A couple of weeks ago I picked up AMC’s Mad Men. The fictional show, now in its third season, is an attempt to give the viewer a glimpse into Madison Avenue and the lives of advertising men in the 1960s. From the very first episode, the subtext of the show becomes clear. In fact, the main protagonist Donald Draper says it best, “Love is just a line that we [ad men] created to sell nylons.” This remains an underlying theme throughout the show; everything is for sale: sex, cigarettes, alcohol and, yes, even love. Each episode furthered my curiosity to ask a broader culture question. In the mist of material abundance and affluence, can authenticity be found? Does love exist, and if so, why is contemporary culture so skeptical about its existence?
Paper Heart approaches these questions honestly and bluntly. In this film, comedian and musician Charlyne Yi (Knocked Up and Cloverfield) and director Nicholas Jasenovec propose to make a documentary about the existence of love. Charlyne doesn’t believe that she is capable of loving anyone, and is skeptical of love’s existence altogether. The film is filled with a plethora of perspectives on love through interviews with academics, mid-American diners, and school playgrounds. But they all seem to say the same thing: “You’ll know it when you feel it, and you will feel it. Just wait.”
And sure enough, halfway through the project the film’s direction takes a turn as Charlyne meets Michael Cera at a party. Jasenovec realizes that this may be the love story that disproves Charlyne’s thesis. Charlyne stubbornly continues her interviews about love, but proceeds to learn through her relationship with Cera what it might be like to love and to have her heart broken. The film ends without resolving Charlyne and Michael’s relationship status, and it doesn’t have to. The audience knows the truth; no theoretical proof can be given to show love’s existence. It must be experienced, with all the delight and sadness that can result. The heart is indeed fragile.
Thirty years ago, the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard gave his assessment of the state of knowledge in North American culture, calling it The Postmodern Condition. One of the key insights he offered was that contemporary culture was becoming incredulous toward meta-narratives. In other words, the structures that allow people to assume the inevitable progress of history, scientific knowledge and individual freedom had become shaky. My more modest assessment of popular culture in 2009 might suggest that our culture suffers instead from incredulity toward love.
Consider the lyrics of “Take it Easy (Love Nothing)” by Conor Oberst, a contemporary singer-songwriter:
First with your hands and then with your mouth. A downpour of sweat, damp cotton clouds. I was a fool. You were my friend. We made it happen. You took off your clothes, left on the light. You stood there so brave. You used to be shy. Each feature improved, each movement refined and eyes like a showroom. Now they are spreading out the blankets on the beach. That weatherman is a liar. He said it would be raining but it’s clear and blue as far as I can see. Left by the lamp, right next to the bed, on a cartoon cat pad she scratched with a pen, “Everything is as it’s always been. This never happened. Don’t take it too bad it is nothing you did. It’s just once something dies you can’t make it live. You’re a beautiful boy. You’re a sweet little kid but I am a woman.” So I laid back down and wrapped myself up in the sheet. And I must have looked like a ghost ’cause something frightened me and since then I’ve been so good at vanishing. Now I do as I please and lie through my teeth. Someone might get hurt, but it won’t be me. I should probably feel cheap but I just feel free and a little bit empty. No, it isn’t so hard to get close to me. There will be no arguments. We will always agree. And I’ll try and be kind when I ask you to leave. We’ll both take it easy. But if you stay too long inside my memory, I will trap you in a song tied to a melody and I will keep you there so you can’t bother me.
This song explores a common theme: if you love someone, there is always the risk that you will get hurt. And one wonders, is it really better to just vanish and choose to love nothing?
Judd Apatow suggests an alternative in his latest film, Funny People. This film follows a veteran comedian George Simmons (Adam Sandler) who takes on up-and-coming comedian Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) as his assistant. At one point, George explains to Ira the generational difference between them—while the younger generation had to deal with parental divorce and saw the breakdown of love in marriage, an older generation had to endlessly struggle to earn love from strict and angry parents. And he concludes that it is better to be one who struggles for love, rather than to become cynical about it. Or, at the very least, the funnier jokes come from the former.
Or consider Away We Go, a film written by a husband and wife team, Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida. The story follows Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph), a couple who is expecting, as they travel to different destinations visiting friends and relatives. The aim of their journey is to discover the best place to raise their child. During their travels they encounter varying practices and perspectives of which leave them somewhat dejected about the possibilities of finding a true home. Like Burt and Verona, we find ourselves in a pluralistic culture, and the choices and decisions often seem overwhelming. Rather than being overwhelmed, Burt and Verona make a commitment to each other that they will love one another and do their best to raise their child together. The film is wise to suggest that love is something you experience through living together, rather than something located in a place to which you can escape.
We are familiar with the “formula” of romantic comedies. They start out with a few chance meetings and some trivial obstacles that the characters work through in order to arrive at their “happily ever after.” These films’ danger lies not a much in their ability to mislead us about the true reality of relationships as in their simplistic view of love. Superficial love might provide a temporary high, but to understand a deeper kind of love, we need films that are courageous enough to challenge our assumptions about love without dashing our hope.
(500) Days of Summer and Adam are two good examples of films that challenge the typical formula. Like Paper Heart, (500) Days of Summer puts the existence of love to the test. Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) unabashedly believes in love. He believes in fate, destiny and the possibility of finding one’s true love. In contrast, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) doesn’t believe in love. For Summer, love is like Santa Claus: a fun story when you are young, but one that experience and adulthood teach you is a fiction. Despite their divergent assumptions, they launch into a “romantic” relationship. They make each other laugh, enjoy the same kind of music, and have fun spending time together wandering around the city. But beliefs matter, and they eventually realize that there is very little holding their relationship together.
Told as a traditional love story, Tom and Summer’s relationship might seem rather mundane and little depressing. But in what has become a postmodern signature, the scenes seem randomly sequenced, and the viewer has to work to see how the story coheres. The narrator is adamant: “This is not a love story; it is a story about love.” Through a series of vignettes, the viewer sees both the highs and lows of the relationship, and the film becomes a lesson in love. Summer’s beliefs are challenged by Tom’s love. Summer’s doubt leads Tom to see that love is more complicated than he had naively believed. Tom learns that there are indeed choices to be made and that deeper love may lie in the future rather than in retrieving it from the past. For Tom, heartbreak doesn’t lead him to give up; instead, he uses his experience and forges ahead.
Writer/director Max Mayer takes a less didactic approach to romantic relationships in the film Adam. Adam (Hugh Dancy) is odd. He lives alone in a large apartment in New York City. He loves sermonizing on scientific facts and watching the stars and a family of raccoons in Central Park. To his downstairs neighbor Beth (Rose Byrne), he seems embarrassingly forward, eccentric and socially awkward.
In fact, Adam has a type of Asperger’s Syndrome that challenges his ability to read others’ non-verbal cues and emotions. Regardless, both Adam and Beth risk being uncomfortable and become involved in a romantic relationship. Through their relationship, Adam gets better at learning how to read social situations, and Beth learns that most relationships are hindered by insecurities, our ability to mask our emotions and to present a facade. For Beth, it is a strange relationship, as these traditional barriers come down and she realizes that Adam may be the first person who really, simply loves her—no manipulation, no games, no saving face. The film avoids a formulaic and predictable ending while maintaining hope, showing that love does exist, and it changes us.
So, is love a fiction? Is it just a nice idea that doesn’t signify anything real? A simple reading of our popular culture might lead one to doubt that there really is any substance behind the entertaining stories we tell ourselves. A closer look reveals that the simplest story isn’t always the most true or hopeful one. The ubiquity of love stories in film can lead audiences to passively accept a predictable narrative, one that overlooks the much-needed stories about love. It is in asking these deeper questions about love that we can find honest answers, messy heartbreaks and the authentic delights of love.