“What is Love?” asks every romantic hero ever. “Love is when you really feel it, you know?” answers every romantic hero’s best friend or mentor who has some authority of love or just guesses based upon some romantic thing they read or have seen. “What is Love?” asks me, and quite possibly most people in their teens. “
A gross injustice has been committed. A crime if you will. The perpetrator? A mix of us—the consumers—and that one Hollywood executive group made up of elderly white people in suits who talk about charts and market projections. The victim? Again us, the consumers. We’ve become a victim to our own crime. The murder weapon? Romantic movies. The analogy? Dragging on for too long, but here is what I mean: The romance genre as a whole has become, or perhaps has always been, equated with a dream image of reality. This is probably true for most other genres—I’m not under the impression that every policeman gets shot a day from retirement—but romance is different because of how integral relationships are to our world. They’re different, because love is part of every person’s world and popular romances aren’t doing it justice. Sadly, I will probably never live in the world of a buddy cop comedy—not even Rush Hour (1998), no matter how hard I try—but I will experience love and relationships many times over, so I need something to guide me. And what better guide than the movies?
“What is Love?” asks every romantic hero ever. “Love is when you really feel it, you know?” answers every romantic hero’s best friend or mentor who has some authority of love or just guesses based upon some romantic thing they read or have seen. “What is Love?” asks me, and quite possibly most people in their teens. “This is Love,” answer the movies. So I believe them, because what other authority do I—a late-’90s kid with working parents—have? Where else am I going to look for guidance? Movies have shown me to stand up for myself no matter what. Movies have shown me that it’s okay to be different. Movies have shown me everything I know about the world beyond my personal experience and they’re pretty fucking on spot sometimes. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), for example, has an impeccable representation of a mental breakdown that is so realistic I can barely watch, but at the same time, I’m glued to the screen. Dunkirk (2017) with its half-submerged cameras made me hold my breath, not only out of awe, but also because I was scared I would drown. The Notebook (2004) and other romances showed me how to watch people from afar for a while and then on our first meeting perform a weird quirky stunt to stand out from the crowd and make the person I already love (because you can’t just like someone) love me back. I believed The Notebook and for that I have suffered.
Let’s take that first scene apart piece by piece. The Notebook is about Noah (Ryan “ooh la la land” Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams). The film starts with an elderly man reading a romantic story to a woman with dementia, but it soon becomes obvious that it’s just an old Noah reading to Allie about how they met and got married.
Allie and Noah first meet when Noah goes to the carnival with a friend. He sees Allie from far away and asks his friend who she is. The love from afar. They meet for a brief second, just to get introduced, but it’s obvious that Allie isn’t interested since she’s rich and looks down on the working-class Noah. This should probably be the end of the encounter that night, since Noah should get the hint, but no. In true romantic fashion, he pulls something quirky. As Allie and presumably her date board the Ferris wheel, Noah jumps in and rides up with them. Allie starts screaming for him to leave and they stop the Ferris wheel. At this point everyone’s telling Noah to cut it out and leave her alone, but, again, nope. He persists. He climbs out and starts hanging on the bars in front of Allie’s cart. He then says that he won’t come down until Allie agrees to go on a date with him. Allie repeatedly says no. Noah’s hands start to slip and he continues on asking, implying that he will fall down if she doesn’t say yes. He’s literally threatening to commit suicide if she doesn’t say yes. However, somehow he is the romantic hero. Why does Noah go through such lengths to get a date with a girl who he doesn’t know at all and was very dismissive of him? Because as Noah says, “When I see something that I like I gotta—I love it . . . I want you [Allie].”1
Does that seem like a healthy start to a relationship? Does Noah even sound like a sane person? Absolutely not, but how would the audience know? How are we supposed to know different if this is the only type of romance we see portrayed? That is of course until we experience it in real life, but we won’t if we try to replicate this method. Who in their right mind would ever want to go out with someone who threatens them with suicide off the bat? That is psychotic. This is the point where one could make a counterargument. An argument for The Notebook.
The Notebook is not about Noah and Allie and it’s not about showing us romance. The Notebook is about making you cry at the rainfall scene when Noah and Allie realize they’re still in love with each other after all the heartbreak. It’s about making you cry when you realize that the old people who narrate are an old Noah and Allie and how tragic dementia is. It’s about making you cry, period. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. I really don’t care for movies like that, but I won’t yuck someone else’s yum just because of my own personal feelings. That being said, The Notebook isn’t a minority among romance movies. It is in fact the romantic movie. When I google “romantic movies” it is the number one result; The Notebook has become the posterchild of romantic movies. Modern romances use purposely false representations in order to elicit that tiny shred of emotional response from a teen wishing to have a future like that or from a middle-aged housewife who is bored with her husband—the same audience that made Fifty Shades of Grey popular—but this is simply not fair.
Movies have a responsibility to the viewer. They don’t need to be grounded in realism, but they need to follow the logic of the world they’re in. If they don’t, then it creates a false image and usually falls apart like Armageddon (1998), but done just right you can create truly fantastic movies like The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) even though it’s all about imaginary creatures and magical rings. To take a closer look, Armageddon is about an asteroid plummeting towards Earth that will surely destroy all of us on impact. The only way to stop it? By sending people on a mission to drill a hole deep enough into this foreign soil that a bomb placed in the hole will blow the whole thing to smithereens. Before you ask, yes, it was directed by Michael Bay. This premise is perfectly fine and makes logical sense, but where it falls apart is when they decide to train a group of oil drillers led by Bruce Willis to become astronauts instead of teaching astronauts how to drill. Why does Willis need his team of oil drillers instead of trained professional astronauts? As Ben Affleck, the protagonist, notes it on the DVD commentary “They’re the best! Everyone’s the best. Why are they the best? Well, they just are!”2
Why does it need to be Frodo to take the ring to Mordor? Not because he’s the best. Quite the contrary. It’s because a simple pure little hobbit will never be suspected to do such a thing and because he’s too nice to be so easily corrupted by the ring—as is the champion of men, Boromir. The Lord of the Rings rests on a fantasy landscape, but the people, the action, and the thought processes are all logical and grounded in reality. This makes it a true epic.
Now think about romantic movies and The Notebook and try to place them with either Lord of the Rings or Armageddon. They fall right next to Armageddon. Why does Noah do such crazy things? Because he’s in love. Why is he in love? He just is. Why is it okay for Allie to repeatedly cheat on his fiancée with a man she just saw for the first time in many years? Because she’s in love. Why? She just is. That’s the problem with The Notebook and mainstream romance. The story doesn’t matter one bit, only the tear-jerking aspects do, and romantic stories are a perfect tool for this, because you can use love as a scapegoat for everything. Love is grounded in ambiguity so it’s easy to use it as motivation for literally anything. All is fair in love and war as they say, except things under the Geneva convention, so really all is fair in love.
So now that we know how bad mainstream romantic movies are, I want to posit an alternative. The indie romance or the ones that don’t follow the tropes that we know all too well. The earliest one that I’ve been introduced to would be When Harry Met Sally (1989), but the one I adore the most is the 2009 romcom (500) Days of Summer.
(500) Days of Summer is “a story of boy meets girl, but you should know upfront, this is not a love story.” The boy is Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an immature romantic with an architecture degree stuck writing greeting cards, and the girl is Summer (Zooey Deschanel), a seemingly quirky girl who just moved to Los Angeles and does not believe in love. The story takes place in the course of five-hundred days, from when we see Tom first lay eyes on Summer to when he starts living off of orange juice, vodka, and Twinkies. The whole unadulterated, the raw uncut, rocky rollercoaster of a twenty-first century relationship.
Tom is the lead and this is a crucial point of the movie. We see everything through the eyes of Tom and most of the time through his narration. We see his expectations and we feel shut down and betrayed when his expectations aren’t met. When I first saw this movie around ten years ago I thought, “Yeah! Screw Summer! She’s so mean, women aren’t meant to be trusted!” As you can tell, I was a dumbass. The second time I saw this movie a few years and a few heartbreaks later I still sided with Tom, but I now felt as if I understood the movie more. Little did I know, I had a lot of work to do. The third time was after I somehow managed to finally walk away from my first real relationship. I was sad, I was hurt, I felt free, and I wanted to watch a funny romance. It was at this time that it started to click.
In (500) Days of Summer, Tom is a dick.3 From the very beginning, Summer’s intentions are clear. She doesn’t want a relationship, but yes, she does give in to her instincts and kisses Tom unexpectedly one day at the copier machines. Boom. Queue romantic love sequence. They go to Ikea and pretend that they own the place, they go vinyl shipping and argue about who the best Beatle is, and then they slowly start to drift apart. Somehow what once clicked starts to get jumbled up. Ikea isn’t funny anymore, it’s just a chore and poking fun at Ringo becomes plain mean. Tom fights for the love he believes in and the perception of Summer that he holds in his mind, but he is soon defeated when the realization comes that his expectations do not match reality. He’s projecting and out of touch. He learns a lesson that many of us learn eventually in life.
You’d probably say that I just spoiled the movie, but there are plenty of parts I’ve left out and (500) Days isn’t about the ending, it’s about the whole. This film lets you change who you empathize with. It lets you see more and more when you experience things and know what you are looking for. Every character is at a stage in their romantic adventure so you can see yourself in each of them. I know not everyone has this feeling about the movie, since it does portray a white heterosexual male in LA swooning over an attractive woman, but I urge everyone to at least give it a chance. To me, (500) Days of Summer is the perfect movie for what romance should be:
A trip. An adventure with many wrong turns. Living and experiencing both sides of a relationship. A constant process and work that won’t end anytime soon.
I rewatch this movie at least once a year now and I saw it again for this essay. I still noticed new things I hadn’t before and changed my mind about certain characters. You can tell the writers lived and experienced and wrote themselves into their characters, but you can’t do the same with The Notebook. While (500) Days paints the full picture of love—including what they have in popular romances, because yes love does exist—The Notebook uses that one aspect as justification for damn near anything. It’s just as two-dimensional as the screen it is projected on. As the paper that the original book was written on. As flat as a notebook. As empty as the margins in a notebook…