When Harry Met Sally

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By James Bowman

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This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I presented a series called Isn’t It Romantic? Romance at the Movies, 1934-1989 at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details). The eighth and final film in the series was When Harry Met Sally . . . (1989), by Rob Reiner, shown on August 5th. Before the screening, I spoke as follows:

And so at last we come to the end of our eight weeks and eight movies on the theme of love and romance. But before we do, I just want to say a heartfelt thank you to Amy and Leon Kass for their invaluable help with the series and for doing such a fine job of guiding us through hours of serious discussion of love, romance and marriage, subjects on which they may be the nearest thing there are to acknowledged experts. Thanks, too, to Schuyler Smith, Sylvia Travaglione, Adam Keiper and the interns of the Ethics and Public Policy Center for setting up and cleaning up and dealing with the technical arrangements every week, and to a donor who wishes to remain anonymous for underwriting the cost of the series, including the pizza and popcorn and candy and sodas which have made it so pleasant for all of us. Ed Whelan has asked me to remind everyone that EPPC is grateful, too, to those who help support our general operations.

Tonight’s film, When Harry Met Sally, was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner and was released in 1989, when it seemed to many to be little more than a kinder, gentler version of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall of more than a decade before, which we saw last week. Caryn James, who reviewed Harry in The New York Times, said that it was “often funny but amazingly hollow” and “like a sitcom with too much canned laughter” mainly, we gather, because of this quality of seeming like a Woody Allen imitation:

Mr. Allen (she wrote) can get away with such a rarefied vision because, as he put it in Manhattan: “He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion.” Gently mocking his own romanticism, Mr. Allen gives his films depth and a believable, astringent undertone. But Mr. Reiner has a simple faith in fated love, which makes his film cute and sentimental rather than romantic and charming. When Harry Met Sally . . . is like the sitcom version of a Woody Allen film, full of amusing lines and scenes, all infused with an uncomfortable sense of déj vu.

I think that the problem is not that the movie is trying and failing to look like a Woody Allen movie but that it is trying and not quite succeeding at looking like the old-fashioned romantic comedy that both it and Annie Hall are playing off. As I understand her, all that Miss James is really objecting to is the fact that, unlike its supposed model, When Harry Met Sally has a happy ending. If the boy gets the girl, as he does in your standard issue romantic comedy — and as he does in all but one of the films we saw from before the sexual revolution — that indicates to her “a simple faith in fated love” and, therefore, sentimentality. If he doesn’t, as in Annie Hall, that equals believability and astringency, the two qualities that she seems to prefer. Interestingly, in the first draft of Nora Ephron’s screenplay, the boy didn’t get the girl. Rob Reiner changed the ending from sad to happy because, he says, it felt right that way — also, perhaps, because it was commercially preferable — but does that necessarily indicate “a simple faith in fated love”?

Whatever else it may be, the movie does seem to be a self-conscious rejoinder to Woody Allen. Those of you who were here last week for Annie Hall will certainly recognize some similarities with that film, including some of Meg Ryan’s outfits and a wise-cracking Jewish comic as its principal male protagonist. The central thematic role of the song “It Had to be You,” which I mentioned last week, is also repeated here, only without the ironic edge it has in Annie Hall. In fact, the song is used as a kind of Wagnerian leitmotif, popping up again and again to remind us of the film’s romantic promise — or perhaps its “simple faith in fated love” — at key moments from the main title sequence to the first blossoming of the friendship between Harry and Sally to the moment when the friendship turns sexual to Harry’s climactic New Year’s eve decision. That, by the way, along with “Auld Lang Syne,” also provides a link to An Affair to Remember and The Apartment, whose midnight sprint through the streets of New York by Shirley MacLaine is quoted directly.

Most importantly, however, Rob Reiner’s and Nora Ephron’s interest is the same as Woody Allen’s: that is, in the relationship between love and friendship. Looked at in this way, Caryn James’s verdict on the film might appear to be exactly the reverse of the truth, since Annie Hall ends with a comforting statement of love’s interchangeability with friendship and a sentimental portrait of the one’s being transmuted into the other while When Harry Met Sally gives us a far edgier and not at all sentimental vindication of Harry’s initial view that friendship between men and women which is uncomplicated by sexual anxiety and desire is impossible. The film doesn’t quite strike us in this way, however, because of the emotional force created by a traditional romantic-comedy ending — something that Caryn James is far from being the only one to think of in these post-revolutionary days as a sentimental cop-out. Mr Reiner further sugars his concoction with other love-songs from the old days, before the sexual revolution, and with those documentary-style interviews with old married couples who testify to the validity of the romantic, “It had to be you” scenario in their lives.

Their age, like that of the songs, is significant. Both provide the movie’s vital link to a time before the revolution when the idea of an accommodation between sex and friendship would never have occurred to anyone, and when romance was all that the popular culture afforded with which to dignify the biological imperative. Really, the film’s various tethers to the old pop-cultural dispensation are there as its way of insisting that romance can survive even the existence of the new alternative to it, which I’m told that young people today refer to by the euphemism of “friendship with benefits.” That seems to be what Harry is referring to in the film when he wonders: “Maybe you get to a certain point in a relationship when it’s just too late to have sex.” In other words, by refraining from it up until that point, he and Sally seem to have created a situation where there is nothing left to fill in the gap between a purely platonic relationship and old fashioned romance. It’s understandable, then, that opting for romance in these circumstances looks like the sentimental choice.

One of the classic episodes of “Seinfeld” has Jerry initiating a sexual relationship with a girl just by going with the flow and allowing himself to follow where she leads. The next thing he knows, she is proposing a weekend in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, which is something generally acknowledged on the Upper West Side to betoken a serious “relationship.” Anxiously, Jerry says to George and Elaine, “I think by sleeping with her, I might have sent her the wrong message.” Back in the 1990s, that was a funny line because people still had memories of a time when sexual intercourse was a very big deal, a matter (it would not be too much to say) of momentous, even cosmic import. I wonder if it will continue to be funny much longer. It sometimes seems to me that we are already getting close to the point at which the idea of sex as recreation is the default position, and people will no longer even understand the old-fashioned way of looking at it
– which is another way of calling it “sentimental,” as Caryn James does.

And yet I’m not sure that we will ever be quite free of the suspicion that there is something disreputable and sordid about the whole idea of “dating” as it has been understood since the 1970s — that is, of trying on sexual relationships until we find one that seems to fit better than the rest. When Harry Met Sally makes reference to this lingering suspicion in the famous line of Carrie Fisher’s when she says to her new husband, played by Bruno Kirby: “Tell me I”ll never have to be out there again.” Out there, of course, means out in the dating scene, displayed like a piece of meat on a butcher’s hook or — better, perhaps — a small animal in a shelter hoping to look cuddly enough that someone will want to take her home. There is something deeply shaming about this, particularly for women, but it seems taken for granted on every side that they must remain helpless participants in the sexual economy as it existed then and still exists today because the alternative of chastity or continence would be regarded as a massive setback for feminist and progressive ideas, a return to the bad old days of sexual shame and oppressive moralism and the notorious “double standard.”

Without those things, however, sex takes over everything. It is the crassness of Harry’s analysis of Casablanca which reduces it to a question, for Ingrid Bergman, of “great sex” with Humphrey Bogart that leads to his suggestion that Sally has not known “great sex.” And this, in turn, is what leads to the central tenet of the film: that men and women cannot be friends. The unspoken part of that proposition, which seems to be borne out by the ending of the film, is that men and women cannot be friends in the post-revolutionary social environment and sexual marketplace. It is the possibility of sex without commitment which spoils the possibility of other kinds of relationships. You could compare it to the incest taboo, because the possibility of the one kind of love would drive out the possibility of the more delicate other — the powerful erotic driving out the filial or fraternal or paternal. So too, the powerful erotic will see off the possibility of mere friendship. Sally says to Harry the second time they meet: “You look like a normal person, but you are the Angel of Death,” and in a way this is true. He is the Angel of Death because he holds up the sword of erotic potentiality to kill all other kinds of potential relationships.

Having raised this spectre, however, the movie then retreats from it. Harry is supposed to have “grown” and left behind his more robust view of male-female relations. He and Sally become friends after all, and all would be well without the “mistake” which allows their relationship to become — briefly — sexual and so to spoil the friendship. Yet this turns out to be a necessary stage on the way to a traditional romantic dénouement: love, we are meant to understand, equals friendship plus sex. It all seems too easy and rather a vindication of Caryn James’s view of the movie as merely “sentimental” and “cute.” It’s not that Rob Reiner “has a simple faith in fated love,” however. Rather, it is that fate here is different from what we find in such fatalistic romances as An Affair to Remember. The comic inevitability with which the friends, Harry and Sally, eventually become lovers hardly deserves the name at all. Fate should not be so warm and cozy and benevolent; it is frightening and destructive and unpredictable by us. We have no control over it and are rightly frightened of what it can do to us.

In fact, you could say that the warm-fuzzies elicited in When Harry met Sally are really a kind of anti-fate, a triumph of fantasy over fate. Things were always bound to turn out all right, as we instinctively recognize from the start. Truly fatalistic romances rarely give you that feeling. On the contrary, their hallmark, even when they have happy endings, is that we only just made it by the skin of our teeth. Fate, which was threatening and which may be expected to follow through on its threats, has miraculously turned out to be benign after all. You don’t get that sense from When Harry Met Sally, which comes out of a world that would think it quite wrong for fate — or God — to threaten people. Bad Fate! Bad God! If you’re going to do that, we’re not going to believe in you anymore, so there! We can’t help knowing from the start that it’s all going to come out all right, which is why Rob Reiner had to change the ending. The movie is our self-reassurance that God and Fate are really our friends who would never do anything to harm us.

That’s also the point of the interviews with the old couples. See? Everything turned out all right for these people. That’s what we should all be entitled to expect from our “relationships” — which were once impossible without the divine sanction of marriage. But these old people, like the old music which dominates the sound-track also convey another message, and perhaps one that was not intended. It is that romance, after the sexual revolution, is something that belongs to the past, to the old way of doing things. Our nostalgia for it smoothly transitions into a wish-fulfilment fantasy: a fantasy that the sexual revolution really hasn’t changed things as, in our more hard-headed moments, we know it has.

That’s the realization implicit in the line which produces the movie’s other romance — Bruno Kirby’s own line repeated back to him again by Carrie Fisher which wins his heart: “Restaurants are to the people of the ’80s what theatre was to the people of the ’60s.” This is still true in the “noughties,” and part of the reason is that the sexual revolution has robbed the theatre, like the movies, of one of its two greatest subjects. The other was accounted for by the breakdown of the honor culture that last year’s film series dealt with. Henceforth, heroism would be merely cartoonish and romance would be reduced to sex farce or buddy picture. We might be entertained by such stuff, but we can no longer be expected to take it as seriously as, say, top-drawer cookery.

But the rest of the movie is designed to hide from us this melancholy truth: the truth, that is, that the world has changed utterly. We’re still living in what appears to be the same country as we were before the revolution, and Hollywood is still the center of the American film industry. Its movies and TV shows still help to set the tone for what is glamorous and fashionable, in clothes and styles as in customs and opinions. The stars are still a sort of American aristocracy, and they still get together once a year for an orgy of self-congratulation on Oscar night. But beneath all the surface similarities, we’re living in a different world and a different culture. Most of the movies we’ve seen this summer could never be made today — indeed, they could never be conceived of today. The best we can hope for is the kind of pastiche represented by When Harry Met Sally. But maybe we can agree that that’s not nothing.

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