November 20, 2004

My Ten Favorite Love Stories

Love makes the world go round. Without it, life would be boring and crude and the arts dull. With it, there’s a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to read novels and go to the theater. That’s my opinion anyway. And here, for those interested, is a list of my top ten favorite love stories of all time.

10. Moulin Rouge. A pure-hearted film for those idealists who still believe that “love is a many splendor thing,” that “love lifts us up where we belong,” that “all you need is love.” The film—directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman—made me love musicals again. Energetic, fun, and inspirational.

9. Family Ties. I never got much into the relationship between Alex (Michael J. Fox) and Lauren (Courtney Cox), but I loved the one between Alex and Ellen (Tracy Pollen). Episodes 78 and 79 are two of my favorite in TV history: Alex falls in love with Ellen, his girlfriend’s roommate, and then tries to convince her not to marry someone else. Whenever I hear “At This Moment” by Billy Vera and the Beater’s, I’m taken back to the bus station and get sentimental.

8. Ever After, The Wedding Singer,
and Never Been Kissed (tie). I had to pick a Drew Barrymore movie, but I didn’t know which one—so I picked three. These three films are all cute and sweet. Drew, regardless of who she’s cast with, is always an innocent and adorable heroine who you can’t help but fall in love with.

7. Anna Karenina (the book). I’m drawn to the love story of Levin and Kitty mainly because I can relate to Levin so much. He’s a generally good guy who wants to do the right thing, but his many neuroses are always getting in his way. Through the numerous travails that beset he and Kitty, Tolstoy wonderfully deepens both our love for them and desire that they end up together.

6. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Two great Richard Linklater movies staring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. In the first film, Jessie, an American backpacking through Europe, strikes up a conversation with Celine, a French college student, while on a train. They have an instant connection and he talks her into getting off the train with him and continuing their conversation—which lasts the entire night and is done in various coffee houses and streets in Vienna. I don’t want to say any more about the plot, for fear of ruining it for those who haven’t seen it. And, for the same reason, I won’t say anything about the plot of the second film. But I will say this. These films are beautiful and touching. The cinematography, though simple, is pretty. The dialogue is interesting and thought-provoking. By the time my life is over, I will have probably seen each of these movies twenty times or so. They stir something in my soul and cause me to spend hours thinking about love and existence in general.

5. Leaving Las Vegas. This is a story about two broken people—Sera, a prostitute played by Elisabeth Shue, and Ben, a suicidal alcoholic played by Nicholas Cage. They’ve been scarred by life, by friends, family, work associates. In each other they find something they’ve never known before—understanding, compassion, kindness. The movie and its penetration of its characters’ psyches is both poignant and tragic. I doubt I’ve ever cared about two fictional characters more than Sera and Ben.

4. Pride and Prejudice (the book). A Jane Austen classic that I can read over and over and over again. It’s a story about two lovers we should all aspire to be like—Elizabeth Bennett, a principled and strong although prejudiced young woman and Mr. Darcy, an equally principled and strong although proud aristocrat. Hilarious and inspiring.

3. Romeo & Juliet (1968 film). This story is so wonderful because it’s so true to life. This is what love is like. It’s exhilarating and magical. It sweeps you away. A lover likens his beloved to the heavenly bodies because he can conceive of nothing else that even remotely compares to her magnificence and beauty. And this Franco Zeffirelli classic—staring two perfectly cast teenagers as the star-cross’d lovers (sixteen-year-old Olivia Hussey and seventeen-year-old Leonard Whiting)—captures the grandeur of love as well as any film I’ve ever seen.

2. When Harry Met Sally. This is truly a masterpiece: the music (Sinatra and Harry Conick Jr.), the cinematography (picturesque shots of New York), the story (can a man and a woman be friends or must sex always get in the way?), the characters (played by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan), everything. The movie is funny and poignant. The last sequence, which begins with Harry running to the ball to tell Sally how he feels, makes me cry every time.

1. The Wonder Years. My favorite TV show ever. My favorite love story ever. There are so many great episodes dealing with Kevin and Winnie. My favorites are episode 1, when they kiss for the first time (to the tune of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman”); episode 37, the Valentine’s Day show when they finally get together (Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” and Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You're All I Need to Get By”); episode 57, when they break up at the museum (The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”); and episode 85, when they get back together (“When a Man Loves a Woman”). If only the narrator wouldn’t have ruined everything in the final episode by telling us that Kevin and Winnie don’t end up together. That was one of the most ridiculous and maddening moves in TV history. If I had written that episode, I would have left things ambiguous—let viewers decide for themselves whether or not Kevin and Winnie end up together. If I ever become a billionaire, the first thing I’ll do will be to buy the rights to the show and hire Daniel Stern to re-narrate the ending.

November 3, 2004

The Symbolism of Water in ‘Garden State’

Garden State shows us the sickness of its protagonist, Andrew Largeman, in its opening scene. Andrew dreams he’s aboard an airplane that’s about to crash. But while all the other passengers are panicking, Andrew remains perfectly calm, even taking the time to adjust his air-conditioning vent. As this scene illustrates, Andrew’s sickness is that he is paralyzed, unable to connect with his own emotions and to other people. The film goes on to show how Andrew’s soul is cleansed and how he is reconciled, both to himself and to others. As we will see, the movie often uses water as a symbol to emphasize various aspects of Andrew’s spiritual sickness and healing.

Water is most clearly used as a symbol when Andrew, Sam, and Mark visit the “ark” at the bottom of the quarry. It begins to rain right before they enter the ark and they get drenched upon leaving it. And it is during the rainstorm that Andrew, for the first time, begins to break out of his paralysis. He begins connecting with his emotions, as is evidenced both when he is touched by Albert’s speech and when he looks over “the abyss” and yells at the top of his lungs. And he begins connecting with others, as this is the first time he and Sam kiss and embrace.

The symbolism of the ark and rain shower couldn’t be clearer. Just as the rainstorm experienced by Noah and his ark marked the cleansing of the earth (from sin), so also the rainstorm experienced by Andrew and Albert’s ark marks the cleansing of Andrew (from his paralysis).

It is also significant to note the water symbology attached to the second part of Andrew’s healing—his discussion with Sam in his father’s bathtub. It is during this conversation that Andrew more fully opens up; most notably, it is here that he cries for the first time. That this conversation takes place in a tub intended for physical cleansing draws attention to the spiritual cleansing that is occurring.

Water also plays a symbolic role before Andrew’s healing. It is significant that, before he is healed, Andrew tries to avoid water and even tries to stop it from appearing. For instance, he is the only one who doesn’t jump in the pool when he goes swimming with Sam and some friends. And later in the film, he walks into his father’s bathroom and turns off the dripping faucet in the bathtub. Since water is a symbol for cleansing, it seems that these actions emphasize that Andrew is not yet ready to be cleansed, that he’s perhaps deliberately running from it.

Tears are another important symbol in the film. Sam is characterized by tears: she cries when she learns that Andrew’s mom has died, when she learns of his tragic childhood, and when he leaves her at the airport. Given this and the symbolism of water as a healing agent, it follows that Sam’s tears underscore that she is the remedy for Andrew’s sickness.

Andrew’s tears are also significant. For the first part of the film, Andrew never cries; he doesn’t cry at his mom’s funeral and we later learn that he hasn’t cried since he was a child. But as Andrew begins to heal, he sheds a tear. Not only is this drop of water a literal sign that he is emotionally reconnecting, but it is also a symbolic proof that he’s being spiritually cleansed.