Friday, 12 February 2010

Caught in a Bad Romance

Sunday’s Valentine’s Day. You know what that means: every restaurant is booked. Dammit! In honor of the event and to spite everyone who is being wined and dined, I present 10 movies that fuck with love and show how love fucks with you.

Note 1: SPOILERS. If you haven’t seen a movie and don’t want it spoiled, skip to the next one.
Note 2: These are not the top ten movies that do so. Only 10 from across time and genre. Though, I admit that two are only a year apart.
Note 3: Any of these movies are DEFINITELY worth a look. Many of them are among my favorites.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

“So much for true love!” – Ursula

Things you will have to give up for love may include any or all of the following: your voice, your family/life-long friends/acquaintances
with whom you’re able to have decent conversations at the supermarket, your kingdom, and your life.

Yes, love makes Ariel go stupid to an exponential degree. She forsakes her family, imperils her people and her kingdom, and abandons her friends all to go after a pair of legs and a dick that she has only seen for the grand total of probably a minute. Well, she also has a statue of him, but that just summons up Pygmalion allusions, all of which do her no favors.

Imagine for a second that you’re a merperson living under Trident’s sovereignty or even someone residing in the coastal town of the movie. You’re sitting there, eating your seaweed salad, and suddenly it's the climactic battle of the film and an enormous fat drag queen with a trident starts causing storms and spreading desolation. All thanks to Ariel's sex drive. Your wife may be fried to a cinder by a stray trident bolt, your home may be annihilated by some eighty foot tall waves, and you may have permanent psychological scars that will never fully heal…but at least it all ended with the spoiled little princess getting her man.

And yes, it’s totally healthy to leave everyone you’ve known and who has loved you your entire life (except a fatuous seagull) all for the sake of getting married.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Betty Schafer: Come on, Joe.
Joe Gillis: Come on where? Back to a one-room apartment that I can’t pay for? Back to a story that may sell and very possibly will not?
Betty: If you love me, Joe.
Joe: Look, sweetie -- be practical. I’ve got a good thing here. A long-term contract with no options. I like it that way. Maybe it’s not very admirable. Well, you and Artie can be admirable.
Betty: Joe, I can’t look at you anymore.
Joe: Nobody asked you to.

Which relationship am I even talking about here? Norma and Joe? Norma and Max? Joe and Betty? Betty and Artie? Us and Hollywood? Whatever the case may be, none of these are healthy, fulfilling relationships. Joe is with Norma for money; Norma with Joe in a delusional attempt to feel young and attractive still. Betty is with Artie because it’s the “right” thing to do. Max is with Norma because of some misguided, blind devotion…or because no one wants to hire him as a director. Norma is with Max because right until the movie started, she needed someone to clean up all that chimpanzee poop.

Love is selfish. Love is a ploy created to get what you really want: be it money or fuel for your vanity or even just purpose. And even then, it still sucks. You get stuck in an old house with a crazy lady or worry that your lover is sleeping around or, worst of all, you can be Betty and Artie. They are the only couple who stay together at the end. Yet we know that Betty “loves” (or at least feels passion for and can get a good screenplay/job out of) Joe. Instead, she has to run off to Artie at the end – Artie who wants to get married for cheap and skip a honeymoon and probably whisk Betty away from the world of movies that she grew up in and loves and trap her in her own Hollywood mansion (albeit a tinier one). That’s the happy couple at the end.

L’Atalante (1934)

[I can’t find quotes online]

Roger Ebert calls this movie “poetic.” I guess it is…if you are alluding to a dreary, humdrum "way of life" poetry style that you can find in modern or post-modern works. Quite frankly, this movie is one of the most depressing movies ever made. We begin with a marriage (the traditional end to a narrative). But the movie only shows us that this coupling, this happy ending, is really neither happy nor the end. After the blissful union that is the typical “Hollywood ending,” what are we left with? Fights about feline hygiene and laundry. A husband jealous to the point of abusive and a wife who may be giving him reason to be. Marriage is like the ship L’Atalante, a small, claustrophobic world that we can’t wait to escape, if only for a few hours.

Sure this movie ends with the lovers reconciled and happy…but that’s just where we started. And there are many, many more trips on L’Atalante still in store for these two.

An Education (2009)

“You have no idea how boring everything was before I met you.” – Jenny

In this movie, Jenny, a nice British schoolgirl, meets David, a “bad Jew” who tries to indoctrinate her into a world of thievery, deception, and promiscuity. She is tempted, but in the end, good perseveres over not-so-good and Jenny leaves David. By the epilogue, we are informed that she’s met a nice British boy who has never been to Paris and who probably is a virgin and who will be Jenny’s rather darling husband.

YAWN. Yes, David may have been a shyster and an attempted bigamist, but I’ll be damned if he also was not one of the most attractive, seductive, and fun characters on screen in a long time. An Education manages to show us an actually “good romance,” but it also tells us that what is good for romance is bad for everything else. To have a happy life, you must choose the boring guy, the one you would never bother making a movie about. The only romance worth having is the one that can’t last and the one that will eat away everything else around you like corrosive acid.

David did not save Jenny from her boring life, he only showed her how boring the rest of her life would be. And the worst part is – that was the better of the two options she had.

Vertigo (1958)*

“Too late. It’s too late. There’s no bringing her back.” – Scottie Ferguson

Imagine the perfect mate; he/she’s stunningly attractive, magnificently cultured, and only has eyes for you. Are you imagining him? Good – because that’s the only way you’re ever going to see her (oh look at me being all gender-inclusive). In Vertigo, Scottie will for a few brief days get to know Madeleine, a woman so sublime and ethereal that he cannot help but fall madly and hopelessly in love with her. We ourselves can’t help but fall in love with her and want to see Stewart and Novak make mad passionate love on screen (since that would be the closest we’ll ever come to getting in on the action).

But of course, Scottie loses her. And then, thanks to an enormous (apparent) coincidence, he finds a girl who looks remarkably like her and tries to recreate his love. He doesn’t really care that he’s mentally tormenting a seemingly innocent woman and, really, neither do we. For love, sacrifices must be made.

Except there’s one problem: Judy, the girl off the street, was Madeleine. Which means that there was no “real” Madeleine, at least in so much that we ever knew her. Scottie’s dream girl was a lie. For all we know, the “real” Madeleine Elster farted constantly and got chili stains all over her grey suits. Of course, there’s no “real” Madeleine Elster since this is just a movie, but don’t think too hard. The more you think about Vertigo, the more you feel like you’re precariously holding onto the increasingly slipping ledge of your sanity.

In short: perfect mate = nonexistent. The best you can do is try to dress someone else up as him or her, but in the end, you’re being abusive or s/he’s deceiving you or you’re deceiving yourself. Love is a lie. A lie that hurts like a cold, blonde bitchslap.

*With eternal gratitude and apologies to my Hitchcock professor Lee Edelman. I’ve taken about 3 hours of brilliant lecturing and mutilated it into a few paragraphs in a blog and most likely did his whole argument a great disservice in the process.

The Sheik (1921)

“When an Arab sees a woman he wants, he takes her.” – Ahmed

Hurray for Stockholm Syndrome! This movie teaches us all that the best way to get the woman of your dreams (especially if she’s an independent free-thinking woman in the early part of the twentieth century) is to kidnap her and force her to live with you until she tries to escape and realizes that you aren’t the worst guy out there. Oh, and if she’s repulsed by the prospect of marrying a Middle Eastern man when she herself is white, simply inform her that you’re adopted and are as white a Klansman’s hood. True love truly is triumphant!

(Also, I just realized that this plot is a bit like that of Beauty and the Beast. Just changing “Middle Eastern” to “furry” and “white” to “not furry”)

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

“I wish I knew how to quit you!” – Jack Twist

The typical reaction after seeing Brokeback Mountain is to bemoan homophobia and think, “Alas, alack, and Alaska! If only those two could have loved each other openly and gotten married in California without fear of their heads being bashed in!”* But can’t we also just say, “Man, wouldn’t these two have been so much happier if that incident never happened on Brokeback?”

Yes, it’s technically not the nice thing to think…but it’s true. Ennis seemed suppressed enough that he never would have succumb to his urges without some Twisting of his arm (and pulling of his fifth leg and…okay, I’ll stop now). He would have gotten married, probably not gotten divorced since his wife would have no infidelity to suspect and everyone would be happier and Daddy would just occasionally buy Men’s Fitness magazines and disappear into the bathroom with them every once in a while.

As for Jack, he might have just had a lot more hookups over the years before still being turned into a human piñata. Even if this were the case, he’d be better off. More sex and less angst makes Jack a content homo. And hey, without the emotional ties of Ennis, he might’ve even just decided to move out of Montana/Wyoming/whatever useless state they were in and head out to San Francisco instead. Then not only might he have lived, but he would have had the opportunity to guest star in another Oscar nominated film, Milk!

As the poster said, “Love is a force of a nature.” It’s a big fucking hurricane that blows you off course and makes you stupid and miserable and eventually kills you and leaves the other guy with only a shirt to cry over.

*Granted, homophobia is worth much bemoaning and gays should be able to get married without fear of cranial restructuring, but that’s not for this entry.

Love & Death (1975)

Sonja Grushenko
: You were my one great love!
Boris Grushenko: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate that. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm dead.

I know most people would say Annie Hall might be a better candidate, but as Alvie says at the end, “We need the eggs.” It might be one of the better defenses of love and the inevitable heartbreak. Love and Death’s title shows that while we put the love first in our mind, ultimately death is what matters. Sonja’s overly romantic remark, which would be the emotional triumph of most other films, is sarcastically and rightfully retorted with Boris’s reality-check. Love isn’t a great powerful force that can overcome all in this movie; it’s a distraction from the real force: human mortality. And, as you watch the movie, you see that people will get their distraction through any means necessary: power, deception, money, and guilt trips. One great love is like a very shiny penny – it’s charming but ultimately worthless. The only real, eternal coupling is between Boris and the Grim Reaper.

City Lights (1931)

The Tramp: Can you see now?
A Blind Girl: Yes, I can see now.

There really is no more touching way to finish a love story than with the uncovering a ruse and the realization that the man of your dreams is just a dirt-poor ex-con. I guess this is sweet; she finally sees him for who he is and realizes how much he sacrificed for her. But he also deceived her into thinking that he was well-off enough to support her and her mother and who knows what she turned down waiting for Prince Charming? Let’s not even get into the fact that these two probably aren’t going to have all that happy of a marriage as they struggle to get by and she brings up his chicanery whenever they get into a fight.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Steve Archer: I've been trying to do something with my pictures. It's meant everything to me. Every minute, for a long time now.
Lora Meredith: No, it hasn't. Or you wouldn't give it up to sell beer.
Steve: I gave it up for something much better, something right now: You.
Lora: But you're asking me to give up something I've wanted all my life, ever since I was a child, and I can't do it!
Steve: If you grew up, you could.

You know what I like? Having to choose between the man I love and my career plus all my dreams I’ve had since my earliest recollection! Once I find that relationship with a guy, I’ll be set for life! What? No? Not every girl dreams of being carried off by Prince Charming who will then tell her that her own ambitions are infantile compared to her responsibility to him and his need to sire an heir?

The particularly horrifying thing about this movie is not simply the fact that Steve does not stray from his position that a woman cannot have it all; no, the most disturbing facet of this movie is that it endorses Steve’s ultimatum and wants the viewer to both validate it and condemn Lora as self-obsessed for simply not surrendering to the throes of her libido. The rest of the movie after this confrontation will obsessively create a world where Lora must be wrong and must be taught a lesson.

Also, this movie shows another danger of love: falling in love increases your risk of having children. And children, as illustrated by the duo of the insipid Suzie and the prickly Sarah Jane, are ungrateful little brats who will not realize all that you did for them until you’re in a coffin being pulled by four white horses. Fuck children.

(Okay, don’t literally fuck them, but you get the idea)

So for those of you not going out to dinner on Valentine's Day, I highly recommend any of these 10 movies. They will make you feel better about your current lack of a significant other.

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