Aug 5, 2010

Is romance gone, baby, gone?

“I can’t remember the last time I saw two people really falling in love in a movie…. Romantic comedies, the good ones, taught me how to love, or at least instructed me on how to try… Culturally, emotionally, the whole idea of romance is gone, gone, gone. I don’t care how good the novelist, I’ve never read anything that touches Kate Hepburn and Cary Grant in ‘Bringing Up Baby.’... When ‘Up in the Air’ (which I actually liked) came out last year, people were calling Jason Reitman the new Preston Sturges... If the bar were any lower, they’d be calling James Cameron the next Sturges. As for Lubitsch, there will never, ever, ever be another. Ever. A guy like that comes around once in a universe. Proof is that even Billy Wilder, whose motto was ‘What would Lubitsch do?,’ tried but never came close.” — Maureen Dowd, NY Times
I'm no fan of Up In the Air which I thought terribly over-praised and I bow to no-one in my love of Cary Grant, but this is just soppy platitudinizing. The stock of much-loved classics is like the price of milk: it's always going up. You get more nostalgic for things, the further into the past they recede, not less. To say that nothing touches Bringing up Baby is like saying today's bargain prices will never beat the bargain prices of 1939. Of course they won't. They are 1939 prices. Hence the dizzying over-emphases (gone, gone, gone, never, ever ever), as the writer says, again and again, what didn't require saying in the first place. I get that romantic comedies are in a bad waythe cycle that began with When Harry Met Sally in 1989 is now firmly on rinse/repeat — but romance, dead? Gone? Dusted? Huh? I spent much of the nineties being tempted by the fashionable conviction that movie-making was in terminal decline; I even wrote a few anguished, hand-to-brow ubi sunts about the lack of romance/comedy/great scripts/stars in today's Hollywood. Now I think them one of the best decades in American movies, up there with the seventies and fifties. The Bridges of Madison County, I'm not ashamed to say, once ellicited an audible honk from me in a crowded screening room of London's most caustic critics. In Before Sunrise, we got to see a couple fall in love, in real time — a first. The sizzle between Daniel Day Lewis and Madeline Stowe in Last of the Mohicans singed my eyebrows. As for this decade, what about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Brokeback Mountain, Sideways, In The Mood For Love, or WALL-E.? You can't detect a heartbeat in that lot?


  1. Even as I type this, there are people at my own blog praising this column, and I'm trying to come up with something to say. That's because I am mistrustful of the basic premise, essentially for the reasons you cite. I have spent the past seven years watching movies mostly at home. That means indulging my own preference for movies from about 1930 to 1960 or so, because I lack self-discipline and tend to watch whatever the hell I want. I haven't seen many recent romantic comedies; the ones I have seen, I admit, were pretty dire. I would much rather curl up with Midnight or Angel or Easy Living I said, this is why I haven't seen much new.

    But Dowd and Wasson are playing with a stacked deck, citing masterpieces or beloved classics. I've seen enough from Paramount in the 1930s to know, for example, that not everything was Lubitsch-level, not by a long shot. I still get a great deal from the era's lesser movies because I'm in tune with the rhythms and the creativity of the era, but distance does lend enchantment. As you say, the farther you get from when a movie was made, the more it becomes something you can judge as a piece of history or a social artifact, the more you can look at what it shows of the studio aesthetic, and the more you can put overall accomplishment aside if you need to. Eventually things that were tedious or campy from a distance of 20 years or less start to reassert their charms--the Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies, which they cite and which I always loved, are a good example.

    I try not to use old movies to beat up on new ones (it's hard, but I try). And I try not to let my love for them blind me to what the eras were really like. Sometimes on my blog and elsewhere I see someone (usually a young woman) saying with enthusiasm, "I wish I could have lived in the 1930s or 40s!" And I always think, "Really, doll? Worldwide economic catastrophe followed by global abattoir, that appeals, does it?"

    Of course what she really means is that she wants to live in the movies of the 1930s and 40s. Hell, join the club. That's why I also see this editorial as of a piece with Dowd's whole "romance isn't what it used to be" hobbyhorse, by which she has made it limpidly obvious that she means "men aren't what they used to be." I never know what to say to that. I think relationships are so much less stressful if you forgive him for not being Cary Grant, and he forgives you for not being Katharine Hepburn. This is difficult for some people, though.

    Anyway, thank you for the thoughtful post, and thank you too for the list reference to remind me (as many others have) that I still need to see Before Sunrise.

  2. The sentence I'm most suspicious of in the Dowd piece is the one where she says she learned how to love from the movies. I can only speak from experience, but I spent 20 years doing that and then another 20 unlearning what I had learned in the first 20. It was quite painful.

  3. Why cite Dowd's opinion on anything? Especially romance.