On Romance

I’ve been watching old Jimmy Stewart movies again, which always has a strong effect on me. For instance, there’s a moment in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington when the innocent young senator is trying to draft a bill to build a boy’s camp back in his home state. His hard-boiled secretary, Saunders, (she doesn’t use her first name much), is cynically taking notes in the firm belief that he is a naïve rube who won’t get to first base. Then, he starts talking about what he loves about his home. The grass bent under the wind out on the prairie, the mountains in the evenings, the sorts of things that people have always struggled to describe in saying just why they love a place. And it is right here that the camera does something that it used to do all the time in old movies and seldom does anymore: a soft-focus close up of the woman’s face as she sees him for the first time and begins to love and savor him.

Modern movies have little time for characters to simply see each other any more. They are in too much of a hurry to do that. Characters must, in slavish obedience to the iron law of the sexual revolution, instantly pass from nearly glimpsing one another to bed. There must, in all films, be the OSS (Obligatory Sex Scene).

It is the terrible loss of the ability to see, to savor, to really enjoy another person that is, I sometimes think, the central tragedy of the sexual revolution and all the scorn and “demystification of sex” that we Baby Boomers have called down on the world like a plague. In a hundred ways, we (and now our children) are continually shamed into thinking there is something wrong with us if we do not instantly pass from the initial moment of attraction to a tumble between the sheets. It is the microwave burger approach to human relationships and the result has been a ghastly cheapening of our culture.

I read a lovely piece recently in the Seattle Times about a man who recently lost his wife after 54 years of marriage. He was shipped to Washington state in the middle of WWII for Army training and saw her across a crowded room, just like in a Jimmy Stewart movie. He was “sweet on her” as they said at the time. She liked him and they started exchanging, not sophisticated double entendres like every movie and TV character today, but letters. Letters about simple things in simple un-ironic language (“Gee, I think you’re swell.”). When he got a day off, he would come to her house and, instead of leaping into bed, they sat on the porch and talked. They courted. It was romantic. They took time to see, really see, each other and to savor what they saw and heard. And after he spent two years in the Pacific War, watching members of his unit be slaughtered under murderous fire, he kept writing simple lovely letters to his girl, and she to him, till he came home and they were married. That marriage lasted 54 years and those yellow letters now sustain him in his loss. I still get choked up by the piece.

When June comes around, I think of that generation most of all and the sense of romance and seeing that they preserve still to this day. If there is any double portion of their spirit that I could beg from God as a mercy for our desiccated and utterly prosaic Boomer Generation of doglike devotion to appetite, it would be the ability to recover that simple honest ability to take time to see with the savoring eyes of love (under a June moon, of course) and to be free of the hustle, shame and pressure that the sex machine of American commerce has so successfully palmed off on us as “liberty.”


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