By Brett Yates
The “Christmas movie” represents a treasured cinematic subgenre with well-known iconography and an established array of tropes. It’s a distinct phenomenon, serving a distinct function: to bolster the idea of an entire ritualistic “holiday season” of consumer spending (also of love and charity) — that is, to “get you in the mood for Christmas,” and the film is judged not as a film in the traditional sense but by how well it accomplishes this unique sentimental task. It’s only in this way that “White Christmas” (1954) could be a “classic”: it’s a classic of Christmas, not of movies—and even with a genuinely wonderful yuletide comedy like “A Christmas Story,” it’s hard to imagine that it would strike a viewer who’s never experienced the holiday as a work of great cinematic art.
Other holidays have their own films—for example, Thanksgiving has “Planes, Trains, & Automobiles” and Independence Day has “Independence Day”—but they exist primarily as films in the usual sense; the holiday connection is ancillary. A recent push by New Line Cinema and Warner Bros. to create truly holiday-centric fare for secular holidays—by which I mean “Valentine’s Day” (2010) and “New Year’s Eve (2011), both directed by Garry Marshall and starring Ashton Kutcher—has resulted in two incoherent films: these are two Christmas movies (specifically, they are “Love Actually,” or at least are trying to be) that, inexplicably, are not about Christmas.
The only truly important New Year’s Eve movie is “When Harry Met Sally…”—a classic of the rom-com genre first and of New Year’s Eve second. In a story spanning more than a decade, the movie actually features only two New Year’s Eve scenes, though in memory it feels like more, and indeed my childhood conception of what New Year’s Eve is supposed to look like—a fancy party at a hotel in Manhattan, with dressed-up people dancing, drinking champagne, and ultimately singing along to “Auld Lang Syne”—was formed primarily by this film.
As it happens, this year marks the 25th anniversary of “When Harry Met Sally…,” and in a moment of weakness I re-watched it last night—possibly to prepare for New Year’s Eve or perhaps just for auld lang syne. A few thoughts:
1. Meg Ryan’s famous faked orgasm scene—by far the movie’s most indelible moment—is actually the worst scene in the movie. It isn’t remotely credible that fussy, prudish Sally would make a spectacle of herself in this way at a crowded restaurant: she’s yelling and banging on the table so loudly that some waiter probably would have called 911. If the scene nevertheless excites audiences, the thrill is erotic, not comic: it doesn’t matter so much that the performance takes place in Katz’s Delicatessen—it’s shot primarily in close-up so that all you see is Ryan’s face as she squeezes her eyes shut in passion and strokes her own neck, and because the orgasm is fake not merely according to the usual sense in which everything in movies is fake but also within the story-world of the film, the actress is allowed to perform more vividly than she would in a “real” sex scene, where audiences might begin to feel uncomfortable during a minute-long climax. They might have felt uncomfortable here, too, if not for the timely deadpan quip by the older woman at a nearby table—disarming any sexual tension, returning viewers securely to the realm of comedy.
2. It’s interesting to note how similar writer Nora Ephron’s subsequent rom-com collaborations with Meg Ryan (“Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail”) were to “When Harry Met Sally…” and yet also how much worse. All three are tributes to and interrogations of the classic Hollywood romance, whose sensibility is transported to the modern age of feminism, cynicism, and promiscuity. In “When Harry Met Sally…,” the referent is “Casablanca” (1942); in “Sleepless in Seattle,” it’s “An Affair to Remember” (1957); and in “You’ve Got Mail,” it’s “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) as well as Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” Each takes place at least partly in Manhattan. Yet one is good, and the other two are bad. What’s the difference? It could be as simple as the replacement of a distinctly Jewish comedian (Crystal, whose comic voice breathes some life into the film’s conventional moments) with a generic everyman (Tom Hanks) whose wholesome Middle American appeal was good for box office but bad for comedy—“Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail” just aren’t that funny.
3. It could also be the loss of director Rob Reiner; later on, Ephron would come to direct her own scripts. Reiner’s artistic touches here include limiting the film’s soundtrack to jazz standards and overlaying an otherwise cliché out-and-about NYC montage with softly spoken dialogue instead of a peppy tune. The shots of Manhattan are markedly graceful for a romantic comedy, even if they carry a whiff of the New York Tourism Bureau. (In the wake of “When Harry Met Sally…”—which must take some of the blame—the rom-com genre would begin a touristic Giuliani-era cleanup of Woody Allen’s already romanticized city, repopulating it with Gentiles and purifying the tap water.)
4. Meg Ryan has stereotypically 1980s “big hair,” but it actually looks nice and not terribly dated.
5. Harry’s initial thesis that “Men and women can never be friends because the sex part always gets in the way” is confirmed by the trajectory of the plot: the only way Harry and Sally can repair their relationship after they inevitably, semi-accidentally sleep together is by becoming full romantic partners. The movie introduces an intriguing “modern” concept—male-female friendship—but ultimately aligns itself, reassuringly, with “Casablanca” and every other classic Hollywood film, in which men and women are meant to fit together in a certain way, like the interlocking pieces of a mechanical puzzle, and no other.
Happy 2015, everyone! I fear I won’t be ringing in the New Year at a fancy Manhattan hotel, but I’ll try to enjoy it all the same.