Saturday, October 1, 2016

Love, Actually

Christmas is almost here, and you know what that means. It's the season of thinkpieces about the controversial British romcom "Love, Actually". No, really, the movie is a perennial battleground, whether you love it or hate it. Let's talk about LA - and why it evokes such strong, opposing reactions - now so you have something to link to when arguments about it come up on your dashboard.

Image result for love actually

LA is several vignettes of varying seriousness and importance, about couples with odd stories.

  1. The Prime Minister falls for a staffer, and stands up to an American President who hits on her.
  2. A writer who just broke up with his adulterous wife falls in love with a maid who doesn't speak his language.
  3. A videographer hides tapes he took of his best friend's wedding that belie his infatuation with the bride, who discovers them.
  4. A widower tries to help his school-age son act on his crush to a girl in his class.
  5. An established family man and professional starts flirting with his secretary and entertaining thoughts of dalliance, which are discovered by his wife.
  6. An aging rock star tries to get one last hit single, and realizes his manager is the only guy who ever stood with him, instead of the fleeting coattails of fame.
  7. A woman finally dates her office crush but is constantly interrupted by the needs of her institutionalized brother.
  8. A couple of porn actors begin timidly flirting with each other in between scenes where they have sex.
  9. An English schlub flies to the American Midwest to find women who are turned on by his accent.
And of course, in the style of these vignette-collages, all the plot lines link together in clever lines. (Plot wise this is extremely similar to the American Playing by Heart, which you should see if you want the same scenario, but different themes from the ones we'll explain here.)

So what unites all these stories? Two things.


One, in terms of any moral system that judges by following certain rules (particularly the sexual rules of modern Western culture, but honestly, most of these rules are much wider than that) these scenarios are repugnant.

  1. Workplace harassment by powerful politicians, who mess up foreign policy to boot.
  2. Workplace harassment and immigrant/native power differentials.
  3. Obsession with your friend's girl (ruining a wedding gift in the process, with a big helping of Creepy Nice Guy-ism.) 
  4. All sorts of emotional projection.
  5. Adultery.
  6. The cynical sleaziness of this rock star.
  7. Familial over dependence.
  8. Sex before emotional connection.
  9. Extreme shallowness.
Again, it varies in how strongly people will object, but every plot line is designed to cross some moral taboo. And if you read the various anti-LA columns, that's often what people are upset about. If you think society suffers because of a routine violation of sexual norms, then you'll see that replicated in at least one of the plotlines in LA, and you'll conclude that LA is part of the culture that "normalizes" these behaviors. It's very important that none of these are accidents - they are such widespread objectionable behavior that you can't really expect the director or writer or anyone else involved to have missed them. The creators of the film could have... just not made such offensive people (like in Playing by Heart.)

(Depending on who you are, you might also think one or two of the taboos are things society should just calm the fuck down about. But rare is the libertine who wouldn't object to at least one of these.)


The second thing that unites these plots: it humanizes the fuck out of them. Every one of these taboo violators is depicted in a way that the audience can sympathize with their emotions (if not motives), and understand the details that led to this situation. The film is pushing extremely hard for empathy for all of these characters, no matter how weird the situation.

The most archetypical scene is Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean-like cameo, gift wrapping a present for potential-adulterer Alan Rickman, who is trying to hide this purchase from his wife.

The bit reeks with Rickman's nervousness and increasing desperation. The entire point is to feel his fear that his wife might come back at any minute and why is this damn man taking so long??????

You don't get this without the moral violation. The entire scene is based on the fact that Rickman is doing something wrong, and is afraid of being caught - there's no mitigation of that wrongness. But, given the wrongness, the scene asks us to feel his fear anyway, and what it feels like to be the criminal, stuck jimmying open a jammed door, wondering if the cops will come around the corner and catch him any minute. Even if the criminal is a bad person engaged in a bad act, there's still a real emotion there we can empathize with.

Every storyline can be read that way - moral violation, and the experience of what it feels like to be that taboo violator, in their complex humanity - from the Prime Minister's light jokes about the chubbiness of his staffer while being attracted to her, to the obsessive non-confrontationalism of the videographer and his hauntingly beautiful videos.

Depending on your philosophy, these can be read one of two ways:

  1. (Rule oriented) These are the stories rule breakers tell themselves. Even if it feels nice, and cute, and like you have your unique reasons when you do it, you are still breaking social laws.

  2. (Humanist) Even when breaking social laws, people are still human beings with unique reasons and powerful emotions. They are still worthy of our love and sympathy, and sometimes it still results in a good outcome.
A Rorschach Test that lets people decide which of those two messages they take from the film, is actually a pretty good idea for a movie. Real controversy that hits at the core of our identity gets people talking and can keep a film alive for a lot longer than other ephemera (which is why people are still arguing over who was right in Captain America Civil War.)

Unfortunately, despite this delightful ambivalence, the storytelling techniques probably come down too hard on the side of #2. The actors are just too charismatic. The endings work out too positively. (If you don't mind the moral taboo in 5 of the stories, it's easy to assume the boundary-crossing in the ones you do recognize is just accidental, and indicative of a sociopathic filmmaker.) And so a lot of viewers that would prefer lesson #1, just come away with feeling like the movie is wrong, that it's trying to force sympathy on you when what you quite clearly see is a moral violation.

It doesn't help that Hugh Grant's voiceover at the end claims the moral is some ultra-generic "love conquers all" message that barely applies to most of the movie. But like all narration, that should be contrasted with the actual images and actions of the movie, which are best epitomized by the vaguely inhuman Mr Bean and his absurdly satirical antics.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Thank you for this. I have always had mixed emotions with this film & you have comprehensively explained why. Well done!