Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Love on Film

By Chris Herrington

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  Valentine’s Day is once again upon us, and there is perhaps no better holiday for videophiles. Romantic films are great for home viewing for many reasons. The coziness and privacy of a home screening for you and that special someone can be preferable to a packed movie house for obvious reasons, and it makes a fine nightcap for whatever wining and dining preceded it. But they’re also great for home viewing because the 17 most disheartening words in the life of a cinephile – “This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your television” – generally don’t sting quite as much with romantic films. Heavily dependent on dialogue and close-ups, they transfer to the small screen better than other types of films.

Unfortunately, in an era when Hollywood films rarely feature any recognizable human beings, good romantic films are hard to come by. The Nora Ephron/Meg Ryan collaborations When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle have formed today’s dominant paradigm for cinematic romance, with most other mainstream product following in the same vein without being as well-crafted. But you’ve seen those already, and you can do a lot better anyway. Those looking for an alternative to the (admittedly effective) test-marketed manipulations of the Ephron/Ryan school of romantic film are advised to look to their source material.

An Affair to Remember (1957), which Sleepless in Seattle uses as a talisman, tells the story of two engaged (but not to each other) people, played by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, who meet on a ship and fall helplessly in love. As the ship docks, and they are forced to face the reality of returning to their respective lovers, they vow, in one of cinema’s most famous plot devices, to meet six months later at the top of the Empire State Building. Needless to say, one of them doesn’t make it, and the trip from there to the requisite Hollywood happy ending is full of more pathos and heartbreak than you might expect. What seals Affair’s greatness, of course, is the chemistry between, and the performances of, Kerr and Grant, who may be the greatest romantic actor ever (Check his work with Katharine Hepburn in Holiday and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious). The ineffable early scenes between the two, where every word, glance, or movement carries meaning beyond mere subtext or suggestion, captures the excitement and disorientation of new love as well as anything ever put on celluloid.

The Whole Wide World is a film as romantic as its title.

The reason that Sleepless in Seattle fails to reach these heights is made plain by the way it uses An Affair to Remember. In Sleepless, women characters are seen constantly watching Affair while the male characters never do. The female characters weep together and complain that “men never get this movie” while the men deride it as a “chick movie.” One female character talks about how “phone commercials” make her cry while the men bond over The Dirty Dozen. In a culture where most mainstream films are seen (by the corporations that make them) as only mirrors, a way to sell audiences a vision of what they think they are or want to be, it is precisely these kinds of assumptions about what people think and feel that keeps a marketing exercise like Sleepless in Seattle from being as affecting (unless, of course, those assumptions rhyme with the world you live in) as a work of art like An Affair to Remember.

Due later this year from the Sleepless in Seattle team is You Have Mail, an e-mail-driven remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 classic The Shop Around the Corner. Starring Jimmy Stewart (in a finely understated performance that directly followed the blustery icon-making turns in It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and Margaret Sullavan as a pair of squabbling employees who are unknowingly romantic pen pals, The Shop Around the Corner deserves to be seen for reasons beyond preparatory research or as tribute to the recently deceased Stewart. Simply put, it’s one of the most sublime films produced during Hollywood’s golden age. Directed with the efficency and bittersweet humanity that marked the “Lubitsch touch,” the film is set in pre-Communist Budapest, just as the Great Depression is fading. The majority of the action takes place in a quaint little leather-goods shop owned by Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan, a.k.a. the Wizard of Oz) and run by a half-dozen clerks who are clinging to the middle-class life the shop affords. Because the couple and those around them are facing deeper concerns, the film resonates with enduring empathy. As for the romance, the locales, including a lovely little cafe with gypsy violinists, and Stewart and Sullavan’s performances (the dialogue of the last half hour is spoken at whisper levels) seal the perfection demanded by the script and direction. If Ephron, Hanks, and Ryan can come even close to matching the charm of The Shop Around the Corner, it will be a shock.

But maybe you have some unfortunate aversion to old movies, or you just need reassurance that convincing romantic films are still being made. If it’s modern alternatives you crave, you can’t go wrong with Dogfight(1991), an exquisite little film from Bronx-based independent filmmaker Nancy Savoca. Set in 1963 San Francisco, just before the Kennedy assassination, Dogfight stars the much-missed River Phoenix as a young Marine on his last day of freedom before shipping off to Vietnam. His Marine buddies are sponsoring a “dogfight,” a horrifying spectacle where the soldiers pool their money, rent a bar, and have a contest to see who can bring the ugliest date. After striking out with several women, Phoenix approaches a homely aspiring folksinger, played by the incomparable Lili Taylor. Of course, she finds out the cruel purpose of the party and gives Phoenix, a boy who the military has taught to pretend to be a man, a tongue-lashing not nearly as severe as he deserves. He feels guilty and she feels sorry for him, and they end up spending a night together of intimacy and revelation. The film is great for its quietness, the way it nails both the awkward silences, and the sweet moments when nothing needs to be said. A wordless scene inside the warm red walls of a music arcade, where they dance and first kiss is perfect. The night gives way to a cool blue morning of hesitant love-making, and a daybreak farewell to the tune of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

Just as good is the sadly under-recognized The Whole Wide World, one of 1996’s best films. It stars Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert Howard, the pulp writer behind Conan the Barbarian, and Rene Zellweger as an aspiring writer who seeks his counsel. D’Onofrio is dynamite in a showy role, but it’s Zellweger’s movie, and her performance here is every bit the equal of her bust-out role in Jerry Maguire. Set on the dusty plains of 1940s Texas, The Whole Wide World is a film as romantic as its title, but it doesn’t end on the note of contentment or happiness that the three other films do. Without giving too much away, it’s a romantic tragedy on par with what An Affair to Remember would have been had it ended at the Empire State Building. And, like The Shop Around the Corner, it is animated by questions and concerns that may well strike deeper than mere love, in this case what sacrifices love may entail, and whether or not it’s worth it. If the tragedy that befell the lovers in Affair was one of chance, the denouement of The Whole Wide World is crueler and much more deeply sad because it results from choices made by the film’s characters.

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