Faculty Opinion: What Film Romances Reveal about
Contemporary American Culture

Tom Wartenberg, professor of philosophy and film studies program chair, writes on movie romance as social criticism in this essay and his forthcoming book, Unlikely Couples.

What's really behind the film romance that captured so many Oscars this week? Thomas Wartenberg, professor of philosophy and film studies program chair, explains in a new essay. His latest book, Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism, will be published by Westview Press this summer.

Shakespeare in Love's numerous victories at the Academy Awards this year continue a trend set by last year's triumphant blockbuster, Titanic. Both films feature ill-fated, cross-class romances that take place in distant historical settings which the films recreate with exquisite care. Both the nature of the romances and the distanced settings are important in understanding what the success of these films tells us about contemporary American culture.

Shakespeare in Love invents a story about an ill-fated love affair between a young and raw Will Shakespeare and a gentlewoman above his station to explain one of the great mysteries of our culture: how could this presumably uneducated and even boorish young man become the greatest playwright the world has ever seen?

Yet at the same time that it proposes that Shakespeare's art is the immediate outcome of his life, the film does something more: it reassures Americans that our society is a decent one, for the rigid barriers that keep young Will from marrying his love, Viola De Lesseps, are no more. Although we can empathize with the suffering Will and Viola have to endure in their struggle with the prohibitions they face, the exquisite historical reconstructions of Elizabethan England remind us how far we've come. After all, the restrictions that kept young Will from finding lasting happiness with Viola are antiquated, a relic of Elizabethan England and, even, medieval Verona, but no longer applicable to our enlightened society.

A similar perspective animated last year's Titanic. Jack Dawson, a stowaway artist, and Rose DeWitt Bukater, an upper-class if impoverished young woman, find love aboard that ill-fated vessel. But the members of the upper class, especially in the persons of Cal Hockley, Rose's fiance, and Ruth DeWitt Bukater, Rose's mother, are firmly opposed to their relationship. On the surface, the film uses our empathy with the passionately in love couple to criticize the venality of the American upper-class. We remain aware, however, that the American aristocracy succumbed to the same fate as the Titanic itself: the rise of self-made Americans, of whom the Unsinkable Molly Brown is the film's stellar example, rendered the values of that class obsolete.

Thus both Shakespeare in Love and Titanic use their tales of transgressive love set at a historical distance to reassure American audiences that they live in a world that has become a kinder and gentler place. No longer are cross-class romances forbidden. Indeed, as films like Pretty Woman have suggested, this is the land of dreams.

Even as different a film as Saving Private Ryan, a war movie, not a romance, shares the project of validating America. The film harkens back to a time when moral issues were clearer, when America was on the side of the angels, fighting to uphold democracy and freedom from the onslaught of fascism. Although its gritty look at the reality of battle evoked praise from the moment of its release, the real significance of the film was its reassertion of the claims of a simple, clear moral perspective. Americans watching this film could forget about Vietnam and what that experience had meant to our country. Instead, they could reflect on the tragic costs exacted by the struggle to keep the world free from dictatorship.

The irony of all this is that Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet--Shakespeare in Love's subject and Titanic's exemplar--is not about class barriers to love, but caste barriers. The Capulets and Montagues, the two feuding families whose young lovers meet such tragic ends, are both noble houses that attempt to invest their difference from one another with social significance. Shakespeare's political sympathies are revealed by his criticism of the Prince of Verona for failing to get the two noble houses to subordinate their conflict to the greater interest of the state.

If we are looking, then, for a contemporary analogue to the conflict in medieval Verona that Shakespeare took as the subject for his play, it would not be class but race and ethnicity. Our contemporary society, our modern world, is scarred with racial and ethnic divisions that cause deep pain and suffering. Were one to really desire to understand the universality of Shakespeare's play, one does not have far to look. The world is still populated with castes or clans that see themselves as better than their Others, and that use violence to maintain their sense of superiority. Films like Jungle Fever and Broken English speak to the harm still inflicted by such differences.

But that's exactly what these Hollywood films don't want us to see and what accounts for their success. They ask us to bask in the glory of a world that no longer has the sort of barriers that faced young Will Shakespeare and that is free of the moral complexities the Vietnam War forced Americans to acknowledge, if only for a time.