Friday, August 23, 2013

Books: I Do and I Don't

The 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I had been eagerly looking forward to reading Jeanine Basinger's I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies ever since Raquel first wrote about it, because it addresses a topic, the way marriages are depicted in movies, that I had observed on my own, however indirectly.

I first started seriously watching classic films in the mid-90s, when I worked in video retail, so I can't say I grew up immersed in their images and ideas of relationships in general, and marriage in particular. Still, I had absorbed enough pop culture to formulate my own ideas about romance, and movies were part of that.

At one point in my life I believed I would get married. I've written here before about my childhood sweetheart and how we thought we would get married one day, after high school. I know I believed it would happen. I loved her, but I pushed her away... and I've been paying for it ever since.

So when I first started watching old movies about love and marriage, it was easy to fall for them, to believe that things could work out in real life like they did in front of the camera. Every now and then I'd see a movie that would have that effect on me. Not just the old stuff, but the newer stuff too. Movies have that power.

In watching more old movies in recent years, I found what seemed like mixed messages. Here's what I wrote, for example, about the Jack Lemmon comedy How to Murder Your Wife:
...The movie goes out of its way to sell us the idea that marriage in general is not all it's cracked up to be, framing this notion within the context of the eternal battle of the sexes. Well, if marriage ain't so great, then why do we as a society place so much value on it? Can it really be as simple as women hoodwinking men into it? God knows we men go to absurd lengths to impress women, but Murder would have you believe that we men value our freedom even more. Nothing in the film addresses this paradox head-on; it prefers to dance around the issue, or side-step it altogether. We never see Stanley struggle with his feelings for the Italian girl he marries. We never see him doubt his commitment to the bachelor life, which he upholds so stridently.
Jeanine Basinger
Basinger's book acknowledges these contradictions as part of a constantly evolving narrative within American movies about the concept of marriage. (She discusses foreign movies here and there, but I Do is primarily about American ones.) She takes the stance that "marriage movies" is an undeclared genre in film history that has deliberately gone unrecognized as such. More often than not, they've been presented as movies about love and/or romance, even though marriage usually plays an integral part in the stories. Indeed, I myself have a label for this blog called "romance" that I have often used to classify what Basinger would likely call "marriage movies." I'll probably use that label for this post!

Basinger cites numerous examples throughout American film history, with a huge emphasis on the Golden Age of Hollywood (I'd estimate about 80%), of how certain notions of marriage have evolved depending on certain circumstances, such as outside events like World War 2, cultural changes like the sexual revolution, and more. I Do reads very much like an alternate history of American film, and as a result, familiar films suddenly seem fresh. 

It's also worth mentioning that Basinger touches upon gay marriage late in the book, as well as non-romantic, same-sex relationships in the movies that function almost like a marriage. She cites Laurel & Hardy as an example.

I Do is written for the casual film fan, as opposed to the hard-core cinephile or academic, so it would make a nice gift for anyone with a moderate interest not only in movies, but media in general and its effect on society - or, indeed, anyone who's ever wondered why relationships work the way they do. This is one of the best film books I've read in quite awhile. It's well worth checking out.

For Whom the Bell Tolls
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star


  1. Every time we watch a movie that ends with a clinch at the altar my husband says "And they call that a happy ending!"

    He likes to live dangerously.

  2. There's always the Preston Sturges subversion. "...and they lived happily ever after... OR DID THEY??"

  3. So glad you enjoyed this book and thanks for linking to my review. I liked this book better than the other one I read by Basinger, The Star Machine. I like her insights and how thorough she was. She covered a lot of ground!

  4. She did indeed. She's also given me something new to think about in relation to the movies.

  5. Great review, you've got me hooked now and I'll be checking out that book. But you left your own story as a cliffhanger!

    I always get frustrated when I read a editorial in a newspaper/magazine/website that would include passage that goes something like this: "but life isn't what it's made up to be in the movies"....I wonder how many films writers like that have seen because, based on all the movies I have seen ( a goodly amount for my age ), films never show love and marriage to be simple. In fact, many pictures base their plots on confusion, mistrust, deception, womanly wiles, manly wiles, disenchantment, heartbreak, and every other emotion that goes along with a relationship. Why even Scarlet O'Hara had a whale of a time trying to figure out what she wanted in life. ;-)

  6. Well, you can certainly tell a story about a happy marriage (Mike Leigh's 'Another Year' is a good example), but most of the time an unhappy one will be much more exciting to watch. I think when 'they' say things like that, 'they' are probably thinking about all those happily-ever-after endings one often sees in movies, which always come right before the actual marriage, a point which Basinger discusses in her book.

    As for my story, well, it's a familiar one: boy meets girl, boy falls in love, boy loses girl, boy blogs about it twenty years later in an attempt to work out his issues over it.


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