak-willed that a nifty haircut and a newfound cleavage can change your personality. Loosen your bow-tie and learn how to love!
The fact that the plot is predictable isn’t enough to disqualify it, either. As I wrote in my review of Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale, the expectation of astonishment can be just as effective a plot technique as the art of surprise. If I could predict the future (in a credible way) and told you someone would fall off a building, you would still be horrified when you saw it happen. The trouble with schlock, it turns out, is that it really is the bare minimum of what we will put up with. We can see the lorry load of sparkles bearing down on us, but we still want to feel the glitter fluttering through our lives.
So long as we don’t make the mistake of engaging with this sort of flapdoodle too often, it won’t get a grip on us. But if we stray from this attitude, and forget to treat it the way Victorian spinsters treated sherry — a spoonful at Christmas, and never before lunch with the Bishop — we run the risk of forgetting that our lives are short and there simply isn’t time to spend watching Sabrina, that we are not going to drop into the easy bliss of fairy tales, and that there is a great deal of value to be had from sitting still and doing nothing for a hundred and twenty minutes.
I find this argument against schlock persuasive — but largely, I think, because it is entertaining and because being elite is quite mindlessly easy. Not to mention good for your sense of self. There’s something that’s a bit too convincing about elegant, whimsical, elitism. If there weren’t, political columns in newspapers would have died their overdue death already. A few minutes of actual thinking throws up the ways in which I am wrong.
Sabrina doesn’t have to be good according to a universal standard of art. It has to be good schlock. All good art is produced to the demands of it genre. Really great art might change those demands, or reinterpret them, or move so far beyond them it becomes something else, or blend them. But there is a qualitative difference between being good as the thing that you are and simply being good.
It is easy for the aesthetically conservative to elide those two positions. Sabrina can be worse than Shakespeare and still be good schlock. To see this principle at work, you need only recognise that Hamlet would make terrible daytime television. And as a fairytale, Sabrina works. I am not going to claim that it is among the best in its class, but it certainly doesn’t deserve — on this footing — the review I gave it above.
Pretty Woman is an example of High Quality Schlock. J.F. Lawton — the original Pretty Woman screenwriter — drew his story from life. He was a young impoverished writer, living on Hollywood Boulevard, who took the time, unlike everyone else, to talk to the call girls working the neighbourhood. From one of these women, he heard the story that became the film’s exposition. Rich man picks up working woman, takes her to luxury suite, abandons her a week later.
The original script, however, did not then unfold into quite the story we know today. It was called Three Thousand and it was darker. The first time he was offered the part, Richard Gere passed. It rolled through a few production companies. Eventually, Disney (through their subsidiary Touchstone) called and said they wanted to buy the script. Yes — Disney wanted the call girl story. Disney brought in the director Gary Marshall, who had worked on Happy Days and Mork & Mindy. Hence the shift from dark story to fulfilling comedy. Rather than strop out and stay true to his vision, J.F. Lawton decided to work to the demands of the genre he was being asked to produce.
So, here we have a real, gritty movie being turned into something more like a fairytale — having, in fact, a big dollop of schlock mixed into it. There were many, many changes. We don’t need to get into the details here. The point is, the ending was a fundamental change and J.F. Lawton decided to go with it, presumably because he understood the value of schlock.
During filming, the script was altered all the time. Gary Marshall worked by getting actors to do a funny take, a dark take, an improv take… The suits started to worry that things were getting unhinged. But Marshall was working to the basic demands of the narrative arc. His wife came up with the idea that Vivian wouldn’t kiss Edward until the end (she really believed that showing kissing was too personal). Stories work on different levels. Marshall didn’t worry as much about the line-by-line story, because he was shooting material that would meet the demands of the genre. (Some of the actors hardly recognised the final movie.)
And much of what he was adding was silly, funny, romantic takes. One of the gags Richard Gere played on Julia Roberts during filming made it into the final movie. As the movie progresses, Vivian looks less and less like a call girl and more and more like Cinderella. As Héctor Elizondo said, “the red dress symbolised a dream come true. The red dress was a fairytale.” Schlock! Schlock, schlock, schlock! And that’s why they could give the movie — until the last minute known as Three Thousand — such a schlocky title that actually worked.
Pretty Woman is still the highest grossing romantic comedy ever. It is in the same basic genre as Sabrina — modern Cinderella stories.1 And it is a much more excellent version of the genre, to be sure. But the fact that Pretty Woman is a good movie should be proof enough that simply being schlock isn’t enough to justify a dismissal. The original ending, by the way, which J.F. Lawton describes movingly in the Netflix documentary The Movies That Made Us, sounds excellent. We don’t have to pick between serious and schlocky movies as if they stand for excellent and awful ones. We ought to find the value that there is in each piece of created work, and assess the movie for what it is trying to be not what it ought to be.
On that basis, Sabrina still isn’t excellent, or as good as Pretty Woman. I’m not going to increase the amount of schlock I watch, start believing that schlock can be as good as art, but Sabrina has more value than I credited it with initially. If I wanted to tell you that, I could have saved a lot of time and just posted this paragraph of Nicholson Baker’s. He gets it.
At some point you have to set aside snobbery and what you think is culture and recognise that any random episode of Friends is probably better, more uplifting for the human spirit, than ninety-nine percent of the poetry or drama or fiction or history every published. Think of that. Of course yes, Tolstoy and of course yes, Keats and blah blah and yes indeed of course yes. But we’re living in an age that has a tremendous richness of invention. And some of the most inventive people get no recognition at all. They get tons of money but no recognition as artists. Which is probably much healthier for them and better for their art.
So there you have it. Real artists (can) write schlock. I’m just grateful that many of them do not.
Who are the real artists these days? — an earlier post on related topics, recommended
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Bernard Shaw did something not dissimilar with his modern Pygmalion story which he called, rather obviously, Pygmalion. (Work harder, Bernard.) It was later schlocked up to great effect as My Fair Lady, and, you guessed it, was given a Cinderella ending rather than a Shavian/Pygmalion one. Both, obviously, are excellent in their own class and to compare them would be like entering a corgi in a horse trial. That didn’t stop Shaw, who told the young upstart who defiled his show: “You ending is damnable and you ought to be shot.” Hear, hear. At least someone’s holding out the rear guard of artistic standards. Etc., etc.