We’re all stuck inside stewing in our thoughts; ours happen to be about movies. In Quaran-Scenes, writers will take a look at some of their favorite scenes from cinema: how and why they “work,” and what about those scenes they love so much. Find past columns here.
Tap, tap, tap. Just barely enough to get the attention of the young and the restless, these hormone-addled teenagers in band class who, for the most part, reflexively and involuntarily do blend in. Not only is it easy to get lost in the crowd, it is—in spite of the clamor for whatever facsimile of uniqueness their social media presences half-promise—desired. Except for Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), the lead of Alice Wu’s The Half of It, who regards her peers, her environment, her world with necessary suspicion, which she’s honed over the years as an outsider, the only Chinese girl in a small, white-dominated Washington town. She looks at one particular person, a young woman whose earthy demeanor and soil-colored hair captures Ellie’s gaze in a way the music teacher’s baton cannot. Ellie, becoming aware of herself (aware of her ineffable curiosity, a tightening in the stomach), turns away, lest she be caught.
Could the crumb of craving become a dilemma, a liability? Would that be worth it? The questions, even before they’re fully realized, wash over Ellie’s face in a matter of seconds, only seen by cinematographer Greta Zozula’s empathetic lens. But the anonymity that Ellie aspires to, as a manner of survival, isn’t the same as everyone else’s heeding to the norm, colored instead with mixed feelings of familial responsibility, awareness of her status as an Other, and welcoming one more way to merely make it through her adolescence. Being seen takes less priority when the place you think you need to be becomes a trap, the guilt of leaving what you’ve always known mocking you like yellowed wallpaper wilting.
The band teacher makes three taps and then asks the class to turn to the correct page. The students stand up. A guitar begins plucking in the key of D, and Aster (Alexxis Lemire) doesn’t so much sing as she promises, “You fill up my senses like a light in the forest, like a mountain in springtime, like a walk in the rain…” The camera, initially stationary and close up on Aster’s face, hovers, as if lifted from the ground by the swell of grace, mesmerized and literally moved by her performance of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song.” For Ellie, caught up in beauty and tenderness, the bracing imagery of the lyrics, this stirring might be a chance for her to let go and feel (and possibly be) seen, maybe even known, whatever the risks, whatever the damage, whatever the fall.
Ellie, as omniscient narrator and author, clarifies during the song, “In case you haven’t guessed, this is not a love story. Or, not one where anyone gets what they want.” The films in this essay—this year’s The Half of it, last year’s Straight Up and 1998’s The Object of My Affection—aren’t love stories either, and no one gets what they want. Maybe that’s part of it.
“Falling in love” is such violent imagery, a friend of mine recently noted: the unexpected drop that leads to a grotesque landing that would be slowed down for maximum impact had it occurred in Grand Theft Auto V. And the slowing of time is part of the thrill, to be sure. At once, details on your way down become more vivid and yet lost to the senses. But for characters like Ellie in The Half of It, or Todd (James Sweeney) in Straight Up, or even Nina (Jennifer Aniston) in The Object of My Affection, a shield is needed, a piece of armor must be intact—just something, anything, to withstand the fall. The “thrill” for them, the ecstasy of not caring what happens when one hits the ground, does not come without baggage or anxiety or other questions. Vulnerability does not exist within a vacuum. Intimacy is not so much a goal as it is an unknown world, its possibilities frightening, forbidding, forced upon them. Yet, the notion of exploring such an emotional landscape remains intriguing.
These characters are torn. Ellie’s ghostwriting for the football player (Daniel Diemer) who also has a crush on Aster functions both as the mode through which her descent is realized and the parachute that protects—and, here, intellectualizes—her. Her crackly voice, her uncertain but rapt gaze, her arch movements: Her every action is a management of her own expectations, a measure of safety. The Half of it balances Ellie’s experience and her near-out-of-body observation of her experience, the doubt of falling and feeling being worth it all melted away by the electrifying letters sent between her and Aster. She gradually unguards her heart and soul. Through the performance of playing another, Ellie’s yearning becomes a process of minding the gaps between who she wants, who she wants to be and who she can become.
Todd, too, hyper-intellectualizes his neuroses, articulating his sexual identity crisis to his friends and his therapist as “I dislike the gay sex I’ve had, so maybe I’m not gay after all.” And Nina dances with an idea of domestic bliss telegraphed to her by friends and everyone else, though she knows it’s impossible. Just feeling is not so easily done when one spends half their time trying to figure out if their desires are even theirs in the first place, and if that even matters.
Straight Up and The Object of My Affection , in particular, play like the former inherited its anxiety and neuroses from the latter (made nearly two decades before), with Aniston’s Nina falling in love with her charming roommate George (Paul Rudd), who is gay, while Todd—whose sexual identity is a discursive question mark, complicated by OCD and internalized homophobia—falls, for all intents and purposes, in love with Rory (Katie Findlay). Part pithy deconstructions of the dubious history of the “gay best friend” trope and part sincere investigations of the complicated history of gay male/straight female dynamics, both films are earnestly, perhaps even tragically (in a good way!) invested in unpacking what love and intimacy actually look like, how they are realized and the way in which desire leaves its welts.
Todd’s burgeoning romance with Rory, also wounded in her own way, hinges on the tension between whether Todd is actually gay or queer or not, and, more capaciously, between whether that question matters in the first place or not. Does it invalidate the closeness they’ve developed, the ways in which they have slithered beneath one another’s skins, allowed their respective hearts, if not to flutter, at least to find a little solace? After a day-long date that is sexually chaste but intellectually and emotionally edifying, Todd’s invitation to Rory to house sit with him in a sprawling Monterey mansion also becomes an invitation for the two to let the right one in, as it were. They speak at rapid-fire Hechtian speed, the screwball pace of their dialogue vacillating between the avoidance of foreplay and the consummation itself. This self-conscious acknowledgment of the function of language and genre fits, given both characters’ crippling self-awareness, but in the midst of these whirlwind conversations and digressions, Sweeney presents the two with moments of quiet: lying in bed, staring through the haze of a west coast dusk, Hazel English’s “That Thing” articulating that which cannot be articulated for them. “I can’t seem to ascertain / How you make me feel this way,” English sings, naming not the tactile but the intangible and deeply felt parts of losing yourself to another person. Todd and Rory can talk and talk about and around their chemistry, but the essence of their dynamic, and the way in which it reveals the paltry usefulness of certain sexual orientational labels (the film gestures towards Todd being on the asexual spectrum, but never commits), simply defies the very words on which the two rely. In turn, the chorus feels vague, like when you’ve run out of words and, momentarily, you only have each other.
For George and Nina in The Object of My Affection—based on the Stephen McCauley novel, adapted by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, and directed by Tony Award winning theatre director Nicholas Hynter—it is not only the potential of intimacy that is opaque, but perhaps political ethos as well. Though uncertain of it, the end goal Nina contemplates is marriage and a child and traditional domesticity. This conventional heteronormativity is a concept not as easily accessible, nay necessarily appealing to George, whose gayness both serves as an emotional awareness uncommon to the men Nina knows (including her boyfriend) and, supposedly, a fundamental obstacle. Onto George, who is charming and good natured and sweet, she can project her desires of the ideal situation and archetypal partner. Their bond, defined by how often they spend time together, what they do, what they talk about, their physicality (non-sexual), could be, generously in Nina’s mind, codified as modern and progressive. Hunter’s direction lays his loyalties with George, and Wasserstein’s script with Nina’s, incriminating them both a bit: her for the impossible, delusional accessorizing; him for playing into it.
Long nights watching movies together, as familiar with the film as one is the feel of one’s own skin, is as emotionally charged a manner of sharing and fostering a bond as any other. Dancing, too: hearts and bodies in motion, never letting the music stop on purpose, so one needn’t look back to see how high the cliff you jumped from was. George and Nina while away their hours watching Singin’ in the Rain in bed together, lit by the glow of her tiny television set, and taking senior-citizen-populated ballroom classes. Dangling Christmas lights shower them in blue and white; the reflected burn of overhead bulbs paint them red. Gene Kelly sings “You Were Meant for Me” as their feet grow and become surer from one frame to the next. The song forces the two characters to straddle fantasy and reality, as Kelly and Debbie Reynolds do swaying on a movie set. On the dance floor, Nina and George’s feelings for one another, no less valid nor any less intricate and complex than Todd and Rory’s, exist somewhere in liminal space. They swirl together until only illuminated by a diffuse ray from a nearby window, Nina wrapping her arms around George and the idea of George all at once. In their loving grip, they can access each other’s idealized worlds of safety and familiarity, temporarily free of the worry of what happens when they have to let go.
But the films in this essay aren’t love stories. Or, no one gets what they want. Ellie does not end up with Aster, Todd does not end up with Rory, Nina does not end up with George. Ellie reveals herself as the author of the letters, and Aster intimates that their connection, though passed, was sincere. They go their separate ways, beyond the small town, a small goodbye kiss a burning ember for the two to hold onto. The non-sexual dynamics between Todd and Rory and Nina and George become untenable: Rory leaves for Seattle and rejects later a proposal from Todd; Nina, pregnant with her ex’s baby, confronts the truth that George wants to be in a relationship with the man he’s been seeing, and asks him to move out. In each scenario, a part of themselves is left behind, the grass once splendorous now shriveled, withered. That the three characters all, to one degree or another, have had their fantasies shaped by classic cinema (Ellie quotes Wings of Desire in an early letter, while Todd and Rory dress cheekily as the leads in Cat in a Hot Tin Roof and Nina and George know Casablanca by heart) makes the reality of their parting all the more bittersweet. Swept up in desire, cinema’s illusion of a love story can be almost as good as the real thing. Still: No one got what they wanted.
Maybe that’s part of it: Briefly, somebody held these characters too close, brought them toward the sun. What’s unique about Ellie, Todd and Nina is they let it happen; finally someone forced them to care. Perhaps the masochistic, unforgiving, bracing burning of the skin—until there’s nothing left—is part of the want, the thing that one longs for. You can intellectually know that heartbreak and rejection, and at least the very risk of it, will always be embedded in such searches for human connection, and also know the “lesson learned” Wiki-summary is of little use in the aftermath. Yet, savoring the wanting, letting yourself feel and watching yourself let yourself feel, leaving the heart exposed to emotional shrapnel, is freeing—even in the face of impossibility and delusion and projection. It doesn’t matter if that closeness they felt will always be with them, but that they have it for now, before it wisps away in time, like the memory of the wind beating against your face on the way down.