Roger Ebert once said something to the effect that teenagers used to go to movies to watch adults make love, but nowadays adults go to movies to watch teenagers make love. I’ve often commented on how modern movies suffer from the dominance of the youth culture. This goes back to the Sixties, but it’s also driven by the buying power of today’s youth market.
Not that there’s anything wrong with movies about teenagers falling in love. But high school shouldn’t become the final paradigm of love and romance.
The 2006 film, Tristan & Isolde was a refreshing return to a grown-up love story. Unfortunately, it also illustrates why grown-up love stories are an endangered species.
It was panned by most critics, and bombed at the box office. I think one source of the problem is that many film critics suffer from a cultivated cynicism, which they confound with wisdom, that makes it impossible for them to appreciate a good love story.
They want to remind the reader that they themselves are far too sophisticated to be taken in by that sort of thing. But that misses the point. For example, the film Tristan & Isolde is implausible in various respects. Too many coincidental events.
But it’s meant to be a bit implausible. For a love story is idealistic rather than realistic. It’s not about the way things are, but about the way we’d like things to be. A love story is a romantic fantasy in which we mentally rearrange events in the way we’d like them to be if we were omnipotent. The popular, hunky quarterback loses out to the shy, nerdy sophomore. Against all odds, he gets to take the homecoming queen to the prom. That sort of thing. Escapism, but in a good sense.
If anything, the 2006 movie is much more realistic than its medieval exemplar: Tristan and Iseult.
Some critics also complained about the leisurely pacing of the film. They can’t allow a story to unfold in a quiet, unrushed rhythm. If it doesn’t have lots of explosions, shoot-outs, and car chases, it’s boring.
The excellence of the 2006 film derives, in part, from the director and the producer. Kevin Reynolds previous directed The Count of Monte Cristo, another wonderfully photographed love story with emotionally conflicted characters.
Ridley Scott is a producer and director who likes to dabble in a variety of genres. In films like Legend and Kingdom of Heaven, he reveals a painterly eye. And the latter film was another love story about characters torn between duty and passion.
The 2006 film also benefits from a discreet, bell-like accompaniment.
A dominant visual motif of the 2006 film is the use of fluent, shifting imagery: moving shadows and moving water. Oceans and rivers. The play of light and dark.
This includes the blurred image of a river, which foreshadows the death of Tristan. The recurrence of this optical leitmotif functions both as a unifying theme as well as a visual device to advance the action. It lends continuity to the narrative while also nudging it forward in anticipation of the denouement.
The river is an ancient symbol of time’s passage. The apparent flow of time. And, with it, the evanescent quality of life.
The river is a paradoxical emblem of linear time as well as cyclical time. The current moves downstream, but the river itself is the constant. A symbol of mutability and immutability alike. The sameness of change.
As a metaphor for life, the life goes on in the sense that the lifecycle repeats itself, but the individual does not. And, intentionally or not, this becomes a metaphor for the love story. The story centers on the conflict between passion and duty. Adultery and loyalty.
And it illustrates the conundrum of a secular worldview. Tristan and Isolde betray a good man (Lord Marke) because, from their viewpoint, this life is all there is. Honor and duty are great, and they feel guilty when they betray his kindness, but the desperation of their mundane outlook drives them to bask in a few flickering moments of candlelight before the inexorable winds of death and dissolution extinguish them for good.
It’s a world without good choices. Do wrong and be happy or do right and be miserable. The story is fringed by touches of Christianity, but that doesn’t take hold.
Isolde quotes bits of love poetry from Scripture (Canticles) as well as John Donne—a charming anachronism. It lends intensity and urgency to the moment, since life is so momentary. Of course, when time has snuffed them out, how they lived and loved and died will be irreverent. Whether they died sooner or later will be irrelevant. Choose your futility.
It’s like senile dementia, in which you forget all your fond memories. It erases everything you did before, for good or evil. The senile philanthropist and the senile misanthropist might as well trade roles for all the difference it makes.
And there’s a truth to this dilemma, but a half-truth. Life doesn’t invariably or even ordinarily reward virtue and punish vice. Just as often, virtue is punished while vice is rewarded. If this is it, then the prospects are pretty bleak.
From an evolutionary viewpoint, it’s even worse. We mate for the same reason Mayflies mate: blind, irrepressible instinct. Reproduction for its own sake.
Human Mayflies, programmed by natural selection to value the illusory value of love—romantic love, parental love, filial love, brotherly love—when it’s all reducible to C-fibers firing on cue. Chemistry. Plumbing. Nothing more.
In this case, the Mayflies can write love poems, compose operas, and make movies. Eloquent pawns of natural selection.
Many people find these triste, bittersweet love-stories more appealing than love-stories happy endings. Tragedy is poignant in a way that comedy is not. It sticks with you.
And, from a Christian standpoint, there’s some truth to this as well. Happiness without a touch of sadness is shallow while sadness without a hope of happiness is grim.
Time as a river. Why do we turn natural objects and events into metaphors? From a secular standpoint, nature doesn’t represent anything. It’s only from the Christian perspective that shadows and rivers are finite symbols of something infinite and intangible.
Without meaning, there can be no tragedy. That’s the Christian paradox.
If you eliminate meaning, you eliminate tragedy, and if you eliminate God, you eliminate meaning. Without God, nothing is meaningful—whether life or death, happiness or sadness. Tragedy makes life harder to bear, but a meaningless life is truly unbearable.
Better happiness with a note of sadness than sadness without a note of happiness. By God’s grace, sadness deepens happiness. But without God’s grace, our joys are few, fleeting, elusive, and delusive.