From the vantage point of one man, the history of culture is at best theoretical but I won’t let this minor point deter me from writing about how the portrayal (if not the actual experience) of love between two people has changed in fifty years.
Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (http://youtu.be/iLkOHXsEbKM) was released in 1955 and starred Jennifer Jones and William Holden, at the time at the peaks of their movie careers. Their story on celluloid is romance as we think of romance back then: the often tragic emotional relationship between two people occurring against the heroic backdrop of earth-changing world events.
(In a Fresh Air interview re-aired on July 8, 2011, comedian Louis C.K. describes love: “…You’ll meet the perfect person, who you love infinitely, and you even argue well, and you grow together, and you have children, and then you get old together, and then she’s going to die. That’s the best-case scenario…”
The more common scenarios? “You might have a nice couple of dates, but then she’ll stop calling you back. Or you’ll date for a long time and then she’ll have sex with one of your friends, or you will with one of hers. Or you’ll get married and it won’t work out out, and you’ll get divorced and split your friends and money, and that’s horrible…”)
Love to a dramatist (remember Romeo and Juliet?) is tragedy. Even when it appears to work out, sooner or later it will run into a snag that turns it from comedy to tragedy. (Then again this may be said of anything in life. Up and down it goes, sometimes well, sometimes not so well.) In movies and fiction and, I submit, real life, too, love ends up tragically if we’re looking for a great story. Comedies seldom get Best Film at the Oscars; they’re not profound enough, don’t affect us profoundly enough. Love won three Oscars in 1956, not for Best Screenplay or Best Film but for music. The title song is unforgettable.
Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, based on Han Suyin’s memoirs, is the story of a Eurasian doctor, Han Suyin, who falls in love with married, American journalist, Mark Elliot, in beautifully filmed Hong Kong when the Korean War was raging and the world was divided between rampant good (democracy and the West) and evil (communism and the East). That the heroine is a mix of East and West puts the balance closer to the good nonetheless ending sadly. East and West just can’t meet halfway to create something new.
The drama in their story rides on the oil-and-water mix of antipodes but despite a beach scene where both protagonists were dressed in skin-revealing swimsuits (one piece for her, one topless piece for him: fashion has moved faster for men than for women) sex never rears its head. It’s just there, intuited if you’re in the know, or denied if you’re hypocritical.
In the 2010 movie rather ingenuously called The Orgasm Diaries in North America (http://youtu.be/IsafXR_hgKA), sex is front and center. Sean Conway’s story, directed by Ashley Horner, seems to me quintessentially English—the liberal English tradition (as in the wishy-washy Church of England), not the Conservative tradition (the once-again popular alternative for the English, the Church of Rome, and the politics of Margaret Thatcher; it’s too early to see Cameron with any clarity) for which England too is noted. It is set in NE England where not many films have been set and is shot with two actors who look unfailingly English. There is no conflict here between East and West but enough conflict (for me, anyway) for the movie to earn its movie category.
Both movies have gorgeous cinematography and to American audiences both settings may be foreign. To the Western mind, of course, Orientalism still features prominently, the East representing “the Unknowable Other” so Hong Kong is still by far the more exotic of the two locations. But where Love is innocence in an age when the East was without a doubt, line for line, Evil incarnate, in Orgasm, the movie is all about light and color and the shedding of innocence in an age when European countries and even American states are formalizing homosexual marriages despite forces of conservatism. In fact, the main protagonists in Orgasm are the old and the emerging new: Horner (remember Jack?) attempts to portray young love with its heady sexuality openly and with as little pretension as a liberal in modern-day England can attempt to do and still hope for monetary gain.
Orgasm ends happily—at least for the moment. It leaves the eternal Romeo and Juliet plot behind. I do have a fondness for light and air. There is enough maudlin and sad in real life. In movies at least can we not see happy endings like we used to have in fairy tales of vanquishing love?
But the movie also touches on issues that occupy the mind of viewers today. To us, the Korean War is over notwithstanding that it has not formally ended and that two Koreas share the peninsula, kept apart by a standing U.S. army. Communism itself is starting to change its mask (everything is a mask, of course, masks created by our idiosyncratic preferences) as we gaze up to Shanghai’s new skyline and the ubiquitous invasion of our shopping centers by Chinese-made goods.
With a movie so openly sexual, the obvious and fundamental conflict is between beauty and art, between honesty and artifice (art after all is still artifice), between love and addiction, between Eros and Porn. Is there such a thing as an island called Beauty where our moral inheritance does not hold automatic sway? No, of course not. Our judgments, including mine, are all products of what we’ve inherited through our genes, our parenting, and our early cultural contact with culture and society. If it can be thought, it is subjective. Beyond thinking is inescapably divine. Humans can only grasp at partial, constantly changing truths.
In the end, Horner’s movie failed at the box office but to me it represents a noble failure. Time and again we’ll revisit old fields of combat and they are really few but damnably unchanging! Your ideas and beliefs, my ideas and beliefs. Who’s to say that either one of us has the Truth?
Movies are not about truth but, when successful, epiphanies of what can be true, far and away more truthful than anything we can really know. As my father used to admonish us after taking us to the movies: it’s not real, you know. Bless his practical, masculine heart, he took us to see the unreal anyway. His influence remains with me, increasingly holier than any text of any religion I have yet to encounter for life itself seems to me beyond what I can ever comprehend as being real.
To tell the truth, the Unreal is increasingly more appealing as youth recedes behind me and love turns over, and turns over, in the graveyard of mistaken ideology