Our resident musicologist and anglophile Max DeCurtins revisits Love Actually and articulates, in personal terms, why these characters are just so easy to identify with . . . even when they’re all straight.
In agreeing to re-view Love Actually for the venerable 10YA, I jested that I would volunteer myself as the guy who falls on his sword in the service of honorable justice. Nobody, it seems, wanted to re-view this movie. I myself wasn’t sure I wanted to re-view it. After all, what other movie of the last decade can lay claim to the sheer volume of re-watching and TV showings that Love Actually has amassed? What other movie so valiantly attempts to overload Americans’ platonic fascination with all things British? I promised the esteemed Editor that I’d strive to find a worthy approach to the movie he’d opined “most people have gotten sick of.”
Now faced with the task of having actually to write this re-view, I realize my jest has only half a heart. When I read my previous re-views for 10YA, I notice a lot of things—“Jesus Christ, did I really write that?” chief among them—but one thing I don’t see in them is my own person. My premise in writing these pieces purports to get me out of the habit of writing like an academic (and, if I’m ever let back into the ivory tower, perhaps to help me write better academic prose), but so far I haven’t exactly risked anything. Instead, I choose to play Andy Rooney—I’ve been teased for being a curmudgeon for so long that I’ve embraced it not in self-defense, but for the sake of convenience. It’s not a risky position to take. Well, that’s changing right now.
As I will explain later in this re-view, Love Actually turns brilliantly on its vignette structure to take advantage of the fact that we as viewers require scant little in order to identify with a character or situation. Well, it worked on me. I can empathize really well with Joe, Billy Mack’s rotund manager, a man who drew the genetic short straw when it comes to physical attractiveness and who works tirelessly either out of loyalty to Billy, or because he bet the farm on Billy, as it were, and now finds himself stuck in a second-rate career from which he cannot escape. Like Joe, I excel in supporting, often self-effacing roles. I’ve both deliberately placed and accidentally found myself in such positions over the years, and as much as I’ve gained from those experiences, they have also caused me a great deal of pain. This Joe-like quality has extended to friendships, organizations, jobs, etc. Very recently, though, I’ve also come to understand Mark’s character. You see, it had always seemed to me that falling for the unattainable person was something that happened to other people, to less rational people. Except that it’s happened to me.
This admission deserves some context, especially given the fact that Mark, like everyone else in Love Actually, is straight. I, on the other hand, am not. It took me the better part of a decade to work up the courage to tell other people about who I really am, and I’m not at all finished doing that yet. In that decade and change, I can count on one hand the number of times someone has truly shaken up my romantic equilibrium, with enough fingers left over to play the right-hand part of a simple Bach prelude. Okay, maybe not, but it definitely fits on one hand. By my count, there have been three instances, and they occurred eleven years ago, nine years ago, and a year and a half ago, respectively. (In that last one, it took me less than a day to develop an attraction so intense that it frightened me. Obviously, not having had any real time to get to know him, I was mostly hot and bothered, but the opportunity I missed to kiss him on a cold night in Coolidge Corner resulted in regret so powerful that I ultimately came out to my parents later that year.) So when I say that I find myself currently in something of a romantic turmoil, I want you to understand my perspective. But back to the story.
become enamored of developed a severe crush on a guy who is sexy (but not too sexy), lively (but not crazy), sweet, affable, and fairly level-headed, if at times unimaginative. Having recently split from his hot but self-involved boyfriend, he’s now single. So, what’s the problem?
He’s my roommate. (That’s a no-no, or so I’ve been told.)
And, just to make it even more fun, I’m not his type, something I think I’ve come to know with relative certainty. And if the possibility of something more than friendship is out of consideration I’d at least like to be good friends, and that’s not going so well, either. He’s a thoroughly extroverted person, but typically by the time I see him he’ll be too tired, hungry, or busy to engage, and the vibrant, lively part of him fades like a candle on the cusp of snuffing itself out. He says he can be a very private person, but mostly I think we simply haven’t found a good interactive dynamic on which to build; he can often give the impression of being either intimated by or simply indifferent to my musical interests, my technical knowledge, my enthusiasm for current affairs, and even my culinary proclivities. And as much as I can’t put my finger on what exactly has stymied our ability to connect, I still entertain the vain thought that one day he’ll “get it.” Given this, why on earth have I gone so topsy-turvy—why am I still going topsy-turvy—for this pop-loving, guy-next-door character? I don’t know. It sucks in a way that I’ve never felt before; that is to say, those aforementioned rare times when I have gone topsy-turvy over someone have never seemed as significant as this. Now, there’s more at stake. I am, once again, far exceeding the bounds of my job description at work; currently it’s my stress-inducing pleasure to have inherited the responsibility for shepherding a major software application to launch. At the same time, I’ve gotten myself deep into a class that I purposefully took as a personal challenge; it just so happens that this class is the second of three I need to pass in order to qualify for admission to a second master’s degree (I’m told most people stop after one). In short, I can ill afford a major emotional distraction, yet on top of all this, like the piano solo in a Rachmaninov concerto, my little infatuation throbs away in my head and occasionally (often) yanks on my heartstrings. Let me tell you, this situation positively begs a little fairy-tale development, Love Actually-style. And, unless it goes there, I, like Mark, need to move on.
* * *
Speaking of moving on, let’s talk about the movie itself a little bit. Both of the obvious approaches to the movie—one that thrashes it for being an overblown pastiche and another that praises it for being an overblown pastiche—seem too easy. In other words, writing about an ooey-gooey syrupy bastion of pop culture is surprisingly hard. Naturally, I had to seek help. Well, ask, and ye shall receive. Some weeks ago, the enviably eloquent Erik Jaccard offered some preliminary thoughts about the movie as part of his re-view of Intermission. And then, suddenly, I also remembered reading this piece from the New York Times. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Love Actually, the Nacho Dorito of romantic comedies.
Love Actually, while obviously positioned in its public reception as the über romantic comedy, differs from the other exemplars of the genre in that it is not so much about the romantic part. In fact, I would argue that it does not really belong to the genre at all. Rather, it tries to assert something more conceptual about the existence and ubiquity of, and the human propensity for, love. That, for a two-hour movie, is a rather tall order, and in this sense, interleaved vignettes almost seem like the only sensible approach to take.
Erik rightly notes that the movie’s vignettes “don’t seem to carry the same force as we might expect from a sustained inquiry into one human relationship, or two.” That, of course, is the point: If we were to turn our full attention to any one of these stories, we would quickly find ourselves in a quagmire of problems, asking questions and finding fault with the formulaic declamation of each expression of love. I think that, more immediately, Love Actually aims to engender a flicker of recognition in one or more of the vignettes without setting them up for deeper analysis, mindful of the fact (calculating, even) that it doesn’t take much to get us to identify with a character or situation.
Re-viewing Love Actually saw me thunderstruck when I finally realized that the movie does something incredibly unusual: Contrary to the sine qua non of the romantic comedy genre that the protagonists (and perhaps some secondary or ancillary characters as well) must, in the end, get together, Love Actually doesn’t pretend that all of the storylines have come, magically and cinematically, to a happy conclusion. Because, in the end, what works in the movies rarely works the same way in the real world. Alan Rickman’s homecoming feels fairly hollow; we can see on Emma Thompson’s face that she hasn’t exactly bought into her husband’s change of heart. Billy and Joe’s vignette appears to resolve with Billy’s…whatever you call that speech. For my money, though, that doesn’t quite resolve the mildly homophobic relationship between the two. Neither do we find much fulfillment in Karl and Sarah’s story. It’s not at all coincidental that they’re missing from the epilogue scene, the arrivals gate at Heathrow. In Love Actually, there are winners, and there are losers, and that says something about the movie: I’m sure that at one point, in a conference room somewhere in London, a team of market analysts counseled the filmmakers that making everyone a winner would be good for sales. I feel certain that said analysts also made one other recommendation: don’t mess with success by acknowledging that not everyone identifies as straight.
We might better call Love Actually “White Heteronormativity Actually.” It touches upon—or rather, sideswipes—all the staple food groups: first (straight) crushes, (straight) spousal infidelity, unrequited (straight) love, playful (straight) flirting that turns into something more substantial, (straight) bereavement, and the condition of being (straight and) horny. For a movie made in 2003, it’s stuffed in a closet the size, we can only assume, of Liberace’s walk-in. If we wish to congratulate Love Actually for succeeding on account of its self-conscious hyperbole, then the crushing heteronormativity of the movie’s essence poses a problem. Certainly it did for me. We couldn’t have had a token LGBT vignette, just as we have our token interracial couple vignette, our token binational couple vignette, and our token inter-social-class couple vignette? To rectify this sin of omission, let’s take a moment to imagine what our token gay vignette would have looked like, and here I’ll propose one half and solicit you to propose the other half (see my free-floating thoughts for your starting inspiration).
* * *
I must say that Love Actually’s emphasis on music took me completely by surprise. I think it entirely fair to identify the ubiquity of music as an important component of life as a secondary theme to the movie’s primary emphasis on the ubiquity of love. That said, the music does exhibit some of the sweeping generality of the vignettes and it plays to the homogeneity with which many people approach culture. For all the music present in Love Actually, something well south of ten minutes of the soundtrack appears to have been original score. These cues, for the most part, repeat over and over again with little variation, but occasionally, a lead-in to the main cue will prove interesting. Impressive moments do occur: for example, going from Act III of Lohengrin to La Marseillaise to the Beatles in fifteen seconds flat. (Pop music on orchestral instruments is, by the way, ridiculously awkward.) Apart from those moments that integrate music with the stories, the score itself sounds entirely banal: the clarinet melody that indicates mischievous feelings, the round of Norah Jones singing “turn me on” as Karl and Sarah dance and, well, turn each other on. I’ve never quite figured out why filmmakers feel we need to be hit over the head, for the musical connection to the action to be expressed in utterly obvious ways as song lyrics take over a narrative role. It’s musical Metamucil. Doesn’t Norah Jones deserve better?
Despite the often heavy-handed treatment of the music, I’m perhaps most impressed by the diversity of the statements that Love Actually makes about it. The movie is replete with them; I can’t list them all here, so I’ll offer examples. Bill Nighy articulates openly what we all think about profit-seeking covers; his affectations while singing mock the commercial world of pop even though his vocal style doesn’t stray far from the conventions of the industry. Emma Thompson tells Alan Rickman that Joni Mitchell’s music is “what taught your cold English wife how to feel,” and his gift of the CD is “to further” her “emotional education.” Joni Mitchell’s music serves something of a moralizing purpose—let’s not miss how similar it sounds to a Disney song (raise your hand if you too heard that song turning into “Beauty and the Beast”). At the wedding reception, Mark and Sarah resolve their awkward conversation by trashing the DJ; later in the movie, Mark uses a boom-box and Christmas carolers as a pretense for confessing his love to Juliet. And lastly, we have at the very climax of the movie the great cultural fetish of the child musical prodigy on display. Sam buys into the popular myth that musicians are irresistible to members of the opposite sex, but what should make you cringe is his response to Daniel, pointing out Sam’s lack of musical training: “a tiny, insignificant detail.” Oh Sam, if only you knew how right you were.
Re-viewing this movie ten years later proved surprisingly engaging, and I still don’t know if I’ve processed it completely. It’s entirely possible that I saw Love Actually in theaters with a group of friends from high school. Christmas 2003 saw all of us returning home from our first quarters/semesters as college freshmen, and for a number of years thereafter we somehow managed to have a Christmas party. I feel certain that we probably watched Love Actually at one of them, and especially now that the friendships in that group have—without much love lost—dissipated, I keenly associate the movie with memories of those Christmas parties past. For me, Love Actually comes accompanied by reminders of the absence of love.
To conclude, I would argue that we have perhaps underestimated Love Actually. Unlike the romantic comedies whose place in the canon Love Actually has managed to match, such asWhen Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle, the movie doesn’t boast any eminently memorable moments, a situation not helped by its framing as an interleaving of vignettes. Yet behind that forgettable façade is, very likely, a carefully calibrated goal: the continued re-viewing that has made Love Actually the most re-watchable non-romantic comedy non-Christmas movie ever. While I’m not sure I could stomach an annual re-watching, a few years’ hiatus has definitely increased my appreciation for this movie more than I ever anticipated it would.
I hereby propose the following project for any ambitious, loyal-subject-of-the-Crown filmmaker out there bold enough to take it on: “The British Movie.” This, a Wagnerian production featuring every single living British actor and actress taking the self-deprecating, career-referencing potshots at which the British so excel, would function as an unabashed overdose of shallow Anglophilia, wreaking an awesome havoc on America. I feel this could really effect systemic change in our benighted little country. Let’s lock up Congress on the floor of the House and force them to watch the entire thing on repeat until they emerge with serious, sweeping reforms…or until Ted Cruz breaks down the door, desperate to do any activity that he can actually understand, even if it means going hunting with Dick Cheney.
Following up on our proposed LGBT vignette: If 2003 had had the actor in his 2013 incarnation, I think I’d have to cast my vote for Daniel Radcliffe, everyone’s favorite recovering wizard who seems to be naked an awful lot these days, sometimes with horses and sometimes with other men. (There’s a precedent; that’s all I’m saying.) As for his place in the Love Actually social web, I think there’s a plausible argument to be made for Radcliffe as Rowan Atkinson’s frustrated roommate, always railing on the latter for being a raging neurotic. And now to you: whom does Radcliffe’s character love, and how are they situated?
I have always thought of Portuguese phonology as the secret love-child of Spanish and Russian; it’s quite a sexy language, as are often the speakers of the language themselves. Naturally, only Colin Firth could make such a sexy language so phenomenally awkward.
VHS tapes!! The West Wing!!
Billy Bob Thornton’s tie is obnoxiously large. Like, jackass Ivy League business society TV talking head large.
Reading my weekly issue of The Economist would be even more entertaining were Hugh Grant Prime Minister.
Did half of Keira Knightley’s career take place in 2003?
This movie needed John Cleese and Richard E. Grant.