Michael Ian Black is a comedian, actor (The State, Ed, Wet Hot American Summer) and best-selling author whose latest book, You’re Not Doing It Right, is a collection of candid and funny-‘cause-they’re-true essays.
For Hollywonk, he offers his take on love in the movies, and why it’s nothing like the real thing. (Unless he’s the only one who isn’t doing it right.)
For the most part, movies get it wrong. Soldiers say they get it wrong about war. Paleontologists say they get it wrong about dinosaurs. Space aliens complain they get it wrong about space aliens. Yet for all of their inaccuracies, you would think Hollywood would get it right about matters of the heart. After all, what are movies if not love stories? Love is cinema’s abiding theme, especially romantic love, the kind of “meet cute” love that surmounts every roadblock on its journey to happy ever after.
It’s not a coincidence that so many romantic comedies are premised on the hurdles couples have to overcome simply to be together. These movies often end with a promise: the exchange of a glass slipper, fireworks exploding over the Statue of Liberty, a teary “I do” at the altar. It is that promise that brings into the theater to begin with. Maybe all of us Harrys can finally find our Sallys. But, of course, that movie is titled, When Harry Met Sally, not When Harry and Sally Were Married For A While, Grew Sick of Each Other and Seriously Considered Getting Divorced.
It’s no wonder that movies get marriage so wrong. After all, they are almost diametrically opposing experiences. Movies are about escape. Marriages are about “no escape.” Once you tie your life to somebody else, there is no turning back, at least not without an attorney.
One of the things that inspired me to write my new book, You’re Not Doing It Right, is my annoyance at movie marriages, particularly the romantic comedy marriage. Hollywood has given us two, equally false, notions of marriage. Either it’s the joining of two gorgeous young people “destined” to be together, or as a wheezing and cold institution inhabited by miserable and middle-aged wheezebags, usually meant to illustrate a counterpoint to the love the gorgeous young couple in the film will share once their destinies are realized, and they are able to finally be together against all odds. Yawn. Boring. Wrong.
In my experience as a husband of thirteen years, marriage is neither of these things. Yes, my wife and I are both gorgeous. Hollywood got that part right. And yes, we had to surmount a few obstacles to be together, such as the fact that she was living with her boyfriend when we met. But our trip down the aisle wasn’t the beginning of a perfect life together. It was the start of something else, something that cannot be encapsulated in ninety minutes and a soundtrack by Maroon 5.
What is that something? It’s doing laundry. It’s paying bills. Cleaning the kitty litter. Marriage is a hundred thousand tiny tasks you share. It is peeling vegetables and changing lightbulbs and giving each other quick kisses and wishing for each other “a nice day.” It is coming home and smelling dinner cooking, and running out on a cold winter night for antacid because she has a headache and cannot sleep. Sometimes marriage is being pissed off at each other for weeks at a time. And sometimes it’s walking into your children’s bedrooms and watching them sleep.
Marriage is the accumulation of moments, one after the other, year after year. Movies can’t show that, not really. They can hint at it and pretend to understand it, but they can only show us the barest outlines of what it means to live it. Marriage isn’t glamorous and a lot of time it isn’t fun. The lighting is often bad. It is laying bare your faults to the other person and hoping they will accept you for you are. And it’s about doing the same for them.
Hollywood wants us to believe their promise and we want to believe it. So every once in a while, we agree to sit in a darkened theater and lie to each other for a couple hours. But that’s okay. Maybe we need the fantasy to help sustain the reality. Maybe the act of seeing what we might have can help us appreciate what we do have. I hope so.
But for me, the real movie magic are all those tiny slices of time I have stored in my head, flickering images of my wife taken over the last thirteen years. It’s a movie I watch every day.