Sleepless in Seattle and other stories

June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Everybody has a soft spot for the movies of their youth, for those few brief years where movies were the real thing, before you realized that the cinema didn’t reflect real life. A nostalgia for the trappings and conventions of them will follow you throughout your life. You might grow up to be a famous director, a pre-eminent film critic, or the president of the United States–but no matter how many movies you watch or how respectable your taste becomes, you’re always going to feel a tug for those adventure serials or campy exploitation flicks that you grew up watching.

For me, it’s that late ’80s/early ’90s brand of romantic/family comedies. The female lead is usually played by Meg Ryan, Goldie Hawn, Daryl Hannah or some other whimsically goofy blonde designed to resemble them as much as possible. If you don’t want a blonde for some reason, then Julia Roberts will suffice in a pinch. (Brunettes were verboten; to cast a brown-haired actress meant you were making a serious movie.) The male lead is always Tom Hanks, except when it’s Steve Martin. The characters are always from that sort of gracious old-money background that’s never called “rich,” but rather painted as middle-class: they live in a white-columned house in the suburbs of Chicago or San Francisco, their family Thanksgiving get-togethers involve 12 sets of matching china, real silver and elaborate floral centerpieces. They have family heirlooms and the kind of jobs that involve work cocktail parties complete with big bands. The plots center around elaborate romantic situations–usually love triangles, often involving amnesia, comas, or falling in love with prostitutes.

The funny thing is that none of these movies would work for me if they were made today. By the time You Got Mail rolled around in 1998, it already wasn’t working for me. We had done away with the romantic, vaguely historical, pre-cell phone era of my childhood and ushered in a new world filled with “the internet” and chain bookstores. And I know I’m preaching to the classic-movie fan choir here, but who wants that? Why do I have to live in a world where people prefer the version of Parfumerie where Hungarian perfume and love letters are replaced with AOL and the implicit approval of chain stores taking over mom & pops? The problem with modern movies trying to pull off these plots is that it stretches the boundaries of credibility, whereas with classic movies, you can always suspend your disbelief: maybe it was like that in the olden days. Maybe people really did fall in love with someone just by hearing them talk about their dead wife on the radio a few times. Or, as the characters in Sleepless in Seattle surmise about the movies of their youth, maybe people really were fated to be together in the end, back in the golden days. Now, of course, we know better. But the past–that’s different. The past is a country where anything could happen.

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