What I Watched about Love—Petulia

What Resignation Means

Petulia (1968)

Directed by Richard Lester


George C. Scott as Archie Bollen

Julie Christie as Petulia Banner

There’s a reason why Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” resonated with me as a senior in high school, and part of that reason is Petulia, which I had seen some late Friday night before then. George C. Scott, who I had seen in a number of movies (Patton, Day of the Dolphin, a television movie called Rage, and, of course, Dr. Strangelove) is an unlikely leading man. Because he is not handsome, he is genuine. Julie Christie is a vision, and now, should remind us how much more difficult a job a beautiful actress has, because her authenticity must shine through her dense surface beauty. It’s hard to tell who plays Prufrock and who plays the mermaid in this film, because no one hears the singing, and if they do, they hear the song while bound to the mast of a sinking ship.

This is at once a fanciful and a grim movie. The pace is jaunty, and the editing jumps the viewer forward, back, and side to side. Janis Joplin and The Grateful Dead perform in the film. Lester creates momentary tableaux that are discordant and arresting. A happy person, well ensconced in a healthy relationship would dismiss it as an over-intellectualized and cynical film. Since, at 17, I was neither particularly happy, and never had a relationship, it struck me as a warning about what waited in adulthood, and what a horrible warning it was.

Archie, a successful surgeon is in the process of divorce. When asked by his best friend, “What was it Archie? The sex bit?” Archie answers, “Barney, what would you say if I told you that one day I got very tired of being married… I know what I want. To feel something.” How is it that marriage and success did not give Archie a place to feel?

In Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf writes how the men of her class are fed into society as boys and emerge as cabinet ministers, or generals, or heads of colleges, and that they don’t have any real say in what they become; they are simply shot out. They do not have the opportunity to feel, and feelings are antithetical to their professional lives. Archie faces a similar challenge. He has been trained to rise above feelings, to perform medicine dispassionately. When he tells Barney that he wants to feel, Barney answers, “Grow up,” then asks, sadly, what he is going to do about his wife.

The film is set in San Francisco, and is populated by characters who act out and on their feelings. Archie is surrounded by a perpetual theater of feelings and opinions (and by the gruesome broadcasts of news from Vietnam). Lester’s film frames these performances as shallow, even callous. When asking for help speaking with a Spanish speaking man, one cool answers, “I only know Polish.” That’s how it is: the joke’s on you.

When Archie meets Petulia, she too speaks in cool shorthand, “I’ve been married six months and I’ve never had an affair.” The thing is, Archie is already cool—ice cold—and answers, “It’s been known to happen.” Petulia persists, and Archie resists. Finally she says, “Archie, why do you play this dumb game, this crappy pretense of resisting the beautiful lady? You should be jolly lucky I’m even talking to you.” She’s right, of course, but Archie doesn’t budge, until of course, he does, sharing a personal detail from his life. They make an abortive trip to a hotel. He sends her away. But they are far from done. “I’m trying to save you, Archie,” she implores later, “I’m fighting for your life.”

Petulia has a secret. She is fighting for her life. She witnessed Archie perform surgery on a small boy she and her husband became tangled up with—fixing the mess she and her husband made. Her husband abuses her. Archie is the solid, generous, and cool alternative to the privileged, abusive, and secretly volatile world she inhabits. She shows up at Archie’s bachelor apartment, bearing a tuba. Romance of a sort follows. And ends. Archie is perplexed, and then angry that Petulia stays with a man who beats her. And then knows there is nothing he can do.

I’m not sure how to manage the feelings of hope and resignation, but at 17, the balance was on hope. Mostly. 17 year olds can harbor a bent idealism that finds its respite in sarcasm and cynicism, but it’s an act. Real resignation must be earned and waits at the end of a long driveway. I fought against it. I still do. Petulia was a message from adults who were not pleased with any of the alternatives for adulthood being put forth at the time. I’m not sure if it appealed to me, as much as it haunted me. How could one lead an authentic life? And what was the place of love and marriage in such a life? I thought about that often at 16 and 17.

What I Watched About Love—Hotel

What Work Means to Love

Hotel (1967)

Directed by Richard Quine


Rod Taylor as Peter McDermott

Catherine Spaak as Jeanne Rochefort

My father’s work life was a mystery to me, which is to say that the world of work was a mystery. He drove to the train station every morning, and returned home in the evening. I had no idea what he did, nor did he talk about work. A movie like Hotel was a revelation to me. The workaday leading man, Rod Taylor, stars as Peter McDermott, the manager of the St. Gregory Hotel. He greets people, directs personnel, plans hotel events, organizes negotiations, intercedes in disputes, and counsels the hotel’s owner. He never stops working. He knows the high society guests, the bellmen bringing room service, and the singer in the lounge. Did I briefly fantasize about working in the hotel industry? You bet.

But this is about love, and Pete, so he is called by all who work with him, finds love when he woos away the French escort of the tycoon who comes to purchase the hotel. Catherine Spaak plays Jeanne, and is named in the opening titles as “The Girl From Paris” (It should be noted that Taylor is billed as “The Hotel Manager”). The tycoon introduces her as “Madame Rochefort,” but she is little more than his consort. She waits in her room of their suite while he plots the purchase and is awake for him when he finishes his business.

Pete gains Jeanne’s attention by greeting then speaking to her in French. Pete’s charm is that he makes everyone at the hotel feel at ease; he is the perfect host. Jeanne warms to Pete, recognizing in him the genuine kindness and concern that distinguishes him from her lover. He listens as she reveals her past, and when they are alone, at last, in his small apartment away from the hotel, she makes a pass at him. By the end of the movie, she leaves the tycoon, and joins Pete at the hotel bar.

Pete and Jeanne’s begin a sexual relationship after their first lunch. In the film, there is barely a first embrace, before a cut to a scene of Jeanne in Pete’s bed, and Pete dressed and waking her up from a post-coital nap. No “I love you’s” are spoken, they simply come to an understanding. Is that how grownups do relationships? Movie relationships almost always proceed at the speed of 24 frames per second. They blaze forth and illuminate the heart. The serious and affable Pete, and the beautiful and melancholy Jeanne have not time for a slow swirl into each other’s arms. Reflecting back to The April Fools, Brubaker and Catherine are on a plane to France 24 hours after meeting each other.

Neither Hotel nor The April Fools explore what happens next. They are tip of the iceberg movies—they show a fleeting and focused glimpse of the tangle of life. The tangle is raveled and unraveled by love, or something that looks like love. I learned that love solves and resolves life’s difficulties from movies like this. Later in life, I learned that love creates its own set of tangles (And some of the movies I write about address this). The ideal version of love portrayed on the screen created a ponderous gravity that was hard to escape. After all, if a man like Pete, a working day white knight, followed the steps, then why wouldn’t I?


I had that dream again.

I grew up at a time when nuclear annihilation was more imminently possible.  It was an ongoing theme of movies, television shows, and books. My favorite movie Dr. Strangelove is, at its heart, a move about nuclear annihilation caused by a series of preposterous missteps. The main gist of Strangelove, or Fail Safe, or On the Beach, or The Planet of the Apes was not just how easily self-inflicted catastrophe could occur—there was no complex multi-layered process that led to disaster, because what’s more important in an emergency: expedience or caution? Expedience and doom always win the battle—but how ill-conceived the consequences of nuclear war were, how little those in power understood the horror they could unleash.

That was the background noise of my childhood. My parents insulated me from the tumult of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the spirit of protest in the late 1960’s (news did not become a facet of our conversations until we reached late adolescence); and yet the horror of nuclear war was omnipresent. It permeated my dreams.

I dreamed of fireballs and explosions, desolate plains and skeletal cities. I was incinerated, eviscerated, desiccated, mutilated. I knew early on that “If you die in your sleep, then you die in real life,” was a lie. I died. Lots. What began as nightmares turned into storyscapes—choose your own post-apocalyptic adventures of the subconscious.  My journeys through strange charred landscapes became a nightly feature of my dreams. As I grew older and the threat of Nuclear War lessened, my dreamscape spread to other, less spare territory. My dreams flowered and matured until they included quantum physics, white rabbits, and characters that would inhabit my writing.

Two nights ago I dreamed that my daughter and I were outside when an ICBM was launched. It was launched from a silo in our city. It rose into the sky. I don’t know why I felt this way, but in the dream I knew that it was not intended for any target. I knew it was meant to explode in the air above us. I turned away, but my daughter could not help but watch. The blast seared the sky, it turned the blue cloudless sky into the white hot center of the sun. I knew she would be blinded. I knew the radiation would turn her skin—she wore an open backed dress—to a mass of burns. I knew we were all going to die, if not immediately, then soon from the awful lingering effects of the blast.

We walked into a destroyed structure. We walked through dust that washed over our shoes. Another man was in the structure. All our shoes began to disintegrate; the radioactive detritus eroded the leather of our shoes almost instantly.

I could not conceive why the bomb was detonated over the city. Why would our generals, our president, decide to destroy a part of our country?

I had that dream again.

What I Watched About Love–Two For the Road

What Marriage Means

Two for the Road (1967)

Directed by Stanley Donen

Starring Audrey Hepburn as Joanna Wallace and Albert Finney as Mark Wallace

I remember seeing Two for the Road before I was 12, and that cannot be right. I was probably 15. I was delighted by the editing—how it jumped back and forth between the five different time periods, from scene to scene and back again. It was like nothing I had seen before, and it made perfect sense to me. And the dialogue was witty to the point of casual cruelty. It was familiar to me because there was a premium on sharp elbows at dinner table conversation in my family. As the boys became old enough to be no longer seen and not heard, we entered conversations by jousting our way in. Later on in life, a woman I was dating asked how we could be so mean to each other. We had learned it early, and it stuck.

More than anything else this one struck deep because of Audrey Hepburn’s performance. She was 37 when this movie came out, an she played a character who ages from about 20 to 30. Finney is meant to be older than her and was 7 years her junior. Besides the simple matter of years, her transformation is the more amazing of the two. She is both more hopeful and more sad over the course of her character’s aging. Finney remains more static, which is one facet of his masculine character.

A note here: I had crushes on a number of actresses when I was younger. I was unable to distinguish between the characters and the people playing the characters. And I only knew the actresses from a limited number of roles. I had no idea that Catherine Deneuve starred in a number of French films, many of which were far from chaste. I had seen none of Audrey Hepburn’s early work (Roman Holiday, Sabrina). There was simply no way to track down the movies. And besides small notices in Time Magazine, I knew nothing of their lives. I watched according to what was on television, and developed infatuations at the whims of unseen programmers.

At the beginning of Two for the Road the Wallaces, now ten years into their marriage, drive past a bride and groom in a car after their wedding ceremony. “They don’t look very happy,” Joanna remarks. “Why should they? They just got married,” Mark answers. The movie dances through their relationship, specifically tracing a series of five car trips through the French countryside as they travel from the north to the south of France. Their banter is breezy, charming, sarcastic, and bitter, building to crescendos of “I love you” before tumbling back into doubt and resentment. Marriage seems like an unresolvable puzzle, especially to Mark, and toward the end of the movie he asks Joanna, “What can’t I accept?” She answers, “That we’re a fixture. That we’re married.”

Hepburn glows when she looks lovingly at Finney. This must be the look every man wishes to receive from the woman he loves. She captures the look at several stages of the development of Joanna’s feelings toward Mark: from naive hopefulness through the first trembling of doubt, to disdainful resignation, and finally to generous acceptance. Did I understand the complexity of her feelings? Not at all, but I recognized the continuity, and as much as the look, how could a man not want to be loved through all his difficulty.

Growing up, I had no idea how relationships worked. My parents’ marriage was simply a fact and a mystery to me. I learned little about love and romance watching them. Nor were we close to my aunts and uncles and their families or the families in our neighborhood. I could not gauge how families were happy or unhappy. And this was never discussed at home. The only thing I knew was me, and I knew, and was told, that I was difficult. I may not have possessed Mark’s arrogance, but I understood early on that men in particular acted one way and felt another, and that to display doubt was nearly unforgivable. Or so I felt taught, and so I acted. I knew I harbored secret flaws—or not such secret flaws—and there was only one person who was going to love me in spite of them, and maybe even because of them.

At the end of the movie, Joanna tells Mark, “But at least you’re not a bad tempered, disorganized, conceited failure any more. You’re a bad tempered, disorganized, conceited success.” He isn’t angry or upset by her comment. He knows it, and ten years into their relationship, he is happy not to keep his secret from her. She is willing, even happy, to keep it with him.

I wonder now how the movie would play if the roles were reversed, if Joanna had been the arrogant architect, and Mark had been the more steady presence. I wonder what less traditional role I may have played had I seen that possibility earlier in life. But as Joanna tells Mark as he asks her his “What if” questions, she answers “I don’t know.” She has learned to live with the uncertainty. I know I have to accept what I am, which is something I struggled with as a teenager, then as an adult. I have begun to accept the uncertainty. And some of the flaws. And I have stopped expecting one person, even one person like Audrey Hepburn, to keep that secret.

What I Watched About Love—The April Fools

What a Kiss Means

The April Fools (1969)

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg

Starring Catherine Deneuve and Jack Lemmon

I first saw this movie on a weeknight—I recall it as either a Monday or Tuesday night—in the “family” room, the room where the boys watched television. I have no idea where my brothers were. I was probably 14 when I saw this. I was interested in girls, but they flummoxed me. I knew from reading Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape what strange magic our bodies made for sex, and the idea of sexuality absolutely intrigued me. However, my shyness made the possibility of kissing a girl as unlikely as walking on the surface of the moon. Someone would do it, probably never me.

The April Fools is the story of the Frog and the Princess, with Lemmon playing the frog and Deneuve the princess. Lemmon’s character, Howard Brubaker, has just received a promotion, and with it an invitation to the upper class social scene, represented by a party thrown by his employer Ted Gunther, played by Peter Lawford (a member of the extended Rat Pack). Brubaker does not fit in, though he tries. He wears the wrong tie and cannot talk to anyone, especially not the women. He plays with the art. And Lemmon’s performance is pure nebbish—that’s his charm. Lemmon was entirely relatable to this shy 14 year old boy.

Deneuve’s character, named Catherine Gunther (the boss’s wife), is sad and no longer fits in a society built on attraction and platitude. Brubaker catches her eye because he is unpolished. Even though he can be inept, he is genuine. She is convinced to give him a try when they spend a night in the company of a quirky couple, the Greenlaws, played by Myrna Loy and Charles Boyer, who live in a castle located somewhere in New York City. She tells fortunes. He practices fencing. They inspire Catherine to seek out a more enduring love. She chooses Brubaker.

What a fairy tale. Deneuve is icily beautiful—as perfect as Lemmon is imperfect. She kisses Brubaker, and says it is the first time that she initiated a kiss. And she kisses him. The kissing in The April Fools is chaste—no open mouth osculation. I did no know that when I first saw it. I had stars in my eyes. If she would kiss him, maybe there is a chance for me. Not only does she kiss him, but in the span of 24 hours they forge something like a relationship—they run out of the party, have an adventure in the city, and after some brief contretemps, fly to Paris together.

It should be noted that both Brubaker and Catherine are married. They leave their spouses, and the rest of their world’s behind. Ted Gunther is a smoothie who hits on other women and depends on his wife’s willingness to ignore his behavior. Sally Kellerman (an early heartthrob because of her part in a Star Trek episode) plays Brubaker’s wife Phyllis as distant and focused on her own projects. She talks at, not with, her husband and rushes off the phone to whatever actually holds her interest.

These characters are flat, as are all of the secondary characters male and female.Phyllis is bulletproof, but she would have to be—there is no place for women in this world other than as objects of desire. Brubaker’s male compatriots are unhappy as well, leading lives of quiet and resigned desperation. The Gunther crowd is rich and chic; they make easy targets. They have high art pretensions and echo Tom Wolfe’s social critique of just this crowd. I know that now, at 14 they all just seemed like phonies: mean empty vessels masquerading as people.

All except for the magical Loy and Boyer, whose wealth does not stigmatize them so much as separate them from the herd. They spend the days asleep, because of all the bad things that happen in the sun. There is no explanation given for their presence, the same way that fairy godmothers have no explanation in fairy tales. I longed for quirky friends, even as a youth. My classmates talked about Happy Days and the Pittsburgh Pirates. I had other, more shadowy interests, and no one to share them with.

The April Fools implies that happiness derived from love is so rare that it will require a rule-breaking intercession to achieve it. What a strange foundation on which to build an idea of love, and at 14, that is what I was doing. And to think that a kiss ought to lead to a trip to Paris and a new life. How many kisses would come that did not bear that freight, that betrayed that wish?

What I Watched About Love

I started watching movies on television. Whether Saturday afternoon monster movies, short films on the CBS Children’s Film Festival with Kukla Fran and Ollie, Sunday afternoon matinees, movies of the week on Tuesday nights, Sunday night movies, or Friday night late shows, I watched movies. The movies of my early life ranged from img_0274-1The Red Balloon to The Great Race, from The House of Frankenstein to The Trouble with Angels. I first saw Lawrence of Arabia on a 36-inch screen. I first watched the Wizard of Oz on a black and white television.

My high school, a boarding school, had movies boys could love (James Bond, Juggernaut, and Sky Riders) on Saturday nights. What I most remember are Sundays after church, when I watched the Flash Gordon serials in the tv room of the dorm. My college had a “popular” film series on Friday and Saturday nights—I was recruited to join the selection team because I had seen Enter the Dragon, and members could only nominate films they had seen to add to the series—and an art series on a weeknight. I can admit that I rarely went to the art films, but can remember classmates going on about Renoir’s Beauty and the Beast. I took a cinema class in the spring of my sophomore year, and remember listing Star Wars and Airport among my favorite movies. And then I saw Persona, Masculine/Feminin, Providence, Meshes of an Afternoon, Breathless, img_0275Un Chien Andalou, and Birth of a Nation. Kaori Kitao used a projector to screen the films, and we watched and re-watched scenes for hours on Wednesday afternoons. Our three hour class often ran six hours.

In my twenties, my girlfriend bought me a vcr, and between rentals, late-night movies on Philadelphia’s Channel 29, the Ritz Theater, and movies at the TLA, I filled in what I had missed. I saw Bringing Up Baby, The Searchers, Some Like It Hot, Red River, It Happened One Night, Flying Down to Rio, Koyaanisqatsi, Duck Soup, Ran, The Thin Man, Vagabond, Snow White, Freaks, and Claire’s Knee. I watched two or three movies a day. Some movies I watched as many as a dozen times, and there are some, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas come to mind, that I still have not seen and, still, want to see. I watched nearly all of the Marx Brothers, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Howard Hawks, and Jacques Tourneur. I liked Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Robert img_0276Mitchum, Rosalind Russell, Humphrey Bogart, Irene Dunne, Toshiro Mifune, Myrna Loy, Fred Astaire,  and Charlie Chaplin.

During this time I started writing a novel that I would abandon later. In that process, I went to graduate school, and then started reading books the same way I had watched movies. My walls are lined with bookcases full of the books I read while I found my way as a writer: Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Italo Calvino, Lorrie Moore. Hundreds more. Nonetheless, given two hours and a good movie, I still get lost in film.

Movies shaped me. My parents did not dispense life lessons, short of “don’t bug the grown ups.” My brothers and I lived fairly privileged and independent lives. My parents expected us to self-entertain, and we lived where we could do exactly that. Our play ranged over many square miles of field and forest. When we got bicycles, we rode as far as our will and muscle would take us. At home we ate dinner together then went to separate rooms to watch television (when we did watch television). Only event movies drew us into a single room. There were times when I was a teenager that my father and I would watch the same movie in different rooms, and at the end, my father would say, “That was good, wasn’t it.”

godzilla and mothraMy father loved movies. He shared his love of old horror movies with us, and we did watch Frankenstein and Godzilla together. Back then, Frankenstein was not played often on television, and one UHF channel featured a week of Toho giant monster films. These, along with the Wizard of Oz or Lawrence of Arabia, were event movies. I learned from watching movies that my father also had a soft spot, enjoying The Trouble with Angels and Agnes of God, but enjoying them alone and sharing his enjoyment after the fact. If I did not learn to watch movies alone from him, I certainly continued doing so, never feeling the need for company either when watching at home or in the theater.

Without much direct advice about how to live life, I learned from what teachers I could find. Mr. O’Connor, my eighth grade history teacher, taught me not to swear, and that police work was valuable; he was a former police officer. Mrs. Vandergrift, my fifth grade homeroom teacher, taught me about kindness and to value my academic achievements. But as far as the calculus of adult life, I learned from literature and from movies. Literature, like The Catcher in the Rye or Billy Budd, taught me about the pitfalls of adult life. Perhaps it is not so strange there there is very little in literature that reassuringly implies, “Everything is going to be all right.” There was even less in the literature I read for school about love. For love, I turned to film, or rather, film found me. I was a willing student.

The movies I will write about are not my favorite movies, with one exception. They are movies that stayed with me, like shadowy guides, for years. I feel their influence even now, in some cases I fight against them, the way one might struggle with a parent long after he or she has died. We are never truly done with the past. And so, I will revisit these films, neither to praise them nor to bury them, but to think about them and what I learned from them about love.

Are these the best depictions of love in the movies? Hardly. Nor are they the truest depictions. They simply stood out to me. Beyond that I had only two simple rules for their selection. First, I had to see each one first on television. All but one of these I watched alone the first time I saw it, with the exception being My Fair Lady, an event movie to be sure. Second I had to see each before I was 17, before I became an adult, and before I said the words “I love you” to a woman. Whether I like it or not, every time I have said those words, from the time I was 17 until now, when I am 57, “I love you” is an echo of something I saw in these films. For better and for worse.

The Films

The April Fools

Two for the Road



What’s Up Doc

My Fair Lady

Dr. Strangelove