Monday, March 21, 2005

The Notebook

To prove that I am not a complete film snob (though I admit that I evidence certain signs of film snobbery), this entry is about Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook. Based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks (which I understand is poorly written), the film delivers extremely satisfying bodice-ripping romantic cheesy goodness. Though Cassavetes did not impress me with his directorial vision, he certainly completed the task as appropriate: the actors always look wonderful, the country town is idyllic, and the cast is impressive (Joan Allen! Sam Shepard!).

My roommate and I watched the movie as a conscious attempt at female bonding. Quick summary (spoiler alert, though if you can't figure out the ending of a romance film, you probably haven't seen a lot of movies and therefore aren't reading this blog): as his wife loses her battle with Alzheimer's, Noah reads to her the the story of their falling in love, separation, and eventual reunion. As expected, my roommate cried; cynic that I am, I marveled at Noah’s ability to make it up a huge flight of stairs with his pants around his ankles and Allie’s legs wrapped around his waist. Damn impressive. For what the film wants to be, it is successful: sympathetic love story, hot sex, and reinforcement of the idea that love is forever.

So how does one consider this film from a feminist perspective? Since my feminism is less political and more social, this means I naturally ask myself why women enjoy a romantic film like this. Now, I’m not saying that men can’t enjoy the movie (and my roommate plans to test this theory by having her boyfriend watch it), but I think few would argue that this film’s target audience is women. I didn’t create the system—I just live within it. Can't help but wonder--when a woman in love watches this movie, how does she react? Does she say, "boy I love my boyfriend so much?" Or does she instead wonder, "boy, I wish my boyfriend was Ryan Gosling." Though I lean towards the latter, I'm quite sure that the intent of the entire romance genre is the former.

Certainly, I was successfully emotionally manipulated by the film: the delay of consummation between the couple made me feel eagerness to see their union, the sex was arousing, and the tender love evidenced by the older couple was quite effective. Not to stress this point too much, but the actors are beautiful, and this beauty seems an important part of the fantasy. After all, that is what we are sold in this film: fantasy.

During his grand romantic gesture speech about wanting Allie forever, Noah tells her that life will be hard together and they will have to work at it every day. Yet we don’t see any of this hard work. Instead we see a man still desperately in love with his wife fifty years later—a far cry from the couples I see at restaurants who silently eat because they have nothing left to say. Does our art reflect life at all? Do we even want it to?

Film critic Robin Wood (and others) writes about the ways that many movies keep humanity in line, and though I am sure to completely misrepresent his ideas, these are somewhat operating in the back of my mind. The film world reassures us that by following society’s expectations—work, marriage, children—we will find romantic/familial happiness, qua the ultimate attainable happiness. Celebrating sports heroes, business masterminds, and political leaders, movies disguise the corruption inherent in many of our institutions. Not that there isn’t a cinema of dissent, but perhaps Mr. Wood is correct that the majority of a films veil the darker sides to life to keep us in line.

Back to The Notebook. Does its unabashed embrace of sexual-romantic love mislead its target audience, women, as to what love is/should/could be? Allie is engaged to another man—one who forgives her for running away to consummate her relationship with her first love and insists he still wants to marry her—in many ways a more likely partner: handsome, employed, and of course, fabulously wealthy. But she chooses the dirty lover who works with his hands. Does she ever regret this choice? Does she ever resent that she can’t buy the fabulous clothes she wore as a girl? Heck, does she have to get a job? Does Noah ever feel shame for his inability to give her the life her other fiancé offered?

It is possible that I am missing the point entirely—I mean, maybe I should just chill out and enjoy a little romance. But I cannot help but be suspicious that all of this fantasy romance—initiated in childhood fairytales and perpetuated in virtually every novel, television show and film aimed at women—is a trap, set to capture us in the societal imperative of marriage and children.

One important consideration, however, is that this film focuses not just on the years during which Noah and Allie fall in love. Rather, the film also examines their last few days—though these scenes represent only 1/3 of the run time of the film at best. Perhaps this is the real fantasy engendered by the film: a couple still completely in love after 50 years together. Am I being too cynical when I ask how often this occurs? Life offers so many challenges: how often can love survive these challenges without evident signs of wear and tear?

I suppose my bias is showing: I expect art to reflect life. Sometimes art can simply be entertainment. The Notebook is decidedly of the latter type. Still, I feel a bit taken in after watching a film like this: how can my expectations of my own love life not pale in comparison? Will my real life ever be able to match the fantasies inspired by entertaining art? And if not, am I wrong to be disappointed?


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