Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Thoughts on a Viewing: November 3, 2009

• As the credits roll, we are shown a map of the United States as a sort of dawn breaks, lighting the country from east to west. The maps is topographically textured, showing clearly the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains. The map also shows state borders, with each state a different color, like the map in the Baldwins' Seattle kitchen. Also, the U.S. stands alone; no Canada to the north, no Mexico to the south (interestingly, Alaska and Hawaii are not included in the map, presumably because it would have thrown off the shot's framing). The map reminds us of the great distance that will separate the film's main characters. More importantly, though, it clues in the audience that this is a story about America. The sweep of the light reminds us of the growth of the country, from east to west. The school-room quality of the map says that this is a movie about the country as we commonly understand it. It's about our commonly held ideas about America. It is a grand statement of the movie's purpose. Impressive.

• A beautiful piece of dialogue, delivered by Tom Hanks: "Look, it's Christmas. Maggie, my wife, she really did it. I mean she loved.... She made everything beautiful."
In the immediate context of the film, Sam Baldwin is referring to Maggie's enthusiasm for the holiday. "She really did it... She made everything beautiful." These lines refer, it seems, to Sam's dead wife's proficiency as a home decorator. Tom Hanks's skillful delivery, however, elevates the lines to a summation of his character's feelings for his dead wife. Masterful.

• Baseball. It's all over this movie. Part of it is, I'm sure, just another evocation of the American identity. But what else might it mean? Puzzling.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why Baltimore? Waltimore.

Those of you who have been following this blog will remember my post from May wherein I wondered why Annie Reed lives in Baltimore. You can read the post if you're interested in my thoughts, but a thoughtful reader had this to say: "My answer is, in short, Walter. The film's Baltimore is very much like Walter—fine enough, but totally dull. Is it good enough for Annie? No. Obviously not."

I have dubbed this the "Waltimore Hypothesis."

I very much appreciate the feedback of all my readers. Sometimes, as was the case with the Baltimore issues, your contribution can shed new light on a particularly troubling point of interpretation.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sam Baldwin: Architect of the Public , Architect of the Domestic

All we know about Sam Baldwin's career as an architect, prior to the events of Sleepless In Seattle, is that he designed City Plaza in Chicago (which doesn't seem to be a real place). In the course of the film, we see him at work on a house for a wealthy woman who is very particular about her party platters and has Sam redesign the kitchen and tear down walls to fit in a larger refrigerator. At the beginning of the film, we see Sam sitting at his drafting table in a high-rise office building, with a spectacular view of the Tribune Building (I think it's the Tribune Building. In any case, it's one of Chicago's magnificent pre–World War II skyscrapers). Later in the film, we see Sam at his desk in his home office; not necessarily his only office, but the movie doesn't give us any evidence that he has another office. It would make sense for the character to be an independent architect working out of the home, except when he has to visit a project site; it seems a lifestyle change that Sam would have made to allow himself more time with his son.

Daly Plaza, Chicago—Similar to the fictional City Plaza?

What a telling and poignant characterization. Sam Baldwin, the designer of grand public spaces—buildings for commerce, buildings for government, buildings for communal gatherings—has, in the wake of his wife's death, remade himself as a modest builder of homes, retreated into the domestic sphere.

The irony, of course, is that while Sam busies himself building houses for his clients, he finds difficulty creating a home for his son Jonah. He has unknowingly placed Jonah in a living situation that gives him nightmares (He dreams that their house, built on a dock on Lake Union, has flooded. Upon waking, he calls for his dead mother. Sam finds himself unable to really comfort his son, except by talking to him about his mother). Victoria, the woman Sam dates in the middle of the film, is an unsuitable match; an interior decorator for the same client Sam is working for, she seems as incapable of providing the sort of caring domestic environment Jonah requires as Sam has been (Her attempt to feed Sam and his son is met with sarcastic mocking from Jonah).

Annie Reed is the perfect mother-in-waiting. All one has to do is look at the way her Baltimore home is furnished to see that she represents a domestic ideal formed sometime in the 1950s (One is tempted to believe she inherited the apartment as-is from an older aunt). The viewer knows, from the moment we see Annie moving in her own home, that she possesses the qualities that will make her an ideal wife for Sam and, more importantly, the perfect mother for Jonah.

Annie Reed's apartment. Decorative plates on the wall, lace curtains, embroidered pillows...it's like grandma's house

After their meeting atop the Empire State Building; after Sam and Annie have married and created a loving, supportive home for Jonah; what further twists did Sam Baldwin's career take? What grand structures and edifices found their way from his drafting table to the streets of Seattle (or wherever the happy couple eventually settled)?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why Baltimore?

This question has been troubling me for some time: Of all the cities in all the world, why does Annie Reed live in Baltimore? It's a real puzzler.

I've mentioned before (and hope to elaborate on later) the film's preoccupation with a Manifest Destiny–like sweep, a great movement from the Old East to the New West. There's also the dramatic tension provided by placing Tom Hanks's and Meg Ryan's characters on opposite sides of the country, making the film's resolution that much more unlikely and that much more satisfying. Placing Hank's Baldwin in Seattle makes a lot of sense: in addition to placing him at a geographic extreme, the city's identity as a center for youth culture in the early '90s makes it a place of exile for a widowed father. He is a stranger in a strange land. Baltimore, on the other hand, is a much less obvious candidate for inclusion in the film and doesn't have any immediately discernible significance.

Sure, putting Annie in Baltimore places her on the opposite coast from Sam, but if distance were the only consideration in choosing the city, then Miami would be a much better candidate, being at an even greater geographic remove from the Emerald City. And Baltimore is an old city, in contrast to the relative newness and youthfulness of Seattle. But there are older East Coast cities.

What really puzzles me is that Baltimore lacks an immediately identifiable personality. You show New York or Chicago on screen and people have a sense—mostly just formed from other movies, but still—of what those cities are like and what they mean: their "genie-soul" as Walker Percy describes it in The Moviegoer. And Seattle was simply shorthand in the early '90s for everything that was au courant: Seattle was the '90s. But Baltimore? I imagine that when people think Baltimore, they might possibly think of crabs or an airport near D.C. What did people think of Baltimore in the '90s?

Sleepless In Seattle was released in June of 1993. Six months earlier Homicide: Life on the Streets had premiered. Both are set in Baltimore, but they may as well be set in completely different cities. Sleepless In Seattle's Baltimore is a city that means almost nothing; Homicide's Baltimore is a city that represents everything that is wrong with modern, urban America. Three years before Sleepless In Seattle, Barry Levinson's film Avalon was released. The film cast Baltimore in a reasonably favorable light, but it also made it the setting for the disintegration of the traditional American family, the loss of long-held cultural values in the face of middle-class assimilation, White Flight, and the growth of the soulless suburbs. Did anyone know what to think of Baltimore in the '90s? Does anyone now?

I can't make heads or tails of it. Maybe Maryland just has a film-friendly tax code. I hope it's something more, but I can't think of what it is. Any input is appreciated.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Stalking in Seattle?

A first-time viewer (congratulations!) was sharing her impressions of Sleepless In Seattle with me recently, and she raised an objection to Annie Reed's conduct in the film: "Isn't she kind of a stalker?"

Well, yes and no.

Yes, Annie Reed goes to some lengths to track down Sam Baldwin and his son, but I would argue that her actions only seem extreme because she has the means to conduct a more thorough search because of her profession.

At first, Annie is satisfied to write a letter to Sam and Jonah, as hundreds of women across the country have done. She throws away her letter and attempts to forget about the whole thing, but a viewing of An Affair to Remember and a conversation with her friend Becky, followed by some pier-side soul-searching (paired with Sam's dockside contemplation in a wonderful bit of editing) leave her convinced that she can't move on yet. And unlike the other women who are convinced that they are meant to be with Sam Baldwin, Annie is a reporter and knows how to track people down.

The next day at her office, she makes some phone calls to get Sam and Jonah's last name (unknown by her until this point) and searches a database of national newspapers for mentions of a Sam and Jonah Baldwin, eventually determining that Sam Baldwin is an architect who formerly lived in Chicago and who lost his wife. She then faxes a request to a detective agency in Seattle to get a photograph of Sam.

This may seem extreme, but what if Sleepless In Seattle took place in the present Google-age? It wouldn't take much work nowadays, I'm sure, for anybody to figure out Sam and Jonah's last name and to find out where they lived. Maybe ten or fifteen minutes of Googling. If the movie took place in the present day, all those women with the inclination to find out more about Sam and Jonah would have been able to. Annie's actions only seem extreme because of the limited means she had access to. Rather than searching the Internet, she had to make a few (dishonest) phone calls; rather than a Google image search, she had to call a private detective.

But is Annie's conduct a violation of Sam's privacy? This gets tricky. I'm inclined to argue that it is not. As soon as Sam agreed to be interviewed on Dr. Marcia's radio show, he became emotionally involved—even if he was unaware of this involvement—with everybody listening to the show. To some extent, a relationship was formed. It's something to think about, now that impersonal communication has become even more widespread. What sort of relationship am I establishing with the people who read this blog? To what degree am I obliged to my readers emotionally? And to what extent are they indebted to me? Once communication extends beyond the face-to-face, the directly personal, what constitutes a relationship?

These are just some more big questions that Sleepless In Seattle raises and invites us to consider.

P.S. Though I object to the following "trailer"'s disrespectful treatment of Sleepless, I recognize that it might hold some comedic value for my readers. It is for them that I include it here:

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Not About the Movies

Just a quick post here, because I have something to gripe about.

I was watching the special features on my DVD of Sleepless In Seattle recently, and included with the special features is a behind-the-scenes documentary of sorts. It's nice enough, but something about it annoyed me. Again and again, people involved with the film talked about how the movie was a celebration of movie-style love. To me, this is a gross over-simplification of the film. It cheapens the story's emotional impact and denies it the possibility of having anything meaningful to say about life as we live it.

If the movie works only because it is a celebration of love in the movies, then it's nothing more than a rehearsing of An Affair to Remember. Though Sleepless is no doubt indebted to this film, it has far more to offer than a mere repackaging of a classic love story.

I think the whole point of including the allusions and overt references to Affair is to contrast not so much the difference between movie love and real love (something that, admittedly, the film is not too concerned with), but to highlight a generational contrast. Meg Ryan was born four years after Affair was released; Tom Hanks was born a year before. Assuming the characters' ages correspond with the actors' ages, Annie and Sam are both in their mid-thirties at the time of the film. Their experience with Affair is not direct but second-hand. It is a film more of their parents' generation than their own.

Annie says while watching Affair, "That's when people knew how to be in love." Her friend Becky argues that she wants to be in love in a movie, not in real life. But the film has already given us two sets of characters who experienced a love that was if not quite as dramatic as that between Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr then at least as compelling: Annie's parents and Sam and his first wife. Annie's parents are of the World War II generation and first met at a time when Atlantic City was still a major family vacation destination. Sam and his first wife met during Jimmy Carter's administration; not a heyday of romance, to be sure, but still well before the "greed is good," Reagan-'80s and the cold practicality of the early '90s.

Both couples serve as a counterpoint to the way relationships are carried out in America in the early '90s. The film is saying that there's something wrong in the way men and women relate now; something intuitive and natural that our parents had and that we've lost. The problem, the film wants to say, is not that people don't know how to be in love like in the movies; the problem is that people in the early '90s don't know how to be in love like people in the '50s.

An Affair to Remember is a wonderful movie. But let's not allow it to limit the true value of Sleepless In Seattle.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"Sleepless" in the Second City

I was in Chicago the other weekend, and I couldn't help (who could?) but consider the city's role in Sleepless In Seattle. The Windy City may be overshadowed in the film by the titular Seattle, or Annie's hometown of Baltimore, or New York City, where everyone gets to live happily ever after. But the story begins in Chicago, and it continually returns to Chicago, checking in regularly lest it get lost. Chicago, that biggest-shouldered of cities, is Sleepless In Seattle's anchor.

The film opens with a shot of Sam and Jonah standing by a casket on a hillside, and an on-screen title tells us they are in Chicago. We hear Sam speaking to Jonah, explaining their loss, encouraging his son not to dwell on it or look for an explanation. When he finishes his speech, the camera draws back, and we are shown a gathered crowd on the other side of the grave and then the Chicago skyline in the background, a visual echo of the gravestones in the foreground. The shot conveys the isolation of Sam and Jonah in their grief, standing alone, separated from the rest of the mourners, a great distance between them and the city of Chicago, the home of their past familial contentment, now turned into nothing but a reminder of their loss.

One could chalk up Chicago's involvement in the film to some personal affection on Norah Ephron's part; she seems to like Chicago and thinks it's a good place to start a movie (When Harry Met Sally, which Ephron wrote, begins at the University of Chicago.). But I think the city has deeper significance that Ephron consciously taps into.

Chicago has historically been a transit hub; trains connecting the old East Coast to the ever-expanding western frontier had to pass through the city. It should come as no surprise, then, that the city plays the same role in Sleepless In Seattle, connecting Annie in the historic Eastern port of Baltimore with Sam in rainy Seattle, the edgy "It" city of the early '90s. The connection is not accomplished through the railroads, but through the radio.

It is through Dr. Marcia Fieldstone's radio show, broadcast live from the top of the Sears Tower, that Annie Reed first "meets" Sam Baldwin. Sam felt he had to leave Chicago after his wife's death because the city was too infused with painful memories of what he had lost. What he had lost was, in a word, love. Sam must return to Chicago, in a sense, if he is to move past his loss and regain love. Talking to Dr. Marcia in Chicago, he is able to finally acknowledge the depth of his grief. When he begins to receive letters from women across the country, including Annie, it is not insignificant that all these letters had to move through Chicago to be forwarded by Dr. Marcia's office.

One last observation about cityscape and architecture, something I may return to in a later post: Seattle is a city of isolation; Chicago is a city of integration. We are shown in the first minutes of the film Sam and Jonah's Chicago home: a charming brick townhouse, set in a row of similar structures along a tree-lined street, Jonah sitting on the front stoop, people coming and going, moving easily from the public world of the street into the private, bereaved world of the home. Contrast this with the Baldwin residence in Seattle: a floating house, clinging to the far end of a dock, jutting out into Lake Union, almost an island unto itself. The home is attractive and offers wonderul views, but it is little more than another expression of Sam Baldwin's grief. Trying to preserve some fragment of the familial bliss he had known in Chicago, Sam has chosen to isolate Jonah and himself as much as possible from anything that might threaten to intrude on his grieving.

For Sleepless In Seattle, Chicago is a sort of paradise; Seattle is little more than a sodden purgatory.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What About Walter?

While recently re-watching Sleepless In Seattle, a friend raised an objection: How can one enjoy the film when a deserving man, a kind man, by almost all standards a wonderful man like Bill Pullman's Walter is thoughtlessly tossed aside and crushed under the wheels of Meg Ryan's and Tom Hanks's barreling, destiny-fueled love locomotive? What about Walter?

Well, what about Walter?

Sure, he's a lovely man. A sensitive man. An intelligent man. And a wonderful athlete, as Meg Ryan's Annie will attest to. Sure, he's a little dull, and his jokes almost always fall flat, but isn't that endearing? His only serious flaw is his almost debilitating allergies, and you can't really hold that against him, can you.

Yes, you can, the movie would have us believe.

At the end of the film, Annie leaves Walter—a man with whom, we have been led to believe, she is completely (perhaps too?) compatible—for the possibility of a love that is exciting, instinctive, and destined, embodied in Tom Hanks's Sam. More importantly, though, she leaves Walter for the possibility of children, for the possibility of a fertile relationship, something that she and the audience understand on some level is impossible to have with Walter. Walter's a nice guy, but, when it comes right down to it, he is not a suitable baby maker.

Walter is a character with whom intimacy—emotional, but also, and more importantly, physical—is impossible. After Annie announces her engagement to Walter, and she is in the attic with her mother, trying on her grandmother's wedding dress, her mother tells the story of how she met Annie's father. There is much in the story about destiny and magic, and the audience is clued into the fact that Annie's emotional experience with Walter has thus far been far removed from her mother's experience with Annie's father. After telling her story, Annie's mother remarks, "Walter. It's quite a formal name, isn't it?" She then shares with Annie how excited she had been to make love to Annie's father, but that it took some time before "things worked like clockwork in that department." Annie informs her mother that she and Walter have already begun a physical relationship and assures her that it's going "like clockwork."

And that's the problem. Annie has decided to spend the rest of her life in a relationship that is as mechanical and predictable as a clock; a relationship with a man without a nickname. When she and Walter leave her parents' house, Annie tells Walter she loves him, then asks if anybody has ever called him anything besides Walter. He tells her no, "not even when I was a kid." Even the man's name puts up a sort of emotional barrier, preventing Annie from ever getting too close.

Later in the film, we are taken inside Annie's and Walter's bedroom and shown the "clockwork." While "Makin' Whoopie" plays in the background, Annie and Walter go through what is clearly a well-practiced routine of preparing the room for Walter to sleep in a minimum of allergy-induced discomfort. "Another season, another reason for makin' whoopie?" Not here. Not with this guy.

In a world where it's easier to be killed by a terrorist than to get married past the age of forty—as we are (incorrectly) told by more than one character in the film—people are keenly aware of their biological clocks. When Annie hears Sam and his son Jonah on the radio, she is keenly reminded of something she wants, something her parents had, and something she knows she will never have with Walter. She wants a spark, yes. She wants excitement, to be sure. But also—maybe most importantly—she wants children. Walter—as the film would have us understand in harshly evolutionary, survival-of-the-fittest terms—is not the type of man who can sire strong children; Sam Baldwin comes equipped with a son already, and offers the possibility of more children in the future.

At the end of the movie, Sam and Jonah meet Annie at the top of the Empire State Building. As the elevator doors close on the starry-eyed couple and the young boy, the audience celebrates not just the triumph of love, but the creation of a new family. We can only hope that Walter goes on to find happiness with a woman who has no interest in having children, or who, like Sam, has already done so.

I'm not saying Sleepless In Seattle's underlying themes of fertility, virility, and reproduction are what have won over fans, but I do think they make the film more interesting and deserve consideration.