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Is love difficult for Hollywood to capture because it isn’t real?

Okay, let’s try not to be so existential. I’m not looking to be cute. Love, or at least what we think as love, we experience in various forms, to varying degrees. It assumes the shape of loyalty, attachment, desire, inspiration, lust, warmth, friendship, empathy, commonality, electricity. It lasts lifetimes. Or it atomizes in three hours. Or two weeks. Or five years.

Movies are dedicated to the proposition of love as a reality. We go, as a matter of fact, in order to experience the charge of romance, as much as anything. Even hardcore action films feel the need to have a subplot, something to motivate the hero, or something, more cynically, the broaden the demo. (I loved the recent Haywire by Steven Soderbergh because it so effectively turned this notion on its head; the protagonist chewed through old boyfriends and potential lovers like a collection agency.) Love is the prism through which we view almost every character’s circumstance. It explains behavior. More importantly, it gives a means by which we can connect, even if our own sense of what love, sex, and romance is remains as confused as Hollywood’s.

Cinema is terrific at illustrating the circumstances of the initial pairing, the meet cute. It’s more than a genre, it’s an industry. It’s a commodity. Meg Ryan yields to Julia Roberts who yields to Kate Hudson who yields to Rachel McAdams. It goes on–and goes back, back to Colbert seducing Gable, or even earlier. It’s notoriously terrible at documenting what happens after the happy (or even tragic) ending. Quantifying, explaining, what makes some relationships endure while others collapse is a challenging, chimeric endeavor.

This past week I ended up watching six movies about relationships in a row (In other words, nobody killed no one.) All of them, in their own way, try to capture what it is that brings people together and more important, keeps them that way. Some succeed, others fail, but taken together, they help if not explain what makes love work then how we, as a society, view the process. In a way, stories like these are our creation myths–and they fall easily into subgenres:

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Jerry Maguire (1996): You complete me?

First viewed in New York, with my then-girlfriend. It’s funny what romcoms do to you, with their idealizations. I still recall vowing to break up with another girlfriend after we went to see Four Weddings and a Funeral, wanting Andie MacDowell, of course, even though she was a complete blank in the film. Think about that movie now (which is probably better remembered for its sympathetic view of gay relationships than its spinal plot). Hugh Grant spends the film sputtering about her, even though she really is almost entirely without a personality. It might have been a metaphor for Britain’s view of itself at the time–or something. But this has very little to do with Cameron Crowe’s admittedly superior Jerry Maguire.

I bring up Four Weddings because these days it might not be easy to understand why Jerry Maguire had such appeal. Between When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and Four Weddings, the relationship movie had become candy-coated affairs in which lovable folks stumbled and bumbled their way toward commitment. That was in stark contrast to movies such as Annie Hall and Manhattan, which offered a more jaundiced view of relationships. Maguire lands somewhere in the middle (it’s still extremely romcommy, because Crowe is such an optimist.) but at least allows itself to identify significant weaknesses in its main characters Jerry (arrogant, clueless) and Dorothy (beatific, doormat). They are, quite literally the text informs us, incomplete humans.

Looking back, however, it’s pretty clear that the true romantic (bro-mantic?) relationship in the film is between Jerry and Cuba Gooding’s character, Rod Tidwell. If the be-all, end-all goal of modern romantic comedy is to have one lead impart life lessons on the other (a Crowe speciality), then it’s Jerry and Rod who do this for each other while Dorothy stands idly by. She’s the same plucky young mother she was at the outset–and honestly, this time around, I wasn’t convinced that Jerry ever loved her at all, while I had little doubt about his feelings toward Tidwell. That being said, Dorothy’s line about falling for Jerry (“I love him for the man he wants to be and I love him for the man he almost is.”) just about nails how every relationship works more as a lofty projection of ideals than as a slog through the facts on the ground.

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Before Sunset (2004): Last chance for romance

I never quite appreciated the extent to which the titles of Richard Linklater’s series work as a metaphor for our lifespans, until the recent Before Midnight made it explicit. Viewing this film again (one of my favorites, I will concede), I was struck by the desperation that begins to show itself in both Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as it begins to dawn on them during a Paris afternoon that they actually might have a chance to make a go of it before time runs out on them. It surfaces in Jesse first, as the film is clearly built around Delpy’s performance as Celine and all the rants and tics and evasions that she manifests. Hawke has the more difficult task here and until now, I have never given him enough credit as he progresses from a man first bemused, then intrigued and then finally overcome in the space of hours. Celine is no life-fixer, no MPDG–but is revealed to be complex, autonomous soul with her own troubles. And Jesse seems to be a man who not only understands this and appreciates it, but also has an innate awareness of how much difficulty this will bring him down the road. She is not the easy choice, even if she may be the better one.

So much of modern romance is portrayed as a tale in which characters come together only by sanding down their harder edges (or having none at all) that it feels revolutionary to have two leads who are drawn to each other for need to share an inner life as much of an outer one.

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The Graduate (1967): Love as acquisition

I’ll confess: I have never correctly viewed this film for what it is. For so long, to my youthful, less cynical self, it was a story of a man who rejected the cynicism of his elders in favor of the hope of his generation, one that culminates in the grandest of romantic gestures–the busting up of a wedding. (Does that actually happen anywhere but on the screen?) Yes, I knew from that famous final shot of Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and Elaine (Katharine Ross) on the school bus that they didn’t know what they were getting into, but isn’t that what young love is all about? Or maybe it was just that Ross was so goddamn pretty.

Well, here’s breaking news. I was dead wrong. Roger Ebert famously wrote 30 years after praising the film that he now was retracting his approval, mainly because he disliked Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock and felt sympathetic toward Anne Bancroft’s Mrs. Robinson. I’m not sure I am entirely in that camp, but now with a little altitude, I can see the film more clearly as a study of the weight of expectation and the imposition of a consumerist culture on every waking moment of our lives. Yes, “plastics” is probably the most quoted line of the movie, but for the wrong reason. There is no irony intended. Ben is literally the product of a wealthy Southern California family, one who shown off to friends in the early parts of the film as nothing less than a prize steer. It is why he is coveted by Mrs. Robinson, who is seeking to reconnect with her lost vitality. And it’s why he is so haplessly inert.

Despite his quest for Elaine in the second half of the film, he is not the driver of the action. He’s the victim. Elaine (as lovely as she is) is not presented as anything close to a real person, except that she is rightfully fearful of Ben’s obsession over her. And think about that for a moment. Is Ben’s need for her out of desire (there is no evidence), out of kinship (ditto), out of whatever you want to call it, soulmatedness? (no suggestion of that either). She is smart, beautiful and young–to be coveted and acquired in the same manner that her mother coveted Ben. His need is to possess her, not to love her, because his family has told him that the acquisition of beautiful things brings happiness. The ending is Ben embracing those values, not running from them, his actions dusted with a veneer of quixotic self-importance. Don’t be fooled by the bus at the end–they aren’t riding off toward the middle class.

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Friends with Kids (2011): Worn down into submission

The success of When Harry Met Sally spurred a ream of films that all came down to the same notion: The Best Friend You Don’t Realize is Your Soulmate Until It’s Almost Too Late. Whether you believe this concept is credible largely rests on whether you agree with the assertion by Harry (Billy Crystal) early in that film that men and women can’t be close friends without the whole naked thing eventually coming into play. Male-female relationships, platonic or no, are typically centered on a largely unspoken frisson.

Friends with Kids is simply another version of this concept, with (here comes the pitch…wait for it, wait for it) a twist. We’re supposed to believe that two young, attractive folks who talk late on the phone and finish each other sentences can conceive a child together, but remain unattached. The entire movie is undermined by the audience knowing all along that it’s a ridiculous concept, tempting you to fast-forward to the third act so you can get to one of them Figuring it Out, which naturally comes about 20 minutes after the other one has Figured It Out. (The downtime in the middle of the film can be spent trying to determine whether Megan Fox is a computer-generated effect or a breathing person.)

The creaky plot mechanics make When Harry Met Sally feel like L’Avventura. But there is also a sense of a surrender on both parts; it’s the opposite of courtship. Whereas a film such as Before Sunset suggests that urgency in romance is born of the loss of a chance at finding a true partner, a movie such as this reduces a pairing to a base equation, some combination of the exhausting nature of the search, the relentless ticking of the biological clock, and geographic and physical proximity. You can argue that that is indeed closer to reality, but it all feels about as exciting and passionate as an online wedding registry. These are two people who while in bed can’t stop thinking about checking their phones.

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Lost in Translation (2003): An inconvenient truth

I was surprised to discover that Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson actually do kiss in this film. I remembered the whisper but not the kiss. It was a good choice on director Sofia Coppola’s part: We aren’t supposed to be viewing this as a story about a platonic relationship and that small kiss signals that we need to take the feelings these two have for each other seriously. To them, at that time, the act is monumental, a crossing of barriers that they have know will work to keep them eternally apart. Time. Space. Age. Marriage. You know, the usual suspects.

While Lost in Translation challenges our vision of romance it also undermines or notions of intimacy by almost entirely divorcing it from sex. The key moment in the film is not that final kiss, or the mysterious whisper, but the simple act when, during their long sojourn into the Toyko night, the bewigged Charlotte places her head on Bob’s shoulder. It’s an innocent gesture yet an affirmation of everything that has gone heretofore unsaid and will largely remain that way, a lowering of the guard. A film such as Friends With Kids likes to pretend that day-to-day friendship is the key to romance (and ultimately, getting it on), but Coppola’s movie suggests connections form in less anodyne ways.

Make no mistake. Charlotte and Bob are lovers, not friends. And their awkward lunch after Bob’s night with the lounge singer feels as raw as any deep-seated marital quarrel. When Bob urgently scans the hotel lobby at the end of the film and finally sees Charlotte, it sends his heart soaring. (He has no use for anyone else at that point.) Her tears at the end are a recognition–maybe her first–that the universe is a hostile, capricious place.

Woman of the Year (1942): Rolling with the punches

Watch Spencer Tracy after the scene in which he encounters Katharine Hepburn’s Tess Harding for the first time. Until this point, the film has primed us for a rather typical battle-of-wills comedy. (Tracy is the everyman, Hepburn the aristocrat. Hilarity ensues. ) Sam the sportswriter storms into the editor’s office, ready to duke it out with the newspaper’s erudite foreign affairs columnist. He leaves, transformed. He’s rattled. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, his body. He walks upstairs even though his office is downstairs. He’s a mess. She’s too much for him, too good for him. He knows it. And yet. And yet. Does he have a shot? Could he? (Is this how Spence felt when he met Hepburn for real? She upended his world. He would never be the same.)

The other key early scene in the film comes when Tracy takes Hepburn to his local tavern, where instead of the woman on the pedestal she seems to be, finds out that she is, in a way, as down to earth as he is. Over scotch, they draw closer, as Tracy finds that what he really wants to do is simply relax and listen to her, while it’s clear that she finds comfort in his easygoing directness. They’re realizing what they could have, and it startles her while galvanizing him. He seems to have found the strength to pursue her.

The film switches those roles later on, as Tracy’s Sam becomes increasingly threatened by Tess’ career; the very strength that drew him now unnerves him. They fit poorly in each other’s worlds. Ultimately, it’s Tess who becomes the pursuer, to bring him back to the fold. Feminists have criticized the ending of the film because it shows Tess trying to learn to cook; she has become domesticated, they argue, her persona downsized. That’s a misread, however. Tess instead is attempting to synthesize the best elements of herself with others that can create the foundation for a stable relationship. She’s trying to create something new and better. As a sign he understands, Sam asks her to take his name while keeping hers, not at all common in 1942.

I am biased toward the older films, even while recognizing not every film hailed as a classic lives up to its rep. But of the six films discussed here, Woman of the Year is the one that one that most successfully grapples with the notion of equals coming together and attempting to figure out how to stay that way.

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Shakespeare in Love (1998): You’re my inspiration

Hadn’t seen it since it came out. Its legacy has been sullied by its Oscar win over Saving Private Ryan in 1998. But after seeing it again, I think it can keep the statuette fair and square. SPR is a cinematic experience but it is not a great film. This is closer–although, sure, the Miramax formula (the parade of gifted character actors, the high-minded dialogue, the sumptuous costuming, the sly winks at the audience, the middlebrowness of it all) screams award bait with the megaphone on 11. And then there’s of course Gwyneth Paltrow, who seemingly has since evolved into the World’s Most Perfect Human. Once you get past all that, you will find few films that expertly capture the sense of vertiginous dislocation that falling in love brings.

We forget at times that falling for someone else (to be distinguished from, say, deep bonds of loyalty or family) the is more a state of mind than body, one powered by the brain, not the heart. It’s more than fair to liken it to a hallucination, a rearrangement of sensory data into a different shape–and one that may or may not have purchase in the here and now. It profoundly alters one’s sense of what is possible–because it rightly feels like a gift. Or a miracle.

That’s why Shakespeare in Love works, not because of Paltrow, although she’s swell in it, but because of what her love does for Will. It puts him in touch with his very best self, activates him in a manner that he hadn’t yet known and launches him toward greatness. There’s a reason the notion of the Muse lives on. We are creatures at heart who have difficulty locating our internal motivations; we’re animals who depend on stimuli. We need to push against something, or be drawn to it. Love heightens the scale of everyday life. Everything feels bigger, more important. And the deeds have to match. The external has to align with the internal. What does George Bailey want to do when he meets his Mary? He wants to lasso the moon and bring it crashing to earth. What does Will Shakespeare want to do when he meets Viola? He wants to finally be the writer he has dreamt of being.

That’s the secret of the film. It’s not about ripping bodices or stealing kisses in the rain. It’s not about locking down a lifetime companion. It’s about finding the one person who believes in your talent, who sees you as you have always seen yourself. Who finds the best in you, even if you yourself aren’t sure it’s there. Is that love? Is it even real? Or is that why we go to the movies, to find there what can elude us here.

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