Sunday, May 7, 2017

Without cream

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

A man walks into a coffee shop, says to the waitress, “Gimme a cup of coffee, without cream.” She says, “We don’t serve cream – want it without milk?” The object lesson (once you’ve stopped laughing): sometimes, in dealing with the unavailable, the form of the absence (or to put it in more contemporary terms – the spin you put on the absence) is just as important as the absence itself. This isn’t leading to a point about Clinton, but rather – after seeing the current comedy Next Stop Wonderland – to one about the eternal subject of romantic yearning; about the bumpy journey to love, and what it says about those who embark on it.


I’ve long been a huge admirer of composer Stephen Sondheim, and I’ve never forgotten reading – twelve or fifteen years ago – a piece about his solitary life, describing how he’d never been in a long-term relationship; written in terms that seemed to paint this as Sondheim’s choice, and that implied his insightful genius was somehow rooted in this emotional austerity. It never occurred to me to doubt the accuracy of this account, and I was so impressed by Sondheim’s apparent superhuman self-control that I’m sure I decided, for at least a few days, to follow that route myself. But you can guess how well that turned out.

More recently, Sondheim’s been open about his homosexuality and about the years of inner turmoil that barred him from attaining intimacy (better late than never, he is in a relationship now). I must admit to being a little disappointed when I found this out. I’d grown really attached to the idea of an artist having a boundless ability to portray the span of romantic frailty in his work, while retaining his own immunity to it. The truth (which frankly seems to me less interesting), by suggesting that you can never take contented isolation at face value, just feeds into the much remarked-on contingent quality that colours our view of living alone. It’s a state that invites analysis and commentary in a way that being coupled just doesn’t.

In Hollywood movies, the single man is generally an icon – his solitary state all the better to afford us an obstructed view of him. Sex comes where he needs it; hang-ups are incidental, if any. A single woman is seldom bathed in such a favourable light. A female critic once said there aren’t any great films about women, because even movies with strong women perpetrate the notion (she may have used the word “myth” – I can’t remember) that a woman’s fulfilment lies in the eyes of a man (based on this analysis, she cited A Touch of Class as the only halfway grear film for women).

Eyes of a Man

An Unmarried Woman, for example, ends with Jill Clayburgh imposing her own terms on the relationship with Alan Bates; still, it is a relationship, and she needs it. Whether she needs it just for physicality, for self-esteem, for fun, because of her biology, her inadequacy – well, we probably all just place our bets based on ideology. Speaking very generally about it, I don’t think Clayburgh’s self-improvement during the course of that film is compromised by wanting a man somewhere in her life. As a practical matter, I wonder whether her ending point wouldn’t have seemed incomplete or impermanent to the mass audience had it not included a man. After all, the assumption of adults organized by pairs holds pretty widely among the population at large, even if not among feminist film critics (I know I’m letting some same-sex themes drop here).

In Next Stop Wonderland, Hope Davis plays a young nurse, recently abandoned by her boyfriend, who walks the fine line between loneliness and romantic wishfulness, and her revulsion at what’s entailed in dealing with those states. At one point her mother places a personal ad on her behalf, setting up a fine montage of Davis’ various unsuccessful dates; hyper-sensitive to insincerity, calculation and “technique,” she occasionally resorts to lecturing the men on their lack of naturalism.

As she goes about her life in Boston, she keeps narrowly missing an easy-going marine biologist who’s amiably juggling financial and career and romantic problems. A film from last year, Till There was You, similarly followed the intertwined lives of Jeanne Tripplehorn and Dylan McDermott, bringing them together – to instant happiness – only in its last five minutes. That was a bad, clumsy film, with nothing to it beyond that gimmick. Next Stop Wonderland, and Davis’ performance, are unusually subtle. The structure as I’ve described it may be too straightforwardly evocative of fate and fairy tale (and eliminates any suspense as to the final outcome), but the picture is shot in a nimble, lightly edited, almost semi-documentary style that dances observantly over the numerous potential pitfalls. The heavy use of Jobin-style bossa nova is a modest inspiration too – being both highly listenable in itself, and evocative of a tasteful exoticism that sums up the character’s ambivalence: she wants the dream, but doesn’t believe in it, and won’t act as if she did.

Wide Awake

Although the title refers to an actual stop on the Boston subway system, it has an initially sappy ring to it that, however, reveals an air of skepticism on closer consideration. Alice woke up from Wonderland of course, which carries a negative implication for the climactic union in this film. But consistent with the movie’s general intelligence and consideration, the final scenes aren’t gooey or overblown in a way that would make you doubt their sustainability – they’re marked more by quiet contentment and peace of mind. To the Davis character, this may be the proof of Wonderland – that it’s a state she more or less slides into, without rituals and calculations and games.

Maybe that’s why Next Stop Wonderland often seems close to being a great film about women – it disdains the notion of a woman as a prize, as a commodity trafficked between men (Davis’ mother is something of a sexual predator, and the film’s other key female character is very much a pursuer rather than one of the pursued). Of course, the best way to avoid the potentially degrading rituals is not to need them – to make an instant connection that transcends all that. Which, conveniently, happens to be a romantic ideal in itself. So although the outcome is preeminent, all routes are not equal. Very definitely, insist on having it without cream.

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