My first kiss was a wash. I must have been four years old, because my sister was a baby. My best friend Alexander and I took advantage of the distraction she was causing to sneak away from the movie that my mother had left us to watch. Or, you might say, to watch us. The French philosopher Jean Louis Schefer talks, in his book L’homme ordinaire du cinema, about the films that watched him grow up.
Why do you go to the cinema? an imaginary interlocutor asks him.
I go to see the world . . . that watched my childhood, Schefer answers.
Another French film critic, Serge Daney, took it further. In French fashion, he punned that he was not just a cinéphile, or movie lover, but a “son of the cinema,” a cinéfils.
Growing up in Brooklyn, my favorite babysitter was The Wizard of Oz. In 1990, Alexander and I watched The Wizard of Oz almost every weekday afternoon. I had a pair of red shoes that I would put on and skip around the living room in, belting “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” He had a silver, sequined skirt that, when he donned it, turned him into Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.
One day, my mother (bored, no doubt) suggested we watch something else. Because The Dreamer of Oz was a docudrama about the life of Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz, we assented. She had recorded it from NBC. There was a scene where the actor who plays the young Frank Baum passionately kisses the actress who plays his young wife on a porch. It is nighttime, but a parallelogram of light from the window slants across them.
It was the rush of this embrace that I had in mind as I followed Alexander into the bathroom and locked the door, a few afternoons later. As beginners, we were more methodical. We squared our shoulders and pressed our small faces together. Tilted them back and forth, as we had watched the Dreamer of Oz do, taking care not to knock noses. We did not know that you were supposed to open your mouth when you kissed. But we mashed our lips together so hard I felt the blunt edge of his teeth.
After a while of that we stepped back, looked at each other, and started giggling. Our shared puzzlement was simultaneously delight at having pulled something off: Was that all? I’d feel some version of that bathos many times again, but never shrug it off with another partner quite so frankly.
I’ve been thinking about my Dreamer of Oz kiss—and the clumsy experiments we conduct, trying to make our love lives imitate art—while planning the film series based on my first book, Labor of Love. The book traces the history of dating, and my cocurator and I wanted the series to touch on forgotten courtship rituals, as well as iconic ones. On the immigrant shopgirls arrested on prostitution charges for going out to dinner with a man in the 1910s, as well as Julia Roberts’s winning streetwalker in Pretty Woman. The queer friends and coworkers of My Beautiful Laundrette as well as the strangers whose jobs pit them at odds, but who are clearly destined for each other in You’ve Got Mail.
We found ourselves far afield. Dating is constitutively ambiguous. Its story begins when clearly defined courtship rituals, supervised by families and communities, break down. When young people go out and figure out their own protocols—which have included, for over a hundred years, going to the movies.
The history of dating and the history of movies almost completely overlap. Movies have not only depicted dating. They have been occasions for romance. The movies that watched the century of daters come and go beneath them saw that sometimes the half-dark is all we wanted. To feel the static electricity all along your edge as you inched closer to someone on a sofa. To bury your face in someone else in a horror movie, while pretending you were trying not to scream.
Every movie is a date movie. Movies define a mode of desire: a desire to believe in something unreal. Or, rather, to experience the reality of what you know to be illusions.
The Wizard of Oz is all about this. In the end, Dorothy and her friends arrive in the capital and Toto pulls back the curtain behind which the “wizard” has been manipulating their world. Then she wakes up. It turns out that Oz was all a dream within a dream. But it is the shock of its Technicolor we remember. All dreams are real. On the MGM set, where The Wizard of Oz was shot in 1939, they used so many klieg lights to make the colors show up that just the electricity cost over a quarter-million dollars. Several actors involved in the production complained that it damaged their eyesight permanently.
Writing about dating, and desire, I often had the sense of trying to catch the tail of something vanishing. My topic was a Cheshire cat. I wanted to name fears and desires that I felt everywhere and nowhere. The unstated rules that women in particular internalize, told by everyone and no one in particular, that this is how we have to be if we want to be loved. How to describe them? How to criticize their unreality—or their habit of posing as the way to be—while acknowledging that they did in fact become real, as they shaped people’s lives.
Romance was my mustached man behind the curtain. From a materialist perspective, it seemed like a trick. The ideal has so clearly served to exploit people. It drives us to work and shop the ways we are supposed to, to devote our desires to remaking the world the way that those currently in power would like it to be. And yet, to see this ideological dimension of love did not make romance disappear. Was that it?
The history of movie dates is the history of how people have felt at the movies. This includes the difference between their lives and the lives they see on screen, which they may or may not yearn for anyway. The gap that the real dreams of dating open up creates a space for friends and lovers and strangers alike to debate about love and its uses. I hope that the series, and my book, will begin a new conversation, not only about what dating has been and is, but what it could be.
Moira Weigel was born in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, The New Republic, n+1, and The New Inquiry, among other publications, and she is currently completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Yale University. After years of first-person research on dating, she is off the market. Labor of Love is her first book.
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