THE BLOG

Cinema and Pop Music Therapy for a Valentine's Day Spent Alone: Films For Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, Plus a Few B-Sides

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Are you holding the razor at your throat this very instant? Take heart, comfort is at hand. This is the hour that stretches. Djan karet. We are the cavalry. We're here. Put away the pills. We'll get you through this bloody night. Next time, it'll be your turn to help us.
- Harlan Ellison, "Eidolons"

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He's not returning the calls anymore. Your mutual friend breaks the news on her behalf. Those six months, or six years, whether spent side by side or gathering the pebble of courage required to ask for a date, are squandered. And besides, no one wants to date you right now, not after that little scene you made at the multiplex last week.

And, normally, this would all be okay -- really, it would. But that most detestable of days is approaching, a date whose name stings as it leaves your tongue like arsenic laced in the tea of disgruntled lovers. (Note: love lost has the additional effect of encouraging melodramatic phrasing.)

Valentine's Day.

If your love has been dashed or never was, there are constant reminders at every corner of what you're missing, and if your love is with someone of the same gender, you are granted a nice extra day-long reminder that you can't marry your sweetheart, that in so many American towns you must be careful where you hold the date, and so on.

The only meager consolation is the sight upon entering the video store of shelves upon shelves of subpar romantic comedies already rented out -- temptation averted. But if you are going to spend St. Valentine's night alone with only a few films to keep you company, there is a treacherous path ahead of you. Some films are perfect for the blinding hot anger of the just-dumped, but will eat you alive if you watch them when you feel your most vulnerable; others will work wonders for indulging those holding on to a single crumb of hope, but feel like a cruel prank those trying to push the past behind them.

So, let's take Kubler-Ross seriously for once; I've suggested at least one film for each of the five stages of grief, with a few quotable songs thrown in for good measure.

One exception -- I haven't bothered catering to denial. It's usually too late for denial when you're surrounded by red hearts and gaudy store displays. No. It's time for the hard stuff.

Anger.

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"God damn it; I'm not talking about my heart like it's something you could break. I'm not sick."
- Rainer Maria, "Tinfoil"

"I fell in love with your sailor's mouth and your wounded eyes. Don't you know this is war? And tell me, who are you this time?"
- Tom Waits, "Who Are You"

Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things could quite possibly be the worst first-date movie ever made, which naturally makes it quite possibly the best film ever for a Valentine's Day spent alone. It is rare to find a film which simultaneously feels deeply misandric and deeply misogynistic, but The Shape of Things somehow pulls it off -- and if you doubt for a moment that LaBute is talking on the broadest scale possible about gender roles in relationships, he's done you the favor of naming his two doomed main characters Adam and Evelyn (Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz, reviving their roles from the stage version.)

It is nearly impossible to talk about the plot without ruining it, so I'll just say this -- The Shape of Things makes you very, very glad not to be in a relationship. If you're scraping for catharsis by bah-humbuging those couples you see arm-in-arm, going on a tear about how they don't realize they're all fools, how all women are heartless, how all men are scoundrels, chances are you probably don't truly believe what's coming out of your mouth -- but The Shape Of Things will make you believe it, if for only a little while. Everything about the film is acidic, its brilliant writing leaving you convinced that you just swallowed a battery. (Also, the entire soundtrack consists of songs by Elvis Costello. Need you know any more?)

Bargaining.

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"Daydream all day about discovery, lock yourself away, and hope someone breaks down the door."
- Pollen, "Caramel"

"Let's not talk about it, or breathe a word about it, because you don't want to hear what you can't see."
- The Mendoza Line, "Let's Not Talk About It"

"If I just say I'm sorry for that last conversation, he'll take me back." "Someone will call any instant - I just know it." And on and on. You're merely bargaining with St. Valentine now, spending your evening constructing elaborate and unlikely fantasies of rescue predicated upon the hope that your true heart will be seen after all. With any luck this stage will be mercilessly brief, but so long as you're in a bargaining type of mood, Next Stop Wonderland is the bittersweet film of choice for those indulging rescue fantasies.

The conceit of Next Stop Wonderland is custom-made for these flights of fantasy: Erin (Hope Davis) and Alan (Alan Gelfant) are twenty-something blue-collar workers living on opposite sides of Boston, going about their daily lives, navigating their careers, searching without much luck for someone to love... all the while entirely unaware of the other's existence. Which is a shame, because they are literally perfect for each other, and continually miss bumping into each other by inches at a time. The film is a knowing play on the romantic notion that there is one person just for us out there, perfectly complimenting ourselves -- it's almost a suspense film, but instead of waiting for the killer to brandish the knife, we're waiting for these two Bostonians to finally meet each other after coming oh-so-painfully close. Will they? Or won't they?

Depression.

"I brush my teeth until they break. Until I start bleeding. So when I smile I'll know, I'm almost good enough for you."
- Jawbreaker, "Sea Foam Green"

"So red turns into green, turning into yellow, but I'm just frozen here in the same old spot. And all I have to do is press the pedal. But I'm not."
- Aimee Mann, "It's Not"

There are two routes here -- finding a movie as miserable as you are for empathy's sake, or tormenting yourself with visions of the happy coupledom that's just out of your reach. The latter is simple -- rent Say Anything, put "I Know It's Over" by The Smiths on repeat, have a fun time tormenting yourself tonight and be done with it. But the former -- well, the former is a bit more complicated. The varied flavors of lovelorn heartache are so particular that no single film will be universally acceptable.

Are you mourning a love that should've been but was not to be? It's become a cliche, but Lost In Translation is hard to beat for melancholic, borderline-lugubrious wandering (spoiled whisper or no), as is Brokeback Mountain, although Blue will more or less guilt you out of your funk. Wallowing in a harsh break-up? Try watching Living Out Loud. Not gone on a date in months? Sulk in Billy Wilder's best film, The Apartment. Asking the heavens why no one will love your hideous form? Just try not cringing in empathy as you watch the emotionally grueling Heavy.

Acceptance.

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"I meant every word that I said, it's true. I wasn't talking to you...Somebody is waiting for me."
- Juliana Hatfield, "Somebody Is Waiting For Me"

"Only a phase, these dark cafe days."
- Joni Mitchell, "The Last Time I Saw Richard"

When the heartbroken man at the dive bar begins the story of how he met the woman who crushed his dreams, cliche demands that it always begins with him wondering out loud, "The funny thing is, we met by accident." We steel ourselves for the same phrase when the frantically happy couple relates their origin story. Everyone seems to think it's amazing how they met their partner by accident.

Which is funny because, if you think about it, everyone meets everyone else by accident. The most preordained of blind dates is predicated upon such a ponderous superstructure of chance and circumstance, of friends who knew friends and websites created on a whim and romantic baggage, that it is dizzying to think about. It's so easy to assume, on an emotional level, that the accident that led to your heartache is part of some grand cosmic conspiracy to ruin you. Part of getting over the worst of heartbreaks is accepting that we live in a universe of chance -- that some deterministic universe isn't out to get us. (Whether a person is out to get you, I leave to your judgment.)

Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is one of my favorite films about accepting life for what it is, with its happy accidents and insurmountable flaws. And yet, unlike so many slice-of-life films, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing has a driving narrative that hooks us, characters that make us care. A look at four New Yorkers over the course of a week, living vastly different lives, all realizing just how little a role skill plays in their lives and how much is up to chance, it could be a paean to the need for a welfare state. But, instead, the film sidesteps politics and focuses on the philosophical implications of a neutral universe -- including what it means for how we look at love.

There is only so much one can say about a film of vignettes without spoiling the whole thing, but I want to relay this single moment of the film. Gene (Alan Arkin), an unhappily divorced insurance claims agent, shares the story of the last pre-divorce conversation he had with his soon-to-be-ex-wife. He could have smiled as he said goodbye. He didn't, still annoyed over some minor trifle. And for the rest of his life, a small part of him wonders if this sourness on his part was the last straw on the camel's back, whether, if he had tipped the scale ever so slightly the other way, he could have perhaps held back the flood long enough to rebuild their relationship.

An almost obsessively minor thing. But it's so often the minor transgressions that stick at the forefront of our minds when dissecting the aftermath of a relationship, that time that we are learning to grow from them as a human being - and, sometimes, a small part of us always wonders. To see that expressed so eloquently and simply is rather comforting.

And, if all else fails, there's always, always Kind Of Blue, not to mention the final minute of Annie Hall.