MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Until the Credits Do Us Part: Marriage and the Movies

If you judged marriage based on the recent history of Hollywood’s depiction of adult relationships, you might think most people spend the majority of their lives either starting new relationships or ending old ones, and very little time in the period in between. Perhaps it’s partly the influence of Hollywood, where celebrity marriages might last weeks or months and no one bats an eyelash, and long-term marriages are the oddity rather than the norm.

But if it’s true, to paraphrase Tolstoy, that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then there must be an awful lot of interesting unhappiness going on between the bliss of falling in love and the agony of falling apart — so why don’t more movies focus on couples navigating that middle ground?

How many films can you think of, off the top of your head, that deal with or depict marriage in a realistic way — not primarily the courtship or the divorce? I bet you can’t think of  that many; I asked several of my film journo friends how many they could think of, and many were stumped. Does the way Hollywood depicts relationships help set the cultural climate, or do the movies just reflect back at us the current societal trends and evolving mores of what marriage means?

In 1969, when free love and Esalen workshops were all the rage and younger couples were looking for models of marriage that didn’t look anything like Father Knows BestPaul Mazursky‘s groundbreaking film Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice showed an average married couple exploring opening their marriage sexually and emotionally by swinging — and what happens when their more conservative friends get involved. In 1973 (1974 in the US),Ingmar Bergman‘s Scenes from a Marriage examined Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne’s (Liv Ullman) failing marriage from the opening interview in Episode 1, where we see the barely visible cracks in the foundation, through the building the denial and anger of Episodes 3, 4 and 5, to mutual acceptance of loss in Episode 6.  (Saraband, Bergman’s last theatrically released film, goes full circle on that story by revisiting Johan and Marianne decades later).

The women’s movement grew in power and momentum, and the 1970s and 1980s saw an influx of divorce films, from An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over (the Jill Clayburghdivorce-duet) to Kramer vs. Kramer (the ugliness of child-custody fallout)  through War of the Roses (the falling apart is deliberately dark and over-the-top, but man,I love that film) and Mrs. Doubtfire in 1989. Nora Ephron came along that same year with When Harry Met Sally, and a whole slew of rom-coms focused on finding new relationships and true love followed — mostly starring Julia RobertsMeg Ryan and Sandra Bullock. One notable exception in that time period was Parenthood, also released in 1989 — that was quite the pivotal year for relationship movies — one of the rare honest films about marriage and family (and one of my favorite films, so much so that it almost makes me forgive Ron Howard for those cursed Dan Brown adaptations).

Now we’re starting to see some subtle shifting in the way movies look at longer-term relationships through studio films like Marley & Me and Motherhood (due out in October) and fest circuit fare like Peter and Vandy (picked up by Strand in May and slated for a fall release) and the currently-in-release Humpday.

I think part of why Humpday has connected with audiences so strongly on the fest circuit is that writer-director Lynn Shelton‘s depiction of Ben and Anna’s (Mark Duplass and Alycia Delmore) marriage rings so true, especially when compared to how relationships are typically depicted in rom-coms. Today’s movie husbands have evolved, mostly, into overgrown adolescents who would do nothing but smoke pot, drink beer, screw around and play video games if it weren’t for the incessant nagging and micro-managing of the wife, who’s usually portrayed as shrewish, bitchy and manipulative. Even Judd Apatow, who heralded the age of the Average Loser Who Gets the Hot Chick, typically portrays women in a very Hollywood way; I like some of his work, but his portrayal of relationships is relentlessly adolescent.

In Humpday, though, Shelton steps away from this stereotypical mother-adolescent son relationship dynamic. Ben isn’t a moron, he doesn’t resent his wife or cheat on her (at least, not that we see), and he’s a smart, responsible guy — successful enough in his career to be able to buy a house in Seattle (and let me tell you, houses in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood, where Humpday was filmed, aren’t exactly cheap). Ben seems comfortable in his adult clothes until Andrew (Josh Leonard) comes back into his life, and even after that, Shelton’s exploration of the effect of Andrew’s appearance on both Ben and his marriage is smart and restrained, especially given the material. Anna, for her part, isn’t a surrogate mother as movie wives often are; she engages as Ben’s intellectual equal, she’s supportive and loving, even when what Ben wants stretches the boundaries of what many marriages would allow.

Humpday may or may not play well to you as comedy; I’ve seen it three times now, and each audience has reacted differently to it. But as an exploration of marriage, friendship and what it means to be an “adult” I think it’s an astute, interesting film that’s looking to explore more than just the idea of a make-your-own-porn contest (besides, here in Seattle, making porn is pretty mild weekday entertainment anyhow). I’m hoping that we’re seeing the start of a trend here, and that we’ll see more films interested in exploring how long-term relationships last when things get tough — or even just boring — in intriguing ways; affairs and bitter, angry breakups may be fun and sexy, but there’s lots to mine as well by looking realistically at how couples go through the minefield of a marriage, hit the occasional mine, and still survive to tell the tale.

– by Kim Voynar

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon