May I have a happy ending please?
By Jeanne Doherty, MLIS
A tragic ending has been a commonplace for literary lovers since ancient times: Romeo and Juliet are only the most obvious of these, and without stretching, almost anyone can come up with a dozen other examples. Now, I love a good tearjerker as much as the next person, but the persistence of this genre still troubles and saddens me. Must all the great lovers die in the end?
I do realize that the eventual answer to this question is always going to be "yes," but in the last five years, I have seen several films in which a direct causal connection is implied between great sex or passion and either a miserable death at an early age or a tragic separation. Compared with the hundreds or thousands of films produced each year, this seems like an insignificant number, but compare it with the depressingly small number of films that bother to depict real desire and affection between two people and you will see how meaningful it really is. Yes, characters in romantic comedies throw one another down on sofas, surprise themselves with kisses on busy street corners and cut eyes at one another over drinks, but you don't get the sense, as a viewer, that they actually have a physical awareness of one another. Rare are the times I catch my breath in exhilaration at the chemistry vibrating between two supposedly romantic leads.
Which is why it is a crying shame that the few film couples who actually manage to convey real awareness of one another as people, as well as real physical longing for each other, must inevitably end in misery. Take the beautiful Welsh creation, Solomon and Gaenor (Director Paul Morrison, 1999). The "tagline" for this film is "their tragedy was to fall in love," but watching the two principles on screen, you can't hardly see how they could have helped themselves. When they are in a room together, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in sympathy for the yearning they convey. Their brief courtship is played out almost entirely with glances, and is fiery enough to make the viewer feel their impatience to be with one another, while at the same time seeming incredibly gentle and delicate. You want them to love each other, and they do. It feels like a betrayal when they are separated first by misunderstanding, then by family, and then irrevocably.
The romantic strength of Keith Gordon's film Waking the Dead (2000) rests entirely in its two beautiful and open-countenanced actors: Jennifer Connelly and Billy Crudup. Connelly always seems so direct and honest, as if her character's life really was her own. Here, she captures you with the feeling she gives off of simply being emphatically, absolutely present in what is happening to her. Crudup's young politician doesn't have a chance, nor would he want one. You sense that they truly see each other, and want what they see, though it may not fit with who they are. The film begins ten years after Connelly's character's death, so I won't be telling tales out of school when I say that those differences are what pull them apart. The film is really more about ambition and character than it is about love, but the gold-tinged love flashbacks are the liveliest things about it. They leave you wondering if any achievement that springs from a sacrifice of that magnitude could possibly be worth it.
The British "comedy" called Crush (Director John McKay, 2001) is what really got me going on this theme in the first place. While the tragedies of the two films above, however unfair, are reasonably embedded in the situations and the characters from the beginning, this particular film should have ended happily like the romantic comedy it purports to be. The film isn't initially a love story, I admit. It is about a group of friends "of a certain age" who meet to drink and commiserate and laugh every week, and who are scandalized when one of their number begins a reckless and raunchy fling with a boy barely more than half her age. The film rates this list because the chemistry between these two is immediate and their sex is hot and daring, though not explicit. It is exactly the kind of sizzle that you hope for in a romantic comedy, pushed one tiny, exciting step further. Well, apparently that one step further is a bit too far, and everyone had to be punished for it. The film initially adheres to the tropes of a good romantic comedy: attraction, misunderstanding, friends getting in the way, and eventual reconciliation. At which point, it takes a sudden and alarming turn to the unnecessarily maudlin. You are left at the end saying to yourself "huh?" That's as much articulation of your disappointment as you are able to muster. It's as if someone told you, "Look over there!" and then hit you on the head with a brick. It leaves you with the suspicion that someone really did think that having great sex with a beautiful boy was something for which one should be punished, and severely.
This may seem to be a somewhat hysterical piece of analysis, but it does make a certain kind of sense. For centuries--and especially among those privileged classes who shaped our culture as the primary consumers of the arts - marriage was little more than a business arrangement, ensuring smooth property transfers between families and providing legitimate heirs to the male line. Love did not necessarily enter in to the equation, and furthermore, the chastity and fidelity of the female members of this bargain were strictly controlled in an attempt to guarantee succession within families. Passion would, and I am sure did, serve as a disruption to the system, a transgression against the status quo. In this context, the literary deaths of Romeo and Juliet or Mimi and Rodolfo or Solomon and Gaenor begin to seem like a warning instead of an entertainment.
And what about now? Why do we hang on so tightly to this genre? Has the power dynamic between men and women not changed just a bit since Tristan and Isolde? I would like to think that it has, but we still seem attached to the trappings. Is the tragic romance simply too embedded in our culture to discard? For my part, I don't find it to be a source of pleasure or even catharsis. I respond to the end of these movies and stories with profound frustration and irritation, as if to say, "What did you have to do that for?" I don't see why we can't have just a few more scorching romances that end with the lovers settling down to a gloriously complacent and long life together. The deck seems woefully stacked the other way. If we honestly can't see the compatibility between passion and long-term happiness, then there is something more wrong with us than we think.
If you want film versions of this utopia, they do exist, though they are few. I also find that picking a film like Solomon and Gaenor and watching only half of it works almost as well in a pinch. Otherwise, try these:
Moonstruck (Director Norman Jewison, 1987)
Born Romantic (Director David Kane, 2000)
Children of a Lesser God (Director Randa Haines, 1986)
Secretary (Director Steven Shainberg, 2002)
Hope Springs (Director Mark Herman, 2003)
Better than Sex (Director Jonathan Teplitzky)