It was Never Meeting Sally that Mattered to Harry: What Romantic Movies Don't Get
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It was Never Meeting Sally that Mattered to Harry: What Romantic Movies Don't Get

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 22, 2012 | Comments ()


A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing something like three different really bad romantic comedies for this site over the span of only a couple of months. I didn't quite swallow my tongue, but it was a close thing.

About one them I argued that the problem with romantic comedies was that they were "pornography of the short cut." Such movies fetishize the grand romantic moments that litter the beginnings of love, confusing those surging instants of passion for the years that endure. Such stories don't want to linger on those little details over the years, the kindness and sweetness stockpiled day by day, they just want to jump to some non-existent end point of synthetic happiness.

It's not just that such films want to paper over the hard work that goes into love, for that's an understandable element of escapism. It's that they seem incapable of understanding that the years of little joys, of people growing intertwined with each other so that they are more than just a sum of two people, that's the really powerful story. That's a far more intoxicating happy ending than most romantic movies can manage with their "happily ever after" ellipsis tacked onto the ending. The dramatic passion of the beginning is wonderful, heady stuff. But the joy contained therein is a flash in the pan compared to the warm joy of the years that follow. It's within that "happily ever after" ellipsis that all the good story actually happens.

Those years are what love promises, and they have little to do with the drama of the beginning. Those dramas are the magic of falling in love but are distinct from being in love. A story about falling in love is not a story about being in love any more than the story of buying a turkey is the story of making Thanksgiving dinner.

I think that part of the problem is that except in very skilled hands, film does a bad job of conveying the passage of time. What happens in a film is always happening right this instant, and it takes a deft hand to stutter step that forward in anything like the way that fifty years can pass perfectly naturally in the course of a novel. In a two hour film, the passage of time is exceptionally sensitive. Move too quickly, and the film takes on the cheap feel of an extended montage; too slowly and no time passes at all.

The reason this matters is that all love stories are in effect time travel stories.

What made the novel The Time Traveler's Wife really burn your soul was the way that it captured the slow march of years together. And the magic of it was in allowing the characters to know each other out of time, because that's how our minds really work. When a man loves a woman, he sees her as she was when he met her, he sees her how she will be when she is eighty-five, and he sees her all the years in between.

So much of our lives is transient, people we know for a year or two, a house we lived in for a while. But those things don't change with you, they change independently of you. And those things that are constant are those inanimate things that do not change. The books, the furniture, the objects of our lives, those things are static even as we change around them. But when you share life with someone, when you have a partner for the decades, you no longer change alone. The lonely change of life becomes the evolution of a pair.

To me, that is what romance is. It is looking at the face that has been with for as long as you care to remember, and remembering both what it looked like young, and remembering what it will look like old. I have nothing against romantic movies, I just wish they would actually make one now and then.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Dragonchild

    Rumiko Takahashi's "Maison Ikkoku" seems strangely relevant to this post.

  • jim

    I am a 28 year old male who is married to a woman that is 50
    years old. We met on cougarkissing.c/0/m since I was 21. I fell
    in love with her shortly after meeting her and I love her more
    now than before. This is the most complete and loving
    relationship I have ever had. And to a person that posted
    before, I didn’t have any trouble getting girls my own age.
    And I do emphasize "girls". Most women my age are not ready
    for a mature relationship even if they say they are. All they
    want to do is play house but when real life finally knocks
    on the door they don’t want anything to do with it. Age
    doesn’t have as much to do with the relationship as one
    would think. My wife and I both love and respect each other
    regardless of our ages and neither of us have ever been so

  • Sara h

    I couldn't agree more!

  • FrayedMachine

    This was a wonderfully written piece and why I very rarely like RomComs. I'm not really a romantic in the sense that I'm in love with falling in love. I used to be when I was a teenager but I've grown to be a much more sensible person, probably because my experiences with love revealed to me that I'm, in reality, not the kind of person who falls in love instantly. To this day there's only a small hand full of rom-coms that I like that are about falling in love, though, and this article made me think of Amélie pretty quickly since it is about falling in love, and learning to fall in love, and learning to trust yourself in falling in love. Love Actually is another since I think it did a pretty great job with showing love in different stages, and the troubles that can come with it, and, well, of course Pride and Prejudice because come on.

    The love I have now took a lot of work, and a lot of pain, and a lot of building so whenever I watch the "omg we're just so CRAZY because love makes us CRAZY" rom coms, I pretty much gag instantly and turn it off because I can't, to any degree, relate.

  • competitivenonfiction

    I love this article. I think we need a list of the most truly romantic movies/TV shows/books based on this list. They can't just be about falling in love, but about being in love.

  • By definition, rom coms are meant to evoke the excitement of falling in love. A movie about the long years and hard work of love would be a drama.

  • apsutter

    They could just be classified as a Romance. I feel like a lot of older movies about love from the golden age of Hollywood are just called romances.

  • That's true! They don't make straight Romance's anymore.

  • Michelle

    The Time Traveler's Wife is still one of my favorite books for all of these reasons. It's also why I refuse to see the movie, because I just can't. I don't want that story ruined for me.

  • Classic

    Do not see that movie. Believe me I am still ticked about how much it ruined the novel for me.

  • competitivenonfiction

    I'm with you there. I like to pretend the movie doesn't exist.

  • Katylalala

    Don't see it. Never, ever see it. It was such a disappointment.

  • danobc

    i think 500 days of summer captures the passage of time quite well.

  • apsutter

    Yes, but that's not love in that movie. But, you're right, the passage of time was very effective.

  • jams

    c_o_u_g_a_r_s_t_e_r_c_0_m is a club for cougars seeking strong young handsome!

  • Lee

    Often this is because they didn't do a When Harry Met Sally and based a lifelong relationship on the fun they had in the first few months. My relationship has never been hard work,---BTW--Check the site ~~~ (CouGarKiss~~~ for Mature Women Dating Younger Men.

  • apsutter

    This article is spot on. This is why, as much as I love film, I think tv is the better medium. Its better at portraying not just love, but life as a whole. The characters have time to grow and are aging along with the show. There are some truly wonderful couples on television right now but my favorite are Marshmallow and Lilypad from HIMYM and Ben and Leslie from Parks and Rec. Ben and Leslie are just so sweet and caring and supportive of one another, it's wonderful to watch.

  • emilya

    i would add Tami and Coach from FNL to this list too. Throughout the 5 seasons of the show, we see them face so many obstacles but the love for each other and their commitment to their marriage never wavers.

  • apsutter

    I actually havent seen Friday Night Lights yet. It's on my to-watch list I just haven't made it there yet. But I can't wait because I hear nothing but good things especially about their relationship.

  • Ash

    I love the Ben + Leslie relationship, and the Andy and April wedding is the only TV wedding that has actually made me tear up.
    God I miss Parks and Rec.

  • apsutter

    I forgot about April and Andy!! Their wedding was so sweet. I love how Andy was explaining it saying they didnt overthink it, they just did it. They loved each other and just wanted to be committed. Best comedy on television. My boyfriend loves it as well and loves April's attitude and calls her his second favorite April lol

  • John G.

    While I love this sentiment, Steven, and your writing as always, I want to point out that not all of us find our relationships to be such hard work. I'm constantly told this by people, but the people who tell me this are actually just not confronting the fact that they're in a bad relationship and miserable. Often this is because they didn't do a When Harry Met Sally and based a lifelong relationship on the fun they had in the first few months. My relationship has never been hard work, but we were good friends first. It's not a myth.

  • SBrown

    I often say that marriage is hard work. But it's not hard work being with my husband. It's more of a self-contained hard work being reflective and having self-awareness and growing myself. It's hard work in the way most rewarding things are.

    Cleaning my in-laws basement is miserable hard work. Trying something new, or taking on a big project is the very most rewarding hard work...and that's how I think of marriage.

  • ,

    I don't think we were good friends first. But after 30 years, we are now. We can go hours without saying a word and as long as we're in the same room together we're comfortable and happy. That's a good place to be.

    I never would have guessed life could be like this. I never would have guessed I could say, "You kids don't know what you're missing," and not mean it ironically.

  • John G.

    That is so great, to get to see your best friend every day.

  • Ruthie O

    Terrific piece! You know, I now realize why some of my favorite romantic movies end in break-ups. Movies like Annie Hall and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind do a terrific job tracing the highs, lows, and mehs of a long-term relationship. They attract even the most romantic of viewers because of their truthful depictions of both the elation and work that goes into sustaining love over a period of time. Now, if only Hollywood could apply that same honesty to movies that don't end up a break-up, that could make the realistic romantics (like me) in the world very very happy.

  • I haven't watched Eternal Sunshine but your points about it relate to how I feel about Blue Valentine. Probably the most depressing movie about relationships I have seen (but I haven't seen many) but just so so so good and just captures all those moments to make your heart break.

  • apsutter

    I can't even talk about that movie, it is such a bummer. The weird thing is that I was reading about it a while ago and one of the people involved in making it said that the way they understood it was that they were just a normal couple in an average relationship having a really hard day. I was just flabbergasted at that because, clearly, they are a couple with fundamental problems that they won't be able to resolve. H'es content to just love her and be a dad and she wants so much more out of life. A couple with differences at a core level like that can't survive and even if they did stay together they'd end up hating each other. You should watch Eternal Sunshine though. It is seriously so good. It's Jim Carreys best dramatic acting and Kate Winslet is so good in it as well.

  • apsutter

    Oh God, I LOOOOVE Eternal Sunshine!! I am a completely hopeless romantic and I watch it all the time!! My boyfriend teases me b/c I'm always watching it. The part that gets me is when he's leaving her apartment in the beginning and she yells out the window for him to call her and wish her a happy valentines day. It's just so sweet because they're already falling for each other and the look he has on his face is just so wonderful. They couldn't help falling in love again. Sigh... And then the end when she whispers "Meet me in Montauk" I am always reduced to tears.

  • Ruthie O

    Me too! Watching the relationship backwards makes the sweet moments so bittersweet because we know what's coming. Ah! Love it.

    I remember reading somewhere that the original ending was a bit more pessimistic; it showed Joel and Clementine getting the memory-erasure procedure yet again at an old age, indicating that they kept doing the same relationship over and over again.

  • apsutter

    Oh no! I am sooo glad they didn't go that route! I loved at the end that they both realized that neither were perfect and to make it work this time they would have to take off the rose colored glasses and work at face value. They just accepted they were flawed individuals who liked each other an enormous lot.

  • Wow, what a lovely "think piece"! I think I am a little verklemp.... and I too would like to see just such a movie.

  • PDamian

    Can I get a witness? This was marvelous.

  • googergieger

    This is the only thing I know about romance.

    "Even if you didn't exist, I couldn't love anyone else."

    ^sixty percent of the time, it works ever time.

    I don't know, some anime I saw a long time ago.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    How any one can down vote sex panther cologne escapes me. Plus, it totally exists:

  • Jeremy Carrier

    This gets at one of the reasons I love Curious Case of Benjamin Button more then most. Even with(or maybe even because of) the de-aging gimmick, there's that passage of time between Ben and Daisy. Awkward childhood puppy love. The years spent apart, growing up in their own worlds and spheres of understanding. The gradual falling in love, growing older, growing younger, they did it together. The little moments that mean everything. The big moments that seem as natural as breathing. The mundane days. The romantic days. The resentful days. As far-fetched as the high concept of de-aging Brad Pitt was, it showed a romance through time and years that rarely gets made nowadays.

  • Mariazinha

    Agree completely!!
    And the happy days made me cry soo much. Just thinking of what it would turn out to be.. the impossibilities for the future. As much as there might be faults in this film, it's a great love story!!

  • Snath

    Seriously, you're brilliant.

    A story about falling in love is not a story about being in love any more than the story of buying a turkey is the story of making Thanksgiving dinner.

    Love it.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    You stole my thoughts exactly.

  • macrophage

    ditto on the Pixar comment.

  • BrassCupcake

    I approve this message.

  • zeke_the_pig

    As do I.

  • You ain't never lied. I keep thinking about the prologue in Pixar's "Up", and just in that vignette they captured what hundreds of shitty romcoms never will.

  • Classic

    I bawled from a freaking cartoon. No other romantic comedy has made me feel that like Up did.

  • Aaron Schulz

    Up was the first movie i thought of when he said the growing intertwined with each other thing

  • onsugarhill

    It's amazing how much story they packed into just a few minutes with no dialogue. I watched that on a flight to Europe sitting next to a stranger, and I couldn't keep myself from crying because I had gotten so invested.

  • annie

    Amen, sir. I actually found Magic Mike to be strangely romantic because it was the first time in a long time I saw two people on screen not be head over heels for each other right away and actually talked to each other like, you know, normal people talk.

  • BWeaves

    Yes, perfectly said.

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