Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sit Down and Shut Up: "Love Story" and its Ode to the Romance Genre

Love Story (1970)
Directed by Arthur Hiller
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Ali MacGraw, John Marley, Ray Milland
Grade: D+

“You look wonderful” says Ryan O’Neal’s Oliver to Ali MacGraw’s Jennifer when he returns to their home one evening, to which she responds, “No I don’t. I look OK for a Thursday night.” If “Love Story” was less self-definitive one could believe that it could adhere to beauty being in the eye of the beholder, or at least that Jennifer was being a trifle modest about her appearance. Instead the issue is laid to rest with ease, and this moment is an apotheosis of the film’s heavy-handed approach towards reality.

Screenwriter Erich Segal ensures everyone is kept in check by doing away with much of the exposition of Oliver and Jennifer’s budding high-school relationship, which swiftly becomes something much more serious. The couple appear to know each other inside-out fairly immediately, casting opinions in their first encounter at a library that are rarely, if ever, contravened afterward. He is the promising Harvard law aspirer who almost wants to spurn ambition to stick two fingers up at his snobbish, pushy parents, and she is the mouthy small-town girl who knows her own strengths and limitations. The early moments of their courtship ingratiate the couple to us, partly because of the amusing punchy banter they engage in, and somewhat as a result of O’Neal and MacGraw’s discernible chemistry. Jennifer is more upfront at first, her flagrant use of “god damn” the seventies equivalent of outlandish femininity, and as she goads Oliver by calling him “preppy”, she lightens the assertion of the couple’s class differences while ensuring that they remain an issue. The lofty social superiority of Oliver’s parents is the only obstacle for the couple in the first half of the film, but barely really registers as a legitimate qualm since Oliver is already so resentful of them anyway. The argument reaches a heady conclusion and, in dramatic terms, is dealt with simply and cleanly.

“Love Story” as a title is projecting an impression of itself as the 101 of romance, a literary portrait, and whether one sees this as the pinnacle of its pin-holed genre is down to whether you buy into complexity being spurned for a lineated, easy-beaten path. Even the strengths of “Love Story” detract from the modesty of the patent-like setup. Spearheaded by one of the most rousing, iconic film scores, the accompaniment is utilised rashly, with a primary intention to manipulate the slightness of the film’s themes and plug them with an aesthetic sense of grandeur. Even at its most wrenchingly sour the dramatic force of the film is weary, since it permanently appears to be working to finalise its characters' uncertainties and encourage universal acceptance of fate. “Love Story” is constantly delivering on Shakespearian elements of romance and tragedy, but without making any of its characters daring or interesting enough, extinguishing what it enflames almost in fear of making its audience uncomfortable for ten minutes.

Hiller’s film will most likely be remembered for the drastic climax of its romance, which essentially reinforces the view of “tragedy” as natural but love as unbreakable. The emotional impact of the late tragedy is minimal, since the briskness of formulating their relationship makes the Actors’ late, thankless requirement to allude to years of attachment a little desperate. And is it years? The time that passes is so unclear and uneven, and the terminal illness of Jennifer, along with the rest of the film, feels rushed unsteadily, as part of feeding populist impressions of romance as heartbreaking and zealous. We aren’t registering with the characters so much as an idea of romance as a paradox of the physically-fragile and emotionally-untouchable. Even the illness is lower on angst than is expected of a true “melodrama”, the Doctor disclosing a bleak diagnosis (to her husband not Jennifer, I might add) that neglects to explain what she is actually dying of. “Love Story” doesn’t deem a detail like this important because it won’t affect people’s perceptions of the romance or the essential devastation of losing the love of your life, which I find more than a tad insulting. The film is perpetually unconcerned with clarity that doesn’t involve the bare essentials of romantic fiction, mechanically moving from A to B to C in order to deliver its payload of tragedy. “Love Story” could well be viewed as the mainstream extreme, since it mirrors the expectations of a romantic audience by never once challenging itself or its characters.

The famously spoken tagline of the film, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”, speaks volumes. The people who cried during “Love Story” more likely did so in the way one would observe homeless, neglected animals on charity ads. The film is designed to collate thoughts about love as fateful and significant into a commonplace collective – of course romance can be tragic, but “Love Story” is willing us to accept its own shallow pool of thought as an honest concession. In the same vein as its characters we’re sucked into a regimental order of cinematic control, indoctrinated into a brand of weeping consumers neutered of senses, unconcerned with real people and real problems. “Love Story” is escapist fare, not in the least unconditional, and therefore somebody somewhere is surely owed an apology.

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