Plotlines #6: “You’ve got a Friend in Me” – the Buddy movie

So earlier in the year we started thinking about the storylines that keep recurring in film scripts and the idea that there are only seven basic plots;

we like to think that there are a few variations on the seven but nevertheless, once you start thinking about it, you can boil most dramas down to a handful of archetypal themes.

But there are newer themes too. One of the relatively recent plotline genres is the buddy movie, which is particularly popular in American cinema. It’s usually about an unlikely friendship between two protagonists (most commonly men, but there are lots of female versions too) with very different backgrounds and outlooks, brought together by a twist of circumstance, usually finding each other deeply annoying and finally acknowledging their importance to each other.

That simple.

We love the buddy movie in the 20th and 21st century because in a world of turbulence and uncertainty, where the family unit is increasingly fragmented, friendship is one of the things that keeps us going. Buddy movies are often funny because it’s funny watching other people’s personality clashes, and they usually involve some kind of journey or situation where the two are thrown together and eventually learn to get along.  Sometimes it’s trying to defeat an enemy or oppressor that brings them together. Like the rags to riches story, there’s something we can all recognise in the buddy plot, and there is usually a happy ending – or at least, a recognition of the basic goodness of human nature and the desire to connect.

However there’s a particular fondness for this story in American cinema that has had commentators wondering about sexuality. Certainly it’s something that is usually downplayed – the characters are usually firmly heterosexual and looking for love outside the buddy relationship, yet the female love interest is usually very much a cipher and it’s the relationship with one’s friend that’s the most enduring thing. Fighting against some kind of common enemy (“Trading Places”) or going on a quest (“Pulp Fiction”) gives a reason to express the strength of the bond without actually having to discuss icky feelings like love for each other.

It’s interesting that it continues to be such a strong American genre and that male friendship is not really represented in the same way in other cultures. (Even “Thelma and Louise” falls firmly into the buddy bracket, simply presenting a female version of the trope.) You can see variations of the theme in recent British films such as “Withnail and I”, “Trainspotting”, “The Inbetweeners Movie” and anything made by Simon Pegg. But they have a different slant from their American counterparts because there is less emphasis on male bonding per se (just think of all those Seth Rogen / Judd Apatow movies) and perhaps a more open discussion of the characters’ feelings for each other.

You could probably start to trace patterns between the popularity of buddy movies and the political situation in America over the years; there’s probably a PhD thesis or two there! The film we’ve chosen, Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”, is from the Clinton era and maybe more representative of a liberal Democratic outlook than the new wave of frat house style buddy films emerging from the Dubya years, especially post 9/11….however, we’ll leave further reflection and discussion to you, dear readers, and simply invite you to come along to our next screening and enjoy a slice of pure fried Slacker gold….

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