Movies Are My Boyfriend: On Film, Love… (And Lack Thereof)

The weather outside is frightful — and indoors, it’s not much better. I sleep in two, sometimes three layers; I huddle under blankets in front of the TV; I wear a jacket 24/7. I’m chilled to the bone, wondering why mankind never caught on to hibernation or migration. I could so go for a three-month siesta in a cozy cave somewhere… maybe a seasonal jaunt to the Equator…

But we humans devised our own system to endure the dead of winter: holidays, on which we gather loved ones to take in the heat of camaraderie. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s — is it a mere coincidence that all these take place during the chilliest months? Don’t think so. It’s by design.

We’d never make it through the winter without loved ones gathered around the fire, the distractions of food and presents, the rum we secretly spike our egg nog with. Spring, oh glorious spring, is just around the corner — along with sunlight, and warmth — and we’ve got one last holiday to cozy up with before we get there. The one that warms our hearts most of all.

At least, that’s the plan. But every year, right about now, the system fails us as we approach the most abhorred of holidays. Red is splattered across town like so much blood, as if to put us on alert… hearts are hung in department stores, which, when you think about it, is just super morbid. Girlfriends get extra needy, boyfriends get extra twitchy, and single people get extra extra sulky. These are the harbingers of Cupid’s annual reign of terror, dreaded by lovers and loners alike, as the coupled grapple with finding the perfect gift for that special someone, while the uncoupled grapple with… not. And maybe it worked, like, 100 years ago, when everybody was married off by age 14 or whatever. But this is the 21st century, and people are choosier than ever, staying single way longer than our parents and grandparents did.

But we still have Valentine’s Day. The one day out of 365 when even the most thick-skinned cynic can’t escape at least a twinge of remorse at how unlike a Katherine Heigl movie it all is. Twosomes hoping for red-hot passion snuggle up to lukewarm mushiness instead… onesomes contend with lonely, frigid nights… it seems everyone feels a shiver of disappointment mid-February, building up to a whole lotta hatred for the Day o’ Love.

As for me? I’m the rare bird that actually likes Valentine’s Day — even when I’m unattached. In fact, I kinda love it. I don’t buy that it’s just a corporate ploy conjured by Hallmark, De Beers, and Godiva, a maniacal unholy triumvirate using plush toys and flowers as instruments of evil. Nor do I support stubborn spinsters who ignore the day’s passing the way Brits snub our Fourth of July — a bitter “Bah, cherub!” stance that assumes a party of one can be no party at all.

There was a time when I shared that icy outlook, before I realized that a cold-hearted interior is deadly when it’s already so frosty out. The Significantly Otherless would be wise to note, as I have, that love of any kind is cause for celebration, and Valentine’s Day can be enjoyably observed even sans the traditional bells, whistles, and candy hearts.

And, okay — by now you’re wondering who ordained me Love Doctor, and what this has to do with the cinematic arts — but it just so happens that my big fatty crush on film is what got me out of the V-Day trenches. See, as children, we look to our parents as role models. We may recognize their tender, almost platonic affection for each other as “love,” but we don’t likely identify it with the burning passion and fireworks of L – O – V – E. (Or, if we do, hellooo therapy!) ‘Cause when it comes to the good stuff… like sex, drugs, and planting ideas into people’s head by invading their dreams… well, we learn from the movies, don’t we?

Ever notice how even the most banal action flick comes complete with romantic subplot?  The hero saves the day in the climax, but the credits don’t roll ‘til he gets the girl in the end. Love is the universal element connecting audiences to stories they’d never relate to otherwise — what would the sinking of the Titanic matter, without Jack and Rose? Who would have any clue where Casablanca was, if not for Rick and Ilsa? And frankly, my dear, no one would give a damn about the war in Gone With The Wind had Rhett and Scarlett not been caught up in it. Even if a few thousand civilians are lost to nuclear catastrophe along the way, all’s well that ends in a steamy makeout session. With this correlation between sweeping spectacle and sex appeal, is it any wonder we’re all such fools for love?

Deep down, we all need it. Many of us seek that Edward-and-Bella romance — sweet, simple… okay, stupid… and maybe minus that whole chewing-babies-out-of-our-bellies thing. (Though, really, it might be a fair trade-off, considering.) We are socially and biologically programmed with an urge to pair off, like each and every one of us gotta represent on a big ol’ biblical ark. The last century or so of filmmaking has only made it worse — now, not only do we want to find “the One” (necessary factor: they look like a movie star), but we also want a Celine Dion song to be playing when we do. (And a moderate gust of wind to blow our hair back “just so” wouldn’t hurt.) The rest of us might settle for something a little quirkier — say, Michael Cera finally coming around nine months after he knocked us up, or a girl named Autumn to take our mind off that bitch Summer — but still. You see how it goes.

Yet we can’t so easily blame movies for our larger-than-life expectations, even as they give way to life-sized compromises down the road. Some of Hollywood’s greatest love stories end in tragedies that make our own doomed romances look positively comedic in comparison. Lovers are separated, often by death; the best tend to be bittersweet. And let’s not forget the behind-the-scenes drama, often even more calamitous. Rare is the celebrity coupling that outlasts a Twinkie; more common are horrific headlines splashed across tabloids: Backstabbing! Cheating! Blackmail! And occasionally: Starlet Births Hermaphrodite’s Illegitimate Love-Child! Maybe the real reason Hollywood’s best romances are its most tragic is because they can’t comprehend anything else.

So cynics and singles, listen up. If even the people making movies have wrecking balls swinging through their love shacks, perhaps it’s easier to see those picture perfect romantic sagas for what they are: big-screen fantasy, no different than tales of futuristic cyborgs, talking piglets, or tough-love teachers inspiring inner-city kids not to get pregnant, do drugs, and kill each other. Once we stop waiting for our crises to dissipate cinema-style, with a happy/sappy ending that fades out on a passionate embrace and possibly some heavy petting, we’re free to observe Valentine’s Day on our own terms — minus the grand gestures and great expectations — even if we’re all by our Significant Selves.

After all, lovers come and go. Flowers wilt. Chocolate begets love handles. And diamonds… well, they may be forever, but ladies, they will not hold your hair back when you are throwing up from too much champagne. (Unless, I guess, it’s a diamond hair clip.) Holding out for a fantastic ideal often results in a subpar reality, and condemning a winged baby wielding a bow and arrow won’t help. The best way to thaw is from the inside out, to celebrate with whatever keeps us warmest. For me, the answer’s obvious.

When Cupid strikes, I know exactly where I’ll be: curled up on the couch with popcorn and champagne, watching a favorite film, as I do so often on this lovely little day of the year. (See what a sweet, positive spin I put on that old chestnut, “drinking alone”?) Why waste Valentine’s Day on some inferior person when, really, it’s cinema that’s always been there for me, to make me laugh and cry, to inspire me and infuriate me and enlighten me and disappoint me? Isn’t that everything a relationship is supposed to be? Isn’t that all I need?

Yes, more or less. (As for any physical needs, well, there’s a different kind of film available.) So I take Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate my true love. After all, the best traditions are those we create for ourselves, and I’ve got a feeling — no matter what Cupid has in store for me this year, or any after — movies will always be mine.

(Originally published in INsite Boston.)

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