Sex Vies with Videotape:
American Film’s Self-conscious Presentation of Appropriate Intimacy

I. The status of American film

How do we learn what appropriate behavior is for intimate situations? In 20th century America, the popular culture’s high stress on individual rights and the value of privacy makes it difficult to learn appropriate behavior in intimate situations from immediately observed behavior or other people. In times like the Victorian era, a similar sense of insistence on privacy – while produced more from horror than independence – resulted in widespread frank ignorance or misunderstanding of young adults entering their first romantic or sexual relationships, but that sort of result is nearly impossible in today’s postmodern society. Armed (however consciously) with a horror of ignorance and a desire to seem appropriately sophisticated at all times in keeping with the postmodern self, contemporary Americans who find themselves in their first intimate relationships draw on the resources they have at hand in the media, largely books, television, and film. Film has lost some of its importance in the American consciousness since the advance of television – it is no longer true that “movie theaters are the cathedrals of the twentieth century,” and it is no longer as much of a decidedly American phenomenon. However, film as a medium of reflecting idealized life has kept its respected status more than radio, which has long since turned almost entirely to music or nonfiction, or television, an American institution which most Americans will only shamefacedly admit to watching more than a few hours each week. While film may not have quite the standing of literature, it is (many would say, regrettably) more accessible to American audiences than written works, and has in general a greater impact on the social consciousness. It is to film, therefore, that I intend to turn for a partial answer to the question of how contemporary Americans learn about intimacy and how to live their private lives.

Part of the complexity involved with problems of intimate behavior is that there are many different types of “intimacy” involved. Intimate behavior, if understood as any sort of private and romantic interaction, can range from the emotional to the physical. The general ideal is that most intimate relationships will contain some of both, but in this review of film as a model for behavior, I am concerned mainly with emotional and verbal behavior – in other words, this will not be a study of the effect of pornography on the sex lives of Americans. However, the common media portrayal of “correct” intimate behavior as a means to obtain sex is a major influence on public attitudes towards such behavior. Also, physical intimacy itself exists in an incredibly wide spectrum – from simple physical proximity to sex – and more often than not in conjunction with verbal intimacy. This being the case, the depiction of physical intimacy must be a part of the calculations. This, in turn, points to some particular features of the medium of film, even when compared to television.

While film is a more esteemed medium than television, it also has its own problems of respectability to deal with. The high reflexivity demanded of institutions in postmodern America has not spared the movies, perhaps more so than any other medium but photography, because of the possibility of obscenity. Television – even cable television – has enforced limits of how much graphic nudity and violence, etc., it is possible to portray. It is partially this which gives television an inferior status in the public eye. No matter what ends up on the screen, it will be digestible by the mainstream. Even with new concerns about privacy and illusion as regards “reality” shows ranging from “Survivor” to “COPS” to “The Real World,” public criticism of television is very different from criticism of film. Although critics bemoan television’s lowbrow appeal and parents complain about increasingly graphic sexual content, there remains a recognition that “it’s only TV.” The Oscars are still a gala night, the height of accomplishment and glamour for even Middle America; to make good in the movies means something, is indicative of some artistic achievement or merit. A good movie will always be a good movie. A similar accomplishment in the field of television does not gain as much respect. The Emmy award ceremonies are almost self-consciously tacky affairs, and winning an award in a medium which can allow one spectacular episode or event to be discounted by a season’s worth of pap does not reach the same standard. Actors intentionally leave television to pursue film careers; anyone moving in reverse generally does so unintentionally.

Because of these perceived differences, the way film crosses the line of propriety is very different from the way television does so. Television is offensive because it is frequently aimed towards the lowest possible denominator in several different directions, in that it is both as shocking as possible within its proscribed limits, and as tame as possible, insofar as the market will allow. Television’s own specific source of offensiveness stems from its being so pervasive, finding its way into nearly every household in some form or another. In this respect, movies are not so vulnerable – criticism of the graphic nature of movies shown on television generally takes the form of criticism against the networks that broadcast them, not the movies themselves. Movies, in that viewing them requires a nominal effort – leaving the house and buying a ticket or going to the rental store, are not subject to the same challenges, but different ones of their own. Movies are not required to comply with content guidelines unless they are aiming for a specific rating from the MPAA. As a result, movies have the specter of pornography to deal with. Film, in portraying intimate relationships, are open to the charge of voyeurism far more than television is, in part simply because they are able to portray much more.

The difference between the two media is observable by different reactions to specific cases dealing with perceived lewd and inappropriate content. Most major complaints about inappropriate television center around political messages or stereotypes – recent examples include the widespread protests of gay rights activists in 2000 against Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s conservative television program and the angry response to Bill Maher’s 1999 comparison of dogs and mentally retarded children. Another major issue is the depiction of graphic television violence, in America’s “post-Columbine” era: a 2000 Olympics Nike commercial featuring a tongue-in-cheek slasher movie reference met with howls of outrage from parents. Largely because of increasing concern about violence and its effect on children, as well as still-existent, and fairly tame, broadcast standards regarding what level of sexuality can be shown on television, sexuality on television has become a secondary concern. Concerns about portrayals of sexuality on television currently tend to center, predictably, on the increasing mainstreaming of homosexual behavior, as well as talk about – not visual presentations of – sexual behavior.

Film, however, tends to elicit different sorts of responses. Objections center more on sexual than political problems, although graphic violence is still an important point of contention. When physical intimacy does become an issue, it is rarely because of discussion of the act on the screen, but actual visual presentation, and negative reactions to sexuality on film are often more emphatic – and sometimes stranger – than reactions to breaches on television. One such instance is the reaction to the Disney subsidiary Miramax’s 1994 film Priest, about a homosexual Catholic priest in England. The film received its American R rating only after director Antonia Bird agreed to remove a shot of one actor’s bare buttocks, and contains semi-explicit homosexual encounters. Coupled with Disney’s policy of allowing same-sex partner benefits, the release of Priest became the impetus for the entire Southern Baptist Convention’s boycott of all things Disney. A different reaction, although stemming from similar objections, is observable in the case of the CleanFlicks video store in American Fork, Utah, where the owner, Ray Lines, bowdlerizes movies on request. Popular in an area mostly inhabited by members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, CleanFlicks gained some small notoriety after Paramount Pictures brought the owner to court over renting out a nudity-free copy of the studio’s 1997 film Titanic. While complaints about violence or “inappropriate messages” in film is reserved for discussion of children’s movies or movies rated up through PG-13, the depiction of more or less explicit sex in movies, regardless of rating, is continually a debated issue.

Because of these kinds of concerns, film is forced to be aware of itself as a potentially voyeuristic medium, heightened by the postmodern insistence on hyper self-awareness. However, there are few films that address this explicitly. Movies that do depict the medium of film being used voyeuristically are seldom, if ever, concerned with professional moviemaking. Instead, they tend to be films dealing with the ideas of amateur video: home movies, security cameras, etc. Such films include 1993’s rather unfortunate Sliver, depicting an obsessive landlord who videotapes every movement of his attractive tenant and the possibly even more unfortunate – although it did manage to sprout a sequel – Animal Instincts of 1992, about a man who derives sexual gratification by watching his wife have affairs on a closed-circuit television. Pure voyeurism in film, the taping of others for sexual purposes without their knowledge or consent, appears almost exclusively as an occupation of the purely sleazy and is not typically glorified. Examples of what could be called partial voyeurism, the viewing of others for sexual purposes with their consent, or viewing them for more innocent reasons without their knowledge, are treated significantly differently, as will be explored in the next section. However, although the medium of film is so generally well respected, it cannot afford to attract the negative associations related to sexual voyeurism, and treats the subject with a sort of conscious shrinking horror.

II. Film’s self-presentation as hyper-reality

While this sort of self-awareness, the ever-present possibility of voyeurism, does exist in cinema, there is also a sort of counterbalance, in the form of another main self-conception of cinema. One of the major objections to voyeurism – besides the fact that it violates the rights and privacy of those being spied upon – is that it is unhealthy for the voyeur, as well. It encourages a separation from reality, an unnatural concentration on the actions of others that discourages the voyeur from forming normal relationships. Voyeurism is a distraction from the real world, and can never take the place of reality in a healthy way. There is, however, a recurring theme that occurs in films about watching others: namely, that what happens on the screen, in the limited field of vision is reality, the only true reality. This sort of fascination with hyper-reality existing in an artificially limited environment has been around for decades, and apparently increasing in the last few years, with the recent rise in works on the subject. This is probably largely attributable to the increasing accessibility to film equipment, and the rise of the camcorder – and, possibly, the ever-decreasing American attention span. Somehow, the feeling goes, trimming down reality to what a director or actor feels are the most fundamental elements manages to become a more convincing reality. This is a possible counter to the idea of film being a voyeuristic fantasy, if it instead manages to distill the world and not artificially replace it. The obvious problem this immediately poses is whether, eventually, this sort of conception about reality is revealed to be voyeuristic or transcendent in nature – whether negative or positive.

There exist a multitude of examples on each side of the question, and there has been an apparent recent rise in different films which deal with the subject of limited reality, again probably related to the increase of those who can record images, in the form of home movies, and the overall expansion of recorded images in general, with more and more surveillance occurring in everyday life. The attitude seems to be that the issues of film, voyeurism, and the differences between the two are intense ones, the positive associations very positive and the negative ones occupying a correspondingly extreme range of negative effects. One of these recent attempts to address the matter is director E. Elias Merhige’s 2000 Shadow of the Vampire, a highly fictionalized account of the making of director F.W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu. The conceit of Shadow of a Vampire is that Max Schreck (Willem Dafoe), the actor playing Murnau’s bloodsucking Count Orloff is, in fact, a centuries-old vampire who amorally munches his way through the rest of the film’s cast and crew. Far more important, however, is Shadow’s presentation of the vampiric nature of film itself. Murnau (John Malkovich) intentionally hires Schreck, aware of his true nature, because he intends to make “the most realistic vampire movie of all time,” and is perfectly aware that Schreck has been killing off members of the production crew. Although Schreck’s actions infuriate and frighten him, Murnau continues filming, willing to take what he believes is a calculated risk in order to complete his perfect movie.

All of this action leads up to a final, horrific view of Murnau’s film: the director, having attempted, and failed, to kill Schreck after the vampire’s final scene, is faced with a room of death: his dead cameraman, his dead producer, dying starring actress, and an undead and very angry vampire. Murnau stands behind the camera, filming – all of the deaths, in fact, have been carefully filmed – and as Schreck advances on him, Murnau shouts at the vampire to stop: Schreck has moved out of frame. “If it’s not in frame,” continues Murnau sternly, “it doesn’t exist!” A bewildered Schreck retreats and resumes feeding on the helpless actress, and Murnau continues to film until this bizarre standoff is ended by the arrival of others; even then, he cannot stop filming until he has been presented with a clapboard to end the scene properly. The visual implication during the final scene is that the camera is, as much as Schreck, draining life from others. The language of the scene, and Murnau’s lines throughout the film, indicate that nevertheless it is only what happens within the camera’s scope that counts; is, indeed, the only thing that exists. In the case of Shadow, this is, obviously, a tragic conception of reality. Life outside the camera has been ignored, to the detriment of all those involved. Murnau seems to have moved from his ideal stance, recording art, to something perverse, a voyeur’s position of unsatisfied fascination.

A variation on this theme is the tragedy of fading actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), in Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard, nonfunctional and crazed without a camera trained on her to give her life definition. All of the trappings of her movie-star past cannot keep Desmond fascinated, as long as she is no longer on the screen and no longer exists in the level of reality which counts most to her. Norma Desmond is, further, only the most famous character of a type scattered throughout Hollywood films about Hollywood. James Mason plays a similar character in the 1954 remake of A Star is Born – fading, alcoholic, and shattered by his dying career – and Faye Dunaway famously portrays a neurotic/psychotic, career-obsessed Joan Crawford in 1981’s Mommie Dearest. The danger of overemphasis on the importance of what can be held within the frame of the camera seems a cautionary tale in these films, a warning against the dangerous escapism of voyeurism. When life on film becomes too important here, it becomes fantastic, unattainable, and therefore more fascinating – and ultimately destroys the lives of those it fascinates, or those around them. It should be noted, however, that this appears to be a particularly Hollywood-oriented warning. The voyeurs are, in these cases, involved in the movies themselves: Murnau is dispassionately fascinated with the make-believe images he sees before him on film as the only important chain of events, Norma Desmond passionately fascinated with the fictional version of herself that she envisions on film as her whole reality.

These tragic versions of the destructive side of pursuing the hyper-reality of film are contrasted to more optimistic visions in another way, as well. They are decidedly more uniform in their criticism than positive films are in their optimism, stemming as they do from unhealthy conceptions of ego that become unhealthy worship of the artificial. Films that insist that the concentrated reality of film can be positive, however, appear to do so in a broader variety of ways. Take, for example, 1999’s American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes, which appears almost as a sort of conglomeration of various sitcom plot devices about suburban life: husband has mid-life crisis and quits job, wife has affair, daughter falls for wacky next-door neighbor. The wackiness of said neighbor, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), largely centers around his fascination with recording events on his camcorder – the central focus of his room is a large entertainment center, surrounded by what seem to be literally thousands of videotapes that he has recorded himself. These are the result, we are told, of his fascination with the idea of beauty, his wish to record everything he finds beautiful and preserve it, sometimes share it. The images Fitts records are sometimes odd – he presents to his new girlfriend a video of the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, a plastic shopping bag caught in an updraft – but are, ultimately, a beneficial alternate reality which he escapes to.

Compare this case of Fitts to that of Norma Desmond. Both have unappealing and often painful lives, she clinging to her dead glory days in her dusty mansion, Fitts struggling through the harsh criticism of his rabidly strict father and the helpless passivity of his mother. As a result, both turn to the idea of film as a way to ignore their unpleasant lives, an idealization of the world that becomes the focus of their lives. Norma Desmond is ultimately crippled by this sort of escapism, unable to cope effectively with her inability to once again enter her preferred limited window of reality, and insists to the approaching newsreel cameras, filming her as murder suspect,

I can't go on with the scene. I'm too happy. Mr. DeMille, do you mind if I say a few words? Thank you. I just want to tell you all how happy I am to be back in the studio making a picture again. You don't know how much I've missed all of you. And I promise you I'll never desert you again . . . we'll make another picture! And another picture! You see, this is my life. It always will be. There's nothing else, just us and the cameras and those wonderful people out there in the dark.

The pleasure of an artificially limited view on the world is too much for Norma Desmond to escape; notice that the focus of her narrative is on herself, her life, her alienated dependence on “those wonderful people out there in the dark.” Ricky Fitts, on the other hand, finds in movies, finally, his salvation from his troubles. Used to recording the world around him, dissecting unpleasant or mundane scenes until he determines an angle from which they can be considered beautiful, he is able to ultimately reduce all of his reality as though it were appearing on-screen, discard the unpleasant as less real. He lives instead for the positive, which he can mentally frame and record, making it his most important reality.

The odd contrast between these two cases begins to resemble a recurring theme instead of an inconsistency when other cases are examined. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window is possibly the classic film-metaphor movie; the protagonist L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), confined to his apartment with a broken leg, spends the film peering at his neighbors through a long focus camera lens – still photography, that is, not film. There are obvious parallels between the two media, and they blend together over the course of the film – Jeffries becomes a literal cameraman, as what he sees through his lens becomes what the audience sees. Again, the concrete world is narrowed; only one apartment window fits into his field of view at any one time, and Jeffries’ whole world becomes focused on events in which others are the main participants. At first, his girlfriend and nurse scold him for his voyeuristic behavior, but they eventually become as fascinated as he in the drama seen across the apartment complex’s courtyard and, in the end, it is their combined absorption in the lives of others that results in a murderer’s arrest. The events in their own lives become of secondary importance, as the events occurring in the other facing apartments become more real and of more immediate concern than their own, less highly plotted lives – and it is, oddly enough, beneficial.

This scenario can be viewed as occurring on the same level as Murnau’s confrontation with Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire. Both Murnau and L.B. Jeffries become obsessed with watching a drama unfold in which they envision themselves as both uninvolved and in control, despite evidence to the contrary. Murnau refuses to admit that he has no way to effectively threaten Schreck into obedience, and that his perfect picture can be harmed – until, at the end, he pleads blindly with a room of corpses to help him finish its final scene. Jeffries, for his part, speaks with authority about the personal lives of those he watches, believing he has a sort of omniscient grasp of his neighbors’ lives – when the woman he has dubbed “Miss Lonelyhearts” attempts suicide, it is Jeffries who feels he has the ultimate responsibility for what happens to her, as a witness to her life. And Jeffries treats his neighbor Thorvald’s supposed murder of his wife only as a dramatic curiosity – until his girlfriend, and then he himself, are both placed in very real danger. Both the case of Murnau and that of Jeffries contain much of the director’s ego – so much of their lives are poured into what they see at the other end of the lens that they are almost forced to insist that the world within their camera’s frame is more important than their immediate surroundings, in order to justify their voyeuristic bents. However, Murnau’s story ends, like Norma Desmond’s, in madness and death, while Jeffries, like Ricky Fitts, emerges at the end of the film battered but victorious.

The positive and negative cases appear to lie on either side of a defining line marked by Hollywood and professionalism. Murnau is, strictly speaking, an emblem of German film and not of pure Hollywood slickness, but Shadow of the Vampire is unarguably a cautionary tale from the world of professional film. Murnau and Norma Desmond are veterans of professional filmmaking; both their lives and careers revolve around the fictions, the selective realities that they help to create on the screen. That both of them ultimately end up distanced from reality and pathologically involved in filmed life appears to be a function of their response to their life work. Shadow of the Vampire and Sunset Boulevard appear to be movies about the dangers of Hollywood life, made for those who inhabit Hollywood themselves. They are, apparently, highly specific cautionary tales, ones warning fellow workers in the industry not to take their jobs too seriously. These stories are in this respect not terribly unusual, the sort of inside talk found in most careers and often intensified in the case of the arts, in the tradition of tales like Poe’s “The Oval Portrait.” When the specifically technical and professional aspects of film – Murnau’s obsession with getting everything in frame, creating the world’s most realistic vampire film, Norma Desmond’s obsession with her career as opposed to her life and her relationships – becomes all-consuming, apparently only tragedy can result.

On the other hand, apparently, when film is used as a way to further one’s personal involvement in society at large, its use is beneficial. Both Murnau’s and Norma Desmond’s approaches insist on their own isolation because they are artists, highly individual egos; both Jeffries and Ricky Fitts persist in the characters’ involvement in a world they are otherwise alienated from, Jeffries by his immobility and Fitts by his social awkwardness and his family’s constant relocations. Jeffries’ behavior not only causes him to become highly interested in the lives of people who are otherwise strangers, it gives him a compelling interest to share with his girlfriend, ultimately leading to a closer relationship between the two, and their engagement. Fitts, otherwise withdrawn from his surroundings, is able to focus on and celebrate the world he so uncomfortably inhabits, eventually leading him into a relationship with his neighbor, and their shared interest in his recorded perceptions of beauty. Both share something of the ego found in the professionalism of Murnau and Norma Desmond, but their concentrations are ultimately other-centered; tightly focused reality poisons a relationship with self but advances relationships with others.

These are not the only cases in which the argument is presented. The same theme, the eventual positive effects of this aspect of film ultimately directed away from self, appears again in other films. One example appears in Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 sex, lies, and videotape, which has gained something of a cultlike importance for some. In it, Graham Dalton (James Spader) is rendered impotent by the presence of others and can only achieve satisfaction by watching videotapes of women confessing their sexual fantasies. That numerous women are willing to indulge his peculiarity seems to indicate that these recordings are, ultimately, not about only his need, but theirs as well. In the end, Dalton’s fascination with women on tape brings him together with Ann Millaney (Andie MacDowell), who has a history of sexual frigidity. The act of shared film and fantasy, concentrating both of their sexual lives onto her fantasy – which frees her – onto videotape – which he requires – is finally what allows both of them to move beyond their sexual dysfunction into a relationship.

Another occurrence of the other-centered media appears in Pecker, John Waters’ startlingly titled 1998 film about a photographer – named “Pecker” – who naively glorifies the odd and grotesque people in his hometown. Many of Waters’ film address the topic of media’s effects in other ways: his 1988 Hairspray concerns the societal effects of a 1962 TV dance program’s integration, and his most recent film, Cecil B. DeMented in 2000, is an extremist take on “outlaw film,” in which a small-budget independent production becomes a terrorist cult. Pecker, however, while it concerns still photography instead of film, tackles the issue at hand most directly. The title character (played by Edward Furlong) constantly photographs the dysfunctional and often vaguely repulsive people in his Baltimore neighborhood, because he is so fascinated with them. Eventually, Pecker has a one-man photography show at a local diner in which his own ego is almost invisible because of his naïve eagerness to show others the marvelous world that surrounds them. The show accidentally catapults him into fame and nearly ends his career. He cannot make the New York art crowd that adopts him understand that the people in his photos – his frighteningly sugar-dependent little sister; his older sister, a cheerfully white trash “fag hag;” his grandmother, delusionally obsessed with a statue of the Virgin Mary – are indeed people, and he is celebrating, not exploiting them. Finally, Pecker forces his vision on the New Yorkers as the correct one, opening a show that features them in flawed, human moments – adjusting cleavage in a restaurant’s mirrored wall, striking an artlessly goofy pose at a gallery opening. Eventually, insisting on the humanity and the importance of his subjects as individuals, Pecker cements his personal relationships, embraces the grotesqueries of others, and levels the playing field between white trash and art snob to the simple category of humans at the end of the lens. The film seems to be at least abstractly autobiographical for Waters, a director notorious for focusing on abnormalities and the blatantly disgusting; at the end of the film, asked what his next pursuit will be, Pecker shouts triumphantly, “I’m going to make a movie!” Making sure that his connections with other people, not his own ego, are the focus of his narrowed gaze, has guaranteed that film can be a positive force on his life. The pattern has been set of film as destructive when bent on self and productive when used to more closely incorporate others.

III. Intimacy in Film

These two different characteristics of film in the current era, its consistent respectability and its self-conception as a potentially beneficial escapism, dependent on which way the camera’s focus is pointed, together create a significant potential influence on mainstream America’s conception of intimate behavior. Cinema’s respectability means that it is a culturally-proclaimed reliable source to turn to for answers about different aspects of life, and its self-conscious depiction of itself as a medium which can enhance and create relationships gives it an additional level of media-backed reliability. These two different forces are part of what then forms film’s own idea of its impact on intimate relationships.

One highly popular recent example of a presentation of this idea presented on screen is 1993’s romantic hit Sleepless in Seattle, directed by Nora Ephron. The romantic pairing of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan has since become considered formulaic – perhaps more so than is deserved, as the two only perform the roles in two different films – but Sleepless is still considered something of a marvel in the category of old-fashioned, contemporary love story. The main story has seemingly little to do with cinema per se: Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) is a widower in Seattle with a young son, Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) a woman in Baltimore who hears Baldwin’s confession of loneliness over the radio and becomes convinced that he might be her destiny, dumping her hyper-allergic fiancée and planning her life around Baldwin instead. Throughout the film, Reed watches, with her best friend, An Affair to Remember, a film directed by Leo McCarey in 1957, and it is largely this film that inspires Reed to seek out a more romantic relationship. Affair details the travails of a perfect relationship – between icons Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, naturally – that goes awry due to circumstances beyond the control of either partner, and Sleepless even recreates the film’s climactic New York finale. Interestingly enough, Affair is a remake of the generally considered to be superior 1939 film Love Affair, also directed by McCarey, and is more appreciated largely because of its cast, Grant and Kerr being more affecting and remembered icons than Love Affair’s less totemic Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. In other words, Sleepless is a film based on a classic romantic film, which is in turn the product of Hollywood dissatisfaction and commercialism – but it still works. An Affair to Remember, in Sleepless, is a fairly causally direct cause of Reed’s desertion of her fiancée, appearing at first as though it is the sort of isolating and alienating projection of important reality that we have seen to be destructive. As her best friend tells her, “That’s your problem. You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” However, her romantic progression is not one entirely of ego and her refusal to settle for anything but the ideal.

It is true that Reed becomes unwilling to make the sacrifices required to stay with her sniffling fiancé, but it is not only her own needs which inform her actions. An Affair to Remember is about a romance felt deeply on both sides, a reciprocation of need and affection. What she takes from it is a sense that her current relationship is inadequate – not because her fiancé is less than perfect, but because she has more to give than he can utilize, and she needs to give more to feel that she is in a complete relationship. Also, Affair affects the way Reed perceives the physical distance between she and Baldwin. As Baldwin points out repeatedly to his son over the course of the movie, Baltimore is very far away from Seattle, a sizeable geographical obstacle Reed is well aware of. While Baldwin insists that this distance immediately precludes any relationship between the two of them, Reed sees it as a romantic separation that must be overcome, as in the parted lovers of An Affair to Remember, at one point flying out to Seattle herself to see if there is a connection between the two. While a case of mistaken identity has her believing that Baldwin has already found someone, it does indicate the lengths to which, inspired by Affair, she is willing to go in order to discover love. And it is her suggestion in a letter to Baldwin that they meet at the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day, as in Affair, that draws his son and then himself there, to finally have their romantic discovery of each other. The model of a narrowed focus on life, the hyper-reality that film encourages, is presented in An Affair to Remember as centered around a romantic relationship. The example allows Reed to pull her own scattered life together and concentrate on a single, more important goal that will bring her closer to someone. Under the main romantic plot of Sleepless in Seattle is a fairly direct message about the positive power of cinema; it is a film that encourages film, in general, as a model of romantic life – the formation of the private along the guidelines handed down by a public medium.

Cinema is consistently self-presented as a viable and highly focused way in which to further romantic relationships. In fact, the portrayal is so continually positive that films insist that it even applies to professionals in the film industry; not all examples of Hollywood individuals need end up like the unfortunate, doomed inhabitants of Sunset Boulevard and Shadow of the Vampire. A classic illustration of both the self-driven and the other-driven sort of Hollywood character appear in the classic Singin’ in the Rain, the 1952 musical directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Singin’ in the Rain is a sentimentalized account of the advent of “talkies” in Hollywood, with Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) caught between love and career, his unknown and talented girlfriend Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) on one hand, and on the other, his egotistic, dazzling costar Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), whose screeching voice guarantees that her career will not outlive the end of the silent film era. Lamont is a self-obsessed and self-poisoned actress of the Norma Desmond school. She insists, obliviously, that she and Lockwood are a couple because of their on-screen romances and because she’s read so in Hollywood fan magazines, although in reality she ignores him unless she believes he will advance her career, and is so convinced in her own perfection that she cannot understand why he would be repulsed by her obvious shallowness – or even recognize that she has an awful, glass-shattering voice. Film’s narrowing of focus, for Lamont, shrinks her world so that it contains only herself and her career; her fictional romances on screen become inseparable, for her, from reality. Not only does this make her unable to engage in a realistic relationship, but also, eventually, her inability to relate to and therefore care about others becomes an isolated cruelty that ruins her.

This negative portrayal of film’s impact, however, is more than balanced out during the course of the movie. The real relationship in the film, the one between Lockwood and Kathy Selden, is film-based in several ways. He is a major Hollywood legend, which she reluctantly allows herself to be impressed by, and the two of them form their relationship by working together on a way to save his latest movie from the ill effects of Lamont’s dubious talents. A more symbolically important impact of film upon the two of them is a scene in which Lockwood impresses Selden with all the tricks of the trade, shortly after they meet – or re-meet, rather. Playing on an empty sound stage, the two of them become like any members of the general public, wishing that their lives could be arranged as neatly as ones on the screen, not jaded by their firsthand experience of the medium. Lockwood arranges the setting just so, perching Selden – who is already dressed in a fancifully gauzy outfit from a dance routine she has performed as an extra – on a moveable balcony a la Romeo and Juliet, lowering and coloring the lighting to imitate a sunset, turning on a fan to simulate a light evening breeze. The ability of the movies to create perfect romantic circumstances, to obliterate distracting outside details, is chased even by those who know it is an illusion because they help to produce it – and, if their aim is properly directed towards furthering a relationship, the effects are healthy and desirable. Lockwood and Selden’s moment of film-based intimacy sets the stage – so to speak – for the rest of their relationship, and while it is, naturally enough for a classic movie musical, Hollywood-idyllic for most of the film, their justified need to indulge in fantasy and make things “just like in the movies” only helps to bring them together. Cinema, it appears, is not inherently self-destructive in its delusions of perfection. Turning to film as a model of the desirable emotional or physical levels to be reached in intimate relationships can be beneficial, as long as healthy levels of ego and an appropriate conception of intimacy as other-centered are already present. This is, in any case, how the film industry apparently views itself.

IV. Out in the real world

Film’s tight focus on a single subject makes every movie, in a sense, a moment of intimacy between the audience and the events occurring onscreen. It is a natural medium to turn to for explorations and models of how intimacy does and could ideally work. The film industry is by no means strictly monolithic, but it does have themes it returns to again and again. One, necessarily, is romance and intimacy; another is self-scrutiny as to how these issues are typically treated in film in general. Hollywood, it seems, assumes that people do look to cinema for answers, and accordingly portrays these situations, both individuals in film and “civilians” alike turning to film and using what they find there in their personal lives. In films, this is acceptable, almost routine, behavior. How prevalent this is in reality is another question, possibly unanswerable. Much is made about how visual media encourages unreasonable physical expectations of the opposite sex, but it is difficult to determine how much people in general consciously or unconsciously think of film to decide what sorts of actions in relationships are acceptable. The issues of physical overperfection and of film violence’s effects on society are, appropriately, judged to be of more immediate concern. There are, furthermore, complicating issues like the frequent societal need to be perceived as being on the cutting edge; for every wedding at which “My Heart Will Go On” is the song played for the first dance, there are numerous other couples who would shudder at the thought of being so blatantly affected by pop culture – although they may not mind using movie-inspired pet names in private. Film is a respected medium, but it is still a function of mainstream society, and if individual films or ways of thinking about them are perceived as passé, no amount of self-promotion will bring them back into popular usage. The effects of media are insidious – although the negative effects of the word are not necessarily indicated. Film is one of the more impressively credentialed of the accessible types of visual media, and that it further attempts to add to its own respectability by positive self-portrayal sets it up as a reasonable model in the public mind. However, it does not seem that its particular take on intimacy, or how it feels the public should use movies in their own intimate relationships, has had particularly deleterious effects. It should be noted, however, that this is a self-reinforcing system – movies showing how movies can help intimacy – and that if any problems were to arise, cinema itself may not be the first place to turn. Intimacy in film, whether film itself has a skewed or realistic vision of its own effects, will inevitably be a force on the lives of the American public. It is to be hoped that this effect is as positive as Hollywood believes it to be.

Works Cited

American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley. DreamWorks, 1999.

An Affair to Remember. Dir. Leo McCarey. Perf. Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Richard Denning. 20th Century Fox, 1957.

Pecker. Dir. John Waters. Perf. Edward Furlong, Christina Ricci. Fine Line Features, 1998.

Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr. Paramount, 1954.

sex, lies, and videotape. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Perf. James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, Laura San Giacomo. Miramax, 1989.

Shadow of the Vampire. Dir. E. Elias Merhige. Perf. John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, Udo Krier, Cary Elwes. Lion’s Gate Films, 2000.

Singin’ in the Rain. Dir. Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen. Perf. Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen. MGM, 1952.

Sleepless in Seattle. Dir. Nora Ephron. Perf. Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Bill Pullman, and Rosie O’Donnell. Tri-Star, 1993.

Sunset Boulevard. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Erich von Stroheim. Paramount, 1950.

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