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Essential Classics - Romances

Gone with the Wind / Casablanca / Doctor Zhivago
Director: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood
Cast: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell

(US DVD: 24 Apr 2007)

For viewers accustomed to the love-driven, comedy-based romance film such as, say, When Harry Met Sally, the approach to “romance” in the films in this collection is radically different – clearly of a mindset from another era.  What is an American romance? As pointed out by a particularly filmically-attuned significant other (yes PopMatters reviews make the sweetest pillow talk), our paradigm of the American romance has become thoroughly identified with romantic comedy. This set highlights an existential crisis about the validity and permanence of love, in a time when Americans were reminded of the absolute ephemeral nature of life, and stripped of certain ideals we identify with today, by the prevalence of War.


Generally, if we say we are going to see a romantic film, we are implying that we plan on spending 100 or so minutes watching Drew Barrymore fumble through the trials of being a maladroit, single, middle-aged adult replete with touching (often campy) laughs, and an almost invariable happy ending. Admittedly, there are films like The Notebook that every so often punctuate this Sanderlian / Stillerian trend of films, but they are far too infrequent to have any more than a minute effect on America’s generic pop sensibilities.


It seems as if this collection is out to right our misconceptions of what is a romance film. Noble a goal this may be, I feel that Essential Classics: Romances sets out to do so be swinging the generic pendulum in the dramatic opposite direction than the one in which it is currently wobbling. This set features three films almost entirely stripped of humor (save for the ironic laughs that Gone with the Wind’s outrageous racism, viewed in this day, incites), populated by characters who are larger than life, not gauche 30-somethings, and there is nary a “happy” ending in sight.


Furthermore, all of the films employ romance as something that already has happened and the plot is now mired in the fallout, or romance that was never there to begin and will never see fruition. Thus, love functions more as a trace defining the action but by its conspicuous lack, rather than its presence (see Derrida’s writings on difference). One need only consider the most famous line from any of these films (perhaps any film period): Gone with the Wind’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” With more missed love inEssential Classics: Romances than a collection of Chekov’s short stories,  I am inclined to make some pithy judgment such as, “These are the anti-romances.” But, again, that might be the 20-some odd years of indoctrination of the modern romance comedy-blended mentality from whence I come.


I think there is no “true” American romance, but, instead, the trajectories of the genre follow the path of the heart. Now that’s the romantic ideal.  Modern romance films, in their distancing comedy (Henri Bergson posits that comedy is only possible if there is an emotional disconnect, and I agree) highlights a society so used to irony’s buffer that sincerity is a commodity. Why do the cookie-cutter happy endings of modern romance films bother me so? Not because of some inherent lacking quality of uplifting conclusion. Rather, they seem trite because by the film’s end I have chortled my way too far from the cast and, thus, with no emotional investment, I cannot summon the interest needed to be satisfied by such a conclusion.


All this is well and good, but I have not really said anything about the quality of the films themselves. Casablanca, of course, stands the test of time well. Although, I do not think the film is nearly as “cool” or “noir” as I am told I should believe it is (by friends and criticism), the film is undeniably fun to watch and structurally brilliant. Dr. Zhivago is rather long-winded, but the cinematography ranks with the best I have ever witnessed. One feels as if they are in a series of murals throughout the entirety of the film and the colorization is vibrant and stirring. Julie Christie’s eyes are seemingly too blue to be real, as if drawn from some ethereal color reservoir.


Finally, at four hours in length, one does not watch Gone with the Wind— they arduously commit to it. Riddled with hyperbolic racism which is painful to watch in today’s context, burdened by completely flat character arcs, and, save for Mr. Gable, absolutely turgid dialogue, I am horrified at this film’s place in the canon.  But that’s just my modern interpretation of romance.

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