Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A MEDITATION ON FORBIDDEN LOVE

Kelly's great review below begs the question: What does it mean that love is forbidden? Can we rightly compare ROMEO AND JULIET with TWILIGHT? Are they talking about the same thing?
To this end, a little brief, historical comparison...

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Let's go medieval for a moment, with A KNIGHT'S TALE. Having re-watched this with the folks recently, I was struck by the ways in which, once again, this is a tale of forbidden love--a humble thatcher masquerading as a knight to gain the love of the royal maiden. Heath Ledger does a good job portraying William Thatcher, the knight-to-be, to Shanynn Sossaman's lady. BTW, whatever happened to her?


Anyway, the tension in this one exists because of societal boundaries: there's a fairly rigid 'caste' system of sorts, codified because of divine right of kings and centuries of tradition, such that people are what they are. However, in Chaucer's day, these rules are breaking down; knights are rising up to nobility; merchants are moving up into a new middle-class; royalty are no longer respected as royalty if they're total pricks. But the point is this: what makes the love between Heath and Shanynn 'forbidden' is a global device, a societal vision which is, in a sense, totalizing. There is no other Europe other than the one they live in, and so, if you're going to fall in love, you have to fall in love according to the rules of Europe, which means "no love across class lines".

Heath and Shanynn, thus, have to pursue their love, not in spite of the rules of society, but deceptively through the rules of society. Their love comes to completion only as Ledger ascends to knighthood and joins the ranks of nobility, and some sense, making their love no longer forbidden.
**

Fast forward a couple of centuries past Chaucer, and we come to the Grand Maul Seizure of forbidden love: ROMEO AND JULIET. Say what you want about the 1968 Zefirelli version; I thought the Baz Luhrman version with DiCaprio and Danes was phenomenal. But in any event, let's examine what it means here for love to be 'forbidden'.


The emphasis of R&J is on the family role of 'forbidden love'. These star-crossed lovers are kept apart, not by societal lines, as this is the 16th century; societal boundaries are really fluid; monarchies are dying off left and right, and the middle-classes are making their case to be the new nobilities. See Shakespeare's OTHELLO for the ultimate example of societal movement during this time. In R&J, what keeps the lovers apart is not societal regulation, but family regulation. In the absence of a firm, uniform world as in the Middle Ages, families become the new boundaries within which 'forbiddenness' can be established, more or less. In any other circumstances, barring the names of 'Montague' and 'Capulet', we have a comedy, but because of the regulation of love by family contraints, this one turns into tragedy.

Granted, 'family' depends in part on where in society they fall. Had Romeo, for example, been a commoner, Juliet's family would have objected for other reasons; thus, Paris is the perfect match in their eyes for Juliet, as he's the bachelor-of-the-month (played by a young Paul Rudd in Luhrman's version). But what I want to point out here is that the guiding rubric for 'forbidenness' is that of the family; the family has imbibed their understanding of acceptable love from society, to be sure, but as far as who adjudicates the boundaries of right love--this falls to the family and not society at large.
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Moving on to the modern-day CAN'T HARDLY WAIT, one of the understated gems of the early 90s, we find the endgame of 'forbiddenness': the forbidden love posited by and against one's self. Whereas in KNIGHT'S TALE and ROMEO AND JULIET, love is forbidden by forces or persons external to the individual, by modern-day, the rules for true or forbidden are posited by the individual themselves, apart from family or societal considerations. Notice, for example, that you never see the main character's families in CHW....


God bless Jennifer Love Hewitt. In this film, both positively and negatively, the 'right' love is that which is given the character by themselves: Amanda, despite her societal standing, rejects the tool Mike Dexter in search of the real deal; Preston Meyers decides that Kurt Vonnegut is awesome literature and pursues the dream girl that he knows is the true love of his life, Amanda Beckett. The two are drawn together in spite of who? Not society, which they defy, nor in spite of families, which do not exist in this film, but in spite of themselves. Both Amanda and Preston struggle to hold faith to an ideal which exists outside their vision, and to deny the tendency to choose that which is before them, in pursuit of that which is beyond them. In other words, their greatest fight is the one that they have with themselves, to pursue love which they know is ridiculous, but which they desire anyway. Maybe a better example of this would be the Seth Green scenario in which he winds up with his ultimate nemesis, the wankster falling in love with the literature nerd, two souls finding each other, despite themselves.
***

I submit that NEW MOON is of this last kind, the great postmodern forbidden love story, in which the true oppressor is not society, not family, but ourselves. Granted, the stakes are slightly higher here: should love conquer the self, somebody's getting a brand new set of glittery skin for Christmas. But in the end, the lovers in NEW MOON have only themselves to answer to and to overcome in order to achieve their 'forbidden love'.

19 comments:

Tiffani R said...

wow, myles this was deep. I can't speak to New Moon and CHW...

But I did want to start a discussion about something else. Do you think that the barriers to love have evaporated or evolved in the way that you are showing above (societal/class to family to self)?

I think that though you may be right about the self-imposed barriers, family barriers and societal barriers still exist; that perhaps we've just added the barrier of the self.

Ugh, I'm not saying this well. What I mean is that the social barrier that presents itself in "A Knight's Tale" continues to be represented in new ways in movies like "Can't Buy Me Love," and "Mean Girls" (for example). Think of the class distinction in Chaucer's era - royalty, commoners, and then look at the parallel in modern movies of popular and uncool. I think that maybe the social mores still exist but in less clear ways than before.

Anyway, what do you think?

the hamster said...

why are you teaching at seminary and not at film school? and when will you teach a film class AT seminary?

this is greatness, MPMW. i don't even know where to begin. all i know is this is what happens when you give a werntz a coffee and a morning to dabble about in his p.j.s.

i'm glad you praised the lurhman R&J. i remember in college when students in the english department went total ape over it, and i was hushed back thinking it was clever, exciting, and a bit steamy. i figured it was just another case of OBU wanting tame art as opposed to something with handguns and cleavage.

you make me want to see CHW again.

the hamster said...

tiffani - i've got two words for you about the struggles of class distinction in Chaucer's era being replicated in modern cinema: john hughes.

Tiffani R said...

Kev - YES! That is what I'm talking about!! Pretty in Pink, being the strongest example, I think of the romantic side.

OOOH - other 80's example that comes to mind: Some Kind of Wonderful.

Thanks for supporting my position with your two words. Its still early here, and I'd only had one cup of coffee when I commented - so clearly I was not at my sharpest.

myleswerntz said...

I totally think class plays into our thinking, though it's complicated by the location of the final say being the individual. Whereas in KNIGHT, there's still the recognition of identifiable, god-given class structure that must be played into, by CHW and MEAN GIRLS, class is something that's played WITH, i.e. something that's toyed with rather than taken seriously. Class becomes fluid to the point that it becomes usable when it's convenient to use, rather than being built into the universe.

the hamster said...

MPMW - i know you've read way more books than i will ever even know the titles to, but i seriously can't believe you just said "by CHW and MEAN GIRLS, class is something that's played WITH, i.e. something that's toyed with rather than taken seriously." you sound like a syllabus talking in that comment.

it seems like class plays MORE into a society where it is chosen or voluntarily adhered to (even if unconsciously) by the masses, such as in modern america, than in places where it is enfored by an "identifiable, god-given class structure," perhaps the knightly england of yore. when the masses are blindly going along with it, thinking they have no choice, you have more room for the great hughes films where the odd and punkly teenager says, "what the hell? who are we? what are we doing with our lives?" and the way that epiphany shakes their social structures is what offers us films and art, even rock-n-roll.

springsteen would be ashamed to here you say that class is not built into the universe.

myleswerntz said...

What I mean is that class is a useful category, but not something which is fixed in iron, i.e. something a person is born into and can't escape. So, yes, it's something that a person CHOOSES, but not seen to be a mirror of reality, as in the Middle Ages. so, maybe class today has a different kind of power, in that it controls imaginations of what the world is.

Yeah, I think Springsteen's 'working man' stuff buys into class being part of the material of the universe, but like I say, there's two ways to think about that: 1) the medieval concept of an ordered society which reflects the order of Heaven, or 2) the modern concept which is more fluid and which people bind themselves to or are bound to by circumstance and can get out of. Springsteen's probably the second.

the hamster said...

i just yelling in your general direction sometimes, and we're not playing backgammon this morning.

myleswerntz said...

when can we fix this backgammon situation?

the hamster said...

on my end of traveling, later than sooner. unless you can come to BCS this weekend. we both finish the semester next friday. we leave for two weeks of travel on saturday. when we get back, i'll be as free as skynard after the crash.

myleswerntz said...

yeah, this weekend is Shreveport. When are you back in BCS? New Years?

Kelly Riad said...

I was on a writer's forum recently and there was a young, straight-outta-high school writer who says he doesn't understand the whole social class distinction played out in literature and film. According to him, it's no longer so extreme anymore. You have the punk and emo kids who are also in band, you have cheerleaders playing WOW, you have football jocks who also sing in the choir and theater. So what do we do now to make our lovers' love forbidden? What lines must they cross when our real society has become one great, free-loving melting pot? What should we expect in the future when it comes to forbidden love stories, or is this the reason why we're seeing movies like HEATHERS get the mention of being remade? And Leo's Romeo was truly crush-worthy.

myleswerntz said...

Kelly,

I think the only frontiers left for "forbidden love" are either nostalgia (romanticizing the class wars of the 17th c.)or the self-posited boundaries, at least for middle class folks. If things are a maelstrom of incompatible commitments (the skaters who play xylophone in the band), then the only boundary is the concept of boundary itself. (Thinking out loud), I think part of the reason sci-fi and fantasy get so much play is their ability to posit limits that we haven't reached yet, i.e. the limits of 'out there' that we'll come up against one day.

For others who live in pretty strictly defined boundaries (economic straits, political repressions, etc.), 'class' is different and breaking out into the 'forbidden' zone is a lot more dangerous (i.e. R&J).

Tiffani R said...

I think that high school dude has been smoking crack. I don't think that people "crossing over" is nearly as universal as it seems. But then again, its been 17 years since I was in high school so maybe I'm wrong.

I want to use Glee as my example (of the few people who are crossing over and how they are ostracized), but maybe people my age are producing/writing the show and we are just projecting our past experiences onto today's students.....

But I don't think so. I think that the boundaries still exist.

Tiffani R said...

I no longer understand what Myles is saying. But I love you anyway, smarty pants.

the hamster said...

you people heard of these folks who call themselves "furries"? now that's a whole new way of breaking boundaries.

Kelly Riad said...

I haven't heard of furries, kevin. do tell. i have a friend with a teenage sister and have gone to visit her at her high school for a few of her plays and there isn't any real sign of the "cliques" that existed in my day. that could just be the theater crowd but i know there are a few football players in drama with her. i really think this new connection through the internet has helped but down these boundaries. Myles, have you seen SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE? and if so, what's your opinion on that kind of forbidden love? i think, at least given the reception that movie received, that the obstacles and boundaries in our love stories, at least in ones anchored in reality, will come from more foreign sources. But i guess that's because it still resorts back to class and religion. i agree that fantasy/sci-fi helps change the rules, or at least the players. i know i prefer a good fantasy/sci-fi story over boring, ol' reality.

myleswerntz said...

Lemme restate:

One of the reason fantasy and sci-fi are so attractive to all of us who have done away with limits, is that 'other realms' (far away planets, future worlds, dragon-inhabited lands) offer us a new limit: one we haven't gotten to yet. Because the final authority on the forbidden is ourselves, we need something WAY out there to give us new limits. That's my take, at least. Of course, for folks who experience real limits (economic, political, etc.), sci-fi functions as a way to escape the limits.

In other words, if you're bored because you've conquered everything, sci-fi is the next limit to be crossed. If you're coming up against a hard limit of money or power, sci-fi is a way out, to imagine a world where present limits aren't in play. I mean, having a dragon tear up the place makes not being able to pay the light bill look okay.

Also, I don't get furies. That's three shades of weird.

SLUMDOG: part of the reason it works is because it's a guy reaching out of his social class for greatness. Ironically, though, it's only BECAUSE OF his social class lessons that he breaks through the wall, in that he's able to beat the game because he learned all the answers in the school of hard knocks.

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