Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I am a hopeless romantic. This isn’t something I make a habit of admitting because hardboiled crime writers aren’t supposed to have a heart, and if word gets out I’ve got one, it could ruin me forever (if I’m not in fact ruined already).
All but a few of my favorite books and movies are really just love stories in disguise. They wear the trappings of crime fiction, but at their very core they are Romeo and Juliet, with the emphasis placed on the former. Most involve a man, brave and strong and ostensibly indestructible, in love with one woman so deeply that his world has no meaning without her. Her loss renders his surface masculinity — the perception others have of him as impenetrable and without weakness — a sham.
Take this scene from CASABLANCA, for instance:
Damn. That was Humphrey Friggin’ Bogart bawling like that. Over a woman. (Granted, the woman is Ingrid Bergman, but still . . .)
Is this what love is supposed to feel like? Like someone’s tearing your guts out with a baling hook?
Yes. I think it is. And I’ve come to this opinion, in no small part, by way of such cultural influences as the classic movie mentioned above. I’ve always been a pie-in-the-sky idealist, and knew from a very early age that, whatever love was, there had to be more to it than what I was seeing at home. My parents were loving, don’t get me wrong — when my mother wasn’t throwing Dad’s clothes out on the front lawn, anyway. But there was nothing overt or effusive about their affection for each other, and I couldn’t imagine myself ever being happy in that kind of muted relationship. The brand of love I wanted for myself was big and bold and irrepressible, and in my search for it, I looked to contemporary art — literature, film, music — to paint its description for me, so that I might know it when I found it.
Needless to say, this is an approach fraught with danger. Depending on taste, in trusting the people who make movies and write pop songs to shape his view of romance, a man could wind up taking his cues from such world-renowned experts on affairs of the heart as Jon Landis and Barry Manilow.
While I didn’t make that grave mistake, what I did do was fall hard for material that celebrates love not as a prelude to a fairy tale, but as a double-edged sword that cuts like a goddamn Ginsu knife when it goes wrong. In the films, books and ballads I gravitated to most, love isn’t about pain, but pain is most definitely part of the bargain, and anything calling itself “love” that does not involve the risk of emotional evisceration is a mere imitation.
I know. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
Oh, I can appreciate the occasional ode to love that has nothing but wonderful things to say about it, sure, but my obsession is with those that tell the sad tale of love found and then tragically, often stupidly, lost. Because such tales are never told from the perspective of some giddy, delirious soul who merely thinks he’s in love, but rather someone who knows he is and has the open wounds to prove it. For me, it’s a simple matter of credibility.
Curiously, I’m not of the school that believes “true” love only comes around once. That’s too pessimistic a take for me. I believe you can replicate true love with various partners, though in each case, it will look and feel somewhat different.
How this somewhat backwards view of love has informed my writing is not easily explained, for I barely understand it myself. What I can say with any degree of certainty is that I treat romantic love with deathly seriousness, and I’ve never created a protagonist who was immune to it or, more importantly, lived in denial of it. The truth I think I’m always trying to get at in my writing is that we are all at our most human when we are willing to accept both our need for love and our moral obligation to share it with others. How near or how far a character is to finding that acceptance is what separates good men from bad in my fictional universe.
So now you know my deep, dark secret: I’m a closeted romantic, just like these two guys:
But before you threaten to take my Man Card away, remember that my idea of a great love story involves all the stuff hardboiled noirs are generally made of: pain, regret and lots of insufferable longing. As evidence, I present the following, some of my favorite melancholy ruminations on the subject of love lost, found, and on its way out the door. They’re all sad, to be sure, until you stop to realize that, before a man can hurt this bad, a woman (or a man, as the case may be) has to first make him feel better than he has ever felt in his life.
YOU ARE EVERYTHING – The Stylistics
This song kills me every time I hear it. The title says it all. Everywhere this poor bastard looks, he sees the woman he loves — and she’s gone. She’s walked out and she’s not coming back, leaving him to pine for a past he can never, ever recapture.
WARNING SIGN – Coldplay
Yeah, I know. Coldplay isn’t for everybody. In fact, there are as many people who think their stuff is lightweight crap as there are those who find it incredibly moving. Right or wrong, I fall into the latter camp, and this song is Exhibit A in my defense. This time, the poor bastard in question has lost the love of his life because he foolishly let her walk, and he’s only now figured out what a tragic mistake that was. But maybe there’s hope for the big dope yet; he’s offering her a sincere mea culpa and inviting himself into her open arms, and if she’s willing to give him another chance. . .
(You can write the ending any way you like. I choose to believe she forgives the fool and they make a spectacular go of it the second time around.)
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN – Something to Remember Jack By
If I were a) a raging homophobe; b) a misguided Christian fundamentalist; or c) a block of stone, I probably wouldn’t give a damn for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. But as I’m none of these things, I consider Ang Lee’s movie to be one of the greatest romances ever filmed, and this scene tears my heart out. So sue me.
INCEPTION – Letting Mal Go
All right, let’s get this out of the way right now: I’ve drunk from the INCEPTION Kool-Aid vat and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I love this film, and I think Leo D did a yeoman’s job in the lead role. While most of the discussion about INCEPTION has generally centered around its complex sci-fi plot and groundbreaking CGI, it’s the love story between Leo’s Cobb and Cobb’s late wife Mal (a breathtakingly beautiful Marion Cotillard) that makes this film work for me. Cobb wants to get back to their children, yes, but what drives him more than anything is the desperate need to preserve Mal’s memory, to cheat death by holding onto and reliving every second of his time with her, over and over again.
Whether Cobb really reclaims his children at the end or not is almost immaterial. That he finds a way to reconcile with Mal, to earn the right to go on loving her without guilt, is all the closure any viewer should require. (Sorry, the video can’t be embedded — you’ve gotta click on the link to view it.)
HE STOPPED LOVING HER TODAY – George Jones
Corny? Sure. Dated? No doubt. Heartbreaking? Damn straight.
VERTIGO – Madeleine Reborn
Just like Coldplay, Hitchcock isn’t for everybody. As evidenced here, one man’s cinematic masterpiece is another’s sacred cow in desperate need of a good goring. But I grew up on Hitchcock, and VERTIGO served as one of my earliest lessons in love as maddening, debilitating obsession. When the only way a man can think to survive a woman’s death is to RECREATE her — man, that’s one brokenhearted sonofabitch. What Jimmy Stewart does here at around the 3:05 mark, when his Scotty thinks his beloved Madeleine has all but risen from the grave to return to him, is sheer genius. And if you can’t feel all the emotions he’s going through, you might know a thing or two about love, but you don’t know jack about LOVE.
500 DAYS OF SUMMER – The Final Day
I suppose there’s an outside chance that, were it possible to watch this movie and NOT fall madly in love with Zooey Deschanel, it wouldn’t pack the emotional punch it does. But me, I’ve got it bad for Zooey, so this ending hurt me to the bone. In part because I’ve been there, done that, and don’t ever want to go there again. Unrequited love is the coldest bitch of all, ain’t it?
DIARY – Bread
Ladies, let this song serve as a warning to you: If you must fall in love with someone other than your present partner, and feel compelled to write all about it in your diary, PLEASE don’t leave the goddamn thing where your husband/boyfriend can find it. And fellas: If you spot your woman’s unlocked diary lying carelessly around the crib, under a tree or anywhere else — walk away. Just walk away. Because believe me, you don’t want to know what the lady’s thinking. Ever.
SOMEWHERE IN TIME – Mourning Elise
Picture this: You’ve finally found the one woman in the world you could ever really love, and discover she’s dead, having been born at the turn of the twentieth century. But that’s not the bad news. The bad news is, you’ve figured out how to travel back in time to be with this woman, only to have fate snatch you back to the present, where she’s out of your reach forever. Cold blooded, right? Now imagine the woman in question looks like Jane Seymour.
You’d want to just lie down and die, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s more or less what poor Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve) does here.
Okay, enough is enough. I think I’ve embarrassed myself as much as I’m going to today. If I expose one more inch of my hard-shell exterior’s soft, pink underbelly, I’ll run the risk of saying something kind about Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and whatever respect you have left for me will be gone for sure.
Luckily, it’s Sunday, so for a much-needed infusion of testosterone, I’m going to go watch some football, drink a beer and read some Mickey Spillane. While I’m busy doing that, please consider the following. . .
Questions for the Class: What’s your personal concept of romantic love, and how is it manifested in your work? What songs or films would you list as representative of romance as you perceive it?