On Thursday July 11, at 10pm, PBS’s POV showed Guilty Pleasures, a documentary by British filmmaker Julie Moggan. This film follows five people connected with the romance industry: three reader: Shumita in India, Hiroko in Japan, and Shirley in the UK; cover model Stephen in NYC, and male author Gill Sanderson, also from the UK.
I saw this film at the Durham Full Frame documentary film festival last year. Librarian extraordinaire, Jennifer Lohmann, reviewed it at SBTB, and did a bang up job, much more detailed than I’m going to be, so go read her amazing review, too. But considering that PBS is going to show it over here, I did want to provide my version of a review for the DA audience.
I’m much more unforgiving, much more angry about this movie than Jennifer was. Every time I think about it, I growl. I think Moggan was unforgivably cruel to all of her subjects but especially to the cover model Stephen (more about that in a bit). I think she used and abused every romance stereotype out there, up to and including reading romance while eating chocolate bonbons or while in a green face mask.
The film was shot using deliberately garish colors. Everything was candy pink, tangerine orange, teal, aqua. The colors were not those that inspire confidence in the professionalism or seriousness of the subject under consideration.
All the subjects were meant to be understood as pathetic. The Japanese woman was pathetic in her attempt to bring some of the magic from her books into her life through her ballroom dancing lessons. The English woman’s attempts at adding a little “romance” to her life, despite her bipolar partner, were pathetic and risible. The Indian woman was utterly pathetic in thinking her philandering husband would ever grow up. Gill Sanderson, writing sex scenes in his little caravan with his bald head and his boiling kettle was pathetic. And the cover model looking for his soul mate wasstupid and pathetic.
And of course, these people are not pathetic. They’re just people, trying to get through life. But the WAY they were shot, the choice of narrative structure, the snippets and sound bites there were chosen to tell their story, the lighting and camera angles–they’re all chosen to make us laugh AT these people.
The film was shot for laughs. We were supposed to laugh, and we were supposed to laugh AT the subjects of the film. And the audience totally went for that. The audience with whom I saw the movie was one of documentary film aficionados, so not your typical romance reader. And they went along with every cheap laugh they were offered. The film OPENS with typewriter-style lettering on the screen, saying that a romance sells every four seconds. Oh, hysterical!
I think seeing it with that audience made the whole thing worse, honestly. This was an audience of thoughtful, educated (if perhaps slightly over-educated and snobbish) people who LIKE documentary films, and they were all giggling like 14 year old boys at the dirty bits. And this is what they are being shown of the romance world.
As Jennifer Lohmann said, the film maker was in attendance and ran a Q&A afterwards. I asked her why she used a male romance author, rather than one of the many female authors, and she admitted straight out it was because of the comedic potential a male author presented.
And the thing that got to me more than anything else? In the film, cover model Stephen tells us all about wanting to find his soul mate. The film maker stays with him for two weeks as he tells her all about this. She goes back to shoot him a few months later when he does fall for someone. And at the festival, as he’s interviewed with the film maker, an audience question is whether he’s still with the same woman. When he says yes and has her stand, everyone in the audience clapped and cheered — the biggest cheer for the whole night. Everyone in that audience WANTED him to find his one true love, wanted him to still be with her, just as much as he did. Everyone in that audience who cheered bought into the romance narrative as much as anyone who’d ever loved a romance novel. And almost everyone in that audience would disdain actually READING a romance.
And that’s what got to me. The disdain dripping from the movie and the cruelty with which it depicted its subjects was thoroughly enjoyed by almost everyone in the audience who laughed AT the subject precisely when they were supposed to. And yet, they all still wanted the HEA for the cover model. And no one seemed to see the sheer irony in that.
Sarah S. G. Frantz, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Literature, Fayetteville State University
President, The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance