I detest cheap sentiment. — Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in All About EveEver since I found out in 6th grade that Valentine's Day was largely invented by a greeting card company, I've thought it was complete bullshit, because, well, it is. I mean, Kwanzaa is invented too, and its critics have some good points, but at least it's about honoring your ancestors and stuff. Valentine's Day is about buying a bunch of crap. Red, white and pink crap. But mostly pink. I mean, for chrissake, there are gay rallies in the Castro with less goddam pink. Sure, I'm a misanthropic bastard, curmudgeony beyond my increasingly untender years. But deep down in your he- *gack* blood-pumper, you know I'm goddam right. Yeah, sure, buying a goddam Hallmark card is a sign of love, just like wearing a flag lapel pin means you're a goddam patriot, and wearing a cross makes you a Christian, and putting on a Halloween mask makes you a fucking werewolf. (At least the Japanese Festival of the Steel Phallus encourages costumes, dancing and has a myth behind it.) Just to be clear, I have nothing against twue wove. Nor against true romance. (Although I'm not a fan of Patricia Arquette.) I rather admire the real thing. But honestly, do you think Hallmark, Madison Avenue and most of Hollywood are going to teach you anything about love? Do you think their cloying, materialistic bullshit with a soft filter close-up on a big hair chick with Celine Dion screeching away in the background brings you anywhere except one step closer to Hell? The Wiki entry on Valentine's Day reports that the Greeting Card Association, not content with the evil it already sows, has since 2001 given out an "Esther Howland Award for a Greeting Card Visionary." No offense to Ms. Esther Howland, but there are no goddam "visionaries" in the greeting card business. If Joan of Arc were alive today, I'm pretty sure she wouldn't be spending her time designing fucking greeting cards. It's almost as ridiculous as fashion industry wankers sporadically pretending they're doing the Lord's Own Work, which normally entails them talking about how awful things are in the world, and how they give people a much needed distraction, because heaven knows we're all not shallow enough and shouldn't bother our pretty, coiffed little heads over genocide or famine. Don't think about the latest war zone and feel bad — watch this skinny blonde in an ugly trash bag of a frock designed by a heroin-addicted misogynist and feel bad for not being anorexic instead, you damn fatty. Because that's all about image, kids. I'm still gobsmacked by how many people I run into who really, truly buy into this sappy, saccharine, unrealistic view of love. That includes people who really should know better — although if they're the type terrified to be uncoupled for longer than two weeks, it's a not a big goddam surprise if they're addicted to bad luv and 'but slenderly know themselves.' I wonder how many couples have broken up over the years just because of all of society's bullshit pressure over an impending Valentine's Day. (It does make for a good sitcom premise.) Sigh. Well, in any case, here's a valuable piece of advice from one of Gene Weingarten's chats, for a few of the gents out there:
Boston, Mass.: Gene - I have a question which I believe only you are qualified to answer. My girlfriend is telling me "I don't want anything for Valentine's Day." Does that mean I REALLY don't have to get her anything? Or does it actually mean "I'm going to say I don't want anything, but if he doesn't do something, he's a big fat pig?" Women are so confusing. I stand by your word - if you tell me not to do anything, and I get dumped, it'll be all your fault. Gene Weingarten: Do something, moron. Were you born yesterday?Weingarten's right, here. There are exceptions. But generally speaking, gents, if a woman tells you Valentine's Day doesn't matter to her, or that she doesn't want anything, she is lying. Even if she swears it on a stack of Bibles or flag lapel pins or werewolf masks, she's lying. She may be lying to herself also about how much it means to her, but that factor will be irrelevant in the carnage to follow. And even if she's not (since again, there are some exceptions out there), you'd best play it like Pascal's Wager on this one. (I'm not certain to what degree gay and lesbian couples ignore all this bullshit, but if they do, it's one more reason to legalize gay marriage everywhere posthaste.) There's a saying that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. Or there's what Pete (Paul Rudd) says in Knocked Up: "Marriage is like a tense, unfunny version of Everybody Loves Raymond, only it doesn't last 22 minutes. It lasts forever." Hey, I can keep dishing 'em out. Sure, I've got some touching, inspirational, romantic prose I could quote to ya. But why string you along? Oh, all right. Here's something.
Much Ado about Nothing is probably my favorite Shakespeare comedy. It's got all the wit of Taming of the Shew with much less sexism. (Keep in mind that "nothing" was pronounced "noting" in Elizabethan England and the play's about misperceptions, and that "nothing" was also slang for female genitalia, and you've got a triple entendre). Here's the great wisdom of the play. Shakespeare presents us with a pair of young lovers, Claudio and Hero, for whom it's love at first sight, who swoon, get jealous and spout flowery sentiments about love. They're supposedly our ideal.
(And let's face it, if they're pretty like Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard, a little swooning is understandable.) But Shakespeare also gives us Benedick and Beatrice, an older couple with the wit, banter and sexual tension of a screwball comedy. They constantly undercut the sappiness of Claudio and Hero. And they're just much more fun to watch.
(Not that Emma Thompson or Kenneth Branagh are hard to look at, either.) So Shakespeare gives us what we think we want, but also what we really want. Add in a few brilliantly written comedy scenes, and that's true genius.
Shakespeare also pokes gentle fun at all the characters, most of all the proud Benedick and Beatrice, but laughs with rather than at them. He wryly mocks their vanities, but ultimately celebrates their foibles. As in The Marriage of Figaro (or even Cosi Fan Tutti, or The Master and Margarita, Crime and Punishment and Gawain and the Green Knight, for that matter), it's a very forgiving, wise work.
So if you must celebrate Valentine's Day, keep that in mind. You can also do it in a slightly subversive, sincere style, like Gene Weingarten, who adores his wife:
I like any day that affords us another chance to buy presents for our women. Because our women are SO grateful for SO minor a fact. Because they are SO certain we will forget. Yes, it was invented by the chocolate and florist industry, which is why I never gives chocolates and flowers for Valentine's Day.
So that's one route. If you're going the film-and-cooking-dinner route, I'd keep in mind that with the exception of a few films like Casablanca, Hollywood doesn't do romance that well — or at least, treat love honestly. Maybe watch Annie Hall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, possibly the B story in Knocked Up, maybe even There's Something About Mary, The Fisher King, The Apartment or The Graduate. And for god's sake, see Scenes From a Marriage before you stop shacking up together, living in sin, and finally get married, you filthy heathens. But if you need a more romantic flick, there's Sense and Sensibilty with the aforementioned Ms. Thompson (plus the divine Kate Winslet), the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle miniseries of Pride and Prejudice, and A Room with a View. Hell, there's even Mann's Last of the Mohicans and Rob Roy if you want some action and drama with a dash of period romance. There's Much Ado... and other good Shakespeare films, of course. But you may do still better with the 1990 Rappeneau-Depardieu version of Cyrano, Amélie or The Princess Bride.
So take that, Hallmark. Beyond the reach of you and your bourgeois, unimaginative compulsion to reduce everything truly beautiful, wild, erotic, wonderful, spiritual, passionate, and transcendent to some trite little homily or cliché you can comfortably handle lies the real thing. Of course, Shakespeare said it all better, many times, and in many ways. But that's why he was Shakespeare. And if he were alive today, the Immortal Bard wouldn't be writing fucking greeting cards, either. (This is a rerun from 2008, marginally rewritten to remove slightly dated political references.)