I should probably confess outright that I have a bizarre phobia of romantic comedies, and romantic films in general. Most of my experience with the genre seem to involve spending an hour or two stunned by the idea that behaviors that would inspire me to call the police or a psychiatrist make other people coo and think about how nice it is to be in love.
Seriously. I spend a lot of time wondering if there’s LSD in the popcorn.
There are a handful of exceptions. Love Actually had Alan Rickman and Bill Nighy to even out the Hugh Grant factor. Sliding Doors was a satisfying film about possibility. In general, though, it takes a pretty glowing review from a trusted friend to get me to try anything billed as a romance.
The chances of me going out to see Eat, Pray, Love are, for example, only slightly better than the chances of me being confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice. (Hint: I did not go to law school.)
Which brings me to Good Dick.
Good Dick is a 2008 independent film that follows the relationship between a video store clerk (played by Jason Ritter) and his would-be troubled girlfriend (played by writer and director Marinna Palka). Palka’s character – neither she nor Ritter’s are ever named – is somewhat legendary at the shop as a consumer of softcore pornography. Intrigued, Ritter’s character pursues her.
A friend suggested it, I popped it to the top of my instant queue on Netflix, and days later I can’t stop thinking about it.
There’s no way to say this without being a bit of a joke, but there is a lot to like about Good Dick. The acting is superb, and the film is sufficiently beautiful that it’s hard to believe how small the budget was.
There are some genuinely hilarious moments, like when Annie Sprinkle’s Zen Pussy (a film comprised entirely of static close ups of female genitalia, accompanied by pleasure sounds; and yes, the film exists) makes the rounds at the shop after Ritter’s character (disatrously) rents it for Palka’s character. From the struggles Ritter’s character has concealing his homelessness (and the routine he keeps while trying to live out of his car) to Palka’s personality tics, the people feel real. Even better, the locations are; they filmed much of the film in Palka’s own flat and a real video shop.
Good Dick qualifies on a lot of levels as good art. I’m impressed.
When I say that Ritter’s character pursues Palka’s, I mean it in ways that make me profoundly uncomfortable.
Almost the entire action of the film involves Ritter’s character transgressing Palka’s character’s boundaries. This is played ultimately as romantic – even beneficial – to Palka’s character, who is an abuse survivor whose traumas have nearly debilitated her socially.
He writes her name down from the customer database and then shows up on her doorstep. When he can’t get in through the secure front gate of her complex, he lies in order to be buzzed in, and later steals an access code. He lies to Palka’s character to gain access to her apartment. When Palka’s character tells him in no uncertain terms – multiple times – to cease contact and leave her alone, he doesn’t. Instead redoubles his efforts. Ritter’s character consistently employs lies, social engineering, threats, sulkiness, and coercion to maintain contact with her. He stalks her, insinuates himself into her home and her bed, and then refuses to leave.
If Good Dick were unique in that the romance of the film is dependent on the male character refusing to take “no” for an answer and then being rewarded for it, I might be able to excuse it. It is, as I say above, good art. The problem with Good Dick is that it is not unique. It’s just another movie where boy meets girl, girl says no, and boy badgers girl repeatedly until she gives in.
That doesn’t sound particularly romantic to me. If someone like Ritter’s character started pursuing a friend of mine Good Dick-style – especially if one of them was still struggling with abuse trauma – I would not coo about how sweet it is because harassment isn’t sweet. Stalking isn’t sexy. Lying your way into somebody’s house because you want to have sex with them isn’t romantic. These are red flags for abuse and sexual assault.
I sincerely wanted to love Good Dick. It’s artfully made, and the first two thirds of the film is a marvelously realistic story about two wildly dysfunctional individuals. As a piece of art it’s almost entirely remarkable, and makes me interested in Palka’s work in particular. I think she’s got a genuine gift, and I’m curious to see what else she’s worked on.
What stops me loving it, though, is how the story is framed. Romanticizing stalking and harassment sits incredibly badly with me. I’m tired of stories in which a woman’s “no” – or anybody’s, really – is an inadequate reason to stop doing something, and that when somebody ignores a “no” that it’s sexy and romantic and sweet. It isn’t. That the bad behavior in this film turns out to be therapeutic in the last third of the film made me angry on behalf of the people I know who still struggle with the effects of rape and assault.
Bottom line: it’s pretty, Good Dick is well-made, tense and unique in a lot of ways. I have to give the cast and crew a ton of respect. Unfortunately, I think the story fails when it decides to fix trauma with trauma.
Here’s another hint for the film industry: yes means yes, no means no, however she dresses, wherever she goes. Even if that happens to be a video store to rent a stack of softcore porn.