Romance feels a certain way; but it also looks a certain way. And the certain way that romance looks is, to my mind, filmic. I knew what romance looked like a long time before I knew what it felt like. It looked like long glances and serendipity, it sounded like orchestral score or indie folk rock. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to uncouple the looking from the feeling — and I’m not sure I want to?
I don’t like writing about love. I find it intimidating. There are so many voices, books, films that get between me and my own feelings. My own words seem occluded by a great cultural shadow — there is a mountain in the shape of two lovers holding hands that blocks out the sun. It has been carved – exquisitely, laboriously – by the long line of romancers that came before. Sometimes, when you crane your neck back and look up at it, you can’t see the peak. You become dizzy, disorientated.
Film is part of this dizziness.
When I was in Year 8, I asked a girl to the movies. Young men ask young women to the movies — I cannot tell you where this idea came from because it came from everywhere. From classics like Grease, from kid’s TV like the Suite Life of Zac and Cody, from all the American films that blur into one. Rom-coms have an architectural precision. There is a necessary elision required to fit all the facets of meeting someone and falling in love into a 90 minute run time. There is a precise and certain narrative architecture to the rom-com genre. Therefore, rom-com told me that taking a girl to the movies was a precise and certain activity. That’s what a date was; this is what it looked like; this is what I wanted it to look like.
I asked my mum to drop me at the local shopping centre. It echoed with the sound of shoppers walking on generic, white-speckled floors. The food court was crowded with kids buying frozen cokes from Maccas. I looked towards the escalators which lead to the dark, popcorn drenched movie complex. And I checked my phone: my “date” had cancelled. Her dad wouldn’t let her go by herself, and her older sister didn’t want to spend the afternoon babysitting.
A sense of palpable relief flowed through me. I called my mum (who was still in the car park). We got noodles from the Vietnamese deli. It was delicious. I tried (I think) to be a little upset — I was not upset at all.
And that was the last time I ever tried to go on a date with a girl.
When I think about how culture shapes perception of romance, I think about Year 8 me asking a girl to the movies. I started on a script that I had seen countless times before: all the images looked right (boy meets girl in a park, we had mutual friends, we messaged a lot), and that was all I had to go on. It looked right, so I started to perform the feeling to myself.
I’d spent my burgeoning adolescence dreaming in concert with the narratives around me. Maybe when we store daydreams and idealisations in cultural artefacts like films, those daydreams take on some of the qualities of artefacts themselves: something to be displayed in a glass case, curated alongside a polaroid, and an ivory cameo. Such artefacts can rarely handle the wear and tear of real life — frames crack, parchments tear, polaroids discolour. When “romantic” is a mode of interacting with the world, rather than a feeling, it changes how you experience the things around you.
Wittgenstein: The limits of my language are the limits of my world. The limits of my movies are the limits of my love?
That little kick in your stomach, the galvanic giddiness. These are feelings I now (indulgently) associate with a good romance plot. But they were missing for a long time. I thought people were overly obsessed with baking a b-plot romance arc into every genre of movie (action, adventure, coming-of-age) — growing up, every film seemed to require a man and a woman put their lips on each other. And I wasn’t convinced.
There’s a passage in EM Forster’s Maurice (written 1913, published 1971) where he talks about how the love between men is new; that it doesn’t have to follow convention; that it’s uncrowded by expectation; that it can be anything. I don’t think this is necessarily true, but to seventeen year-old me, it all started to make sense.
The year after I finished high school, I sent a passage from Maurice to a boy I was close friends with (I know). He became my first boyfriend.
Our relationship was infected with adolescent nostalgia. We knew the whole time that I would soon be moving from Australia to England to start university. We had decided not to do long distance. There was an urgency; we knew we needed to make something of what we had.
There’s that strange alchemical moment when you’re trying to transform your present moment into a memory, when you’re performing it for a future self who is going to look back with a quiet smile at your youthfulness and naivety. Except this time, as we played out the images we’d been handed, we found that some of them worked.
We watched coming of age films and Studio Ghibli together. We drove in my uncle’s second-hand car to the beach. We shared music driving along the highway at night. We sat by the river. And I would say clichés (to show that I thought we were above them). I’d say, faux-seriously, as I stretched out my hands in the wind: Do you ever feel truly infinite? (Parodying Emma Watson’s character from Perks of Being a Wallflower). But, in some ways, to parody is to try and be close to something. We wanted it to be like a movie, because when you’re in your first relationship, that’s all you have to compare it with.
I think I’ve become more understanding and kinder to myself about having a desire to aid moments in their creation. It is, perhaps, not inauthentic to try and mould a memory in certain ways. We’ve been given these tropes: maybe we can use them? Maybe, they can push us out of our interiority? Maybe, by occupying a space that is not our “self” we can be less self-conscious? By offering ourselves up to the common ground of the trope or cliché, we are perhaps enacting a form of communion.
Before I left to the UK, my boyfriend and I drove up a mountain to a lookout. It was a misty, cold night. We climbed over the barrier by the roadside and sat in the bushland, looking at the stars. We gave each other goodbye letters, we kissed. Then, the next day, I got on a plane to England.
It seemed fitting — just like a movie? We made ourselves fit into it: we fit ourselves into the night sky, into the pang of an ending. Sitting there, we were constantly repeating a mantra of this is it, this is it. As if reiteration was a form of inflation. As if we could grow it bigger in our minds.
When you need to mark something, when you need it to feel important, sometimes you don’t need authenticity. You don’t need a pure, individualised self — you need something above. You need ritual, you need to join the long line of romancers, you need to stand on the mountain in the shape of two lovers holding hands, and you need to briefly, beautifully feel that those hands are yours.