And They Worked Happily Ever after ; Onscreen Portrayals of Marriage Explore the Reality of Wedded Bliss

By Scott, Ao | International Herald Tribune, June 21, 2013 | Go to article overview

And They Worked Happily Ever after ; Onscreen Portrayals of Marriage Explore the Reality of Wedded Bliss


Scott, Ao, International Herald Tribune


Onscreen portrayals of marriage explore the reality of wedded bliss.

Ben Affleck caught some flak after his Oscar-night thank-yous in February, when, in front of a billion of his closest friends, he referred to his marriage to Jennifer Garner as "work." Matrimony, at least among the famous, is not supposed to be that way. It is either a magical storybook dream, breathlessly chronicled in supermarket magazines, or else, in those same pages a few years later, a train wreck of betrayal and heartbreak. Hollywood marriage, like so much else in modern celebrity culture, is both aspirational and cautionary.

Mr. Affleck was scolded for being ungallant, but he was guilty, at worst, of a humble brag. His remarks seem to have been a hurried, earnest attempt to show that he and Ms. Garner (who have been married for eight years and have three children) are just like everybody else. The phrase "marriage is work" rolled easily off his tongue partly because it represents the conventional wisdom of the moment. The idea that lifetime love equals long-term labor pops up in rehearsal-dinner and anniversary-party toasts, and in parental advice and pastoral counseling sessions. It is one of those kernels of common sense that always seems to go without saying, but that also somehow requires constant reiteration.

You hear it said so often that you may never stop to wonder what it means. It's not as if our attitudes about work are any simpler than our notions of marriage. Work can be thankless or productive, a sacrifice or a reason to get out of bed in the morning, the cornerstone of a worthwhile life or a crucible of exploitation. Which of those is marriage supposed to be?

To say that marriage is work is to insist, above all, that it is not static. Far from a condition of smiling serenity or unvarying habit, wedlock, in the modern imagination, is supposed to be dynamic, active and interesting. In old movies and TV shows, marriage, when it was not upheld as a romantic ideal, was usually portrayed either as a state of dull stability or endless drudgery. That it turned out to be work was presented as a "realistic" or mocking rebuke to the expectation of bliss.

But in film and television, work and wedded bliss are now synonymous: The harder marriage is, the more romantic it seems. We know, and for the most part accept, that many people, including gay people, will marry more than once or not at all. The institution of marriage survives as a choice -- as a range of choices -- rather than a single norm. Some effort -- of assembly, maintenance and completion -- is required, and the effort is what justifies the choice.

And yet at the same time, marriage remains a romantic projection, a utopian realm in which all our contending unruly drives find simultaneous and permanent fulfillment in a world of transience. Sex, security, prosperity, the conquest of loneliness and a nifty reproductive end-run around mortality: All of this is promised in the advertising copy, if not guaranteed in the fine print of the contract.

Wedded bliss is a nice idea, but it does not usually produce a satisfying narrative. In "I Do and I Don't," her new study of Hollywood's ambivalent relationship to marriage from the silent era to the present, the film historian Jeanine Basinger observes that "marriage has no story arc."

A marriage plot, which is to say a comedy, is a story with a wedding at the end. The exchange of vows provides a satisfying and efficient exit from an intricate story. After the chaos of misbehavior, misunderstanding and missed connection, order is restored, the curtain falls and love's essential labor is done. But if the story starts in the middle, sometime after the honeymoon, at the breakfast table or the parent-teacher conference, where then does it conclude? There are only two logical possibilities, both of them sad.

Michael Haneke's "Amour," a prizewinner at the Cannes festival and at the Oscars last year, is one of the few recent movies about the end of a long, happy marriage, in other words a chronicle of illness, death and bereavement happening to Georges and Ann, a lovely, loving pair of classical musicians. …

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