February 5, 2003
It's funny in Kansas
Arts and Entertainment
Screen kisses, false confessions, and my love-hate relationship with love.
By Lynn Rapoport
THERE'S SOMETHING WRONG with love. Or me, more likely. I know this because my housemate who's dated me, watched me date other people, and watched me watch a lot of movies about other people who are dating has told me so, repeatedly.
It wasn't always this bad, back when I mostly saw horror movies, in which everyone who had sex generally died and there wasn't much time for speeches. That was before my romantic life really got up to speed, back when I played with model horses, when most of my notions about how to behave came from annual readings of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Now, of course, the combination of You've Got Mail and Bridget Jones's Diary has guaranteed that I'll never be able to read Pride and Prejudice the same way again. And these days my head is clogged with cute meets, bedroom moves, comeback lines, and love confessions all gleaned from the motion pictures I can't get enough of. Which is where I've learned most of what I know about abhorring love.
The other day I went to a press screening of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, starring Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. My companion that day, a film writer who's responsible for having and upholding actual standards when it comes to the cinema, maintains there wasn't much to like. And it's true that in the movie, love is built on bad ad campaigns, women's magazines, and lots of bullshit. But I was enjoying the premise: His mission is to make her fall head over heels in love with him. Hers, to make him dump her. Things go wrong, for me, anyway, when they inevitably, inexorably realize how much they mean to each other. Cue chase scene, honking horns, and sexily angry speechmaking witnessed by an irritated cabby and other Manhattanites who've seen it all before, most likely in other movies.
I can control myself while seated amid a crowd of strangers unlike most of the romantic leads in the movies I watch but in the comfort of my living room, such moments tend to elicit tympanum-bursting shrieks. My dog leaves the room, the toddler downstairs begins weeping, and my housemate looks over at me with mournful eyes, head slightly tilted to one side, and gently proclaims, "You hate love."
Which I don't think is fair. I don't hate love. I hate how fake and trite and stylish and unworthwhile these movies make love look, while somehow positing the idea that this is true romance.
I hate it when the lyrics to the pop songs on the soundtrack spell out the dramatic fine points of the scene; when the romantic leads meet cute, then fail to interact, or hate each other, or date other people for seven-eighths of the movie but are desperately, unconvincingly in love by the last 15 minutes of the film, followed by a chase scene involving public transportation and/or public displays of affection eliciting the (often grudging) approval of masses of strangers, whether waiting on subway platforms, sleepily peering out of apartment windows (usually in Manhattan), or sitting in church pews attending a wedding destined not to come off. Also An Officer and a Gentleman, often proclaimed as having one of the most romantic scenes ever committed to celluloid. Also, more than anything, Possession the movie, which leached from Possession the book all the slow, faltering conversations, the cold irritation of misunderstandings, the truly awkward silences, and the equally truly electric moments of affinity that mark two people's stumbling progression from vaguely unlikable strangers to obsessed lovers and offered nothing in return beyond Gwyneth, her posh English accent, and a bad poetry-writing MBA look-alike.
What's wrong with hating that?
The shrieks serve the double purposes of releasing pent-up shame energy and covering the sound of, say, John Cusack losing all credibility as he pretends to be sexually and emotionally compelled by Kate Beckinsale and stargazes among the freckles on her arm, or Leonardo DiCaprio making energy-efficient love to Kate Winslet in the backseat of a car on a very big boat. These moments are so much worse than the corny names people call each other in real life when they don't realize anyone else is listening. But what if such filmic moments are where real-life people get their own ideas? So many movies telling us this is what love looks like is bound to take its toll. When I think of how many more people saw Notting Hill than The Princess and the Warrior which contains a love scene so frightening most people I know turned their faces away from the screen until it was over I worry. Sometimes, listening to people talk about love, I recognize lines from movies and get the strangest feeling I've been through all of this before.
In my favorite films terrible things happen and are never discussed. Affairs of the heart are told through flashbacks, as in Kicking and Screaming, in which a guy stands alone in his room, editing out the parts he's not ready for in a message from a girlfriend who has left him for Prague. The best part about Stranger than Paradise was the fact that everyone ended up alone. Same goes for Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together, in which nobody really was. Every romantic comedy I've seen starring Meg Ryan has left me increasingly content with my history of failed relationships.
Or so I thought until I rented Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on the advice of Ariel, the 23-year-old clerk at the video store down the street. Some people turn to their bartenders to make incoherent confessions and irritating demands for advice. I feel that Ariel and his coworkers know me better than my own mother does. So I wasn't really sure why he sent me home with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when I asked him for movies about love. I thought we were friends, and that movie in which Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton slowly, loudly tear each other's skin off really hurt my feelings.
"It's about marriage, not love," Ariel admitted later. "Or about another side of love, a side that doesn't work." (That's for damn sure.) "It doesn't try to sweep anything under the rug. It doesn't wallow. It lets it be." Maybe he thought I'd enjoy seeing scenes from a marriage too deeply entrenched to fall apart, an antidote to all of the happiness that makes me so uncomfortable.
I asked him if it wasn't so depressing and irritating that he wanted to shoot himself. "It's like watching an ant farm," he said. I need that kind of distance. If I had it, I probably wouldn't have had to wait out the love scenes of Titanic in the theater lobby.
It used to be that every year around this time my housemates and I would throw a party celebrating our complete disengagement from the concept of Valentinism. Those days are over. My original collaborator moved to Los Angeles to watch sunsets, and this year the housemate I didn't date started crafting her boyfriend a homemade card in early January and scolded me for refusing to make my girlfriend a valentine.
See I have a girlfriend. They make it sound so bad, like I need to grow up, like I'm this bitter, heartless, hateful person. I'm romantic. I daydream about her. I watched Amélie with her three times in one weekend.
A coworker of mine is getting married in a few months. A while back he wrote me an e-mail about the texture of his fiancée's skin. I thought, "How wonderful it must be to be so sincere." I didn't really mean it. It made me uncomfortable to be a witness to such private thoughts. But I can lie on my bed and read the metaphysical love poems of John Donne out loud and mean it. I can read Ariel Schrag's graphic novel Potential and worry about her love life and mean it. I can sing along to Chicago's "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" and mean it, and how easy is that?
Amélie, to take the most straightforward example of a romantic film I could watch all day, is constructed of a series of intricate love games that actually look like fun. And nobody feels they have to explain why all of this is happening. The same can't be said of most romances coming out of Hollywood, which bludgeon you with people's feelings in heart-to-heart explications with best friends, bartenders, and strangers on trains. With poetry I always assume, perhaps wrongly, that it wouldn't be written if it weren't true. Chicago I can't explain that's just the way it is. But maybe the problem I have with so many romantic movies is that it's much harder to watch people pretend to like each other, pretend the sex made them cry, pretend their lives will never be the same, than it is to say I'm sorry. The speeches that take care of everything make me uncomfortable. When I talk about love, it takes me half an hour to spit out two sentences. I'm under the impression that the world is moments away from falling apart. Opinions voiced, desires expressed these things cause cracks in the firmament.
Luckily for all of those people I'm not dating, not everyone else feels this way. But on the other hand, I feel bad for all of those people who missed the part in The Princess and the Warrior when love approaches because something terrible happens and the warrior has to perform an emergency tracheotomy on the princess, a stranger lying underneath a crashed semi. Under the circumstances, there's no time for rhetoric, but she notes that the breath coming through the straw lodged in her throat feels like peppermint on her lungs and also that he's crying. With so many movies, the anguish lies in hoping the scene on the subway platform never, ever happens to me or anyone I know. With a few, like this one, it lies in knowing how unlikely it is that something so terrible will ever happen again.