Monday, August 29, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #23: Love Story (1973)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old. Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time.
The only good thing to come out of the 1973 schlock-fest Love Story is the remixed Shirley Bassey cover of its instrumental theme.  This is, of course, in spite of the fact that while watching Love Story I grew to loathe the theme song, to hate its repetitive cycle, to groan audibly and claw the air as if reaching for some imaginary shotgun stored on some imaginary end table.  Love Story was physically painful.  It was lethal to me, like some cinematic kryptonite which, at the molecular level was custom designed to make my face screw up so tightly in disgust that I couldn’t even speak out against its innumerable evils.  I couldn’t laugh in Love Story because it wasn’t bad enough to be funny.  I couldn’t empathize during Love Story because its characters are empty husks.  I couldn’t even yell at the TV when the doctor reveals Ali MacGraw’s character is dying of an ailment without a name because I WAS TOO BUSY RAISING MY EYEBROWS AND MAKING THAT SLACK-JAWED, TEETH BARING FACE THAT EXPRESSES COMPLETE, ANGRY CONFUSION.   Love Story is the worst.  Love Story is a raw archetype, a graph that maps out everything to come over the next 40 years, but which adds nothing to the collected data.   How Love Story was once nominated for Best Picture, I can’t fathom.  How Ebert gave this movie four stars is beyond me.  How Love Story became a sort of classic everyone knows about is mystery enough to qualify it as the eighth world wonder.  Love Story makes those Nicholas Sparks movies look like nuanced masterpieces.  Love Story makes The Way We Were into an absolute work of art.  If the only two movies you ever saw were Love Story and Something Borrowed, you’d think that Something Borrowed was Citizen Kane
Here is the plot of Love Story:  it’s a love story.  That’s it.  Two mismatched kids meet at college (as they tend to).  He’s (Ryan O’Neal) a jock from a family responsible for building half of Harvard, she’s (Ali MacGraw) a brainy librarian type with strange eyebrows and a father who owns a bakery.  She’s got a smart mouth on her, and that’s how we know she’s got depth.  She calls old moneybags “Preppie,” plays a verbal game of hard to get (but not at all), and says vomit-inducing cornball catchphrases like “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  Which, as far as I can tell, is a gross exaggeration.  They meet.  There’s a lot of snow.  BOOM!  Love. BOOM!  “We’re gonna get married!”  BOOM! “It doesn’t matter what you say, daddykins, I’d rather live poor than without her!”  BOOM!  She’s sick.  BOOM!  She’s dead.  Oh, I’m sorry, did I spoil the most predictable film ever for you?  Good.  Don’t watch it.  Unless you’re searching for a primer in 1970’s prep university sportswear, you have no reason to revisit this film. 
Supposedly Love Story was a beacon of warmth and innocence in the midst of a grand period of sexual license and upstart young film makers.  This may be a partial excuse for its existence, but it’s not one that I accept.  Here lies a film so full of its own idealistic notions, so high on your salt water tears, that it can’t even be bothered to grant the audience real moments with its characters.  Love Story writes in big bubble-block letters, it sketches in broad outline.  It shows us a boy, a girl, a death and forgets that between all of these pieces there must be other scenes.  A full-grown boy cannot be characterized solely through his rebellion against wealth.  A girl cannot be painted simply as ‘sick.’  And a death that is not sudden can’t be shown without strife, without symptoms, without bringing these other pieces together even as it tears them apart.  If I hadn’t already realized this movie could never live up to the hype, I would have given up all hope the moment Ryan O’Neal’s Oliver is told his wife is dying by a doctor who is clearly overstepping his bounds.  In this scene, Oliver and the doctor sit in his office.  It goes exactly as follows:

"DR: The problem is more serious. Jenny is very sick.
O: Define "very sick".
DR: She's dying.
O: That's impossible.
DR: I'm sorry to have to tell you this.
O: That's impossible. It's a mistake, it has to be.
DR: We repeated her blood test three times. The diagnosis is correct.
She'll have to be told soon.  We can withhold treatment for a little while, but not for long.
We'll have to begin therapy sometime during the next few weeks.
O: She's only 24.  Will it be painful?
DR: You'll want to talk to a haematologist. I can refer you to Dr Addison.
O: Yeah. What do I do? What can I do for Jenny?
DR: Act as normal as possible, for as long as possible.  That's really the best thing." [source]

Tell me a six year-old couldn’t have written that.  Tell me this isn’t a scene ripped straight from innocent versions of “playing doctor” complete with a little plastic satchel and a stethoscope that doesn’t work.  The film leaps from a diagnosis of infertility to this conversation.  Directly.  Notice that the Doctor never gives his diagnosis, the one that was tested three times.  My theory is that the film is presented in broad strokes because (like Twilight) its characters are designed to be sad, pathetic ciphers we fill in the gaps for.  Somehow, the writers of both novel and film wanted their audience to ascribe their own identities to these people, or identify them as people we already know.  If you’re a woman who can fathom falling for a sensitive, wealthy jock, or, if you’re a man who can fathom turning your back on your parents in the name of love, then this movie is supposed to be about you.  When Jenny gets sick, she’s either you or your girlfriend.  When Jenny dies, she does so too young.  She is: your sister, daughter, girlfriend, malleable best friend, and you.  Cue the tears, not for her, but for your own meddling little life.  I don’t think I could ever cry while watching Love Story, but if I were going to, it would be because Jenny never gets to live.  The story strips her down to a silly archetype destined to be the object of affection for Oliver.  By 24, she’s taken, married, and dying.  Though she’s experienced love (and some may argue that’s enough), she hasn’t experienced life.  Ultimately, Love Story seems to ironically prove that love is often folly, that life is short, and that the sap and dreck the film wastes its time on really might be a waste of time for everyone.  Screw the sugar-coated catchphrase, I want to hear someone say they're sorry.  Someone should apologize for the events depicted in Love Story because I’m sorry Jenny spent the whole of her early 20’s trying to get pregnant, fighting class wars, and eventually dying too young.  That's a raw deal.  If you ask me?  It's not the broken romance that deserves tears, it's the time Jenny winds up wasting or giving over to Oliver's story.  She never gets hers. That's something to cry about.


  1. That scene with the doctor it's the kind of thing one would expect from a telenovela... a really bad one. The remix does sound rather stylish, so I think I'm going to keep that film at a safe distance, so it does not ruin the song. Anyway, I always enjoy your negative reviews, they're quite fun to read :D

  2. Thank God you saved me from this one! I always thought it was a must-see classic that I somehow just hadn't seen yet, but I'll stay far away from it now.

  3. That's why I've been avoiding this. Thanks for taking another one for the team :)

  4. @Everyone: Yeah, I really wouldn't recommend it unless you're feeling a bit masochistic. Honestly was much worse than I'd imagined...

  5. This is one of the most entertaining reviews I've ever read. Thanks for the laugh, and for warning me away from the film! I've had it on my "ought to watch but don't really wanna" list for a while. Sounds like it doesn't even need to be on that list.


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