"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Holiday: We Accept the Love We Think We Deserve

Two women suffering from unfaithful boyfriends swap homes in California and Britain, respectively, where they each meet a local guy and fall in love. By unfaithful, I don’t necessarily mean cheating; rather, the cheating variety can be situated within the larger category of not committing to love one person completely and with fullness of heart. Such is the plot of The Holiday (2006), a film that is essentially about five good people. As the three unfaithful people are pruned out, the viewer is left with an optimistic feeling about human beings being capable of emotional intimacy.

The film opens with Amanda Woods finally getting confirmation that Ethan has been sleeping with a coworker. In fact, the deceitful guy is in love with the other woman. Frozen emotionally from the pain of witnessing her parents split up many years earlier, Amanda cannot bring herself even to cry. In an idyllic hope to get over the hurt by spending Christmas in Europe, she swaps houses with Iris Simpkins. Iris is in love with Jasper Bloom, whose engagement to a coworker takes Iris by surprise. Faced with the excruciating hurt from being in love with someone who has chosen someone else, Iris too goes with the idyllic hope that a few weeks in Los Angeles will lessen or remove the pain.

In England, Amanda meets Iris’s brother, Graham, who does not take long to fall for her. His love is real. Indeed, a deep connection can be sensed up front without meaning it is merely a crush. I think such connections can exist from the start, rather than necessarily coming about only after two people grow together. Amanda is paralyzed deep down, but she finally melts at the last minute and the two are together on New Year’s Eve.

In Southern California, Iris befriends Miles, and their mutually growing interest reflects perhaps a more subtle connection that can “fly under the radar” without detection. Arthur Abbott, a retired screenwriter and neighbor whom Iris befriends, sees the connection before either Iris or Miles, and Arthur’s good nature shows through as he acts as a catalyst. Even so, Iris is distracted by Jasper, who keeps in contact with her for selfish, inconsiderate reasons, and Miles still has feelings for his ex-girlfriend, whom he discovers has been cheating on him. She finally shuts the door (literally) on Jasper when he was visiting her in Los Angeles, and Miles refuses to give Sophie a second chance. Once trust has been sliced apart by not enough love on one end, even the other person being very much in love is not sufficient to heal the ruptured intimacy. Love must be mutual, or it is bound to go off kilter and crash.

In The Holiday, the people who are strong enough in character to say yes to emotional intimacy with one person above all others win the day. The film presents a world in which good people rise above the chaff. Life is not one big picnic with noodle salad for those people; Iris, Amanda, and Miles must struggle, for instance, to overcome their respective feelings for people of a lesser god—wounded souls who for whatever reasons cannot or will not overcome their inner demons and come the rest of the way to adult intimacy. As the last scene shows, much carefree freedom goes with the mutual intimacy, whereas the freedom of the deceivers is illusory, for they are trapped in souls too afraid to grow.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Little Women: Strong in Death and Love

Little Women (1994), based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, can be thought of as a social history of civil-war-era New England—that is to say, the film captures what life must have been like on a daily basis. Yet the human predicament resonates and thus makes the film moving for viewers far removed from the world of the Marsh family in Concord, Massachusetts. In particular, the film confronts the viewer with the hard task of going on even with the emotionally heavy experience of loss.

The film presents the uneasy feeling of “ending” through two manifestations: death and love. Regarding the former, the Marsh family, and especially Jo, must come to terms with the loss of Beth. With a weakened heart from a fever and minutes from death, Beth tells her sister Jo, “I know I will be lonely for you, even in heaven.” Jo’s realization after the death that she will never see Beth is so hard that she writes a novel of her childhood as a means of vicariously holding on to Beth. It is difficult indeed to come to terms with never again seeing a person who has meant so much. This is true too in romantic love when it is as if fate has brought two people together, and yet one demurs and the other must accept the loss.

“You don’t need scores of suitors; you only need one, if he’s the right one,” young Amy Marsh advises her three older sisters.  When a beloved is felt to be “the one,” the forced return to life without that person can feel like a long prison sentence. Few people rise to such a rank; they can be few and far between—which is a testament to their tremendous value. So much distance, in other words, exists between “getting in” and “never to be seen again” that the heart struggles to make the journey.

In rejecting Laurie’s proposal of marriage, Jo feels that she will never find “the one” tailored to her, for she is rather unique as an independent writer in the nineteenth century. Faced with the unfathomable distance between loving Jo and never seeing her again, Laurie marries Jo’s younger sister Amy. At first, she resists, saying she will not date someone still in love with her sister.  Laurie denies it of course, telling Amy, “I have always known I should be part of the Marsh family.” Amy eventually agrees to marry him, and he need not face the prospect of never again seeing someone who has meant so much to him. Although he need not face such a hard sentence, his chosen path back to “just friends” with Jo is not easy.

The transition that Laurie undergoes in his relation to Jo is not one that many people in Laurie’s emotional place can make. Once you start falling in love with a person, it is nearly impossible to going back to just being roommates, for example. Once you discover that the person you are falling for is not falling for  you, continuing as "just friends" almost certainly goes with much pain, especially if the one you love starts dating someone else. 

Fortunately for Jo Marsh, she finds love in Friedrich, a poor academic tutor from Europe. That he is much older than her and comes with empty hands (i.e., not much wealth) are of no concern to Jo, as she really loves him. Putting her hands in his, she tells him that his empty hands are full now. That's love, which transcends, and thus relativizes, all those criteria that seem important in the absence of love but suddenly pale in comparison when a deep connection is felt. 

Life goes on even amid deaths and loves lost—and even love takes hold in spite of it all. This is the message conveyed by Little Women. Facing the prospect of their father’s possible death in battle and Beth’s weakened heart, the little women are hardly little; and years later, in going on after Beth has died, knowing they would never again see her, Meg, Jo, and Amy are hardly little women. Jo is hardly little when she wraps her heart around poor Friedrich. Life is indeed not only the struggle for existence as Darwin postulated; it is also the plight of the elusive yet very deep meaning felt as two people come together as if by instinct.