Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz (1978)
THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD
by Elisabeth Geier
It starts quiet, with Martin Scorsese’s introduction to San Francisco, a brief journey through the streets surrounding the Winterland Ballroom, where on Thanksgiving Day 1977, The Band played their “final” performance. Various incarnations of The Band recorded and toured through the 1990’s, but this was the last time all five original members would play together, joined by a roster of superstar guests. This was the big show, and the movie became a big deal, but watching it thirty-some years after the action, it’s most interesting as a commentary-free observation of a group of guys going their separate ways, still united by rock ‘n’ roll. It all starts with the journey to the venue, a director-driven ride around the corner. We see members of the audience, briefly. We see the venue sign with its burnt-out bulbs. We go inside and meet The Band.
"You’re still there, huh?"
The first song we hear is the encore — the end is the beginning is the end. “We’re gonna do one last song, that’s it,” says Robbie Robertson. He seems indifferent to the audience, a little annoyed that they’ve stuck around so long. Scorsese doesn’t care about them, either; if not for the establishing crowd shot and some background cheers and applause, we might think they didn’t exist. In a way, Scorsese is the only audience for the show. When Robertson asked him to shoot the Band’s “final” concert, he was just a fan, and it’s evident in how the show is shot: tight close-ups of the performance, deep in the action, with no regard for the ballroom full of ticket holders. This is how every fan wants to feel at a great show: like they are the ones enjoying it the most, like the music is happening especially for them. There’s no room for the thrill of the crowd in Scorsese’s vision of The Band. There’s only room for being caught up and carried somewhere by a song.
"You know what happens when you have too much fun."
One fun game to play during a viewing of The Last Waltz is, What Drug(s) Is the Current Speaker On? The answer is probably cocaine. Another fun game to play during a viewing of The Last Waltz is, Which Song Is Going to Make You Cry? The answer is probably Neil Young’s “Helpless,” particularly when a clear soprano comes in on the chorus you’re not sure who it is until you see Joni Mitchell in silhouette, harmonizing from backstage. Neil Young knows a thing or two about cocaine; Scorsese famously edited a visible rock out of his nostril, but if you look hard enough, you can tell it’s there. Party like a rock star. Party like a film director, too; Scorsese was partaking in the same substances as the band throughout filming, and beyond. A couple years after The Last Waltz, he made Raging Bull, and Robert DeNiro helped him kick the habit. According to most accounts of the time, Marty was in a bad way when his favorite band asked him to film their final show. Still, Scorcese points to The Last Waltz as the most fun he ever had making a film, and we believe him, because of how lovingly he frames the songs.
"It’s not like it used to be."
The Last Waltz is a farewell to an era, as much as a band, and that finality casts a wake-like pallor on the proceedings. We know what happened to these people after the cameras went away. We know that Richard Manuel, strung out and rambling onscreen, went on to commit suicide at 46. We know that Danko died of a heart attack while on tour with a reconfigured Band. We know that Levon Helm hates this movie, didn’t want it made, and doesn’t care for its legacy. We know that Marty and Robbie are still good friends, Robbie is still contributing to Martin Scorsese Films, and The Last Waltz captures their nascent partnership in a way that sometimes seems to cast aside the rest of The Band. This is all on Wikipedia, but before you find it there, you will see it in the film, in how people talk at and past each other, how everyone looks just a little (or a lot) burnt out.
None of these tensions are directly addressed; Scorcese rightly focuses on the songs. It’s easy to get caught up in a particular look between Robertson and Danko, a particular strain in Levon Helm’s voice, the particular way Bob Dylan’s enormous hat and bad attitude commandeer the stage. But then a sweet guitar solo lifts us out of the intrigue, and we’re left with only that sound and the players on stage, where Scorsese holds us to remind us what really matters.
"We wanted it to be more than a concert. We wanted it to be a celebration."
Watching the personalities on film, it’s sometimes hard to spot the celebration. In one of several awkward interviews, The Band recalls their “glory days” of meeting women on the road, shoplifting for meals, playing their first show in New York City (“New York was an adult portion,” says Levon Helm), and it’s all tinged with a bit of regret, a bit of what have we done with our lives? But counter the tension, the visible fatigue, with their performances on stage. Counter the questions (and answers) about what happens to these people after the 80’s arrived and America’s musical taste changed, with the way they play it out.
It has to come back to the music. When Garth Hudson sidles in with his saxophone on “It Makes No Difference.” When Van Morrison yelps turn on that radio! and we get caught up in the swell of the crowd. When Levon gets to yodelin’ at the end of “Up on Cripple Creek,” and Robbie and Rick just grin. These are the moments where it doesn’t matter what went on before and after the The Last Waltz, where viewing feels like dancing and Scorsese’s fandom shines a light on the rest of us and brings us right in to the songs. And what songs they are. What a band. What a show.
Elisabeth Geier is a writer living in Montana. She thinks Rick Danko is the dreamiest, but Levon Helm is the overall best.
Running on Empty (1988)
I JUST FEEL KINDA LOUSY
by Hallie Cantor
I’d been in bed since 8 even though my bedtime wasn’t until 8:40. I think I’d been bored and I’d found some small thrill in changing my routine, lying there awake, listening to the radio I had on a thirty-minute timer every night to put me to sleep. When I woke up it was past 9, and the radio was off and I heard music and laughing from downstairs.
I went downstairs to my parents’ bedroom and found them dancing with my older sister in her nightgown. She’d had some project to do for school about waltzes, one of those weird assignments she always had, like painting a giant replica of Fort Henry in the laundry room, that entered the family space and left us all with more in the way of family memories than book learning.
We never hung out in their bedroom. We weren’t that kind of spontaneous family, the kind that did things like kiss and hug for no reason. When I came in, no one told me to go back to bed.
We all waltzed together. I danced with each parent and then they danced with each other, and everyone was really happy. I could tell at the time that it was going to be a memory. I could tell that it was a weird, special moment that I would think back on and not talk about.
I hadn’t thought of that night for years until I watched the scene in Running on Empty in which the Popes dance to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain. The scene feels like a memory, and in a way so does the whole movie.
I just feel kinda lousy, you know?
You’re supposed to feel that way at 17.
Arthur and Annie Pope blew up a napalm factory during the Vietnam War. Now they’re on the run with their two sons, building new lives in a new town every six months. The family can’t move past its past, and their teenage son Danny can’t leave the nest to start his own future.
We actually don’t find out Danny’s real name for much of the movie, and that doesn’t really matter. River Phoenix plays the role with a funny kind of blankness. I kept waiting to see the real Danny, the one that wasn’t an act for his teacher or his parents or his girlfriend. But there was no real him. Maybe at that age, there never is.
What about you?
I don’t know.
The family members take their names and identities from printouts of archived obituaries. Michael Manfield. Blond hair. “Baseball is my life.” Mother’s name Cynthia, father’s name Paul. With this kind of list, it’s difficult for others to understand who we are, to see the selves we might be trying hard to communicate.
You want to know who he is, why don’t you talk to him? He’s a person. He’s not a computer printout.
Danny owns up to his real identity to his girlfriend Lorna (Martha Plimpton, much younger but every bit as awesome as she is these days on Raising Hope) before they have sex. He can’t be with someone else without being himself. It’s hard enough to be with someone else when you are yourself: figuring out what they mean with the turn of a head, the aimless path walked in a circle around a tree, the shift away from you in bed.
You don’t transmit too much information.
I said, you don’t transmit too much information.
The real Popes are as hard to understand as their aliases. All the ways we define ourselves can only do so much. The after-school activities, the ways we misbehave at the family dinner table, the clothes we wear and the politics we espouse – how can these things make up our whole selves? How can baseball be your life? Is Arthur Pope, the social-action-organizing, co-op-forming, unionizing, James-Taylor-listening liberal, a complete character? One of the most affecting moments in the film is Judd Hirsch’s great drunken monologue:
Don’t call me Paul. I am Arthur. I am Arthur Eli Pope. Arthur Eli Pope. Born Plattsburgh, New York, July 16 1944. U.S. Citizen! My mother’s maiden name is Silbowitz. My father’s real name is Popov, Morris Popov. Driver’s license number is 435711. My draft number is MS893584. My name is Pope.
The desperation with which Pope clings to the facts of his identity feels oddly enough like a yearning for something beyond those facts, some kind of personhood that isn’t regulated by roles in a government or family system.
Being a teenager feels “kinda lousy” because it’s painful to try to be a person instead of a computer printout. It’s lousy to try to be three-dimensional. It’s lousy for me to try to be a person who can be cantankerous and Liz Lemony sometimes, and sincere and warm and earnest sometimes, and lazy and girly and passionate and depressed and pissed off sometimes. It’s lousy to be myself at a time when I’m writing and re-writing my resume so much that if someone asked who I am, I’d instinctively recite bullet points about internships and extracurriculars. Lousy to try to be myself in a way that can change, that isn’t just “baseball is my life” or “I am a comedy writer” or the posters on my wall or my hair color. It’s lousy because I don’t want to disappoint the people in my life who are trying to understand me.
The choice Danny has to make in the film is whether to become his own person or to stay connected to his family. Lorna makes that choice, too:
You want to know what I think? I think I’ll go to New York, and I’ll learn to write, and I’ll come home every Christmas and everyone will be really polite.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
To grow up is in part to go away. When I was dancing with my family, I was the younger sister, the know-it-all jokester who wouldn’t shut up. I’ve gone away now, and I’m not really any of those things anymore in my real life. But I have that memory. And when I go home, I am those things again.
It seems weird that the only way you can be the real you is by leaving the place and people that have shaped that real you. But that’s how it is. That’s how it feels in that closing shot of Danny standing by his bike after his family drives away. Or in that moment when they drive away after moving you into your dorm and you’re finally, really alone. And there isn’t any role for you to slip into, or anyone to dance with you or stop you from dancing, or any computer printout telling you who you are.
You just are.
Hallie Cantor is a writer living in Providence.
Free essay from our new issue: Tracy Wan on Before Sunrise, Before Sunset & Before Midnight
by Tracy Wan
[ sunrise ]
Three summers ago, tucked between its gauzy, languid days, I found magic. I was twenty and alienated—by my own choosing, but also by a lack of choice. I needed magic, although I wouldn’t know that until, well, now. It was the kind of magic made possible through nostalgia for no real particulars, or the kind that makes this nostalgia possible, I’m not sure. Here’s what I know: the singularity of some experiences you will never accurately appraise until they disappear, like the sobering hues of the world as you take off your sunglasses at sunset.
But that summer was for sunrises, the very beginnings. In Before Sunrise, a young Julie Delpy says to baby-faced Ethan Hawke, as Celine to Jesse: “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between.” He was silent, and I was too. And then she said, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something,” and I felt it sink into my porous being.
In that little space between myself and these characters, that script, was the start of something affirmative, a pattern I would not see until much later. Because then, in June, I fell in love.
On occasion, life will come at you with a momentum so strong you have no choice but to allow it, let your body be carried by it, make your decisions as you’re moving and never jump out of the car. When Celine stayed with Jesse in Vienna, she was acquiescing to this moment, and aren’t we all so glad she did? When Jesse says, “I would marry you, alright?” we know he’s already there.
It feels wrong to compare falling in love to falling in love in the movies, but I’ll do it, because we met on a film set and that should be enough. And if that’s not enough, I’ll say that the day I met him I told my best friend, “I met him,” and she understood, and I meant it. It’s hard to deny or ration something that lands fully-formed into your chest. And if that’s not enough, well, if you asked me a thousand days from that day, I still would nod, as in, I had no choice, as in, “Let me get my bag.”
That summer we saw a lot of sunrises together. On a fall day he said “I love you” and it was not a learning, but a truth. I caught the red in his beard once and—you’ll laugh—thought of Jesse. How could I not.
[ sunset ]
A year later, I left.
As you move away from someone you love the impulse is to justify it with growth, as though through the inflation of each other’s independence and particularities you’ll bridge the gap together. Some people are gifted at collapsing distance upon itself, reducing it to an abstraction, but I couldn’t. I counted the days, the miles, the silences between everything. We stretched thinner and thinner with every phone conversation, fighting over who was giving up more, measuring who was sadder, always threatening to snap. I did most of this.
The first mistake was to move away for work, assuming that labour could turn into love, and that the one you love will catch up. Because, as irony would have it, love also turns into labour, and it’s harder to keep up with.
When we see Jesse and Celine again, it’s in Before Sunset, and it’s been nine years. They did not meet again in Vienna, and then life happened: he got married and cynical, and she got political and cynical. “Young and stupid,” Celine says of their former selves, but reaffirms the very connection they drew nine years prior: “I guess when you’re young, you just believe there’ll be many people with whom you’ll connect with. Later in life, you realize it only happens a few times.” Their conversation swells and gushes from the very moment they see each other again, and never ceases. Celine confesses that more than loneliness, she hates feeling estranged from a lover, but the convenience is that Jesse would never fit the profile. Despite the intercontinental distance, and despite the decade in-between. Later, she hugs him:
Celine: I want to see if you stay together or if you dissolve into molecules.
Jesse: How am I doing?
Celine: Still here.
Jesse: Good, I like being here.
Being here was all he had to do. He wrote a book to call out to her, and she came.
The Before films have gathered many accolades—all of which they deserve, some of which are credited to the writing. The “realism” of the dialogue is so vivid, so intimately touching to us that we wonder if it’s improvisation (no; all three are completely scripted) or the actors/co-writers playing themselves (maybe a little bit). I keep thinking about this realism as a Linklater Reality—the idyllic, topmost layer of reality as we know it. Sampled from life. Skimmed, curated. The best of the best and the worst. It’s hard not to make it exemplary. When I watch Celine and Jesse together, a little creature mewls in my chest. It’s the heart’s lament: Could it be this easy? Is the only thing we need presence, and attention? And worse—will I not see the beauty in these days, until the light is gone?
“You feel far away,” I’d whisper on the phone sometimes, hesitating to release the words into the universe.
“You feel like you’re next to me,” he’d reply. But when he said my name, it felt like an apology.
[ midnight ]
Like developing a sudden affinity for cilantro, falling out of love is surprising, but not dismaying, to the body fostering the change. Previous relationships had come and gone, following the ebb and flows of a growing self-knowledge and a shrinking attention span. But some loves you don’t fall out of—even the word “falling” relieves you of your responsibility. It’s consolation. It’s not your fault. Some loves you have to wrestle out of yourself, kicking and screaming and very much alive.
Around the time Before Midnight started playing in theaters in Toronto, I knew it was the end but did not know how to tell myself this yet. I’d asked him to come visit and see it with me—the one thing I ask, it’s important to me, don’t you know how formative they are to me?—but he didn’t, couldn’t, something about work. Labour became love, and love became labour, and somewhere between these two moments in time we had stopped believing in the same things.
So I went with a friend, and afterwards found myself sitting in a plush seat in the dark, angry at Celine and Jesse for the first time, the very immature, over-emotional boil of not getting what you want. What I felt was no longer the perceived magic of a twenty year old falling uncannily in love in tandem with other twentysomethings on screen, but instead a very palpable chasm. Their love did not feel real anymore, which does not stem from the credibility of the film as much as it did from my emotional concerns at the time: in truth, my love did not feel real anymore.
I clenched my fists when I watched them at their worst, which was still better than most worsts. “Can you be my friend for two seconds?” Jesse asks her in the middle of a fight, in the middle of their ten years of unmarried-married life. She nods, smiles briefly, and they hold hands. It’s a beautiful moment, but someone entrenched in their own precocious self-pity would never see that, and I didn’t. Later, Jesse reminds her, “This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real,” and I said under my breath, “Please.”
The romantic in me believed this “real life” of theirs, she truly did, and will again. In this world, love is always a possibility. Will they meet in Vienna in six months? Will Jesse miss his plane? Will they love each other for 50 more years? The temporality of the films allows for as much: with every before is the implication of an after. With them, we see the sun rise, set, and disappear.
“Still there, still there, still there, gone,” Celine says quietly, as she and Jesse watch the sun tuck itself into the Ionian Sea. But the camera stays on their faces—not gone yet. We see a passing glimpse of sadness, but it is just that: passing. As the film’s last line, she says, filling all of us with hope: “It must have been quite the night we’re about to have.”
And maybe that’s the permission that this Linklater Love gives us. An infrangible faith in potential, in the slow walk down stony paths that will always lead to somewhere beautiful. The hope and the danger. “That’s what fucks us up,” their friend Ariadni cautions, during their last lunch in Greece. “Romance, the notion of a soulmate.” And although Celine and Jesse (and Richard, and Julie, and Ethan) try very hard not to echo this archetype, they are soul mates—blemished and bruised and brooding, yes, but still soul mates, their frequencies humming to an intuitive, otherworldly understanding of each other, their conversations philosophical, their banter perfect. The privilege of years of writing and rewriting, I suppose.
And for a while, that was charming; a flawed but ideal love. It was bright, and it was the best hours out of eighteen years, and I was blind to the possibility of anything else. Myopia is often a side effect of falling in love—the magic of this life seems very close, and very clear. It’s an ignited world, punctuated by sunrises and sunsets. But then, inevitably, midnight came for this love of mine, a less-than-cinematic love. In this chronology, when before runs out there is no after. It was still there, still there, still there. Now it’s gone.
Tracy Wan is a writer living in Toronto, although she’s not quite sure what she’s doing there. She loves good advertising, bad television, and discovering novelty flavours.
This essay currently appears in the February 2014 issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine. To read the rest of the issue, download the Bright Wall/Dark Room app to your iPhone or iPad for free, or purchase a copy of the issue for just $1 and receive full access to the issue online.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
A WOLF AT THE DOOR.
by Edward Montgomery
“There’s no amount of poverty in your life that can make someone happy.”— Jordan Belfort
The ideas we use to build the world can be the greatest love affairs that we will ever have. To suggest that an ideology is the same as a relationship may seem an exaggeration, but ideologies are human-born and human-bred: they are not slighted or swooning lovers, but rather our children. Ideologies define peoples’ lives: nobody really cares about what Marx enjoyed for breakfast or how he felt about his pet cat (if he even had one)—the majority simply want to know what he believed, what his idea really meant to him, and how that idea helped create the world today.
In many ways, what we mean by “searching for ourselves,” is in fact a search to understand the dominant ideologies under which we have been raised and deciding whether or not they are something we truly agree with. Yet, even with long consideration, these modes of belief are modern instinct: when the world and life catch up to your pause, these ideas and ideals will dictate the way live. How you judge the world is your ideology realized in the everyday. beliefs that you will never be able to part from regardless of how far you may travel from home. A school of fish caught in a fisherman’s net—to escape is to be both free in an ocean of possibility, and to be alone.
Culture is the question of definition, society attempting to see itself in an imaginary mirror—Western and American ideologies are constantly being fought over by makeshift lexicographers in all arenas. What do we actually mean when we say American ideology, American culture? What are we actually describing about ourselves?
One answer to this question can be in Francis Schaeffer’s, “How Should We Then Live?”, and the more I think about it, the harder I find it to argue against. The proof goes like this: without the ability to base our government, society, or individual lives on any sort of agreed-upon metaphysical absolute, secular American society has found itself in possession of two mock-absolutes: peace of mind and affluence. Any other value you may think you hold is actually sociologically determined and moderated—we don’t progress as a society because of some great Platonic ideal that we, as a nation of laws and politics, instinctually lean toward, but rather because our society morphs as the years progress and demands different rights at different times, forcing the laws and politics to their eventual will.
Peace of mind is where we find ourselves in political trouble, like how some people can’t stand the idea of people not having affordable health care, and some people can. Arguments about the exact definition of this value multiply daily. Peace of mind is how we treat people, and how we want people to treat us (i.e., gay marriage doesn’t physically affect people, but it affects their peace of mind).
But affluence is a trickier devil—it burrows deeper in the collective unconscious. Regardless the idealism that every American generation carries, regardless of how dedicated we may be to our own bohemian dreams, we all still are conditioned to view these dreams in terms of financial success. Let me make my point clear: financial success does not have to be part of your dream, it does not have to be your ultimate goal, but the thought of being well-paid while living your dream tends to improve the dream. Middle incomes are the norm, and yet, with your first salaried paycheck you cannot help but wonder about a future where that number on the invoice might be a little bit more. Affluence is set as one of your determiners of a life well-lived, even if you fight against it for all your years.
To define affluence otherwise is viewed as either a) placing yourself on the fringe of society, driving a beat-up VW across the country with your boyfriend Storm while smelling strongly of kambucha, or b) wisdom unattainable until you have already achieved affluence and then rejected it. The first scenario is hyperbolic stereotype and easily rejected, but the second is much more powerful. The Western-capitalistic version of a saint is Warren Buffet—someone terrifically good at making money, but only interested in making it…not having it. That is the highest form of affluence—Buffet is our guru on the mountain.
But we’re supposed to be talking about a movie. So, here’s the thing: when it comes to these values we share as a Western, American society, The Wolf of Wall Street acts as primer for how self-aware you are of your own ideology. Any other conversation about it seems to me to be missing the point. Talk to me about how Scorsese tried to out Baz Luhrman Baz Luhrman and I’ll respond with pictures of the gold toilets used by Enron executives. Talk to me about the sexism and I’ll point back to literally hundreds of films that use negative space to make their counterpoint. Talk to me about how we find ourselves looking to Belfort framed as a hero and that the film fails morally for this reason, and I’ll smile and ask you to keep on reading.
The Wolf of Wall Street aims to do two things: The first is to paint the American dream on film, and at some point, make its audience realize the brutal fact that you can’t help but feel some form of respect for these men. It’s a hidden societal toe-hold, whispering that affluence is good regardless of how it is attained. These men are monsters. These men are clowns. Yet, you want to be them, simply a better version of them. You wouldn’t succumb to the possibilities of power—you would reject your affluence as well. Maybe. Possibly. Probably.
The second aim of the film lies in its tone. Scorsese, like any great filmmaker, hopes for an audience that understands subtlety, and is banking on just a hint of exasperation and discontentment with these mock absolutes among his viewers. There is subtlety in a quiet, indie sense, and there is subtlety in the full-blown fanatical sense of a brass band playing fortissimo for three hours straight. Nuance during a heart-rending break-up scene is one thing, but nuance during the halftime show of the Super Bowl is quite another. And the subtlety, the small pinch at our throats while watching, isn’t found in the fact that Jordan Belfort doesn’t learn anything, doesn’t grow during the film at all—unreflective souls are far from rare in this world. What is subtle is the way we are both indicted and enthralled, the way our values are laid bare in their awesome possibility and terrible realization.
For Scorsese to place our love, our dream of an American life fully realized in front of us—and to do so by showcasing its worst offspring— isn’t what makes this film great. What makes it great is to do it in such a way that, when we walk out of the theater, we can’t shake the thought that Jordan Belfort and his compatriots are still out there, are still richer than we’ll ever be, and that the subway will remain our ride home. The Wolf of Wall Street is a documentary of a party that 99% of the country never gets invited to. It’s the story of the wealth of men like Jordan being built out of the equity of our dreams. And it’s the tragedy that, after the credits roll, we walk home holding hands with the lover we refuse to leave.
Edward Montgomery is a writer living all over the place. He’s been a Bright Wall/Dark Room staff writer since 2010.
VALENTINE’S DAY MOVIES
by Chad Perman
(originally posted on Valentine’s Day 2012)
If you decide to watch a movie on Valentine’s Day - and we here at BW/DR obviously strongly recommend that you do - choosing one can be a bit of a minefield. The straight-forward Hollywood rom-coms of the past twenty years (at least) are usually god awful at best; the predictable and sappy ones often make you want to burn out your eyes (The Notebook, The Proposal, etc) and the indie ones, if well-made, are often tremendous downers or, worse, mumblecore and meandering (Greta Gerwig can’t overcome every bad or non-existent script, after all).
And don’t even get us started on all those “anti-Valentine’s Day” people who will purposely seek out anti-romance films just to prove that love sucks and people suck and nobody will ever be happy in this huge world of jerks (Thelma & Louise, The War of the Roses, The Break-Up, etc).
But never fret! There is hope! There are actual movies out there about love that are well-worth watching with your significant other. Here, then, is a list of a few films you should at least consider watching this February 14th—in alphabetical order—as well as some of the reasons why:
Annie Hall (1977)
It is not an overstatement to say that, without Annie Hall, many popular romantic comedies made since its release would never – could never - have been made. Quite simply, Annie Hall changed what a romantic comedy was (and beat outStar Wars for Best Picture in the process). From the wonderfully authentic,improvised lobster scene, to Alvy and Annie’s split-screen psychoanalytic sessions, to the frequent head-on addresses to the audience (breaking down that illusive fourth wall of cinema, and doing it so damned humorously) and its non-linear, fractured narrative, Allen re-invented what a romantic comedy could do. And that’s why, 35 years later, we still need the eggs.
The Apartment (1960)
Billy Wilder made romantic comedies like they really meant something. And he never made a finer one than The Apartment. From Jack Lemmon’s opening monologue to Shirley MacLaine’s famous final line, the film is full of intelligence, humor, romance, chemistry, and charm.
No matter where you are in life, one of these films will speak to you. When I was in high school, Before Sunrise made more sense to me than I knew how to articulate, though now it seems a little silly at times - especially considering how much sense Before Sunset makes to me in my early 30s. Two wonderfully talky films featuring two people talking about love in honest, sentimental, naive, and learned ways. “It reminded me how genuinely romantic I was, how I had so much hope in things…”
Crazy, Stupid Love (2011)
Hey girl, this is the most recent film you’ll find on the list and thus one that I can’t wholly guarantee will stand the test of time. However, I’d guess it has a pretty decent shot of holding up over the years. Because it gets a lot of things right about love, in all its various forms (unrequited love, first love, mistaken love, lasting love) and, when a film can do something like that - and make you laugh at the same time - it’s a film worth seeing.
Clementine: This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.
Joel: I know.
Clementine: What do we do?
Joel: Enjoy it.
The Fountain (2006)
A philosophical art-house love story dolled up as a time-bending science fiction epic. The Fountain tells three stories as one larger story, a man’s quest for love and immortality that spans 1,500 years and takes us all the way from the ancient jungles of ‘new Spain’ to a futuristic world on a dying nebula star somewhere in the far reaches of our universe. The thing that connects these things, these stories, is the relationship between a man (Hugh Jackman) and a woman (Rachel Weisz), and the love that seems to tie them together eternally.
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
The worst possible moment to begin falling in love with someone is undoubtedly when your airplane is just about to crash into the ground, but that’s precisely what happens to Peter Carter (David Niven), a British WWII pilot who finds connection with June (Kim Hunter), an American radio operator he manages to contact from his plane in the brief moments before he is forced to jump into the night without a parachute. They say their goodbyes and that, sadly, should be that. Except that Peter survives the crash, due to a rather sizeable heavenly mistake. And in the hours he lives out while the “other world” attempts to correct its error, he reconnects with June and finishes falling in love with her. Thus, when the heavens come calling for Peter’s life, he protests to the celestial courts, claiming he can no longer proceed with his initial fate, that the love he’s found changes everything. And while all this sounds rather silly and fantastical, in the famously capable hands of Powell & Pressburger, the whole things winds up being an insanely gorgeous and romantic meditation on life and love.
Out of Sight (1998)
Looking back, it’s rather extraordinary how much Out of Sight was able to accomplish, and all without a great deal of attention paid to it at the time. Not only is it the best film Steven Soderbergh ever made, it’s also the sexiest one George Clooney ever made, the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel ever made (sorry Quentin), and the only film to ever make Jennifer Lopez look talented. Though the film is many things at once, it’s anchored by an intelligent and incredibly sexy cat-and-mouse love story between a criminal on the run (Clooney) and the federal agent (Lopez) hoping to take him down.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
From the swelling strings on the soundtrack which veer wildly from anxious to romantic, to the gorgeous, washed out cinematography and the beautifully painted screen wipes, Punch-Drunk Love is a film immersed in the feeling of love. Yes, there are other threats in the film, the dark moments Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) must get through on his way to happiness, but through love, he feels he can make it: “I have a love and it’s given me more strength than you could ever imagine”.
The Science of Sleep (2006)
Wonderfully enchanting and hypnotic, Michel Gondry’s film is filled to the brim with dream-laden whimsy and innocent romanticism. The Science of Sleepfollows its own inner logic, a logic shot through with love, nostalgia, and dreams - and all the innocence, wonderment, and inherent sadness that necessarily entails.
Two For the Road (1967)
Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road is a treatise on love and its many complications. It might not warm your heart entirely - honest films about marriage rarely do - but Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, as an unhappy couple revisiting a road trip they took as young lovers, make you feel just about everything that one feels throughout the course of a relationship: love, lust, excitement, frustration, confusion, warmth, sadness, familiarity, betrayal, happiness, and loneliness. The narrative slips and slides through time and back again, tracing the highs and lows of Hepburn and Finney’s relationship, juxtaposing scenes of past delight with those of present despair. Think a slightly less depressing Blue Valentine, set mostly on the roads of France, and you’re almost there.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
And speaking of France: a wall-to-wall French musical (no spoken dialogue!) set near Paris and starring a luminous Catherine Deneuve as a young woman falling in love? It really doesn’t get much more romantic than that.
When Harry Met Sally (1989)
Yeah, so, okay: you’ll probably find this one on a whole lot of Valentine’s Day movie lists. But that’s because it truly is fantastic. And we’re never above recommending fantastic.
And it should probably go without saying that the very best possible Valentine’s Day gift to get your significant cinephile other would be a $2 monthly subscription to Bright Wall/Dark Room magazine: