It was Never Meeting Sally that Mattered to Harry: What Romantic Movies Don't Get
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 www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.