Space on Screen

In retrospect, it’s not surprising that Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) is the first science fiction film. After all, the sky is the original cinematic experience: the lights go up and come down; the moon and constellations change; the colors shift, fade, and intensify; and the weather provides drama and tension. Staring at the sky in night or day is an emotional, humanizing experience. It emphasizes how small you are in the face of the universe. Thus it only makes sense that one of the first subjects for narrative cinema would be the desire to explore what’s up there.

(Digression: I, like most babies of the 80s and 90s, came to know Melies’ work because of the Smashing Pumpkin’s video for “Tonight, Tonight,” which remains most excellent.)

covers of four movies: hidden figures, the dish, the astronaut wives club, and apollo 13

What I want to think about today, though, isn’t films such as A Trip to the Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Contact, or Armageddon, which concern themselves with space in an entirely imaginative or fictional way, but instead with those that attempt to tell the “true” story of human space exploration.

For the sake of conciseness, I’m going to limit myself to The Right Stuff (1983), Apollo 13 (1995), The Dish (2000)*, The Astronaut Wives Club (2015)**, Hidden Figures (2016), First Man (2018)*, and Apollo 11 (2019)**, arguing that while these films are about humans leaving earth, neither the films nor the history they represent successfully abandon earth’s baggage, specifically gender and race.

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Trope-tastic Musicals

Elisabeth Lane (who has started a fantastic YouTube romance channel!) initiated a conversation on Twitter recently about the books that converted you to genre romance. Not necessarily the first romances you read, but the ones that convinced you that romance was awesome. I hazarded some guesses when she asked it, but as I pondered her question more, I wondered whether my Ur-romances were books at all.

I was in my late 20s when I started reading romance. Romance novels were so precisely what I needed at that moment, I inhaled them by the bushel. It felt as if I’d been reading around romance my entire life, and now I had finally discovered the good stuff, a genre that could deliver the purest version of what I’d been seeking. But maybe the sense of familiarity, of ah, at last, that I felt when I started reading romance came from the overlap between the tropes in romance and those in movie musicals.

As a child, I’d been as devoted to musicals as I am to genre romance today. Musicals taught me about introspection, harmony, and female friends with whom you can dance in your bloomers if you’re ever carried off by a family of mountain men (see below). They’re unabashedly sentimental, almost always have happy endings, and frequently contain a (or sometimes several) central romance(s).

This list isn’t a best of or even a set of recommendations. It’s skewed by what I watched and listened to as a kid in the early to mid 90s. It’s very white, almost entirely heteronormative, and more than a few of these films are seriously problematic. But putting it together convinced me that my origins as a reader and writer of romance are in Hollywood movie musicals.

Spoilers ahead.

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A Fine Romance Friday: First Man

This is neither Friday nor is the film in question precisely a romance, but today’s subject is Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). I’ve wanted to watch it for months, and I finally had a few free hours to snag it from Redbox.

In the gap between its release and when I managed to see it, First Man received a critical reaction I’d characterize as positive but reserved and “only” four Academy Award nominations. So I went into it a bit apprehensive. If you enjoy what Genevieve Turner and I are doing with Fly Me to the Moon, however, I can almost guarantee you’ll adore First Man. While I have a few complaints, it’s visually stunning and a different take on the astronaut movie subgenre.

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Rom Coms Where the Wrong Choice is Right

Ahem…this is going to be controversial. But what follows is a brief list of romantic comedies and dramas in which the “wrong choice” love interest is far more deserving than the “right choice” one.

Casablanca (1942)

Perhaps the originator of this trope, Elsa was right to stay with Victor, but Rick is Rick, and you know she’ll always wonder.

The Sound of Music (1965)

What can I say except McSweeney’s convinced me: Captain Von Trapp would have been happy married to Baroness Schrader.

Pretty in Pink (1986)

Let me say I think the “she should have ended up with Duckie” stuff is overplayed (see Jon Cryer thoughtfully arguing against that here), but I don’t think there’s any doubt Duckie is a better realized character than Blane. I’ve always wondered if twenty years later, Duckie and Andie might make a go of it.

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

I always pretend this movie is centered on Patricia (Parker Posey) and that after her boyfriend (Tom Hanks) dumps her to pursue the children’s bookstore owner (Meg Ryan) whose business he destroyed, Patricia goes on to take over New York publishing and find love with someone worthy of her.

Enchanted (2007)

At the level of satire, this movie works for me. At the level of romance…no, definitely not. Idina Menzel’s Nancy in particular deserves much better than she gets. The idea that driven career women secretly want to become princesses? No, not so much.

Letters to Juliet (2010)

This film could make the list twice, first because the B-plot (the romance between Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero) is infinitely more interesting and charming than the A-plot, but also because Gael Garcia Bernal is a metric ton more attractive/beguiling than Christopher Egan.

ETA: I deliberately omitted Twilight not wanting to reopen Edward vs. Jacob…but yeah, Team Jacob. All the way.

A Fine Romance Friday: Jackie

So it’s neither Friday, nor is this a romance. But since this is the label I use to write about film, here we go.

In 2016, Pablo Lorrain released a biopic about Jackie Kennedy called, creatively, Jackie. Focused on the period immediately surrounding JFK’s assassination, it’s a vehicle for Natalie Portman, but it’s also a meditation on history, gender, and grief.

Now I might be sort of interested in the mid-century. Okay, maybe a lot interested (exhibit A). So when the trailer dropped, I was SO EXCITED, but then the reviews trickled out. While they were generally positive (88% at Rotten Tomatoes), there was some prominent dissent, and I’d characterize them as muted on the whole. Therefore I didn’t see it until now. But I found it to be one of the most absorbing films in recent memory, and I have a few thoughts which I’ll drop below.

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A Fine Romance Friday: To Catch a Thief

I’ve become a stress wraith. It’s the beginning of summer, I still have two weeks to work before my kids are done with school, I’ve been writing more than I have in years…and I’m feel like I’m about to shatter. It’s the situation in the world, I know, and looming deadlines and goals (all self-imposed), but my nerves are raw, exposed, and frayed.

When I get like this, it’s hard to read. I can’t seem to make my mind to settle long enough to digest prose. Even concentrating on a movie is hard because the things I should be doing keep exploding into my head. I find myself re-reading and re-watching both because those acts require less concentration but because I know what I’m getting into. The emotional pleasures of the re-watch are guaranteed.

So when I saw it was on Netflix, I instantly pressed play on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 romantic heist To Catch a Thief.

If somehow you haven’t seen it, our story is fairly simple: John Robie (Grant) spent many years as a notorious burglar known as The Cat. He’s retired to the French Riviera, but when jewelry starts to go missing, the cops come after him. Robie has to unmask the real thief before either the authorities jail him or the old members of his criminal gang take matters into their own hands and silence Robie for good.

Into this tangle comes Frances Stevens, played by an absolutely radiant Grace Kelly. She’s a cold, restless American heiress whose mother owns diamonds the unknown thief is stalking. Frances sees Robie as an interesting distraction, and intrigue and sparks fly.

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A Fine Romance Friday: Hysteria

I truly don’t understand why Hollywood has turned away from the romance–and why they never adapt romance novels to the big screen. Even when today’s filmmakers manage to produce a decent movie with a love story in it, such specimens all too often fly under the radar, waiting to be discovered on cable and streaming video services. Today’s selection is just such a film: Tanya Wexler’s 2012 historical romance Hysteria, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, and Rupert Everett.

Our plot is thus: in the late Victorian period, the young doctor Mortimer Granville (Dancy) had been challenging outdated and inhumane practices in London hospitals, and he now finds himself unemployed. He takes a job with the older Dr. Dalrymple (Pryce) who treats hysteria in upper class women via, um, manual stimulation. The two develop a thriving practice, Granville becomes engaged to his partner’s young, biddable daughter (Jones). But he also repeatedly clashes with Dalrymple’s other daughter (Gyllenhaal), a suffragette who spends her days doing charity work in the East End of London and saying provocative things to every members of the upper crust she comes in contact with. Everything is good until Granville develops carpal tunnel syndrome, but his listless inventor friend (Everett) then invents a mechanical device to achieve the same effect. (Essentially an early vibrator.) It’s feminist fantasy history with bon mots tossed in.

Much like Beyond the Lights (which I recommended here!), Hysteria is a romance novel come to the screen. It’s witty and sweet, and the final romantic resolution is believable. While I sometimes found it to be a bit snigger-y (is that a word?) and while the film is far more prudish than it wants or needs to be given the subject matter, it’s a very enjoyable way to spend an evening.