I recently watched two movies, both of them well-made, entertaining, and utterly romantic, but representing very different viewpoints on the power of love: one idealistic and one realistic. I tend toward the idealistic myself, but at first even I found the first movie’s message of “with love, nothing is impossible” naïve, while the second movie’s message that “love can’t solve everything” was more realistic, but ultimately heartbreaking. Is there a middle ground? Can hopeless romantics (like me) soar on the wings of love while still keeping our feet on the ground? (There’s nothing like mixing metaphors in the morning.)
The first movie was Brigadoon (1954), starring the incomparable Gene Kelly and the transcendent Cyd Charisse. (Adjectives simply fail these two screen legends.) Based on the classic Broadway musical, Brigadoon tells the story of an old-fashioned village in the Scottish Highlands that appears in our world only one day every 100 years, then disappearing into the mists, its residents asleep for the “night,” while the next century passes. While vacationing, Kelly and his friend (played by Van Johnson) stumble upon Brigadoon during one of its rare appearances, and Kelly falls in love with one of the villagers, played by Charisse. (Of course, this is told in dance rather than words, but that’s fine with me.)
But their love seems doomed: if she leaves Brigadoon, the town will disappear forever, and if he stays, he gives up his life in the modern world. At the end of the day, he leaves Brigadoon and Charisse, but soon after returning to New York City, he realizes he can’t live without her, and returns to the site of Brigadoon, despite knowing his search is futile. But wait—Brigadoon amazingly reappears, solely due to Kelly and Charisse’s love, and a recurring theme of the movie (and play) is affirmed. In the words of a town elder, “if ye love someone deeply, anythin' is possible.”
The second movie was Like Crazy (2011), the contemporary story of two college students, played by Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, who fall in love but struggle with the many obstacles that life throws in their path. The first part of the movie tells the story of their romance, including all the sentimental details that we treasure in our own relationships but can find nauseating in others. (She, a writer, gives him a scrapbook of their romance, including poems, pictures, and pockets with hidden notes; he, a budding furniture designer, makes his first piece of furniture for her, a writing chair.) Anyway, the viewer is left with no doubt that these two people are madly—even crazy—in love.
But then life interferes, in some ways randomly but in one important way due to their own action. Specifically, Jones overstays her student visa to spend a few more weeks with Yelchin, but after returning to her native England, finds she cannot return to the States. This forced separation introduces a crack into their relationship, which many trips abroad by Yelchin—including one in which he and Jones marry—cannot help mend. Other people pass through their individual lives while apart, and although they end up together at the end, the viewer is left with the strong impression that their fantastic romance has been irreparably damaged.
Brigadoonis a fairy tale, obviously, but it’s the kind of fairy tale that many of us still cling to. It ends up being unrealistic not just in how it ends, but also in the way Kelly and Charisse fall in love. In the tradition of much classic film, love is instantaneous but unshakeable, cemented by a dance and a kiss. And it is this love that is strong enough to reverse the “miracle” of Brigadoon (granted by God in answer to a prayer) and allows Kelly and Charisse to be together. (Happily ever after, we can safely presume.) In contrast, the initial love story told in Like Crazy strikes us as eminently realistic: two nice, smart, adorable young people develop a relationship by spending time together, learning about each other, and over time falling in love. It is a modern romance rather than a fairy tale, much more believable—which only serves to make the gradual deterioration of their relationship through the rest of the movie all the more heartwrenching (aided by the occasional injections of false hope, such as their marriage).
But it would be too easy to grow cynical and dismiss the fantasy of the all-powerful love that can overcome anything life has to offer. This is still the ideal, the dream, what we should hope for and aspire to—as long as we don’t expect it or rely on it. Because we never know—any relationship we start could be the one that works, the one that comes close to the fairy tale, and the one that survives all the intrusions and setbacks that fall under the heading of “life”. Of course, there isn’t some entity called Love that will solve these problems for us—we have to do that ourselves. But a great love can inspire us to work to overcome these problems, changing the world to make it fit our love rather than letting the world say no.
Perhaps that’s the most disturbing fairy-tale aspect of Brigadoon: Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse didn’t do anything to bring Brigadoon back so they could be together. They didn’t fight against all odds and sacrifice other things they cared about to prove their love to each other. He just came back to Scotland and woke up the town. (“My bad.”) On the other hand, Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin struggled for years to make their relationship work, but, in the end, they couldn’t. And it doesn’t always work, of course—but sometimes it does, and the important thing to remember is that we can never know when it will work and when it won’t. There are enough real-life stories of unbeatable love out there that seem like fairy tales, but which have inspiring stories of devotion, sacrifice, and struggle behind them.
If Brigadoon is the ideal, then Like Crazy is the cautionary tale. We can still believe that when you love someone deeply enough, anything is possible—in fact, we have to believe that, or we’ve given up before anything has even begun. But it isn’t just going to work out by itself; you have to do your best to make it work. (Just don’t wake up everyone else in the process.)
A categorized list of some of my other PT posts can be found at my personal website here.