Love on the Run: Amour Fou in American Film

“Anybody got a match” asked the young Lauren Bacall, in her sexy, insecure voice, when she first met Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, Howard Hawks sort of version of Casablanca.

This memorable line launched the famous romance, on screen and off, between the beautiful debutante and Hollywood’s tough guy. It also set the tone of many Hollywood ensuing romances. Hard to believe, but Bacall was considered harsh by standards of the l940s.

Reflecting American culture, the conventions of screen romances have dramatically changed over the last half a century. Yet, it would be wrong to surmise that romance has disappeared from Hollywood, an industry that still defines our national myths and collective dreams.

Love, passion, and desire are alive and well in the American cinema, judging by the popular success of such diverse fare as Pretty Woman, a modern fairy tale, or Fatal Attraction, a cautionary tale for the age of AIDS. However, the definition of romance has changed–love and sex are now intimately associated with fear, danger, and risk. For recent screen couples, the motto is still “till death do us part,” except that it’s now taken literally–death occurs early in the lovers’ lives, terminating their affairs at their prime. Fear of emotional commitment is still prevalent in our movies, though the cynicism surrounding love, which began in the late l960s, seems to have declined.

True Romance

Tony Scott’s new film, True Romance, based on a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, is perhaps the ultimate romantic picture. An explosive mix of razor-sharp wit, gritty action, and gratuitous violence, more than anything else it’s a postmodern love story–a quintessential film for American youth in the l990s.

True Romance takes a hip look at both the sunny and dark sides of the American Dream of mobility and success. Clarence (Christian Slater), a lonely youngster, meets Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a hooker who was arranged as a birthday gift for him, in a movie house that shows Kung Fu pictures. Head over heels in love–and in tune with our conservative times–they declare monogamy and get married after spending one night together.

A call girl for only four days, Alabama is actually a good and sincere woman. Determined to end her dubious past, Clarence goes to her pimp (Gary Oldman) to collect her belongings, but ends up brutally killing him. He then rushes home, anxious to hear Alabama’s response to his action. Stunned, she looks him in the eye and says, “I think what you did was….so romantic!” This crazy exchange defines the logic and noirish ambience of the entire film.

The suitcase Clarence brings back doesn’t contain Alabama’s clothes, but valuable Mob contraband, which they decide to take from Detroit to Los Angeles. They plan to sell their booty and begin a new life, but with the gangsters and police after them, twists and turns ensue. A tale of unlikely lovers whose whirlwind romance propels them into dangerous games of high-stakes negotiations and high-speed adventure, True Romance ends with the couple in Mexico, 6 years later, playing with their son on the beach.

Self-referential, True Romance has a comic strip sensibility and comic strip characters; Clarence even works at a comic book store. We are not supposed to take anything in the movie too seriously, including its excessive violence. The humor is dry and cynical. One of the “amusing” moments comes when Christopher Walken empties his gun into Clarence’s father (Dennis Hopper), then coolly observes, “I haven’t killed anybody since l984.”

True Romance is the latest version of amour fou, or love on the run. The American fascination with this phenomenon goes as far back as Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (l937) and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (l949). But the quintessential work that revived and redefined the genre is Bonnie and Clyde (l967), a film that glamorized its gangsters to the point of making them mythic heroes.

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde celebrated nihilism and outlawry as way of life, in defiance of conventional mores. Institutional authority, represented by law and business, is depicted as rigid and corrupt. Bonnie, a waitress dreaming to become an actress, and Clyde, an ex-sharecropper, are outsiders par excellence. They also suffer from physical or psychological stigma–Clyde limps and is initially impotent.

The two youngsters aren’t perceived as society’s victims. Unable to assimilate dominant culture, they devise their own norms, take their lives into their hands, and demand recognition. Bonnie and Clyde are obsessed with elevating themselves into legend. When Bonnie writes poems and sends them to the press, Clyde proudly says, “You made me somebody they’re gonna remember.” The anonymous, powerless members of mass society are determined to achieve celebrity and command center-stage, if only for a few moments.

They are even willing to die for it: Bonnie and Clyde find their deaths in what is still the most stylized and most imitated scene in American films. Their demise, culminating in an embrace, also bears ideological meaning: it’s a mythic death. Filmed as a montage, this grand finale alternates slow-motion shots with normal depiction of time, while repeating images from various angles, thereby extending what might have been a ten-second sequence into a two-minute “ballet of blood.”

Wild at Heart

True Romance’s point of reference is a more recent work: David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (l990), starring Nicholas Cage as hoodlum Sailor and Laura Dern as his passionate lover Lula. The couple is on the run from Lula’s nasty, alcoholic mother, who once tried to seduce Sailor.

“Finding love in hell may be a theme in all my movies,” David Lynch once said about his work, but as a road movie, Wild at Heart goes beyond hell–it’s a paean to The Wizard of Oz (l939). As in MGM’s fairy tale, there are good and bad witches. At the end, it’s the good witch who tells Sailor to go back to Lula. “Lula loves you, don’t turn away from love.” Sailor goes back to Lula, even sings for her Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.”

Badlands

There have been about a dozen or so “amour fou” films, ranging from Terence Malick’s stunning debut, Badlands, in l973, all the way to the pretentious Kalifornia, which recently opened.

Loosely based on real-life killers Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate, Badlands is a fictionalized account of two rootless youngsters, Kit (Martin Sheen), a 25-year-old garbage collector, and Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year-old girl. Like Bonnie and Clyde, it’s a ballad, a folk tale, though without the romantic mythology.

Set in l960, Badlands is a chilling expose of alienation as a state of aimlessness. Holly’s mother died when she was young and she lives with her father. Spotting the bored child-woman, with her long beautiful hair and sexy shorts, Kit falls for her. But in the murder spree that follows, it’s unclear if Kit holds on to Holly because he loves her, or because he needs a witness, an audience to applaud him; he tells Holly he doesn’t want to die without a girl shrieking for him.

Sporting jeans and white T-shirt, Kit bears strong resemblance to James Dean. A modern version of Hemingway’s White Hunter or Jeremiah Johnson, Kit instructs Holly how to shoot, cut wood, fish–how to live in the wilderness. But at the end, Holly loses interest in Kit and surrenders. When Kit is finally captured, a curious cop asks, “Why did you do it” “I don’t know,” he says, “I guess I always wanted to be a criminal.”

Kalifornia and Brad Pitt

Directed by Dominic Sena, Kalifornia’s Brian Kessler (David Duchovny) is a yuppie student priding himself on being liberal–his thesis deals with serial killers. Brian holds that criminals should not be reviled but rehabilitated, as their actions are determined by social rather than biological factors. His fascination with killers is matched by his girlfriend Carrie’s (Michelle Forbes) penchant for avant-garde photography that explores provocative sexual encounters.

Feeling stagnant, the couple yearns to move to California, the Dream Stat. They decide to collaborate on a terrific book that will document famous murder sites, a cross-country route that takes them to Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas. In need to split the trip’s expenses, they take aboard ex-con Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his girl Adele Corners (Juliett Lewis), who are also itching for a change. Early leaves behind a torched trailer and a shallow grave, in which he buried his landlord.

At road’s end, it’s Brian who journeys from sympathetic observer to aggressive survivor, when the volatile Early turns the voyage into a nearly lethal experience. Brian is forced to confront his own self-preserving desire–to kill or be killed.

Like True Romance’s characters, Kalifornia’s quartet consists of familiar types: Early and Adele represent liberal Americans’ worst nightmares of poor white trash. The most interesting figure is Adele, a sweet, undereducated waif. “Early beats me sometimes, she tells Carrie, “but only when I deserve it.” A likeable guy who “happens” to be a serial killer, Early’s sociopathic conduct is marked by total lack of consideration for the future.

Kalifornia takes its time before escalating into the inevitable Straw Dogs confrontation, where the sensitive-intellectual Brian, like Dustin Hoffman in the Peckinpah film, discovers that, when push comes to shove, we’re all aggressive brutes and animals.

It’s not a coincidence that the “couple on the run” films have appeared in times of social and political upheaval. Bonnie and Clyde was as much about Vietnam as the Depression, its historical setting. Badlands’ narrative takes place in l960, but it was released in l973, during Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, two political events that signaled a legitimacy crisis in America’s legal and political authority.

Inhabiting the outer fringes of society, the characters in these films can be described as Lynchian. In all of them, moral emptiness is viewed as an inevitable by-product of mass society and its vulgar culture. In their ichnography, they look back to the l950s. Elvis Presley serves as Clarence’s moral guide in True Romance, and the snakeskin jacket Nicholas Cage wears in Wild at Heart is modeled after Elvis’s. Bonnie and Clyde also acknowledges the importance of movies as unifying agents of integration: Bonnie watches with admiration Busby Berkeley’s musical, We’re in the Money. In Badlands, Holly is satiated with stories fleshed out by film magazines and dime novels.

With all the changes in conventions, some of the old myths are still in evidence in the new romantic pictures, specifically the myth of romantic exclusivity and the myth of self-fulfillment through love. The ultimate fantasy all couples on the run share, though few exercise, is walking together into the sunset towards a better future.

Ironically, the one thing that has remained from Bacall’s immortal line is the match, which became the dominant metaphor for modern, passionate romance: In each of these films, there is a fire scene. In Badlands, Kit kills Holly’s father, then sets the house on fire. The blaze is shown in a stunning montage, with the camera lingering on every object, while the soundtrack plays Satie. In Wild at Heart, the match is both a thematic motif and visual device.

Young sexy women and unstable, adventurous men, engaged in doomed romances and surrounded by an unloving society, have appealed to generations of moviegoers. Except that in True Romance, the romance isn’t doomed. Amour fou, perhaps, but vive la petite difference!