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State of the Art

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Love’s always better if someone dies …

By Lawrence Toppman

… onscreen, that is. Or, at least, when lovers are parted by time, distance or fate.

The re-release of James Cameron’s “Titanic” Wednesday got me thinking about the greatest movie romances. Sure enough, they end not with lovers united but lovers divided.

Would we have felt the passion of Jack and Rose as deeply had they walked through life in the Vale of Happiness? Would we have embraced the Celine Dion song “My Heart Will Go On” if the title had been “Our Marriage Will Go On, Including Children”? I don’t think so.

“Gone With the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Brief Encounter,” “Wuthering Heights” – the list of memorable, ill-matched film couples stretches on and on. (And not just straight couples, either: Think of the power of “Brokeback Mountain.”)

The pictures needn’t be dramas: Woody Allen’s deepest comedy, “Annie Hall,” follows a couple whose affection for each other can’t compensate for their neuroses and differences. Nor is this strictly an English-language thing, as masterpieces from “Les Enfants du Paradis” to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” prove.

Maybe that’s because audiences see intense passions as unsustainable. If Scarlett and Rhett stay together, one will clobber the other after a few months. If Rick and Ilsa abandon Victor Laszlo to the Nazis and run away, their consciences will plague them forever. If Jack and Ennis live openly as a pair, citizens near Brokeback will hound them incessantly.

Maybe we just prefer a good cry to a warm smile. However much we beam with happiness when couples finally connect in “Sleepless in Seattle” or “When Harry Met Sally,” our feelings of joy aren’t as intense as our feelings of sadness when the soul-matched Cathy and Heathcliff part in “Wuthering Heights.” (Although, of course, death unites them, as it will Jack and Rose in “Titanic.”)

You’ll notice that a lot of these titles come from the 1930s through the 1950s, when a higher percentage of movies were made for emotionally mature people. (I could also have mentioned “From Here to Eternity,” “Citizen Kane” – which, in its own way, is a twisted love story – virtually all of film noir and even certain musicals such as “An American in Paris” and “Carousel.”)

Today, more folks buy tickets for the purest kind of mindless escapism. A few filmmakers still believe that tragedies can lift us out of our daily lives in a meaningful way, but most aim to deliver excitement as superficial as a ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl at the state fair.

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