Auld Lang Syne at the Cinema
How Hollywood has created a holiday of unreasonable expectations and why we should probably stop buying in (but never will)
During the three years I lived in New York City, I didn't go on a single date where I didn't think, at least for a minute, about some Woody Allen movie. I couldn't help it. In our society, the influence of movies is so pervasive that from birth on, it's nearly impossible for us not to think of the world in relation to them. Movies don't just color our experiences; they corrupt our expectations of them. We can't go to college or lose our virginity or go off to war claiming with any real honesty that we're doing those things for the first time, because we've been through them all before, just with more attractive co-stars. Even at my father's memorial service, I couldn't help thinking about Vito Corleone's funeral scene in The Godfather, wondering how ours looked by comparison. (Not too badly, as it turns out. A little light on gangsters and a little heavy on rabbis, but otherwise a perfect, totally depressing scene.)
I bring this up because we're coming to that time in the movie calendar – New Year's Eve – when Hollywood really cranks up the fantasy quotient and goes out of its way to create the most unreasonable expectations for what a quality holiday experience – and, by extension, what a quality life – should be.
New Year's movies play almost like advertisements: You too can fall madly in love with the perfect girl and commemorate the occasion with a 20-minute dance number set to a Gershwin score, like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris! You too can be blessed with economic and creative freedom at the stroke of midnight, like Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy! You too can find yourself in the middle of the perfect, fleeting romantic moment just by posting a request on the Internet, like Scoot McNairy in In Search of a Midnight Kiss! It's fantasy after fantasy, cultivating in our minds the most absurd notions of what is and isn't possible, of what we should and shouldn't expect from ourselves, on this one arbitrary night of the year.
New Year's Eve movies are responsible for perpetuating some of the most pernicious, ridiculous, self-defeating myths in our collective unconscious. And it's important to expose them for the myths they are, even if, in the end, no one (not even me) is really listening.
Take When Harry Met Sally, the last scene, when Harry goes sprinting through the streets of Manhattan to proclaim his love to Sally, the woman he'd recently jilted. I call this the Myth of the 11th-Hour Conversion. It promotes the happy delusion that love conquers all – space, time, disagreement, detachment, disaffection, disillusionment, late-Eighties hairdos, even karaoke – and that the love realized just as one year is turning into another is a love that will last forever.
But in reality, what this movie shows us is that loneliness on New Year's Eve makes people do things they probably shouldn't. We've all been there. Sometimes loneliness is unbearable, which is exactly why when human beings are feeling lonely, they should be locked in a basement until they're over it, or else they'll start running the streets, making promises they might not be able to keep. But try getting Meg Ryan to star in that movie, and good luck getting audiences to go see it.
Then there's the Myth of Secular Redemption, exemplified by About a Boy. In this one, a narcissistic cad named Will (played by Hugh Grant) finds his empty life of material accumulation and erotic fulfillment turned on its ear when he unwillingly befriends a 12-year-old named Marcus and then woos a beautiful woman named Rachel (ahh, Rachel Weisz) by claiming Marcus is his son, thereby proving he's a man of depth. When Rachel finds out the truth, she dumps him, of course, precipitating an existential collapse that leads Will to the realization that without people to love, life is a spiritual vacuum.
The Myth of Secular Redemption assures us that no one is beyond saving – that even the worst among us are capable of great acts of decency, especially when they fall in love on New Year's Eve. What a delightful moral for such a deviant movie to end with.
Problem is, that isn't really the moral of the movie. The practiced cynical eye can see what the sad message of About a Boy really is: Lying is the perfect way to start a relationship.
If Will had never lied about Marcus being his son, Rachel never would have gone out with him. Meaning she never would have dumped him. Meaning he never would have had his emotional collapse. Meaning he never would have tried to win back the people he loved by being good. Meaning she never would have taken him back. Ergo, Will's lies lead directly to his getting the woman of his dreams. Again, put that on a movie poster during the holiday season, and see what happens.
Then there's my favorite New Year's movie myth, the one I find the most ridiculous, the most unrealistic, the most delusional – yet still, after a lifetime of movie-watching, the one I find most tempting: the Myth of the Better You.
It's all over Billy Wilder's classic The Apartment, in which perfect gentile nebbish C.C. Baxter falls for sassy elevator girl Fran Kubelik only to learn she's having an affair with his married boss, Mr. Sheldrake. Making matters worse, Sheldrake uses Baxter's apartment as the spot for their trysts while buying Baxter's silence with promotions. On New Year's Eve, after learning that Baxter has quit his job and told Sheldrake off, Fran rushes from Sheldrake to Baxter in a moment of moral and romantic awakening. Baxter, the newborn mensch, declares his love, and they play a game of bridge.
Beautiful, right? The perfect New Year's movie? Love triumphs over cynicism; the nice guy gets the girl; our heroes become the most decent versions of themselves?
Well, the sad truth about The Apartment is enough to make a grown film critic cry, so jaded is it in its view of human nature:
She's going to cheat on him.
No doubt about it.
"Shut up, and deal," will soon sound like a thousand daggers in Baxter's fragile heart.
Look, everyone is convinced they can turn over a new leaf on New Year's and become the best possible version of him- or herself. The problem is: They can't, and they won't; eventually habit and instinct will take over, and just as Miss Kubelik will end up back in the arms of Mr. Sheldrake or some other man just like him, so too will you start smoking again or drinking again or philandering again or eating chocolate again or robbing pharmacies again, etc.
Here's the thing: Hollywood consistently paints New Year's Eve as a night of redemption, hope, and possibility, when in reality it's almost invariably a night of dashed expectations, disappointment, and anxiety.
Now, I know all this to be true; years of observation and first-person experience have shown me as much. But damned if there isn't that part of me, formed in multiplexes and in front of TV sets, that feels that all those ridiculous, romantic notions Hollywood has injected into my brain are possible. More than that: that they are the ideal, what could be, this year, once and for all, at long last, now and forever, once upon a time, and happily ever after.
But – dammit! – I'm a grown man, and I shouldn't be sitting around thinking about what it would be like if Rachel Weisz happened to show up at my door this New Year's Eve dressed in a tight skirt and a low-cut yet sophisticated sweater asking if she could possibly come in and use the phone because she was on her way to a Terrence Malick retrospective and got lost, and I'd tell her that there was a slight misunderstanding with the phone company that I'm going to clear up next week, but hey, I'm going to a party, and if she'd like to join me, she's more than welcome, and she'd smile and say sure, and we'd smoke cigarettes all night and complain about conservatives, and the next morning she'd make me breakfast with bagels and scrambled eggs and the bacon fried just so ... and yet I do. Like some schmuck, I do. Fact is, I am Hugh Grant, Cary Grant, John Cusack, and Jack Lemmon all rolled into one. Minus the money, the fame, and the matinee-idol looks.
Damn the movies for making me dream about such nonsense. This New Year's, I'd be much happier if they'd just let me be miserable.