When Harry Met Sally – How good cinema creates meaning
Romantic comedies are so often dismissed by us guys and I hear the words of many “Not another chick flick!” I don’t love When Harry Met Sally but I really struggle to understand why that is the case because it does so many things well as a movie in general and not just a romantic comedy. When a movie has remained popular for long enough it becomes a cultural reference point. When Harry Met Sally is somewhat of an icon. It is the parent of eighties/nineties romantic comedies from its witty dialogue and excellent character development. The story is based on two individuals, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) who to and fro with a love-hate relationship over thirteen years. During the opening of the movie Harry and Sally are quickly introduced before shooting off on an eighteen hour car journey to New York. Through their heated discussions both characters make it obvious to one another that they would rather be spending time with someone else! But there is clear chemistry of opposite sex opinions which is professionally executed in written form (the screenplay) and beautifully portrayed between two actors (the actual movie). The core of Harry’s character is his sexist and biased theories that throughout the movie are proved right or wrong. During a break at a busy diner Harry shares one of these theories, “Men and women can never be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” This is a wonderful start to a story built around two characters of the opposite sex and the fact the audience know they are going to spend a lot of time around each other. It offers a clear view point of one character and that they will have to deal with that theory face on with someone that they are stuck with. This is just one of many obstacles the two fight around throughout the movie and, for me, highlights or even enlightens the classic perspective around the two traditions of romantic comedy.
Firstly there is the Christian tradition where there is always an obstacle that keeps the characters apart, and secondly, the Jewish tradition that is the neurosis of the male character. The strength of this movie is that it possesses so many positive qualities for successful film making and storytelling. A personal favourite is in the opening shot that introduces an old couple and their story of falling in love. This is of course one of many that follow through the movie but is an aspect that gives the story a certain understanding and unique quality. I fell for a misconception on my first viewing. It told me that I am about to watch a movie about true love and the growth of that love over many years to which I would quote Rimmer from Red Dwarf “According to the log we’re down to our last 3000 vomit bags. It’ll never be enough!” however because the opening of the movie immediately identifies that the two characters can’t stand each other I then think about the next 90 minutes as a positive. This is instead going to be a realistic movie, comedy or otherwise. It’s going to show me a relationship that grows between characters and comprised from a screenplay that has been written with a key part of Hollywood cinema at its core, character development.
The impact of these short interviews with old couples is how it tells us they have a deeper role to play in the movie as they continually create an understanding of rhythm towards Harry and Sally’s relationship and where it’s going. There is no non-diegetic or dubbed sound during these short pieces which allows us to concentrate on the dialogue and the characters. The shot itself is set up like a staged painting. The wallpaper behind the couple is simply a reflection of their age – old! The whole set up appears to be marriage counselling, arguably a negative portrayal of the relationships we are being presented with, but instead it creates a better atmosphere for them to tell their story, because they speak to the camera, breaking that forth wall for one, which in this movie definitely works, because they are speaking to us, involving us.
There is a good comic effect from these sequences due to the dialogue that is used and the way the roles are acted, yet the strongest aspect, for me, is down to the way they are edited into particular stages, chapters if you will, through Harry and Sally’s journey. Therefore they have a strong tie for the beginning and ending of the movie. The opening example is there to tell us that what we are about to see is a longer version of a love story that eventually ends with Harry and Sally sitting on that couch telling their story.
Visually, the director, Rob Reiner has created a film that should be shown to all students of film. The establishing shot of this movie depicts the grand University of Chicago via a fade from the first interview scene with the old couple, a common and classic technique that tells an audience immediately that we are going back in time, almost like a flashback, and is accompanied by a written code to establish no confusion. It states that the date is 1977. Our two characters are introduced with Harry kissing his present girlfriend whilst Sally parks up next to them and gets a front row view. The score during this shot is tied into the love theme created by the old couple’s interview moments before and the switch over to youth. This score fades out when Sally appears in the car for a simple but effective comic moment when we see her facial expression towards the kissing couple. After some conventional mid-shots between the characters we are presented with a long shot of Harry getting into the car. The camera then pans right to left following the car before slowly gaining height in line with the university gate. The song fades back in as we focus on Sally’s car leaving the university. The next shot is from the front of the car introducing the start of Harry and Sally’s relationship. The two characters are in mid-shot until Harry offers a grape to Sally, the camera positioned just left of her head and leaving her slightly out of focus. This shot allows us to concentrate on Harry as he spits a grape seed onto the inside window, “I’ll roll down the window!”. The next shot is positioned in a similar way but this time to the side of Harry, a common but visually effective and professionally required 180 degree set up for an edited sequence that will not distract the audience because there is no visual distortion from this line. These three shot positions allow us to get the full comic reaction when Harry spits the seed just past the camera, leaving Sally’s look of disgust in the background.
This movie is also a wonderful example for the cinematic study of mise-en-scene. When Sally’s car heads for the centre of Chicago the camera pans left to right giving us a full presentation of a large lake to the left of the shot and the tall city buildings to the right. For me, a visual and metaphorical point that the young Harry and Sally are heading off into the ‘real world’. A shot like this is sometimes a sign of a scene ending and is therefore a type of establishing shot, or, as George Lucas famously used over the years, the wiping shot or wiping techniques throughout the Star Wars saga to signify a scene change or a scene end. However, during this shot the dialogue continues before we are brought back to the car. I believe this to be a charming and often effective technique to enhance the comedy of a scene, created in this example by continuing the dialogue whilst showing a shot outside the car before slowly being taken back. We don’t see the character’s faces during this time and are left viewing something else but still experience the comedy because in this instance you don’t need their faces for the comic effect. I‘ve seen this technique a million times in film and TV, for instance Friends, Two and a half men, Family Guy, so on and so forth. In all of these shows there are arguments between characters inside a building and the editing cuts us to an establishing shot either just away from the scene or far away from it but the dialogue continues. It is a dramatic effect for the dialogue and sound element of the TV show/film to make the comedy rather than the visual.
I’m going to cease in my ramble shortly because my admiration for this movie may destroy the viewing pleasure for those of you that haven’t seen it. You should admire this movie. There is no unnecessary plot development, the narrative moves swiftly on with the core character’s relationship and it is quite simply a well put together piece of work. I will end with a point made on the Italian style score to this movie that simply adds more zest to its achievement and the fact that it adds class, romance, danger, and an easy listening touch that makes it a real gem that I will learn to love because there are just too many things to love about it!
Fig 1.1 picture provided by:
When Harry Met Sally (1989) Rob Reiner, MGM, USA
Family Guy (1999) Seth Macfarlane, Fox, USA
Two and a half men (2003) Warner Brothers, USA
Friends (1994) Warner Brothers, USA
Star Wars (1977) George Lucas, Fox, USA
Red Dwarf (1988) Rob Grant, Doug Naylor, BBC, UK