Sunday, February 12, 2006

Isn't It Romantic?

Several years ago during the week of February 14th, a national TV station advertised two films the network had chosen for Valentine's Day. The ads for the movies proclaimed: "Two of the most romantic movies of all time!" Their choices? Doctor Zhivago and Camelot. My problem? Both of the romances in these films involve adultery. Guinevere is married to Arthur, but has an affair with Lancelot. The plot of Zhivago is a bit more complicated (it being based on Russian literature and all), but, if you haven't seen it, the good doctor's romance is not with his wife. The affairs in these films have something else in common: they both end tragically. Guinevere and Lancelot are (Spoiler Alert!) discovered, she almost gets burned at the stake, and King Arthur goes to war against his wife and (former) best friend. Zhivago and Lara don't fare too well either: her husband commits suicide when he discovers their affair, and Zhivago dies before he and his lover are reunited.

So, why the blog entry? They're just movies, after all. But movies both reflect and influence the culture in which they are made, and I find it disheartening and a bit disturbing that someone decided (and others agreed) that these movies should represent romance for all who chose to tune in. And, of course, these films are not the only ones which represent romantic love in this way. Remember The Bridges of Madison County? First a book (and national bestseller), and then a wildly popular movie. About adultery. And every time I turn on the radio I hear the same ad for Brokeback Mountain, praising it as "one of the greatest love stories of all time." The two men who comprise the love story have intense feelings for each other, to be sure, but they also have wives (and children) whom they betray. But society kept them apart! But they fell in love before they met their wives! But their love was too strong to be denied! I'm sorry, but, gay or straight, it doesn't seem like such a great love story to me.

To be fair, the writers and others involved with the films were most likely trying to do something a little more complex than simply telling a romantic tale. Whether or not it was an intended point of focus, both films illustrate how destructive adultery can be. But they certainly aren't advertised that way, and the majority of society would probably not rush out to see a film lauded as "an interesting take on the destructive powers of adultery!"

So, why does society find these "romances" so compelling? Wanting something we can't have, as well as the thrill of the chase, seem inherently human characteristics. The chivalric code (the origin of much of our culture's romantic traditions) dictated that knights worshipped their (often married) ladies from afar, ensuring that their relationships would NEVER be consummated, and therefore the pining could endure ad infinitum. As an actress, I've watched as (far too often) married leading men fall in love with their leading ladies (and vice versa), knowing next to nothing about their brand new beloved besides how good it feels to hold them center stage in front of a full house. And I've watched them just as easily fall out of infatuation when the play ends and reality sets in. And I think that's what I'm getting at. It's easy to fall in love with a fantasy, because it's just that: a fantasy. Guinevere and Lancelot, Zhivago and Lara, the lovers in Bridges and Brokeback - none of them settled down to day-to-day life with the object of their desire. Their love for each other was never subjected to the trials and tests of domesticity. Would their relationships have endured if it had been? And would there be nearly as many people wanting to see the films if they'd depicted happy, domestic life instead of a tragically romantic ending?

One of my favorite musicals is Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods. The first half of the play follows fairy tales we're all familiar with, including the stories of Cinderella and Rapunzel. The second half explores what happens after the "happily ever after." We discover that both Cinderella and Rapunzel's princes enjoy the thrill of the chase more than their marriages, and once they've settled down with the women for whom they once pined (in a brilliantly hilarious song), they're off to pursue new damsels in distress (Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, respectively). Cinderella realizes that she was swept off her feet by someone she doesn't really know, and, when she asks him why he's pursuing someone else, he responds: "I was raised to be charming, not sincere." As they separate, he says: "I will always love the maiden that ran away." She replies: "And I the faraway prince."

All this being typed, I'm as girly as the next gal when it comes to being the recipient of romantic gestures from my spouse. I love flowers, heart-felt cards, and surprise anniversary getaways. I absolutely believe that romance is a vital part of a happy marriage. But I also think it's romantic when my hubby shares his very last french fry with me, or when, after I do something that I know annoys him, he simply smiles and continues helping me load the dishwasher. Perhaps Lancelot and Guinevere would have done the same, if given the chance, but the depiction of romance our society seems to want is more "I would DIE for you!" than "I will do the DISHES for you!" For me, a much more romantic statement than "I would die for you" is "I will live with you." Living with someone requires work and compromise. To be done successfully and happily, it requires growth. And I know I'm most likely preaching to the choir here (if you've made it this far), so I'll end with a plug for more films and plays and books about true romance: about love that deepens with time and trials, and grows stronger through mutual desire, commitment and appreciation. Not that it needs to depict all the minutiae of domestic life ('cause how boring would that be?), but perhaps "one of the greatest love stories of all time" doesn't necessarily have to involve one or both parties leaving their spouse or dying tragically because of their romance.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering: my pick for Valentine viewing? Sense and Sensibility. If I can convince Steve to watch it with me.


Layt said...

And they said you and Stu would never last.

Layt said...

P.S. That's an awesome movie; if he won't watch it with you we'll come over.

Emmie said...

I always knew you were the true romantic of the family.

Emily said...

Well said. I am always turned off by "romantic" albeit adulterous love stories. E.g. Lance Armstrong and Sheryl Crow. Did she REALLY think he was such a great catch when he'd betray his wife and kids?

It's really very sad, especially because he used to be--before the infidelity-- my #1 celebrity crush: so smart and articulate in interviews with Charlie Rose, so handsome, so focused and disciplined and athletic.

(Don't tell my husband. . . .)

AzĂșcar said...

Emmie, I could not agree more with you. Thank you for articulating my personal issue with all the movies you discussed, and for mentioning one of my favorite musicals too.


~j. said...

Emmie, this is one of the best posts I have ever read.

c jane said...


cotton_in_the_medicine_bottles said...

Amen. Amen.

When I was younger, I really used to think that those types of movies were really romantic. Now, I've called myself a realist rather than a romantic. But perhaps, it's a new term we must coin. Real romanticism. Or something like that.

Emmie said...

Real romanticism. I really like that! An apt new term, my friend.