Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Trouble with Love Is

Not that we're talking about my love life, dear Reader. Only once in the past six months have I let myself spill anything relating to that and was subsequently ridiculed by dear friend A. So now I'd blush to think of doing such a thing again - at least for another six months.

No, I am talking about the trouble with love in movies. Have you ever spent time thinking about the relationships in movies - whether or not they're realistic or well supported or even written well? What about when you're writing a relationship - ever realized how incredibly difficult it is to do, especially without resorting to the stock montage of dinner-movie-walk on the beach? I was thinking about how it pops up in my writing, and here's what I realized:

Nobody ever falls in love before the midpoint in any of my feature length specs. In 2 of my specs, they've known/had feelings for the person since before the movie started, in 1 nobody falls in love, and in The 4:05, the only spec where characters first meet and then fall in love, it's not until the very end of the movie. It's also incredibly difficult to establish why two people are in love. I don't think we can blame that on writing, necessarily; I think that's more the fault of love. I'm trying to write a webseries, and in the first five minute episode I have to establish the history of a long and loving relationship between two characters who are currently going through a rough patch. That's tough. What sort of three minute scene can you write to show the history of trust and care between two people? Love is difficult stuff to write. Especially in the constraints of two hours.

But let's reflect on the plethora of romantic movies out there.

Catch and Release - This movie didn't get great reviews. However, I was impressed with the writing - because for some odd, inexplicable reason, it had me thinking that Timothy Olyphant was ultimately better for Jennifer Garner than Sam Jaeger was. Frankly, I should have been outraged that she didn't fall for Jaeger. He had been secretly in love with her all along and he was a much sweeter guy than Olyphant. And as a friend pointed out, there wasn't much support for a real love developing between Olyphant and Garner. I'm not saying there wasn't a relationship there, but there definitely needed to be more of a friendship.

Walk the Line - Brilliant. Why? My guess is because 1. it spanned several years and loads of heartbreak for both characters but 2. more importantly, the relationship between June and John went outside of mushy love feelings to grace, forgiveness, caring, and real devotion.

27 Dresses - Another cute movie. But even though Marsden helped Heigl with problems outside of their tense relationship, it just didn't ring "great true love" to me. So he pointed out that she had some major wedding issues and gave her a Blackberry. I don't know, maybe I just disliked the advice he gave after the rehearsal dinner and that tainted the entire thing for me.

Atonement - Look, I loved Atonement. It was beautiful and depressing and James McAvoy would definitely be able to get any woman to fall in love with him. But, I'm sorry, when was it that he and Knightley fell in love? Was it when they were twelve and still talking? Or at college when she avoided him like the plague? And her show of devotion and faith in him was truly moving - though I kept wondering why she had such faith in him. If it was because she loved him, well, I could have used a little more convincing on that.

Dan in Real Life - Cute movie, but I do not remember the last time I got hit on by a random stranger, felt comfortable enough to spend a life-sharing hour over tea with him, then been so tormented by that unfinished conversation that - even though we were under the eye of his entire family and therefore had to play distance games the entire time - I had to abandon my current relationship and run away.

Definitely Maybe - I liked this one, because I felt like there were very many real aspects of relationships there. Or maybe it was more about how relationships fall apart than how they stay together. I'm not saying it didn't have its quirky moments, but I think the relationship between Reynolds and Fisher had a very honest quality - people who care about each other for years, who are invested in each others' lives, who make mistakes, hold on, and finally get forgiven.

Garden State - This should scream disaster movie for me. At the end Zach Braff tells Natalie Portman, "You've changed my life and I've only known you four days." That doesn't happen in real life, are you kidding me? When was the last time your life was changed by someone you met four days ago? However, anyone who knows me knows this is my favourite movie in the world. While I'm generally skeptical about any movies where the characters have just met before falling in love, there are some that work. In Garden State, like in Trust last night, the characters who fell in love were looking for life change. I think that makes a life changing relationship a heck of a lot more believable, because there's an openness and honesty that comes when a person is looking for life change. The second reason why Garden State works is that, in those four days, Braff and Portman actually talk. About a lot of things, about their views on life, about their pasts and how it's screwed them up, about their present. If you're looking for life change, and you're going to be honest, and you find someone who is willing to be just as honest with you and care about you, you've totally sold me on their relationship.

Pushing Daisies - This is a great example (albeit being TV), because Chuck and Ned can't touch each other. There goes the storyteller's easiest method of expressing love.

An Officer and a Gentleman - I'm not going to analyze this one. I just like it.

Why worry about this so much? Why draw up theories about the relationships in your own writing and do case studies on produced movies? Why spend so much time on this?

Because you can't just expect that you can just slap the romance label on your movie and the audience will buy it. If you want me to believe two characters are in love, you've got to sell it to me. You can't just write the "falling in love montage" or stick in a little cutesy joke when they're snuggling or write that scene where the female protagonist finally breaks her emotional barriers down for the boy while Benny and the Jets is playing in the background. How do you express in a three minute scene the commitment, passion, history, devotion, and respect between two people? How do you take something that's often so very internal, especially the moment when you realize you love someone, and put that on the screen to be seen clearly and without question? There are a lot of standard methods, a date, a kiss, a conversation. But those alone don't demonstrate love. Maybe that the characters are having fun or that sparks are flying or they're finding each other trustworthy, but so often those motifs that we commonly think of as expressing love can express something else, feelings or emotions that can belong to just plain fun or happiness or companionship. Maybe we need to stop relying on motifs that can express something lower than romance to support the characters' love.

Maybe the problem is that we don't know what love is. I was looking for something to watch, and I stopped on "Platinum Weddings" for a few minutes, because it's wedding season here at home for the next year. The featured couple was talking about their relationship, and the girl said, "I love him because he makes me happy. Whether it's getting me ice cream or playing tennis, he always puts a smile on my face." I felt a little frightened for this girl. Because what happens when he no longer makes her happy, either because he doesn't want to or because she's gotten bored of it? That's not love.

Maybe it's not a problem of story telling. Maybe it's a problem of misdiagnosis.


Michael said...

I just saw "27 Dresses." My sister got it off of pay-per-view. So predictable and formulaic. But accurately labeled "cute."

So a misdiagnosis, eh? Pray, tell, what's your philosophy of love?

Liza said...

Sorry Amy, I would normally never go against your analysis on movies (since it is technically your expertise) but I have to input my 2 cents on 27 Dresses.

Okay, I understand she was in love with her boss and it seems counter-intuitive she would end up in love with some random guy who is also (ironically) writing her sister's wedding story. But the great thing about this movie is that the guy sees something in Jane and actually pursues this relationship with her, even when she is quite clear that she doesn't want a relationship with him. The night at the bar she finally has a moment of vulnerability and then they make love (oh Hollywood). The next day the story hits the press and she feels betrayed and feels like her opinions about the guy were valid and she never should have trusted him. But then after the wreck that his her sister's reception he shows up to apologize but shows Jane how she has grown by finally saying No to everyone who is trying to use her. Then he gives her the blackberry. This isn't just some random present to win back her love. He truly understands her and her needs and replaces her outdated planner with a new blackberry, to make her life easier and to signify her transformation. Then she goes to meet her boss (the one she thinks she loves) and then she realizes he is always using her and she finally can say NO. Then she rushes of to find the man who DOES love her.

I know, it's an old motif but the reason it works is because it speaks to the human spirit. This story actually sounds a lot like the Gospels, where God pursues a relationship with us, even when we don't want him. We find every reason we can not to trust him. Then, in a moment of vulnerability and we realize that the things we want aren't the things we need.

And this is why I, your reader, most humbly disagree with your assessment of 27 Dresses. It might be a bit over the top, but I still think its a great movie.

Amy R. Butler said...


I'm a cheerful cynic, that's all. : )


Pulling out any connection to the Gospel shuts me down pretty effectively. I'm not convinced, entirely - maybe then it's more an issue of storytelling and craft - but I can respect your opinion. If I watch it again, I'll keep my eye on these things.

And it's sweet that you think I actually have some expertise here. : )

Michael said...

Hm. Not exactly what I was looking for.

What I mean is that, in typical postmodern fashion, you distinguish contemporary film as deconstructing the concept of love. Your thesis is that modern film never captures accurately this "crazy little thing called love." R.I.P. Freddy Mercury.

So my question is why? What concept of love are you contrasting "Hollywood love" with?

Now, to be fair, if you turned the question back on me, I'd be hard pressed to give you an intelligible answer. Just something to think about.

Oh, do you want a copy of "Melody and Witchcraft" when I print it? I can send it to you. Just need your address.

Liza said...

Yea well it may have been a bit over the top but I think the point I was trying to make (I was watching Lost at the time I was typing the last post) was that stories about love can be successful if they follow some formulas but that is dependent on what formula they choose (some are over-done -- example, the Pride & Prejudice formula). I know, as a screenwriter, it is probably boring. But as a movie-goer, if a film doesn't follow a well-known archetype I tend to get confused (like with Atonement, I totally agree that I didn't understand how those two fell in love, mainly because the audience doesn't really see it occurring on screen, minus the library scene). While its great to be creative, you really have to think of your audience and realize that not everyone will understand what you were trying to do if you break from a well recognized motif.

Amy R. Butler said...


That is false, I think lots of films capture love. I'm just saying that most films don't, or don't do it well. Nobody has a definition of love, but I think it's a combination of choice and feelings - what it is that makes us choose commitment to a person or feel a certain way about them, I think *that* is the real amorphous part.

I haven't been a real English major for years, Mr. Maune. The sort of language you're using to try to analyze my post of vague cinema theory will be very unreciprocated. : ) You tend to go a little crazy with the whole post modern thing, in general, too. : P


I haven't seen Lost yet! I'm going to be in slight aggravation all day until I do, too.

It's interesting you mention formulas, because a lot of romances follow very strict formulas. Our screenwriting professor gave us a very high percentage of how many romantic comedies have a third act where the two lovers are separated by something, and the tension comes from whether or not they'll be reunited. It's crazy, when you start thinking about it, how true that is. But it works!

Anonymous said...

fantastic post....something to think about, considering my chronic hopeless romantic condition.

and mike, why don't you blog anymore? sad day =/