Like many people, I’ve spent a stupid amount of time watching treacly flicks like "The Notebook" and "Pretty Woman." For a brief period I secretly hoped for a wet T-shirt-clad Ryan Gosling clone to lift me up in a torrential rainstorm and kiss me (a hackneyed fantasy, I know), but I’m proud to say I never harbored illusions about being a prostitute who gets the rich businessman to pledge his everlasting love and financial support, á la Julia Roberts’ Vivian Ward. (I did harbor illusions about moving to L.A. to work as a stripper on Sunset Boulevard so I could marry Vince Neil, but that’s another story.)
Recently, after a 10-minute soul search, I was able to trace my early romantic screw-ups back to one dumb '80s movie: "Fire With Fire." The title refers to the uncontrollable passion between the two main characters, and to an actual blaze they have to flee, hand in hand, in the film. (The director, Duncan Gibbons, actually wound up dying in a California wildfire in 1993, which has nothing to do with romance or movies -- just a strange fact.)
On that note, here are five movies that made me think that love should feel like a Smiths’ song, and that true passion meant you should be willing to throw yourself under a double-decker bus with your girlfriend/boyfriend and live happily ever after in heaven, because love that doesn’t involve drinking poison and stabbing yourself in the heart with the dagger ain’t no love at all.
"FIRE WITH FIRE"
My sister and I watched this so much our mom thought we might grow up to marry ex-cons. "Fire With Fire" starred Virginia Madsen as Lisa, a brilliant and perfect Catholic schoolgirl who falls for Joe, one of the sweaty, brooding boys at the juvie rehabilitation camp across the woods. He’s played by Craig Sheffer from "A River Runs Through It."
Joe sees Lisa in the woods one day and later poetically expresses his love-at-first-sight attraction by telling a fellow inmate that Lisa was “the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in my life. She had on a white dress and she looked like she was dead.”
Actually, Joe isn’t totally delusional; Lisa likes to sneak into the woods, put on a white dress, and snap photos of herself playing dead and floating in the river like Hamlet’s Ophelia. Lisa is the school’s most gifted student; she’s artistic, she’s beautiful, she’s nice, she adds style to her Catholic schoolgirl getup by putting wildflowers in her blonde ringlets. Lisa convinces the nuns at school to organize a dance with the boys in the prison camp so she can meet Joe.
When Lisa and Joe finally meet, and it's stop-the-world electric. An invisible magnetic field is pulling them together as Bryan Ferry’s “Slave To Love” plays. When Joe confesses that he’s in juvie because he drove his mom’s boyfriend’s car into a window, she looks at him all wide-eyed and weepy. We all know what she’s thinking: Poor, sexy Joe. He just needs a girl like me to save him.
SPOILER ALERT: Lisa winds up running off with Joe to live in a creepy abandoned cabin. He goes out to do Grizzly Adams stuff while she toils in the kitchen, giggling as she makes scrambled eggs and waits for Joe. Then the cops come in helicopters, Joe shoots at them, and when he says to Lisa, “Do you trust me?” and asks her to jump off a cliff with him, she does it.
Lesson: Do not jump off cliffs with criminals who have anger issues, no matter how hot they look in their Levis. Go back to algebra class.
We all know "Grease." Sandy falls for Danny, a gang member with a flying car. Why does she have to change in the end? Also, you should never be hopelessly devoted to someone –- you should have your own life and not be codependent. Danny’s a jerk who doesn’t know what he wants and he cares too much about what other people think, which means he’s deeply insecure despite his hot-ass moves on the dance floor.
Sandy gets into the flying car with him and rides into a future promising … what? A lifetime membership to The Pink Ladies? Will Danny be able to afford the gas to get them to wherever they’re going? Where are they going? How will they send their kids to college? Maybe it’s OK that Sandy hops into the magical flying car with Danny -- what kind of person would she be if she stood outside the convertible as the music soared and was like, “Well, where are you taking me? St. Tropez? And I want a tiara -- a real one. And you need to get a job because I am not marrying a mechanic!” Still, it’s messed up that she changes so radically for him, and she should think about their future.
Lesson: A flying car, a chin dimple, and epic dance moves cannot sustain a relationship.
"SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS"
If you think "Romeo and Juliet" is tragic and dramatic, watch this one. It’s not an exaggeration to say I’ve seen this movie at least 20 times, and I cry like a helpless infant during the last scene, without fail. Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty play doomed teenage lovers in 1920s Kansas, and it’s one of the best depictions of that first, all-consuming love that nearly destroys you and ruins your life and the universe as we know it. Of course the girl tries to change for the boy, she goes insane, she tries to become a flapper (in their town flapper = slut), and she has one of those movie moments where she loses her shit, stares in the mirror, and chops off her hair.
Lesson: Your first love may not work out, but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a life of regrets, nostalgia, and moping around quoting Wordsworth 24/7.
Christian Slater’s J.D. was the ultimate bad boy (this was before I realized Slater was really just doing a Jack Nicholson impersonation). He hangs voodoo dolls in Veronica’s room, he kills people with bleach and bullets, and he has a very weird relationship with his dad (guys can have daddy issues too). Veronica could be valedictorian. Again -- why are the smartest girls falling for these losers? Granted, her other options are homophobic jocks and drunk frat dudes, but at least they’re not serial killers. J.D. thinks he’s so much smarter than everyone else, and Veronica doesn’t realize until later that this actually means he’s an idiot. It also means he’s a narcissistic sociopath. He says things like, “Chaos was what killed the dinosaurs, darling.” What an asshole. He’s got the whole Holden Caulfield thing going on, and he’s raging against conformity and close-mindedness, but that doesn’t mean she needs to marry the guy.
Lesson: Guys who think they’re super deep … aren’t.
"THE LITTLE MERMAID"
I’m not talking about the Disney version. I mean the old 1970s anime version that’s melancholy and tragic and far superior. The mermaid’s name is Marina, not Ariel, and like Lisa and Sandy, she gives up everything for the guy. In this case it’s extreme – she gives up her family and her tail. Walking on legs and feet is painful for her (and this is without high heels). All this for a prince she barely knows. Maybe Marina isn’t that smart. When the prince marries someone else Marina has a choice: Kill him with a dagger and turn back into a mermaid… or die. Pretty shitty choices. SPOILER ALERT: Marina is selfless, so she spares the prince and turns into the foam on waves, which is a poetic way of saying she gives up everything for some jerk. As a kid that was romantic. Now it’s just dumb.
Lesson: If love only makes you feel melancholy and helpless, you’re doing it wrong.