January 22, 2013

"The Way We Were" by Stacey Harwood

There has to be crying.  Not the eyes-welling-up-and-spilling-over kind of tears but the runny-nose-and-heaving-choking-sobs-punctuated-with-gasps kind that turns the napkin you picked up with the popcorn into a useless pulpy mass.  There’s crying because the ending is either unbearably sad or is satisfyingly happy. Sometimes, especially when you’re with a close friend or your sister, there’s laughing as well.  You’re laughing at yourselves for crying: “Look at us. Aren’t we silly?” 

It’s just a movie.

Tell that to my teenage self, as I’m sitting in the parking lot with my older sister, having just seen a matinee of The Way We Were at the Spring Valley Mall theater.  Though it was daylight when we entered, now it’s dusk.  A light rain is falling, and we want to stay in the warm capsule of the car. The fact is, we’re crying too hard for either one of us to drive.  The minutes tick by and our crying continues.  Their love was real.  Why couldn’t he just do what she wanted?  Why was he so weak?  Why was she so stubborn? And did he have to be so . . . so . . . gorgeous?

The Way We Were follows the romance of Katie Morosky (Barbara Streisand) and Hubbell Gardner (Robert Redford). When we meet them in the late 1930s, they’re in college.  Katie is the secretary of the campus Young Communist League, Hubbell is the campus jock and an aspiring writer.  They are only passing acquaintances; they share a creative writing class.  Years after graduating, Katie and Hubbell meet again.  An on-again off-again romance ensues and eventually they marry, despite their intractable differences. She’s a political activist, he likes to party; she’s passionate, he’s passive.  Every time Hubbell looks at Katie he sees her disappointment in him. He’ll never make her happy. Every time she looks at him, she sees a failure in character. We know what’s coming.  The trailers clued us in, not to mention the mournful theme song, a big hit for Streisand: “Memories, light the corners of my mind . . .”

I hadn’t seen The Way We Were since that long-ago rainy afternoon. What a surprise to discover how little of it I remembered and what a mess it is. The movie is rife with narrative discontinuities and cheap plot devices.  One minute Katie and Hubbell are gamboling on the beach, and in the next police and photographers dog her as she’s leading a charge against the House Un-American Activities Committee. Before you know it Katie’s pregnant and asking Hubbell to stay with her until the baby comes. Their lives change so quickly and with so little foundation that the final forty or so minutes hardly make sense.

Neither of the lead characters is all that appealing.  How could I, a budding feminist, have rooted for Katie, whose primary purpose is to keep her man? Not only that, she’s a kill-joy. She berates, grovels, begs, and promises to change if by doing so she can keep Hubbell.  When she fails, it’s because she has ideas and the need to express them. For his part, Hubbell lacks conviction, has an affair, and ends the marriage when she’s pregnant!  “Have you seen her?” says Katie, when Hubbell visits the hospital after she’s delivered their daughter.  He shrugs and chuckles. “She’s, she’s . . .  small,” is the best he can manage before he’s out of her life forever. Did NASA really name a spacecraft after this loser? (A: No.) 

I missed these flaws, in character, in plotting, in structure, the first time around.  So too did many others.  Although The Way We Were was largely panned by the leading critics, it was an unqualified hit. 

Which leads me to suggest that the quality that differentiates a chick flick from a well-made weepy is that the former can be enjoyed only once while the latter stands up over multiple viewings. In the former, the flaws obscure anything of merit the second time around, in the latter, they don’t matter and may even deepen one’s love of the film. I’m reminded of W. H. Auden’s test of literary value: “One sign that a book has literary value is that it can be read in a number of different ways.  Vice versa, the proof that pornography has no literary value is that if one attempts to read it in any other way than as a sexual stimulus . . . one is bored to tears.” The same is true of film.

Or is it?  The moment I proffered this theory I rattled off the exceptions, those movies that are considered chick-flicks but that are wonderful by any measure and that score high on the sob-fest meter: The Shop Around the Corner, Separate Tables, Ordinary People among many others. While there may be a category of experiences that can be enjoyed only once, not all chick-flicks belong there.

It may well be that the only enduring memory I’ll have of The Way We Were is of the shared experience of crying over it with my sister.  Still, thinking about it fills me with a bittersweet nostalgia.  I long to be that teenage girl who enters a movie theater on a bright afternoon and by the time she leaves it’s dusk.  She knows the film’s outcome before she buys the ticket but she buys it anyway.  She’s with her sister, and she’s happy because she’s going to have a good cry.

Stacey Harwood is the managing editor of The Best American Poetry website and blog. Her poems and essays have appeared in The LA Times, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poets.org, Humor, Lit, Saveur, and elsewhere.


Laura Orem said...

Thanks for this wonderful piece, Stacey. It's always so unsettling to revisit as adults what moved us deeply as raw young women. It's nice, though, to realize that, no matter how old I get, Robert Redford remains gorgeous.

Temmie said...

Intrigued by the blog title, I started by researching your use of the word "hem." Was this a Hebrew word? Did it mean something in Yiddish this shiksa wouldn't know? I loved the simple form on the page of how the definition came up, lower-case, bold, in understated helvetica:



The edge of a piece of cloth or clothing that has been turned under and sewn.

I stopped there (on the definitions page), as there seemed no need for further reading. Your writing, as always, a thing that reveals a woman taking the very edge of something, and turning it under. The precision and care. The function and purpose. Holding a vision in place. A memory. A meaning. A woman revealing herself, one stitch at a time. And this finished garment is ready and beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I loved "The Way We Were," and I love the women we've become.

shanna said...

The title of the blog, Delirious Hem, is taken from poem #414 by Emily Dickinson.

'Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,
That nearer, every Day,
Kept narrowing its boiling Wheel
Until the Agony

Toyed coolly with the final inch
Of your delirious Hem --
And you dropt, lost,
When something broke --
And let you from a Dream --

As if a Goblin with a Gauge --
Kept measuring the Hours --
Until you felt your Second
Weigh, helpless, in his Paws --

And not a Sinew -- stirred -- could help,
And sense was setting numb --
When God -- remembered -- and the Fiend
Let go, then, Overcome --

As if your Sentence stood -- pronounced --
And you were frozen led
From Dungeon's luxury of Doubt
To Gibbets, and the Dead --

And when the Film had stitched your eyes
A Creature gasped "Reprieve"!
Which Anguish was the utterest -- then --
To perish, or to live?

Mike in Bed-Stuy said...

The Way We Were if officially my favorite film of all time, closely seconded by Stepmom. That being said, I completely agree with Stacey. When I saw it as a kid, I loved it. When I made my then-bf (now hubby) Jason sit through it, I realized it was total GARBAGE. Nevertheless, it remains my favorite film of all time, as this assessment is based purely on first impressions and sentimentality, not reason.