When Harry Met Godzilla and other romantic pursuits

March 17, 2012

(photo via Alexandra Gater)

If you’ve ever taken an English or film intro course, chances are you’ve had Professor Garry Leonard and/or Professor Deirdre Flynn as a lecturer. And, of course, that means you know their immense love for film (and ability to sneak a 2001: A Space Odyssey reference into just about any lecture – no exaggeration). Essentially, the words monolith, Rosebud, transcendental certitude or ‘the other’ are part of your everyday vocabulary these days—or you just happen to be quite the film buff.

And if you are, you’re in luck. Leonard and Flynn, who also happen to be husband and wife, have joined forces to research and write When Harry Met Godzilla: How Hollywood Genres Hold The Key To Your Personality (And Everybody Else’s, Too!) —a mouthful of a title, but an intriguing one. As a self-help guide, it revolves around film and genre, which is quite an admirable feat, and an unheard of one. So why self-help? Professor Flynn says, “The format is student-inspired, in the sense that students so often told us they applied insights they had in class to their own relationships, and since our academic thesis was that movie genres help people navigate modernity, it makes sense that this would have a personal application.”

The book is an incredibly concise and thorough look into your relationship with yourself and your love life. Several illustrative personal anecdotes have been shared by University of Toronto students in varying stages of life, making When Harry Met Godzilla considerably relatable, with hundreds of people around the world having contributed information as sources for their case studies. “The power of genre is that it helps us further understand our own story, whatever that story might be, so it was important to us to get many varied stories so that we could show certain common traits and patterns. We can’t know other people’s stories, but we can help other people know their own stories better in relation to cinematic genres,” says Flynn.

Through personality questionnaires and several chapters assessing and analyzing each genre type (romance, melodrama, film noir, gothic, western, science fiction), you’ll be able to discover and understand which box is yours, and whose might just fit snugly in next to it. If you’ve felt a certain movie impact you emotionally, you’ll know that film is not simply a pastime, but something which may start out as an accessory to a first date and soon become the mirror of you and your relationship, and all its struggles and aspirations.

By helping you develop your Genre Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence, When Harry Met Godzilla seems like a novelty, but reads like the Kama Sutra for the cinematically (and love life) inclined. And really, the bridge between cinema and real life isn’t that long; the two write, “by identifying with characters who are like us and by empathizing with characters who are completely different from us, we gain insight into ourselves and into the way we interact with others—the key is finding a balance.”

With throws to every quintessential film imaginable, from It Happened One Night to The Graduate, you’re looking at a comprehensive guide to any Leonard and/or Flynn lecture you might ever go to (not that you should start skipping class anytime soon). And that dynamic plays into their relationship as well, “Garry and I are both fascinated by the interplay between our emotions and intellect. We think and talk a lot about feelings, analyzing everything and anything we experience and see, especially if it causes discomfort for one or the other of us. … But I think [films] are more a way to understand what has shaped our sense of self, and how we, in turn, contribute to re-shaping the genres that appeal to us,” says Flynn.

When we watch a movie, whether it be Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Godfather, we see our lives play out in front of us. There’s always that one scene, that one moment or line that stirs something inside us—captures our own challenges and hopes, and suddenly this escape to the theatre becomes a self-realization come to life. It can make us cry and/or laugh, and if we see it with someone else, it can move us together, representing a significant moment within the relationship, whether we realize it or not.

If you find yourself reading a little Oscar Wilde at Starbucks as Melodrama walks by, or sitting next to Gothic on a train to New York, it may be time to take a second glance. When we watch a film, we all process what’s happening on the screen differently. Some of us may laugh, others might cry, some may sit there straight-faced. But this difference in processing emotion may have more significance than you think. The professors have intersected both intellect and emotion as distinguishing factors in understanding how we communicate with each other and with ourselves.

But this book isn’t just about the importance of film in our lives, it’s the importance of a story and how it connects us. From chance encounters when we first meet, a flash-forward of what life could be like or a flashback of how it was, to a subjective shot pinpointing a trigger moment, an epiphany per say, life is a little more like the movies than we realize it is. But to understand the challenges we face, and how to assess these moments in our lives, Flynn and Leonard have both taken to analyzing each of these film devices as relative to you, from the chance encounter to the happy ending. You’ll be able to pinpoint which genre you’ve made your own, so leave the horoscopes at home. Once you’re done with When Harry Met Godzilla, self-help will never be the same.

*If you’d like to catch a guest lecture by Professor Leonard in Professor Flynn’s Intro to Film class, drop by SY110 on Wednesday, March 28, from 7-9pm and stick around for a book signing for When Harry Met Godzilla. If you’d like to purchase your own copy, you can do so now at the McMaster Bookstore (look out for it in ebook form this May!)

Q & A

I caught up with Professor Flynn, who answered some of my questions along with input from Professor Leonard. If you’re interested in knowing which genre they are, what their collaborative process was like, and what one of the most interesting and more sustainable genre combinations the two found is, read on!

The Messenger: Do you think we always keep heading back to the theatre because genre films help us see “where we are” and “imagine where we’re headed, and, if appropriate, alter our direction so we end where we want to be”, as you described in When Harry Met Godzilla?

Deirdre Flynn: I think we generally go to popular movies to feel whatever we expect them to make us feel: suspense, emotion, laughter, excitement. The question becomes, to which feelings do we gravitate? When we begin to understand that we want certain types of experiences, that we want to see certain outcomes, then we can look at mirrors as one more looking glass into ourselves. Freud said, “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious.” In a way, we’re saying that films are a “royal road” to our collective unconscious.

When we figure out how our desires and hopes have been shaped by the narratives that go into this collective unconscious, then [we] have a bit more agency. In other words, we have a bit more awareness of why we are repeating certain patterns, and, perhaps, as a result, we have a bit more ability to alter those patterns that are not taking us where we want to go.

TM: Have you found there to be one or several genres that are the most inhabited?  If so, which one, and which is the least often?

DF: Though our findings are not scientifically conclusive in any way, we have noticed some interesting patterns:
First, about 75% of the women who answered the questionnaire had Romance as their dominant tendency. Of those who didn’t have it as a dominant tendency, at least half had it as their secondary tendency. This may be due to the fact that I, the co-author of the questionnaire, have that primary tendency, so I may have phrased those responses most positively.

Second, most of the young men (those under 22) whom we interviewed had very low Melodrama tendencies. It was really weird, actually. I just chalk this up to the fact that young men are not ready for family, home, and all that comes with it. It’s an off-putting genre for them.

Third, I was surprised that quite a few middle-aged men [had] a strong Melodrama streak. They may have been the ones at home when we came knocking, so that could have biased the data. Of course, a lot were cowboys, too, especially the ones we emailed out west… I guess those old Gold Rush genes die hard.

TM: Much of the self-help and self-analysis within the book relies on love life. Is there a match of genres you find goes best together, or do you consider it more about learning to meld different parts of each other’s genres together into a “genre-hybrid relationship”?

DF: Of the couples we had complete the questionnaire, we were actually surprised to see the variety. It seems that we found almost every combination, except for Western and Gothic. Actually, across the board, Gothic was the rarest. We had one young Gothic-Science Fiction couple, which is an interesting combination. We had quite a few Western-Melodrama combinations among the middle-aged crew (that went in both directions in terms of gender, actually), so that seems like a good duo for a low-conflict, high-sustainability dynamic.

I think we fall in love with a person for so many reasons, and so many different kinds of dynamics can work; genre is just another way to make sense of the dynamics, and to appreciate one another without getting so annoyed at different approaches to life and its challenges.

TM: As for finding a genre balance for a person and their partner, you’ve come up with these great and rather unique terms (ex. chance encounter, flash-forward, subjective shot) really adequately describing all the nuances and moments in a relationship (or self-discovery), good or bad. How did you come about making these connections with film?

DF: Garry really learned about relationships through film (sneaking down to watch late-late-movies from the age of six), so film and film characters have, in many ways, been his family. Though film was not quite so central to my childhood, I did study film quite seriously in university, then even more intensely in graduate school. I love doing close-readings of shots; Garry loves doing narrative and historical readings of films. So when we married, we had to sort of combine our approaches. I had to get to know Garry’s “film family,” and all the stories they told, and he had to allow my way of analyzing every shot’s angle and cinematography. We watch movies a lot, and we talk about them a lot. The terms, I must say, came from all our talking and all our teaching, as well as a few generative brainstorming sessions.

TM: Which genres are you both, and why? And what are the top three films that have impacted each of your lives?

DF: I’m a Romantic, with secondary tendencies toward Melodrama and Western (with a twist of Sci-Fi). Garry is Film Noir, with a strong Melodrama streak (and a twist of the cowboy these days).

The film we talked about on the day we first met at a Joyce conference in Dundee, Scotland, (and our mutual top pick) is Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It is an amazing depiction of a man and a woman, both of whom are locked in a kind of frenzied repetition compulsion that they can’t escape. I love the SF shots. (The one bit of romance in such an anti-romance!) It brings me home. Garry loves the psychological suspense and intensity, as well as the Film Noir sub-theme of being the victim of someone’s strategic manipulation.

The next one would be different for each of us:

For Garry, it would be The Graduate. I think it was a film that made him feel less alone in the world when he was a younger man being raised in a suburban home that “appeared” normal on the outside, but was cold and hard on the inside.

For me, the second would be Star Wars. I was nine years old and went to see it with my brother, who was 10. It simply astonished and amazed me. I never saw space (or my relation to space) in the same way. It expanded my perspective the way Lacan and Finnegans Wake did when I was in graduate school.

Once you get to the third film, the options expand into categories. I can’t pick a single romantic comedy, but that’s where I go for comfort and fun. Garry goes to classic, black and white film noir movies. I think they remind him to stay wary and not let down his guard!

TM: You used a lot of student interaction while collecting your data. Why was that important to you? And how did you manage to gather so many insightful stories from contributors?

DF: We interact with students all the time, and they are incredibly generous with their own stories and interests.

So, at the beginning we posed questions to our students in informal online discussion boards [and in class]. Garry also did more formal research with a colleague in clinical psychology, Professor Gerald Cupchik, who conducted studies on how we confront problems and conflicts in different genres. They worked, in particular, on melodrama and film noir, showing that men and women responded in genre-specific ways: the forceful solutions of film noir were often dismissed by the women in the study in favour of a more socially responsible solution. The men, on the other hand, were more inclined to pursue definitive confrontation. So, we took some of those findings and made them less statistical and more narrative.

I also consulted with a colleague in sociology, Professor Ann Mullen, to ensure that the kinds of questions we asked would elicit the sort of responses we (and our subjects) would find most helpful. Then, we just asked everyone we encountered all the time for a year if they would answer our questionnaire.

TM: Do you two plan to collaborate again? What was the process like?

DF: Actually, we’re planning to start our next collaborative effort this summer. It will be a book that condenses Garry’s A10 and A11 arc of lectures from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Don DeLillo’s White Noise and beyond, and it is currently entitled: The PEPSI Lectures (or Why You Are Never Satisfied).

The process of working together is different with every project: parenting our kids, collaborating on classes, writing books together, keeping the house in order, just about everything. With the film book, it went through different phases.

First, we thought of it as a sort of compilation of film readings (with one main film of one genre per chapter), but that didn’t capture the relationship element enough. I had to dig back into all the material and sort of carve away what was excess, and “find” the self-help book, the key dynamics, in all the film readings. Garry did a lot of thinking out loud, adding to my ideas, and I did a lot of shaping what he added, finding what was most relevant to the outline that emerged.

We also consulted a well-published author of Harlequin romances to [lighten] the tone. After consulting with her, I went back and really pruned the book to make it “fun” and “light,” as much as possible, without losing the core message we were trying to convey. During that stage of the process, I would go back with the work-in-progress to hear Garry’s thoughts on it, and he would try to complicate it again, and I would say, ‘No, keep it simple, keep it light!’ That was a bit tricky!

In the end, it took a few years of ongoing, back-and-forth work/discussion, but we enjoyed the process a lot. I learned a lot about Garry by working with him, and I think he learned a lot about me, too.

TM: What does the future hold for you both? [Professor Flynn will be continuing at UTSC, while also taking on more of Professor Leonard’s classes, who himself will be headed off to teach at Harvard next year!]

DF: Well, the future holds parenting our two sons, maintaining our health, enjoying our time together as a couple and family, writing, maintaining our house and pets, and all that basic stuff. We’re also going to some film conferences and preparing all our classes. It seems low-key, but it keeps us super busy!