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.