Tying the knot

1 True love 1Mikey and Donna have second thoughts about True Love

It was the holiday season, and I must have been influenced by notions of family get-togethers. I found myself looking again at some favourite films about marriage. Marriage has its dark side of course, but it’s also about commitment, family, and tolerance of others. Isn’t it?

I dodged some marriage tragedies,  the horrifying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf of 1966 and the morbidly analytical Husbands and Wives, which Woody Allen made in 1992. I left for later the great 1940s comedies about life after marriage, Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth and Howard Hawk’s His Girl Friday, even though they both contained useful advice on what to do when things start to go wrong (usually the day after the wedding).

I watched True Love (1989), Monsoon Wedding (2001) and The Wedding Banquet of 1993, and learned a lot. Marriage is about social tyranny and resentment. It’s about celebration, but also about all the secret dissatisfactions that celebration uncovers (like the bitching match at the Christmas dinner) and about keeping the old folks happy.

I’ve never been married myself. My generation thought it unfashionable. We felt like Mae West did: it was a great institution but, we weren’t ready for no institootion. Of course my generation made commitments, we just didn’t tell everyone so we wouldn’t look ridiculous when we backed out of them. We too dealt with jealousy, disillusionment and a profound conviction the other sex was weird. But I was left with ideals about marriage.

There was another story behind the scenes of what is gruesomely called “tying the knot” (“wedlock” is even worse). It was that there is a possibility of love, devotion and personal growth associated with marriage: but only if you can fend off a hell of a lot of false expectations. Thinking of getting married? Watch these films and have a laugh. Been married? Watch these films and cry!

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True Love, Nancy Savoca 1989

Nancy Savoca and her husband Richard Guay wrote the script for True Love right after they graduated from New York Film School. It was based on the marriages they knew, their own recent one, those of friends, that of their parents, and featured characters and dialog based on those from their own part of the Bronx. Savoca has emphasised in an interview how little they knew then about film making and how important they both felt it was to focus on something they knew well as a first project. It took them almost eight years to find funding, initially from John Sayles, a giant of independent film making.

The film’s low production values show in its lack of gloss, and give the effect of a documentary film, or something seen on television. This aspect of the film is reinforced by ‘home movie’ sequences in black and white at the start and end of the movie in which the cast, the families, are introduced and at the end give their convincingly amateur and conventional well wishes to the bride and groom.

The film fights shy of the sentimental treatment American films in particular give to topics like marriage and family. It depicts an American Italian milieu but avoids comfortable generalisations about accents, food, crime, good guys, all usually wrapped up in sentiment about the family. True Love is miles apart from both The Godfather (1972) and Moonstruck (1987). It’s about people like you or me. Mind you Moonstruck grossed $92m and Godfather $245m and True Love $1.3m. We stay away from films about you or me.

2 True Love poster

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The film tells the story of Mikey and Donna, two Americans of Italian parentage, who fall in love and decide to get married, with the enthusiastic support of their families and relatives. Savoca presents a real relationship in the film. The title, True Love, is used satirically throughout. There is so much more going on in this film than is usually considered in other films about ‘true love’.

For a start, Donna and Mikey don’t know if their love is going to last. Just like everyone else on the planet they can’t tell the future, and the future looks pretty grim at times. True love is not somehow everlasting, eternal. It goes up and down, and sometimes disappears completely. Ironically the stress of managing a large wedding ceremony doesn’t help at all. They will only find true love, when they succeed, on looking back after a few years and discovering that’s what they have.

Savoca has a good cast and uses them effectively. There are three main relationships depicted, all in contrast and each illuminating the other. Other characters come on and reinforce the message of these relationships but don’t interfere with the plot.

Donna, played brilliantly by Annabella Sciorra, has a friend known as JC (played by the sexy Star Jasper), an independent soul who works as a taxi driver and supports a 12 year old sister. She’s not interested, yet at least, in marriage, but has a local real estate agent she meets while looking for a new apartment, Brian (Michael Selkirk, or Michael Wolfe) fall violently in love with her. In the final scenes of the film we understand they may one day marry after all. Here’s one take on convention. Marriage, and independence for a woman, are they compatible?

The second relationship is that of Donna’s parents. This is less emphasised, but the foundation of it is shown to be tolerance. Donna’s mother reveals to Donna that she eloped to get married, because she was pregnant. Those problems we read about, premarital sex, parental disapproval of spouse, lack of income, unplanned children, don’t always lead to disaster. The film’s main spark of hope is in the fact that Donna’s parents still dote on each other, despite the over familiarity of marriage and its rocky start for them.

3 Nancy SavocaNancy Savoca

But the main screen time is with Donna and her husband to be Michael (played by Ron Eldard). Donna is seen to be oppressed with expectations her family and social scene have with the concept of marriage. What to wear, what to eat, when to have sex and when not to, faithfulness, children, where to live, it’s all set out and Donna spends time fending it off before grudgingly accepting most of it. Her girlfriends lend support, but ultimately defer to Michael’s right to call the shots. He is the husband after all.

Michael is seen as selfish, immature, neglectful of his responsibilities. Why should marriage change his routine? He has to grow up, and we watch him start, without ever being sure he’ll go very far in that direction.

Savoca show the relationship of Donna and Michael as based on a strong and equal friendship. From this love has grown, and the consequent lust. You have to look for this, but it’s there throughout the film, usually evident after a quarrel.The quarrels are more spectacular, as they are. But slowly, slowly, Donna and Mikey may be starting to understand each other. There is nothing brilliantly innovative in all this, but that’s the point. We can all relate to every issue the film brings up and make a judgment about it. Not the insights, but their level of accuracy, is the strength of this film.

Beautifully written and observed, this is a film that has the honesty to say, in answer to the question, will Mikey and Donna be happy?, well, I don’t really know.

4 Monsoon Wedding poster

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Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair 2001

Like True Love, Monsoon Wedding was another low budget film, this one made in 30 days “exactly and approximately” as the film’s wedding planner Parabatlal Kanhaiyalal ‘P.K.’ Dubey (played wonderfully by Vijay Raaz) says. But it’s about Punjabi culture in Delhi, Nair’s own culture, so it’s complicated. First time writer Sabrina Dhawan has crafted a film that tells the story of a wedding; and in over-the-top Indian style, also three other budding romances and a second wedding; a failed relationship (on the part of the bride to be with her married lover); the discovery of a wealthy relation who has and is molesting children; and a young boy who wants to be a singer and dancer, to his father’s disgust. With 12 main parts for actors, a vibrant soundtrack that goes from heartbreaking ghazal to headbanging bhangra and back again, and the most colourful sets outside a real Indian wedding, this is of course more than a film about a wedding. It’s a film about India.

It’s a slice of life comedy drama which gains its effect from diverse plot lines, rapid cutting and high energy, with plenty of easy laughs and heart tugging melodrama. Like an intricate Robert Altman ensemble piece, the whole is better than the parts. But the parts are so well played that you want to know more about these people. The film might be Western style Bollywood, but the skill of Nair makes it at times an involving drama as well.

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The film revolves around the figures of Lalit Verma (Naseeruddin Shah, superb) and his wife Pimmi (Lillete Dubey), whose daughter Aditi (the beautiful Vasundhara Das) is being married to an Indian from Texas, Hemant (Parvin Dabas). There is much fun at the expense of the wedding planner, the upwardly mobile (and wedded to his mobile phone) PK Dubey. It is an arranged marriage, and the film plays at considering the validity of such a custom, but lets it go with Hemant’s remark to Aditi, “We have the same chance whether we are introduced by our parents or meet at a disco”.

The melodrama starts when we discover that Aditi is only agreeing to the marriage because her long term affair with a married TV anchor man is getting nowhere. After an hilarious scene in a tropic downpour when Aditi and her lover are badgered by police and the lover can only think of making excuses to his wife, Aditi goes ahead with her parents’ wedding plans. But she feels she has to confess to Hemant. His initial anger gives way to an appreciation of her honesty and sensitivity, and the couple eventually fall in love with each other (a bit too quickly I thought but the film was faced paced).

5 Mira NairMira Nair

Wedding planner Dubey falls in love with Alice (Tillotama Shome), the Verma maid, and is devastated by her withdrawal from this unexpected match when Dubey seemingly accuses her of theft. It’s all a mistake, and Dubey touchingly plights his troth again, and is accepted. These two actors have an amazing ability to carry the story on a knife edge between comedy and pathos, and the result is very moving. These are lower class folk, Shudras or Dalits, and the question of the validity of the caste system is presented and then neatly dodged by the revelation that they are just like the upper classes emotionally. Mind you caste is so complex it almost can’t be considered at all.

Another serious issue is the scandal that comes out when Lalit’s niece Ria (Shefali Shetty) accuses family benefactor Tej (Rajat Kapoor) of sexual molestation when she was a child. Ria is horrified when she discovers Tej has been teaching 13 year old Aliya (Kemaya Kidwai) to kiss. Unfortunately this whole episode is not anchored in the film’s action: it could easily be removed without anyone noticing. Ria earlier shows a healthy disrespect for arranged marriages and advocates marrying for love; no clue is given she has any problem simmering below the surface and to that extent the episode lacks conviction, especially as it is soon glossed over, after a few tears, and a sentimental declaration by Lalit on the sanctity of the family. And by the end of the film Ria, looking very sexy, is making eyes at the handsome photographer come to photograph the family.

Overall nothing in this multi layered movie is allowed to interfere with its speedy pace and solid entertainment. Nair, who has a feeling for social issues exemplified in the harrowing Salaam Bombay!, shows some of the issues confronting India, but doesn’t emphasise them. India has been absorbing new influences, cultures, religions and races for five thousand years. Now, as the film expresses it, it’s India dot com. Like the country, any extended family group as shown in the film will exhibit love and devotion, injustice, corruption, piety, tech overkill and a myriad other forms of human interaction, and somehow, like the traffic, India works when you know very well it shouldn’t. Like the seasonal change alluded to in the title, families can be overpowering, oppressive, even destructive. But they bring life, and continuity, to human endeavour.

6 Wedding Banquet poster

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The Wedding Banquet, Ang Lee 1993

The Wedding Banquet is another low budget, independent film, Ang Lee’s second as director. He had written the script six years before the film was actually made; it took that long to find funding. In an interview Ang revealed the script was initially based on the experience of two gay friends who were in the film’s awkward situation. He added the marriage and imagined what might have happened afterwards.

This is indeed one theme of the film, the weight of the tradition of the family in Chinese culture. Both the Gao family in the film and Ang’s own had suffered loss during the Chinese revolution before fleeing to Taiwan, and so the need for continuity in the generations, always important, was here even more so.

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The film describes what must be a frequent phenomenon in many cultures, the conflict between traditional ways and modern ones as experienced in a translated culture. In this case a Taiwanese man, Wai-Tung (played by first time actor Winston Chao),  has relocated to New York, made a success of his business, invested in real estate, and entered a loving relationship with another man, Simon (played by Mitchell Lichtenstein). He’s told his parents in Taiwan all about it: except the last bit. The guilt he feels at deceiving his parents is crushing. How could he be such a bad son?

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate what Ang does here. The relationship between Simon and Wai-Tung is treated with enormous respect and sensitivity, for all the film’s light touch. These two are convincingly in love. This is all the more exceptionable in that Ang himself is not gay. And yet the depiction of Wai-Tung’s parents is respectful and understanding and convincingly true to life. No parody, no exaggeration The comedy of the film is simply from the confluence of these two incompatible situations.

7 Ang LeeAng Lee

Over in Taiwan Wai-Tung’s parents are getting tired of waiting for their son to settle down. His father (played impressively by Sihung Lung) has been ill, and his mother (Ya-Lei Kei) tries to hasten things along by finding a bride for Wai-Tung. They both want a grandson, and soon. Rather than cope with his parents’ candidates, Wai-Tung decides to nominate his own, one who knows he is gay, and will go along with the charade for the sake of a Green Card of naturalisation. This decision, forced on him by his parents’ actions, of course makes him even more guilty at even more deception.

Here the film becomes a little contrived, for the sake of avoiding too deep a generational conflict. There just happens to be in the mouldering old factory Wai-Tung has invested all his capital in a beautiful young artist, Wei-Wei (played with considerable skill by May Chin) in need of a Green Card. Wei-Wei agrees to Wai-Tung’s plan, meets his parents when they arrive in New York, and then things come unstuck. Wei-Wei unexpectedly develops a deep bond with Wai-Tung’s parents.

Then, in another extraordinary coincidence, the two couples, who are dining in a fashionable restaurant, after an hilarious civil wedding ceremony, meet an old army subordinate of Mr Gao, who just happens to own the restaurant, and who insists on putting on a lavish wedding banquet at his own expense in honour of his old commander. During the feast the married couple get drunk, are escorted to the bridal suite by the guests, and shown that nobody is going to leave until the groom performs his marriage duties. This Wai-Tung does, with comic lack of enthusiasm. There are unfortunate results.

Here the film veers even further into fantasy land. The grandparents are presented with a grandson, the two gay lovers are reconciled and agree to be the joint father of the child, and Wei-Wei gets her Green Card, and a wealthy husband as well, even though there will probably not be any more children.

8 Wei-Wei, Wai-Tung and SimonWei-Wei, Wai-Tung and Simon

The actors give such good, in-depth performances we never for a moment doubt the likelihood of these fortuitous events. It is impossible to fault Sihung Lung as Mr Gao, who has a secret he later shares with Simon. Ya-Lei Kuei as Mrs Gao has a role that descends a little into caricature  yet her joy at a wedding and a grandson are extremely affecting. May Chin gives a fine performance that goes from desperation, to affection for her landlord, to love of his parents, to anger at how she has been made use of. Lichtenstein and Chao are never for a moment unconvincing as the gay couple, and Chao manages a lot of the film’s comedy just by his annoyance at the way he has to act more and more straight as the plot develops.

The film remains an affecting and humane plea for tolerance, an assertion that one can be true to oneself while respecting differences in others, even though it descends to contrivances and coincidences of plot to do so.  As Mr Gao says to Simon at one stage, “Wai-Tung is my son; now you too are my son”. Like Ang’s next film, the delicious Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet is a serious comedy, one suffused with charm.

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Independent film is able to tackle issues mainstream film fights shy of or treats in an artificial ‘meaningful’ way. Marriage is tied up in a lot of platitudes in its conventional treatment, but in these three films some of the complexities and mixed motives of real human interaction are shown, even though in the second two a happy ending is somehow contrived. This depiction is convincingly made by casts of gifted actors, some whom hadn’t acted before, an indication of the wealth of talent waiting in the wings of film production for their chance. Also of note is the cross categorisation of these films. They’re neither comedies, dramas, melodramas or any other ‘type’ of film.

9 Alice and DubeyAlice and Dubey

When you think about it, relating to another person outside marriage has all the conflict between fantasy and reality, and confrontation with insecurity, that marriage does. Marriage just brings everybody in your family and community, and their unreal expectations, down on top of your own problems. And it cost a lot more. So what does marriage do? Ultimately, it’s a play in which you assume certain roles, and that role playing helps you move through an important threshold in life concerned with acknowledgment of other people. We don’t welcome that threshold at all. So it’s fun to see other people squirming as they go through the motions.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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