When you really get down to it, "Love" (with a capital L) is an irrational emotion in which flawed people decide to trust one another, open themselves to vulnerability and humiliation by sharing their lives with someone else, all with the knowledge that everything might go horribly wrong. It is somehow simultaneously insane and ... beautiful.
Since Friday is Valentine's Day (and I hope all of you have already bought the flowers, cards or other assorted gifts for your respective beloved) I thought this week's column would pose some questions in honor of this month's Hallmark holiday: What are the best love stories? And what are the most contrived and ridiculous love stories? Find out below the fold.
A recent episode of the Nerdist podcast had Chris Hardwick and his co-hosts discuss love and touch on the pop culture perception of how love should work compared to how it actually works. I tend to be a hopeless romantic, and I used to get really disappointed by planning out romantic dates and them not going exactly as I imagined 'em. And it wasn't the dates went badly, or we didn't have fun. It was just they didn't meet the expectations I had in the Disney fantasy I imagined. Eventually I had to stop going into things with that mentality, and accept reality for what it is, and enjoy the good moments instead of obsessing over things that never were.
However, that's also dangerously close to the mentality of most stalkers. With Love Actually, one of the big romantic gestures of the film usually gets one of two reactions from most women I've talked to about it. Either it's the most romantic thing a guy could ever do, or it's one of the creepiest things a guy could do to a woman who just got married.
"If you're committed enough, you can make any story work. I once told a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it." —Saul Goodman, Breaking Bad's resident "criminal" lawyerBack in 2002, the American Film Institute (AFI) put together "100 Years....100 Passions", which listed what they consider the top 100 love stories in American cinema. You can see the entire list by clicking on the link above, but here are the Top 15 films.
1. Casablanca (1942)
2. Gone with the Wind (1939)
3. West Side Story (1961)
4. Roman Holiday (1953)
5. An Affair to Remember (1957)
6. The Way We Were (1973)
7. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
8. It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
9. Love Story (1970)
10. City Lights (1931)
11. Annie Hall (1977)
12. My Fair Lady (1964)
13. Out of Africa (1985)
14. The African Queen (1951)
15. Wuthering Heights (1939)
As I've documented in the past, every film and TV show employs a certain amount of tried and true cliches, conventions, formulas, and stereotypes to create a story. In a good film these type of things are usually forgiven, since the audience doesn't really notice 'em. However, in bad films they stand out like a sore thumb.
For example, Hollywood will hardly ever cast a "nerdy" girl for lead in a romantic comedy, even if the part calls for an unattractive, nerdy girl. So what you end up with is "Hollywood Homely," in which they cast a stunning actress and "ugly" her up by making her wear glasses and putting her hair up in a pony-tail. Thus setting up the five-minute makeover montage in the film.
- The Unnoticed Girl - The beautiful girl who no one recognizes as beautiful until someone gives her a makeover (see also "Beauty = Goodness").
- Love At First Sight - It takes only a brief encounter for the characters to know fate wants them to be together, and they should devote every bit of their life to making the relationship happen.
- Forces Attempting To Keep True Love Apart - The Evil Stepmother (aka Lady Tremaine) and her two brats play this role for Cinderella, but in modern stories this could be a jealous ex, a rival who wants to steal the significant other away, etc.
- Love Hurts - This is usually toned down in most modern romantic comedies, but a common element in a lot of fairy tales is the female character undergoing abuse because of her beauty or love for a prince. Most modern stories achieve this by showing the female character's life at the beginning as either miserable because of her job, her social position, or (like Cinderella) the way she's treated by her family. The love story then either serves to break the character from the cycle or exacerbates it, and the abuse gets worse before it gets better.
Some of my favorite love stories:
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) - The story is a deconstruction of the romantic comedy genre. For example, Clementine (Kate Winslet) is very much the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," who the main character believes will save him. However, the film shows how a relationship with the quirky, adventurous, dream girl might not work over the long-run. But even as it deconstructs it, the film also builds a meaningful relationship within the surreal nature of the story's premise. The defining act of true love between the characters is a leap of faith in deciding to love one another even in the face of knowing the relationship might be doomed to repeat the same mistakes. The beauty of that is it pretty much defines every relationship.
- Top Hat (1935) - I was first exposed to this movie as a kid in a film class. When I first saw Top Hat, I was still in a place where something about characters breaking into song and dance took me out of the story. But one of the films that changed that for me was this movie. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers make it work. How Rogers dances and acts in the "feather dress" she wears in one sequence, I will never know.
- Pretty Woman (1990) - The movie that made Julia Roberts a star. The original script (titled "$3000") was much darker, with Roberts' character Vivian being a drug addict. Part of the story would have been Richard Gere's Edward trying to get her clean while falling in love with her. The movie would have ended with Edward finding out that Vivian had slipped and was still using drugs, throwing her out of his limousine, and leaving her in the middle of the street. Rewrites and Gary Marshall's direction created a much lighter tone.
- "Damsel In Distress" and "Stalking = Love" - Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series has long been criticized for being centered for what many see as a subservient to abusive relationship. I've had a fan of Twilight explain the series to me as a sexless, teen version of Romance novels. Her argument was that Bella connects with female readers because women can relate to the awkwardness the character feels about herself. However, the flip side of that is the depiction of Bella in both the books and the films is that of an idiot who only exists to be fought over by vampires and werewolves. If you leave aside the sparkling vampires that play baseball in thunderstorms and other things that have been the source of many jokes for a second, and just judge the story of Twilight on its own terms, the romance plot is HORRIBLE. As a character, Bella is constantly miserable and needy, requiring constant reassurance from the men in her life, and she's indecisive between two men who are willing to do anything for her. As she straddles between risking her life for a high school crush (Edward, who basically stalks her) and being anti-social, she feels sorry for herself whenever one of her boyfriends isn't around. She has no drive, and no higher goals in life. And because Bella is such a vacuous character with no agency, there's no reason for either of the two men in the story to connect emotionally to and fight over her, except only as an object to possess for the purposes of the story. Even Bella's wedding (in Breaking Dawn) is not really about her, since she's only marrying Edward to have sex with him, and even then she has to beg him to do it.
- Characters Who Don't Deserve Love - In Scandal, the show wants us to care about the president's love life, but he's such a horrible person we probably shouldn't. The way Kerry Washington plays Olivia's affair with Fitz (Tony Goldwyn) is by her resisting Fitz's advances, but eventually giving in to having passionate sex in the shower, floor, or on top of the Resolute Desk. A lot of TV critics have latched onto the power imbalance in the relationship, and see it as either a passionate affair among two people that would be much happier living in a cabin in Vermont, or it's a horrible relationship in which the president of the United States crosses the line into being stalker-ish and abusive. Both Mellie (Bellamy Young) and Olivia deserve so much better than Fitz, and would probably be happier if they would let go of their fantasies involving him.
- Relationships Built Out Of Hate - This is basically when any relationship in a film is based on the characters treating each other like crap for most of the film, only to realize in the final minutes that they're soul mates. A classic example of this trope is a movie from the mid '90s called Reality Bites, which starred Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke and Ben Stiller. It was a Generation X comedy about twenty-somethings realizing they weren't kids anymore. The film is largely centered around the love triangle between Ryder, Hawke and Stiller. Hawke's character doesn't have a steady job, is a total asshole to everyone around him, and insults Ryder's character throughout most of the movie. However, by the end of the movie, for no particularly good reason, we're told that Ryder and Hawke should be together. Usually in most movies with love triangles, the writers will offer up some sort of flaw that disqualifies one of the suitors in the audience's eyes. The only disqualifying quality offered up in Reality Bites is that Ben Stiller's character is a successful television executive (i.e. that means he's sold out). And that is a bigger negative than Hawke's character being a miserable, out of work asshole.
- "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" and the "Sensitive Misunderstood Man" - Usually both of these types of characters are paired with each other. The term "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" was coined by the A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin for his description of Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown. It's a female character who's stunningly attractive, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (generally including childlike playfulness and a tendency towards petty crime), who may have her hair dyed blue or purple. As described by Rabin, she is a magical girlfriend that "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." A perfect example is Natalie Portman's character in Garden State. The flip side of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" is the "Sensitive Misunderstood Man," who is a good guy, unlucky in love and life. As a character, he's the "nice" guy that attractive women dismiss and leave, who may have a traumatic past. Spike Jonze's recent film Her in a lot of ways deconstructs the fallacy of this type of character. The fact that women may not want to be with a sensitive, misunderstood man may not be about superficial factors, but the fact that the sensitive, misunderstood man may have issues that make a relationship difficult.