Half of art seems to be about the heady feeling of falling in love, but it’s rarely done convincingly or in any detail; it’s such a universal experience that a lot of writers, filmmakers, songwriters, etc. shorthand the whole thing with big, familiar tropes like “They hate each other, then they love each other” or the corny, easy “love at first sight” moment. Who do you think has done it well? What are your favorite stories in any medium about people falling in love?
We did an Inventory on falling-in-love movies we believe in a few years ago, but this seems like a good opportunity to revisit the topic, and expand it to other media. To wit: This is a really basic version of the trope, and it’s a “First they hate each other, then they love each other” story to boot, but whenever I think about falling-in-love stories, I flash back to Emma Bull’s novel War For The Oaks, largely because it has one of the most apt descriptions of love I’ve ever seen. A male character is assigned to the female protagonist as a minder and protector; he resents her and treats her first dismissively, then with courtly fake affection, but in a slow, well-released development throughout the book, her courage and her personality have an effect on him over time. When he eventually tries to explain his feelings, he’s blunt, awkward, and confused about how it all happened and what it means, but all he knows is that he finds his thoughts drifting toward her no matter what he’s doing, and that jokes are funnier if she laughs at them, and everything around him “is colored by what I imagine you will say of it.” Simply put, she’s gotten under his skin, and he can’t explain why, he can only observe the effects with a certain amount of bemusement and a lot of frustrated need. All too often, I think that’s how love works, which is why it’s so magical when a love interest responds, and you can stop thinking about how and why it all happened, and just enjoy it.
I’ll go for one that is about two people falling back in love at the precise moment that they try and remove any and all feelings for each other. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind has a science-fiction conceit atop a living, breathing, beating heart at the center of its near-future tale. It’s nominally about a device that purges painful memories from a patient’s mind, but seemingly cannot remove them from the patient’s heart. It’s told in typically loopy, non-linear fashion through Charlie Kaufman’s script and Michel Gondry’s direction: We see the estranged couple at the end of their relationship, then work backward to rediscover what they once found so appealing in each other. The movie gives the pair an opportunity to start again, but crucially, doesn’t guarantee them a happy ending on their second attempt. And yet the couple gladly takes the unknown journey again together, knowing full well how terribly it ended the first time. There’s something thrillingly optimistic about that choice, and in the idea that love isn’t something you find once, it’s something you can potentially rediscover again and again.
Falling in love is about finding someone you can’t stop looking at. That’s one of the reasons we so often get it confused with pure physical attractiveness, I think, because both start from that same point of fascination. And it may be why we so readily become infatuated with movie stars; when the movies do their jobs right, the stars have all the surface qualities we yearn for, and we bring our own depth. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint exactly what the difference is between attraction and love, but it must be something to do with the expression on our faces as we stare, transfixed. In lust, our faces go blank, as a purely animal need consumes us. But when we’re in love, first tipping and then falling, there’s a reflex spasm at the corners of your mouth, and you just can’t stop smiling. Drive is, by design, a movie of surfaces, and for those on its particular wavelength, it’s all the more affecting because of that deeply felt shallowness, the way it strips down a complicated plot so that the most basic moments resonate. Like, say, a romance. Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan are good-looking, and in the logic of movies like this, of course they’re going to be drawn to each other. But Drive makes this work by showing time and again how Gosling and Mulligan can’t stop watching each other, and the way they can’t help grinning at what they see. It’s simplicity done right, and it means that when the movie turns violent, we know exactly how much is at stake.
You never forget your first big vicarious experience with a falling-in-love story, and mine was probably the romance of Swamp Thing and Abby Arcane, which blossomed during the early issues of Alan Moore’s run on the comic. He was a towering hunk of sentient vegetation; she was a sensitive hippie with snow-white hair and an open-minded attitude regarding the date-worthy. Sure, her first response was to find him scary and even a little repulsive, but after they got to know each other, it seemed as if they could become unlikely friends. Maybe, who knows, even more than friends, if she weren’t married. Then it turned out that her pathetic drunk of a husband was actually possessed by the spirit of her evil, incestuous uncle, and Swamp Thing ended up literally journeying to the bowels of hell to bring her back to the surface and restore her to life, which is the kind of thing that might make a girl wonder if she hadn’t settled. The details were fantastical, but what matters is whether the emotional development underneath it all rings true, and boy, at the very least, I sure wanted it to. I’ve heard that after Moore left the comic, Swamp Thing and Abby (who’d since married and started having psychedelic mammal/vegetable sex) started having problems, but I’ve never wanted to know for sure.
The gloriously sappy pop song “Chesterfield King” by Jawbreaker is an anomaly amid the brooding post-hardcore on Bivouac, the band’s phenomenal second album. Guitarist-vocalist Blake Schwarzenbach expertly captures the tentative, clumsy pre-relationship moments that stretch on interminably until someone makes a move. As a couple shares an awkward moment hanging out, the narrator bails because he’s “too scared to say a thing.” “Left your house and kicked myself / put those feelings on a shelf to die / I guess I’m not the gambling type / but think of what the two of us had lost.” He doesn’t stay away long. In a scene worthy of a Jennifer Aniston film, he talks over his girl problem with a vagrant in a 7-Eleven parking lot, then comes barreling down his crush’s street to find her sitting on her steps, teary-eyed. “We pulled each other into one / parkas clinging on the lawn / and kissed right there.” Yup, it’s cheesy, but the final lines of the song sweetly describe the mundane moments that follow that big, cinematic kiss: ”Held your hand and watched TV / traced the little lines along your palm.” Each time I hear it, I feel like my heart grows 10 times, Grinch-style.
I’ve written about David Eddings’ epic fantasy series The Belgariad in a couple of AVQAs, so I won’t bore everyone (or embarrass myself) once again by recounting how many times I’ve read those damn books since I was a kid. But I will say this: Although the grudging flirtation between The Belgariad’s protagonist Garion and the bratty princess Ce’Nedra is handled with wit and warmth by Eddings, that relationship is focused on and stretched out to a sometimes tedious extreme throughout the series’ five novels. Far more subtle and moving, though, is the romance between Garion’s living ancestor, Polgara, and Durnik, her eventual husband. Centuries old, Polgara is one of the mightest sorcerers in The Belgariad’s quasi-medieval setting. Durnik, on the other hand, is a mortal blacksmith known for his sobriety, humility, and stubborn work ethic. In other words: He’s the least magical person alive. As the story progresses and Durnik discovers Polgara’s true identity and the scope of her power, the two couldn’t seem like a less-likely couple. And Eddings doesn’t handle them as such. Or at least he doesn’t seem to; a few hundred pages later, when Polgara makes a monumental sacrifice to save Durnik’s life, her love for the plain blacksmith gushes forth, apparently out of nowhere—although Eddings has been carefully, quietly building up to it the whole time. As with every element of The Belgariad, there isn’t the slightest trace of originality to the relationship between Polgara and Durnik. But by never using force or contrivance (or maybe, by using just the right amount of force and contrivance), Eddings turns their unlikely yet inevitable hookup into one of the series’ most nourishing pieces of trope-meat.
Have I mentioned my affection for Sex And The City? In previous AVQ&As? Maybe so, but I was down on love, or at least Carrie and Aidan’s. But any of us stubbornly independent workaholics or needy, well-intentioned schlubs can get behind Miranda and Steve. Opposites attracted, then repelled, then made a redheaded baby during an unplanned but fortuitous night of premium-cable passion. Sure, Steve’s role in the movie was limited to an apparent diarrhea seizure while he confesses to infidelity, and a later shot at making amends by meeting her halfway across a vulnerable footbridge. But their circuitous courtship, accidental conception, and eventual, unlikely stability after several seasons grounded a series about love whose relationships were often lost in the clouds. And hey, c’mon: It’s Steve!
Despite having been in a committed relationship for, oh, 500 years now, I continue to be most taken by stories of relationships that don’t work out. I don’t trust happy endings. (I don’t trust really unhappy endings either, but that’s a discussion for another time.) If I were to pick an emotion I like most in my art, it would be “bittersweetness” or “melancholy.” Thus I have a tendency to be drawn to stories where the lovers don’t get together at the end, and the first thing I thought of is a movie where they don’t even kiss—Once. A movie about two crazy kids who meet and grow to love each other over the sheer pleasure of making music together could have been so twee it would make most anyone want to gag, but director John Carney and stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova give themselves over to the swooning romanticism of it so completely that I didn’t even realize the characters hadn’t consummated their obvious attraction for each other in any way, shape, or form until the movie was nearing its climax. I won’t spoil what happens in those last 20 minutes (in case you haven’t seen this movie yet, somehow), but I’m impressed at how perfectly Carney navigates this minefield of emotions and comes out on the other side with an ending that feels perfect and honest. (Bonus answer: His Girl Friday, the best movie I know of about how when it’s right, it’s right.)
There’s little doubt of what’s going to happen in The Sure Thing when you sit down to watch it, but I still never get sick of watching it unfold. This is probably because in the movie, the characters come to each other: It isn’t a one-sided chase. In the 1985 Rob Reiner film, John Cusack is a sexually frustrated college student who gets a ride to visit his friend Anthony Edwards at UCLA. Edwards has tantalized Cusack with the rather revolting promise that there’s a girl on campus who’s guaranteed to have sex with him. But Cusack must share the car with uptight Daphne Zuniga. The Sure Thing follows in the steps of another one of my favorite love movies, It Happened One Night, in some ways (road trip, stuck-up girl drops her defenses thanks to happy-go-lucky dude) but in a more down-to-earth manner. I love the fact that as Claudette Colbert was in It Happened One Night, Zuniga is feisty and confused in her own way, and isn’t just some lady waiting to be charmed by Cusack. It’s charming to see the two characters start to realize they have feelings for each other, but both fight their emotions, thanks to what’s waiting for them in California. It’s the kind of movie that I tend to call a guilty pleasure, but then I realize there isn’t too much for me to feel guilty about.
Hey, here’s a really unoriginal answer: Say Anything… I wish I could come up with a smarter, cleverer response for this one, but when it comes to love, sometimes tried-and-true obviousness is what you need. I have no clue how many times I’ve seen Say Anything…—10 times? 27? 3,012?—but it never fails to charm the hell out of me, or make me feel like kissing my wife repeatedly on the face. Speaking of my wife, she looks just like Ione Skye. Coincidence? Probably not.
Even though people were seemingly tortured by the Pam-Jim will-they/won’t-they storyline that dominated the first two seasons of The Office, it’s what happened after they got together that I enjoyed the most. Why? Because once they got together, they stayed together; they dated, moved in together, got married, and started having kids. Sure, the two of them got more boring—and slightly less funny—as a result, but it was refreshing for a series to show its former “golden couple” bickering and having a declining sex life, just like normal couples do. Any other show would have put so many obstacles in Pam and Jim’s way, even after they got together, that they would still be chasing after each other like lovesick teenagers, almost seven years after the show began. And no one wants to see that.
One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to romantic comedies are montages that take couples from the “getting to know each other through a series of photogenic dates and recreational endeavors” stage of infatuation to “full-on love” over the course of two or three minutes, preferably set to a catchy pop tune. (The Naked Gun has a very funny spoof of that phenomenon.) To me, montages always feel like cheating. So I was the ideal audience for Before Sunrise, a film that goes through the heavy lifting of showing exactly how two characters fall in love, or at least enter a state of mutual infatuation over the course of one very long, very chatty night. Before Sunrise captures the giddy infatuation of meeting someone you might want to spend the rest of your life with—or at least the rest of the night—better than any other film in recent memory.
As someone who spent most of his teens and 20s perpetually falling for girls who were in terrible relationships that they refused to give up on, I’m naturally drawn to another popular cinematic trope: the girl who spends 95 percent of the film with the wrong guy before realizing that the right guy was waiting for her all along. Obviously, there are a billion such romances in the history of film, but one that escapes the orbit of Planet Cliché and comes across feeling sweetly realistic is the one between Tom Everett Scott and Liv Tyler in That Thing You Do! Oh, sure, Tyler is dating Johnathon Schaech, the lead singer of the one-hit Wonders, but he’s never less than a complete dick to her at any point in the film, and Scott’s girlfriend, Charlize Theron, is painted as a complete bitch from the get-go, so there’s never any question that the proceedings are being steered toward Scott and Tyler getting together in the end. Plus, Tyler just thinks Scott is the bee’s knees—you can tell whenever she teasingly calls him by his first and last name while smiling from ear to ear—and it becomes clear that Scott is sweet on Tyler, too, particularly in the way he acts as her nursemaid when she comes down with the flu. When Schaech finally brings the hammer down and tells Tyler that he’s never going to marry her, she realizes that she’s “wasted thousands and thousands of kisses” and walks away, giving Scott the chance to ask her, “When was the last time you were decently kissed? I mean, truly, truly, good and kissed?” The small sound Tyler makes when he remedies that situation is far more erotic than it has any right to be, but, more importantly, the moment feels completely real.
Much as with some of my colleagues, my favorite love stories in any medium have to do with either unrequited love, or emotions that overwhelm even though they’re potentially destructive. And for me, the real pop poet of the latter case remains Joni Mitchell, who on classic albums like Blue and Court & Spark, revealed an abiding romantic spirit that often transcends good judgment, yet is of value all the same. In her inimitably breathy tone, Mitchell’s biggest hit, “Help Me,” lays it out beautifully right up front: “Help me, I think I’m falling in love again / When I get that crazy feeling, I know I’m in trouble again / I’m in trouble, ’Cause you’re a rambler and a gambler and a sweet-talkin’ ladies’ man / And you love your lovin’, but not like you love your freedom.” It isn’t an ambiguous or mysterious song by any means, it’s a direct, moving evocation of love’s power. The singer knows full well that she’s going to get hurt, but she just can’t help herself.
I’ve been racking my brain about this one all week, since all my favorite falling-in-love movies tend to be pretty bittersweet. You can shut off The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg or In The Mood For Love after 20 minutes or so, but that doesn’t change what happens next. Come to think of it, most of my favorite falling-in-love songs are bittersweet too. Which is weird, because my own experiences have been more sweet than bitter, especially over the last 12 years or so. But it’s the sad stuff that really gets under my skin. So, before this turns into a public therapy session, how about the first song that came to mind, the one that sounds the most like falling in love to my ears?