DECEMBER 30, 2019
There are spoilers below for the movie Marriage Story, the television show Catastrophe, and the 33-year-old movie Moonstruck. If you haven’t seen Moonstruck, SNAP OUT OF IT!
Danny Aiello died this month, Christmastime, the night of the full moon. There’s a scene in the 1987 film Moonstruck — which is, not incidentally, a film about death, wintertime, and the full moon — where Aiello’s character, Johnny Cammareri, is sitting, in the middle of the night, in the home of his fiance’s mother Rose (played by Olympia Dukakis). She asks him, “Why do men chase women?” Johnny, dressed in a three-piece suit, and whispering despite the fact that everyone in the house is already awake, answers with a dramatic retelling of the story of Adam’s rib. Aiello delivers the speech gently, with the performed wisdom of a man who sincerely believes that Sunday School lessons constitute actual usable life advice when delivered to a woman 20 years his senior. He holds his soft, meaty finger up at Dukakis, as if to endeavor to hold her attention on a string.
And, as he speaks, he delicately frames the hole in Adam’s heart with his own hands on his own ribcage. He explains to her about how women complete men, how men, in chasing women, are seeking to fill “a place where there used to be something.” His hushed, dumb whisper is poignant but also hilarious when contrasted with the mix of pity and disdain and genuine, searching wisdom smeared across Olympia Dukakis’s face like cold cream. She’s frustrated with his answer, and she raises her voice at him: “Why would a man need more than one woman?!” Johnny, still rhapsodic, picks up his drink, looks off to a different reservoir of wisdom, and responds, “I don’t know. Maybe because he fears death.” Rose lights up and points a finger at him, “That’s it, that’s the reason.” It’s Rose’s answer too, and she’s delighted to hear it from Johnny’s mouth. But the punctuation mark on the exchange isn’t this recognition, it’s that Johnny doesn’t know what to do with it. Aiello plays Johnny as a large man with a large, distractible heart and a smallness of vision and care. He’s got lots of emotion but very little emotional intelligence; his brother calls him a “fool” and Rose’s husband calls him a “big baby”; one of his first lines in the film is the indelible, “a man who can’t control his woman…is funny.” He doesn’t understand that he’s hit upon an insight, that he’s said something that resonated, and that it wasn’t his yarn about the Garden of Eden. His face turns to confused anger, “I DON’T KNOW,” he shouts at her. His silken calm was suited to bland clichés; he gets pissed off when somebody tells him he might understand something about the world.
This is one of the quietest moments in Moonstruck, the best movie ever made about yelling. You might say it’s about the opera or the full moon or death or passionate love or unspoken anger or adultery or compromise or family or copper pipes, but all of those things are subordinate to the film’s formal romance with people in a room yelling at each other. In Moonstruck, sometimes people yell because they’re angry. But, sometimes, people yell because the world has been revealed to them in a new way, because love is an explosion.
I’ll say more about Moonstruck’s argument and arguments in a bit, but I’m thinking about this wonderful movie because Danny Aiello is dead, because it was recently re-released in New York, because there was a flood of lovely appreciations of it earlier this year, but also because 2019 has been quite a year for yelling. More specifically, I’m thinking about three arguments.
This winter, first of all, it has been impossible to avoid the spectacle of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson arguing, drawn from Noah Baumbach’s much-lauded film about divorce, Marriage Story. They argue in a sad apartment, and they argue on Netflix, and they argue on Twitter, then Adam Driver punches a wall. And then we argue: This is good arguing! It’s well-written and phenomenally acted, and it represents a high water-mark for these two actors and their writer-director! Or: This arguing is terrible! It’s smug, self-satisfied writing, and it represents two actors caving to their most craven and cynical actorly instincts! The scene made its way to the internet in approving posts festooned with can you believe this acting sentiment, but its easily exploitable histrionics, its tantalizingly subtitlable negative space, and the growing contrarian takes about its alleged goodness turned it inevitably meme-ward.
It’s a very good meme. Such a loud scene, with such pointed and recognizable beats, turned silent in its foursquare frame. There’s something beautiful about a meme like this on such an angry platform in such an angry and hurt and confused time. To use the meme is to both mock and own the embarrassment of these actors crying out of context. It’s to formalize the desire for this sort of catharsis while also acknowledging the anti-climax of it all, the uselessness. It’s to come to terms with the ridiculousness of necessary excesses of emotion. What do you get at the end of all that freeing honesty: a hole in the drywall. I like the meme as much if not more than I like the movie.
But I don’t think I’ve ever fully liked a Noah Baumbach movie. His sometime collaborator Wes Anderson gets tagged for being pretentious, because his movies are so precious and symmetrical and narrow. Baumbach is known for raw edges, mumbled tragedies, light hurtful punches to the mouth. And for this, I think, he’s regarded as less twee, and thus more profound, than Anderson. But the iconic moments that define this sensibility — Nicole Kidman stuck in a tree, the child of Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates smearing semen on bookshelves, basically everything that happens to Ben Stiller in Greenberg — they’re all too cute for me. They’re the inverse of Wes Anderson’s neatness; they’re messy, but fastidiously so. The messiness feels just as curated, just as much about aesthetic, as any of Anderson’s right-angle desk sets.
I bring this up because I really liked Marriage Story, but that argument scene was a great example of what I don’t like about Baumbach. Of the many memes floating around involving this film, my favorite is the tweet that proudly discovers that every pause, hesitation, and line of dialogue in the fight scene was scripted out. People dunked on this tweet of course, and, sure, it’s a bit silly. But, for a scene that was largely discussed as an example of the Cassevetian triumph of these actors’ performances, pointing out that it was very much not improvised was certainly fair. The scene feels wild and reckless and unhinged, but it’s just a scheduled release of energy. That’s, of course, what movies are, but the tension between the generic naturalism of the scene and its sheer contrivance is a lot. Think (as Esmé Weijun Wang reminds us) of the great kitchen break-up between Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. That scene is a lot, too, but the marvel of it is the inarticulateness of its characters. They say absolutely nothing but we see so much. Baumbach’s scene, which is formally very similar, couldn’t be more different in delivery. Sometimes I think what we’re identifying as *acting* between Johansson and Driver in this moment is the visible energy they’re expending trying to make such grammatically byzantine one-liners sound credible as spontaneous human speech. There’s an element of fantasy — not in terms of the emotion but in terms of its articulateness — that feels out of step with the rest of the film.
It stands out because the movie is best when it’s quiet. All the yelling here, it floats away. This famous argument is famous, maybe, because it’s such a theatrical burn-off of big emotion. It’s the easily excerptible spectacle of a movie that’s otherwise made of much less spectacular — and much more original and compelling — stuff. To its credit, the film seems to know this. The scene ends with Driver collapsed and crying, partially out of despair, but partially out of shame for having acted this way. But Baumbach wants to have it both ways: the film recognizes the stupid impotence of this sort of a fight, but it also lets us have it in case we don’t.
Not every fight scene is like that. Not every fight scene loses energy.
This year also saw the end of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s charm opus Catastrophe. For as much as I like Marriage Story, Catastrophe was a better marriage story. There’s a wonderful fight scene — Horgan and Delaney also love to yell — in the final season that feels like a good counterpoint to Baumbach’s film. Rob, who is in AA after a relapse and a car accident, realizes his wife Sharon has been following him to make sure he’s where he says he is. Rob’s furious, and the two have a screaming match in their kitchen. Sharon defends herself, and Rob bemoans his miserable life and the added indignity of being surveilled. It works up to a crescendo until Rob take a child’s yogurt pack out of the fridge. Sharon reminds him they’re for their son, Frankie. Rob, defiant, looks her straight in the eye, says, “Really, did he pay for them, or did I?” and violently slurps, leaving a yogurt moustache.
Two hulking, sensitive brutes. Adam Driver punches the wall; Rob Delaney sucks yogurt out of a cup. But, just like every joke in Catastrophe, it’s freighted with so much weight and chemistry and history. Of course, the yogurt cup is a joke. Of course it’s contrived. But there’s a weirdness and a depth to it too. In the logic of the scene, Rob grabs the yogurt cup because it would be somehow more ridiculous to punch the wall. Maybe the top layer of the joke is about Rob’s feeling of emasculation — Rob is complaining about having to go back to a job he hates in order to support the family, his wife is keeping him under surveillance, his neck is literally in a brace — but it’s also about a vision of masculinity that would never even imagine acting like one of those hulking brutes in the movies. The final season spends a lot of time thinking about Rob’s status as a “good guy” in light of his complicity with a bunch of different forms of sexism and misogyny and racism. Eating the yogurt rather than punching the wall doesn’t redeem Rob, it’s not feminist heroics. But it’s a gesture that reminds us of the genre conventions of scenes like these, the genre conventions of relationships like these, and the renewable, conscious, “good” choice to defy them. Even if it looks ridiculous. I’m a lot more moved by the yogurt than the drywall.
The final season of the show, unlike Marriage Story, is about staying together, in big and serious and silly ways. But, like Marriage Story, it’s also all suffused with this terrific sense of danger that the screaming matches both express and fail to satisfactorily dispatch. The tension never abates. Marriage Story is a horror movie about a man who is going to accidentally cut himself with a knife, but you have no idea when or how. (For those who haven’t seen the film, I mean that literally, if a bit hyperbolically.) This aspect, tricky as it is, is probably my favorite thing about the movie. The payoff, when it happens, is tremendous and surprisingly gory and genuinely funny, but there’s something really elegant, almost like a thesis statement, about having a movie about the dissolution of a marriage have this ticky-tack injury hang over it the whole time. The silence of that looming event says considerably more than anything shouted in that apartment.
Catastrophe doesn’t employ a switcheroo like that, but it is, as its title suggests, a series about the constant possibility of small catastrophes that feel larger or smaller in context: a kid smacks their head on the bathroom tile, a car runs a red light, your brother-in-law’s friend tumbles down the stairs. What if somebody does something unforgivable? What if somebody dies? The opening joke of the show is that the “catastrophe” is Rob and Sharon’s accidental relationship, but, by the end, it’s clear the catastrophe is that it might ever end. More broadly, it’s a show about two people who are in love. The drama is procedural, people live and die, cheat and stay, but the love — expressed in the astounding chemistry of its two leads — is there from the pilot episode.
But rather than resolve its tension as Baumbach does, Catastrophe — not a particularly formally daring series — ends with it suspended. On a remote beach in New England, Rob and Sharon leave their sleeping kids in the car to talk. Rob apologizes for his behavior (yelling at her earlier), and Sharon tells him she’s pregnant again. They decide to stay together, and they decide to have another kid, another adventure. Sharon, still disappointed that their planned Florida vacation had been ruined, takes off her clothes and jumps into the water. Rob follows, past a sign that warns of undertow and prohibits swimming. The camera rises to the height of the heavens to show two small vulnerable people, at swim, further out than you’d like them to be. In the distance is their car, and in it their children, alone together. Then the show ends, in hope and in danger.
It’s such a funny and artful and heartbreaking way to end this story. And it makes me think that Horgan and Delaney listened to what Johnny Cammareri and Rose Castorini said. They told us that men chase women because they fear death. But that to stay, to stay is to be unafraid of dying.
Love is confusing and incredible, and it is something that’s appropriate to yell about. Moonstruck is pitched at the volume where love occurs. Near the end of the film, Vincent Gardenia, playing Rose’s husband Cosmo says, “A man understands one day that his life is built on nothing, and that’s a sad, crazy day.” The premise of this film, and one that Rose explains to Cosmo moments later, is that nobody’s life is built on nothing. It’s only a grim, attractive nihilism that leads people to think that. It’s simpler for Cosmo to suppose that his marriage is empty rather than to deal with the complexity of it; it’s simpler for his daughter Loretta (Cher) to chase a loveless marriage for the sake of the ritual than to imagine love could exist elsewhere in a wild, unformed shape; it’s easier for Johnny’s brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to imagine that his soul was chewed up in a bread slicer along with his hand than that to imagine that he survived. But none of those things are true, and we know they’re not true because these actors get loud as hell when they figure it out.
There’s the Marriage Story drywall argument, and there’s the Catastrophe yogurt argument, but, towering above them all, the Platonic form of the cinematic argument, is the Moonstruck steak argument. Loretta has been tasked with inviting Johnny’s estranged brother Ronny to their wedding. They meet in the basement of Ronny’s bakery in a scene so strange and magical and fucked-up that is impossible to accurately summarize. Suffice it to say, Ronny tells Loretta his sad story — Johnny distracted Ronny at work, Ronny’s hand got chewed off by the bread slicer, and Ronny’s fiancée left him for another man — he threatens to kill himself, and then he and Loretta go up to his apartment to talk.
Ronny puts some opera on his hi-fi and Loretta cooks him a steak (“you’ll eat this one bloody to feed your blood”). They go back and forth over whiskey at Ronny’s kitchen table. And, then, as is often the case in this movie, a character lets loose a jaw-dropping monologue. This happens:
Loretta: That woman didn’t leave you, OK. You can’t see what you are, and I see everything… You are a wolf!… That woman was a trap for you. She caught you and you couldn’t get away. So you, you chewed off your own foot. That was the price you had to pay for your freedom… And now, now you’re afraid because you know the big part of you is a wolf that has the courage to bite off its own hand to save itself from the trap of the wrong love. That’s why there’s been no woman since that wrong woman. OK? You’re scared to death of what the wolf would do if you try and make that mistake again!
Ronny: What are you doing?
Loretta: I’m telling you your life.
Ronny: Stop it.
Ronny: Why are you marrying Johnny? He’s a fool!
Loretta: Because I have no luck.
Ronny stands up.
Ronny: He made me look the wrong way, and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way, and you could lose your whole head.
Wait a second, you might say, these lines sound very very *written* as well! Why does Moonstruck get a pass and Marriage Story doesn’t? My answer is that these characters are speaking in a kind of hallucinatory vernacular folk language. The scenes look naturalistic, the idiosyncrasies seem like they could be attributed to this very specific Italian American community or to the time or to something tethered to some reality, but the actors might as well be speaking in Shakespearean English or rhymed couplets. This movie could be occurring in 1987 in New York or 3256 on Europa. It’s magic realism.
Their voices escalate throughout the scene, and, the remainder unfolds this way (lightly edited to conform to the meme format and maintain the 180 degree rule). Play at maximum volume:
You should watch the scene if you haven’t; or rewatch it if you have. Ronny overturns the table — a gesture as clichéd as punching drywall — and then he, or Nicolas Cage, does something utterly extraordinary. He poses. He stops, flexes his body in a way that’s either seductive or painful, runs his hand through his hair, grabs Loretta and kisses her. At first, there’s a strong odor of toxic masculinity here, but, as in the scene from Catastrophe, that vision of manhood is what’s getting dispensed with. Ronny’s violence is the death spasm of a false identity he no longer has any use for, that seems so thin and cheap compared to this other thing. Later on, he says, “The past and the future is a joke to me now. I see that they’re nothing. I see they ain’t here. The only thing that’s here is you — and me.” He throws the table because space and time are collapsing for him and Loretta both.
The Moonstruck rule is that in every shot, every actor is making the strangest possible choice. It’s a film entirely composed of that last take where the actor wants to “try something.” But it’s not just quirky for the sake of it. Every character in this film is acting, performing for somebody. That bizarre pause and reset — just like Gardenia picking his ear after delivering a pick-up line or Cher slapping Cage twice, off-rhythm — is showing us a character deciding how to act.
Because Moonstruck is a film about characters understanding things about themselves and each other, these awkward moments and these unmodulated voices propel us. When Ronny ends the scene by picking Loretta up and shouting — to nobody? to God? — “SONOFABITCH,” it’s not anti-climactic. It’s not emotional burn-off. It’s revelation. It’s that thing that happens in War and Peace where a character dilates out of their physical existence and experiences the place of their lives in the scheme of world history, when they see, transcendent, as angels see. Moments later, Ronny says, “I was dead,” and Loretta replies, “Me too.” They yell not because they’re blindly searching but because they’re finding something for the first time. It’s funny because, Moonstruck thinks, moments like that maybe aren’t somber — they’re crazy, but not sad.
Catastrophe is a show about yogurt cups and neck braces and frittatas, and Marriage Story is a movie about boxcutters and Halloween costumes and drywall. Raised voices don’t always take us where we need to go. But sometimes they mark the passage. Adam Driver’s screams become a fist, and the fist does nothing; Nicolas Cage screams because it probably hurts a lot when scales fall from your eyes or when you come back from the dead. Moonstruck — from all the times I watched it with my mom as a child, to watching it whenever it was on cable TV, to streaming it online, to watching it again at midnight on Christmas eve with my partner, wrapping presents for our daughters — has been with me my whole life. It is a movie full of earned joy. Love is incredible, and that’s why films resort to convention to portray it and its dissolution credibly. I love and admire Catastrophe and Moonstruck for the degree to which they’re willing to risk that credibility to show characters coming to terms with something for which there really are no adequate terms. Watching it this Christmas Eve with her, for the millionth time with her, understanding the same small things at the same volume is what this movie does and also what it’s about. Sure, Moonstruck is a movie about death and adultery and copper pipes, but it’s also a movie about the stars, which, as Ronny says, are perfect. The stars — though they, like Betelgeuse, will explode — to us, they’re always there, quietly listening.
Celebrate Olympia Dukakis,