I am trying to think of a film focused on romantic love that is not about courtship, not about beginning. The couple played by Marlon Brando and Faye Dunaway in Don Juan DeMarco have lived together for some time; still, the tender tricks the husband uses to rekindle their love are courtship rites. Marriage as written in The Palm Beach Story and The Philadelphia Story has to be broken up to arrive back at the starting line. Our movie vaults contain reels and reels of denouements. But what of the sustaining middle, where people attempt to honor their hopeful promises? Must we content ourselves with the perennial partnership of Gibson and Glover?
In Out of Sight, bank robber Jack and U. S. marshal Karen's combustion does thrill (I especially enjoy George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh's cheerful acknowledgement of the female viewer's gaze). Yet the long, sweet bond between schemer Jack and his conflicted Buddy (Ving Rhames) moved me more in the end. Their relationship looks ripe with silences and stillness, as if they are really listening to each other, sitting together in calm compassion. Meanwhile, Karen and Jack grab greedily at a fantasy of the other, thinking that the vision will complete them. They've only just begun the process of learning how wrong, and right, they are.
Why should we so rarely see sexual partners on screen loving instead of falling in love? Film culture--gay and straight, major and indie--has gotten stuck on the road to romance, too intent on marking every fascinating stop along the way. Sometimes I think I live in a country of adolescents. And sometimes I want to linger there with the kids, feeling swept by passion, which is a desperate kind of hunger: Adore me, fill me, because I cannot adore and fill myself. It's no accident that the modern screen kiss most resembles a meal, the lovers furiously devouring each other's mouths, as if to steal away some essential nutrient.
In his latest book, Teachings on Love, Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh declares: "Desire is not love. Love is something much more responsible. It has care in it." How much caring does Out of Sight's Jack show in offering Karen this "choice": Kill me or kill your ethics and escape with me? "We suffer from indifference and the lack of love," Nhat Hanh continues, "but we suffer far more from attachment." And fledgling lovers are attached less to their companions than to what they represent, something--intellect, softness, bravery--long sought for oneself. "He'll die without her," the story goes, meaning: He'll lose hope of owning this quality. Yet he dies with her, and her with him, because sleeping with somebody who has what you want never completely satiates the craving.
Not to mention that the idealization of a lover's attributes freezes both lovers into stone. The loved can't move because his changes might undermine the love. The lover won't move because she's given up on becoming what she wants, now that she believes she owns it. Eventually, the still unsatisfied hunger grows so large, and the game of statues so frustrating, that, as Nhat Hanh notes, attachment develops into aversion. "Sometimes," Woody Guthrie wrote (as sung recently by a sunny Billy Bragg on the album Mermaid Avenue), "the lost and wasted attract the most balanced and sane." And, on the morning after the into-the-sunset ride, the still-unrescued lost begin to find the sane quite insufferably so, and vice versa.
Perhaps the instability of this mixture is exactly what draws filmmakers and -goers. When I finally do think of loving sexual partnerships on the screen--the Thin Man movies, Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard in Country--they are always threatened by outside forces, if not internal ones. It seems we don't dare to dream past the struggle, the fireworks. But why? Because we need to re-enact compulsively our hope and hopelessness regarding "true love?" Because few individuals will take responsibility for feeding their own longings? Because capitalism has a material stake in maintaining people's personal dissatisfaction? All of the above?
"Understanding," stresses Nhat Hanh, "is the very foundation of love." A woman at work on this mindfulness complained to the Zen master that she was loving her lover less. Nhat Hanh disagreed: "Before the meditation, her love for her boyfriend was so passionate she was not able to see his shortcomings. During her practice, she began to... recognize his suffering, and therefore her love deepened.... She was able to breathe more freely and to let him breathe more freely also."
Five years ago, I would have assured you that my own longtime companion brings to our union steadiness and organization, and I, emotion, creativity, and giddiness. Since then, I've come to see that such a distorted picture straightjackets both of us. He has grumpily suggested that I do my share of car care and vacation planning; I am more competent for taking it on. And I treasure the raw feeling and artful silliness that my new weight has freed him to reveal. Note to movie romancer Jerry Maguire and his legions: We complete each other by first completing ourselves.