ONE would have to be glib indeed to draw conclusions about society at large from isolated samples of popular culture, especially when dealing with something as coy and defiant, as fond of and agile with masks, as tantalizingly close and wickedly elusive, as commonly and crazily pursued, as love. Yet given the role the movies play these days, not only in satisfying our appetite for entertainment but also in forming tastes and in supplying cultural reference points from lowbrow to highbrow, one would have to be a fool to ignore the propositions about love that emanate from the silver screen.
It is a matter of some wonder that few films have captured the American public's imagination as forcefully and lastingly as Casablanca -- for it is a peculiar sort of love story. It is not exactly a tragedy: neither Rick nor Ilsa dies, nor do fate and character flaws conspire to bring them low or destroy their love. And yet the film is certainly not a comedy either, because no storybook ending awaits the heroes, no happily-ever-after redeems their loss. Wishing to remain worthy, in each other's eyes and in their own, of the love they share, Humphrey Bogart's Rick and Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa give each other up -- he to stay in Casablanca aiding the French Resistance, she to accompany and support her husband, a dedicated and courageous man, in his work as a leader of the underground. This is hardly a Hollywood ending, yet Bogart's last words to Bergman on the runway, which seal both their love and their separation, are enshrined in the memories of generations of moviegoers. Unforgettable, too, is the concluding shot: after he has gunned down the Nazi commander, enabling the plane carrying Ilsa and her husband to depart Casablanca, Rick, with Louis the French police captain, his new friend and co-conspirator, ambles off into the night fog, no trace of a broken heart discernible in his easy stride or wry words. Indeed, these moments belong among the most beloved final scenes in the annals of American movies.
Apparently we are romantics, for Casablanca would not retain the power to make grown men and women weep and then watch it again and weep some more unless we shared a deep conviction that love and nobility are linked, that great love may summon from us monumental sacrifices -- including, when fate is especially cruel, giving up the beloved for the sake of love. Indeed, to be moved by such renunciation we must be romantics of a peculiarly enthusiastic breed.
And yet who could be less romantic than we are today? What could be more out of fashion today than renunciation? Television, along with the movies, is awash in adolescent farce, cheap vulgarity, and the feverish and calculating pursuit of casual sex. The Internet revolution and the stock-market boom enhance our already robust sense of entitlement: be a multimillionaire by the time you are twenty-five, or be a slacker or a drone. Owing in part to VCRs, the Internet, and now DVDs, pornography is flourishing as never before -- affordable, discreet, and available to almost everybody. One of the most popular sitcoms of the 1990s, Seinfeld, created a world devoid of happy couples, in which lasting love, when it came to dating and mating, seldom struck the characters as something interesting enough even to mock. Whereas in the sixties and seventies, at the dawn of the sexual revolution, radical college students referred to one of their newfound freedoms as the now quaint-sounding "making love" (a euphemism that emancipated sex from marriage but preserved its link to romance), and in the eighties we referred to "having sex" (which severed the biological drive from emotional attachment), today students adopt a mechanical metaphor, speaking of "hooking up," like railroad cars and computer docking stations (which may constitute a gain in precision, allowing for discrimination among forms of coupling). Even in Shakespeare in Love, the recent film that perhaps comes closest in spirit to Casablanca, Gwyneth Paltrow sacrifices more for her dream of acting on the all-male Elizabethan stage than for the love she finds with the struggling young playwright, and renounces her beloved -- not, as in Casablanca, embracing duty because of love, but abandoning love in deference to duty.
Of course, for every anti-romantic trend in popular culture one can point to a countertrend celebrating romantic bliss: TV shows such as Mad About You and Dharma and Greg, both about delightful young married couples whose differences and disputes always confirm their perfect fit; the titanic success of Titanic, which owed more to the fairy-tale romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet than to James Cameron's spectacular computer-generated special effects; the renewed interest in the classic courting novels of Jane Austen, reflected in the spate of film adaptations in the mid-nineties (including the clever Clueless); the abiding popularity of When Harry Met Sally..., which dramatizes the slow, fitful growth of love and marriage out of initial animosity, lingering lust, and unexpected friendship; the formulaic Harlequin romances that continue to be among the best-selling books in the United States; and the sentimental odes to broken hearts and undying love that gush forth around the clock from soft-rock and country radio stations across the nation.
But the coexistence of the countertrends alongside the trends is just the point. Apparently we are romantics. And apparently we are anti-romantics as well. Which is not to say that we have somehow, without really thinking about or even noticing it, struck a healthy balance. The competition between these impulses sows powerful confusion in our souls, not least in regard to our conduct and understanding of love and marriage.