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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Love Stinks in Pop Culture

What are the best love stories in pop culture, today?

New Year’s Eve? Gack.
Crazy, Stupid, Love? About cheating and divorce.
Just Go With It? Adam Sandler. It’s a love of childish humor.
Breaking Dawn? There we have it.

And before you start going on about, “This is a Twilight bashing post” I’m going to stop you right there.

Yes, it is.

But it’s much more than that.

The concept of love in a movie has been whittled down into this poor excuse for a relationship that is the Twilight saga. And before that, it was a Nicholas Sparks book adapted into a film.

Step 1: Two pretty white people fall in love.
Step 2: One dies.
Step 3: Advertise with a stupid reused poster of two people kissing with the guy holding the cheeks of the girl. (Rain optional)
Step 4: Profit

So, my coworker, who is 10 years younger than I am (damn kids, kidding), asked me, “What was the love story of your day?” Meaning “What did girls and adult females consider the pinnacle of romance back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and phones had mangled fifty foot long cords.”

I thought about it and here’s what I came up with, looking at it generationally (20 year period) from 1978 through 1998. I would have been between the ages of three and 23 during this period.

General Hospital (1978) Luke and Laura
As a kid, I remember two big romantic to dos in the world. Luke and Laura being married and Charles and Diana. Since we are talking about impacting television, readers, or movie goers, I think Luke and Laura win out in that category. However, like Twilight, the beginning of this supercouple involves a bad relationship… including a drunken Luke raping Laura. While Twilight never moves toward sexual assault, there is a case for an abusive relationship.

Empire Strikes Back (1980) Geeks in love?
Well, every preteen in 1983 made the jump to hyper-puberty when Carrie Fisher showed up in the gold bikini on Jabba the Hutt’s party barge, but three years before, romance filled the galaxy as Han and Leia pouted. The already sexual tension filled storyline between the two characters, which kicked off in the first movie, mixed with Irvin Kershner’s direction pretty much set the stage for romance among the stars as Han and Leia smooched in the bowels of a space slug aboard the Millennium Falcon and led to one of the greatest improved lines of all, “I know.”

Why does that work? It seems kind of cocky and prick worthy, which IS Han Solo, but watch that scene directly after the scenes in the Falcon, and in the corridors of Echo Base on Hoth. Han is pretty much saying, “You love me. Why won’t you admit that I am an OK guy and that we could be good together?”

When Leia says, “I love you,” Han could easily say to her, “I love you, too.” He doesn’t. Why? Because he acknowledges that she has taken that step into the abyss and torn down the wall between their feelings. She’s confirming his statement to her back on Hoth about, “…because of the way you feel about me.” This isn’t goodbye. He gets that she gets it and let’s her know that he understands and welcomes what she is saying, not just because of the circumstance they are in at the moment.

Brat Pack Invasion (1984-89) The combination of John Huges and Cameron Crowe
This one spans almost five years, five films, two directors, and 20 plus actors. Probably the biggest comparison can make to teen love and angst comes in the form of Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, Some Kind of Wonderful and Say Anything. Even though some people often think Say Anything is a John Hughes movie, because of the cast and subject matter, it has nothing to do with Hughes. It’s actually a bit darker in tone because of the plotline involving John Mahoney going to jail. It still follows some of the formula that John Hughes mined for 80s movie gold and it’s still awesome 23 years later.

Whether it be Claire and Bender, Duckie and Andie and Blaine, Samantha and Jake, Watts and Keith and Amanda, or Diane and Lloyd, the history of love and heartbreak is as universal as Shakespeare or even the triangle of Jacob and Bella and Edward. (gack.)

But teen girls everywhere hearted Jake Ryan and Lloyd Dobler. They wanted to be with bad boy John Bender and even sort of pulled for Keith to stop going after Amanda Jones and choose the tomboyish drummer, Watts, who may have resembled them in a way.

John Hughes and Cameron Crowe wrote dialogue that normal teenagers didn’t use out loud but their thoughts mirrored what the characters said on film. It would be another ten years before that kind of sentiment was expressed through scripts spoken by high school kids.

Then there’s this: The ultimate expression of love for millions of guys hurt by the girl they love.

Phantom of the Opera (1986) She chose wrong!
My own wife thinks that Christine should have gone with the Phantom. Of course, she loves Twilight, too.  Well, a lot of women and girls loved the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel. Though anyone with any kind of theatrical training loathes how this became the standard for musical theater) High School and College Freshman drama geeks who dedicated their lives, or at least an entire wall in their bedrooms, to POTO were worse than Hipsters or Gleeks are today.

Beauty and the Beast (1987-1990) Television Series with Linda Hamilton and Ron Pearlman.
RON FREAKING PERLMAN! Female audiences swooned over the prosthetic faced enhanced Perlman as Vincent. He looked like a cross between the lead singer for Europe and the transformed Michael Jackson at the beginning of Thriller. Of course, that’s understandable because the makeup for both was done by Rick Baker. The relationship between the two transcended looks and worlds and Vincent was probably better looking Fabio in most rights.

Sadly, the show suffered the loss of Linda Hamilton in season three, at her desire. Hey, she didn’t pull a David Caruso. The following year she went full throttle into stardom, reprising her role as Sarah Conner in T2.

Disney Strikes Back (1989-1993)  Four movies that made you fall in love all over again
The Classic era of Disney animated features is speckled with a rich lineup.  Snow White, Cinderella, The Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty all had strong romantic themes to them.  We've all, at least, attempted to push a meatball across the plate with our nose or slurped up a single noodle between us and our significant other at one time or another.  But it would be 30 years before the notion of a strong romantic storyline would grace the cels of a Disney animated film.  The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King all had the same things in common; strong female characters, a love story, and Oscar winning songs by Alan Menken, collaborating first with Howard Ashmen then Tim Rice after Ashmen's death in 1991. 

The themes in those three movies resonated for adults as much as they did in children and made Disney the animation powerhouse to beat,until a little company called Pixar animated a few toys.  It also didn't hurt to have some of the top R&B Soul and Pop Music artists record your main theme song.  This was a trend that started with Beauty and the Beast and continued through Tarzan.  Each year becoming a little more ridiculous as they trotted out past their prime pop stars from the 80s like Phil Collins and Michael Bolton.  Sadly, Michael Bolton's best work since then was in an SNL Digital Short called "Jack Sparrow".  Regardless, love was in the air but the heavy handed love song from The Lion King, while extremely popular, its place in the film is a bit lost as the love story between Simba and Nala is a minor one.  That's probably why "The Circle of Life" was also a big hit from the soundtrack, unlike previous years which only had one song on Top 40 radio.

The Wonder Years (1988-1993) Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper
I can't believe I forgot this one.   I almost pulled an Entertainment Weekly.  The world of puberty told through the eyes of Kevin Arnold by one of the Sticky Bandits.  The first episode set all the groundwork you needed for romance history.  That one girl in the neighborhood.  The one that was always there, geeky and awkward.  She comes back after one summer and she's transformed into the goddess of your dreams.  Then, you know how it goes, you make plans to get some of that and you envision her dead Vietnam Vet brother protecting her from likes of you.

Kevin and Winnie's was one of those tv romances that worked because it was sweet and innocent.  The show worked because it was life for all of us who grew up with them. It was the romantic equivalent of A Christmas Story for me. 

Unfortunately, YouTube won't let me embed this but it's a great compendium of Kevin and Winnie moments.

My So-Called Life (1994) Angela and Jordan
My friend actually called me on this one.  How could I forget it?  Sad to say, a lot of people did miss this bright spot in the tv spectrum.   It was cancelled before it's time and while it was on par with the WB Explosion a few years later, in terms of pop culture impact, it was too dark for ABC and mainstream programming.

The relationship between Angela and Jordan was one of those troubled teen romances that was a great parallel for how kids acted in the real world.  The dialogue was smart and the angst was almost Shakespearean in nature.  While their relationship wasn't the main focus on the show, it was probably one of the most memorable aspects of it.


Titanic (1997)  The biggest thing that went down wasn't the ship...
Unfortunately, this is probably the single biggest impact on romantic film or television of any age group during my cross section of life. In fact, the biggest thing in this film isn’t the historical account of the ship hitting the iceberg or its sinking, it’s the imagined love story between a lady of status and a third class passenger.

I say, “Unfortunately” because, for how big a film it was, the footprint is almost clichéd and tacky when you think back about it. I mean, no one thought skinny ties and ugly sweaters were enough to give kids the eyeroll treatment of us when we first wore them. But looking back you have to cringe at the notion that we left the house thinking we looked cool in pegged jeans and mullets. The emo generation probably think that loving Celine Dion’s song is the biggest crime against music since Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech. And, if I didn’t agree with Kanye in some small way, I’d think it was too, even though I own the Titanic soundtrack.

Let’s face it, it’s a tacky love song and almost an overly melodramatic chick flick, 15 years later. Holy Crap?!?! My wife’s niece wasn’t even alive when this film came out. Gawd, I’m old. Shut the blinds, I don’t want to see the light!

The WB Years (1997, 1998) The second coming of John Hughes for television
As a little upstart network, far down the depth chart of the television dial, The WB cranked up the competition with the big four by populating its lineup with smarty-smart teeny bopper dialogue from maverick's like Joss Whedon and Kevin Williamson. Having a self deprecating and self aware outlook on teen life and romance, they wrote smart dialogue for shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek.

Much like John Hughes, 15 years before them, Joss’ and Kevin’s characters spoke differently than the average real life teen but their take on relationships were a lot more real and acceptable than Stephanie Meyer. Not saying they were any less abusive. It’s not every day that a girl loses her virginity to a hundred year old vampire who then wants to torture and kill her and her friends. But, it’s a better metaphor for giving into peer pressure and sexual urges only to find that what you’ve built up as the end all, be all of human existence turns out to be a monster who doesn’t share your sentiment after the deed is done. Whether or not you have to kill that boy in order to save the world is beside the point.

Dawson grew up with the Nick at Nite version (my generation’s version) of parents and his life was far from realistic but like John Hughes’ characters, everyone rooted for Joey Potter and sometimes Jen Lindley. After all, it was the typical Ginger and Mary Ann contrast of female characters. You want Ginger for sex, but you want to settle down with Mary Ann. Just like girls WANTED John Bender for sex, but wanted Brian Johnson for a loyal and dependable husband figure.

But there is still the eyeroll factor when you look back at the early WB teen romance shows and realize that “I’ll Be” was the “In Your Eyes” of the first season finale and the pinnacle of love songs in which to express your true feelings to.  It was also the soundtrack for episode promos with that raspy voice over that wasn't Don LaFontaine

I weep for the young today.  Why? 


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