Emily L. Stephens previously improved your Christmas movie choices and told you how to do a The Shining viewing party right.
St. Valentine’s Day is an excuse to express our most intense or obscure passions. But words can be a frail tool to capture the complications and complexities of this thing we call love: the sweet blush of infatuation, the kinship and kindness of true companions, the frenzy of unfettered lust, the torments of jealousy, betrayal, or heartbreak. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that three films set on Valentine’s Day hinge on the fragility and feebleness of words, creating worlds where meaning and reason fall apart.
Valentine’s Day is dawning over the snowy, sleepy town of Pontypool, and Mrs. French’s cat, Honey, is missing. Swaggering shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), used to stirring up trouble with hot-headed callers and hot-button hype on big-market stations, is palpably bored with this small-town news… until some big news starts trickling in. A fight turns into a riot and that riot turns into a nightmare, and Grant doesn’t know yet that he’s propelling this nightmare along with his voice, as rough and smooth as raw silk.
Despite a blizzard, the streets are filling with people. They’re babbling nonsense words, and they’re killing bystanders – even reporters. And some of them are eating human flesh.
We don’t see this. We’re in a dim, shabby basement with the skeleton staff of station CLSY: Mazzy himself, his station manager Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), and tech operator Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly). We watch it filtered through their professional skepticism as increasingly unspeakable reports come in from the field.
Distance should dull the terror, but instead it creates a terrible tension. Grant, Sydney, and Laurel-Ann spend much of the film divorced from the action, and their helplessness mirrors a horror movie audience’s passivity and impotence. They can do nothing but report the unconfirmed story, and ask each other whether it’s responsible to do that, and keep doing it anyhow…
…until another signal cuts into their broadcast with a recorded transmission in French. Grant, his voice stripped of its practiced suavity, cold-reads the translation over the air. “For your safety, please avoid contact with close family members and restrain from the following: all terms of endearment such as honey or sweetheart, talk with young children, and rhetorical discourse. For greater safety, please avoid the English language. Please do not translate this message.”
Soon, an unexpected guest, the doctor whose office was the center of an early riot, appears at the radio station to propose his unlikely idea: it’s a literal outbreak spreading through Pontypool, a virus not in their blood but in their lexicons. For each victim, a personally resonant word takes hold of the mind, wiping out rational thought and replacing it with confusion and unslakable desire to feed.
The shambling masses grow and close in, insensible and hungering for flesh. Dread shrouds the crude bunker in the basement, and any of our protagonists may be next. It’s a zombie movie, but without any actual zombies. The word zombie loses all meaning, just as the victims of this plague have lost their words… and their humanity. Pontypool is pandemonium. Community is chaos. And, as Grant Mazzy says over and over, “Kill is kiss.” And you have to hope he’s right.
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)
If Pontypool hinges on the ability of words to pierce the senses with affecting or abominable poignancy, Picnic at Hanging Rock shows us how inadequately words encompass youth’s lusty raptures. On February 14th, 1900, the schoolgirls of Appleyard College wake to exchange flowers and note and read each other poems, trying to contain their blooming passions within the rigid verses they’ve learned by rote. But even before we meet the girls, the film’s opening placard tells us that by day’s end, some of them will disappear forever.
Pay attention to that placard. It’s important, largely because it’s deceiving. All of Picnic is a deception. The first moments prime us for a collision between concrete reality and some larger, unknowable force. Over the lilt of a pan flute, a girl’s voice, just as high and piping, recites “What we see and what we seem is but a dream…a dream within a dream,” misquoting Poe’s poem to add an extra layer of dreamy distance to this fantasy.
The opening scenes are full of borrowed scripts. Before any character speaks her own words, we hear three pairs of girls reading each other excerpts from other poems, then the dreamy Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert) singing a folk song as she combs her hair. When Miranda finally turns from the mirror and speaks to her adoring classmate Sara (Margaret Nelson), the film is five minutes under way.
Miranda is the charismatic center of the film, the axis mundi around which the school revolves, and the catalyst that brings on a mysterious fate. Her schoolmistresses dote upon her, her classmates defer and appeal to her, and – perhaps most damningly for both – Sara writes poetry to her, which elicits gossip from her schoolmates and rebuke from Mrs. Appleyard (Rachel Roberts). In their restricted little realm, where the writings of established poets are both a lingua franca and an emotional currency, Sara’s ambitions are as hubristic as Victor Frankenstein’s, and like him, she will suffer for her effrontery.
Despite their flush of excitement, the students approach Hanging Rock with at least a semblance of scholarly exercise: Miranda examines flowers through a magnifying glass, Marion prepares to take measurements of the rock faces, and the less intrepid girls lounge at the base reading poetry aloud. But after an interlude, they’re mesmerized and lulled by their surroundings. The breakdown of rationality, civilization’s surrender to nature, begins here.
The rock exerts an irresistible magnetism, perhaps literally; the watches of the entire party stop dead at noon. All around Hanging Rock, sightseers slumber, lulled by nature or mesmerized by the rock’s presence. Only Miss McCraw (Vivean Gray), the reliable maths mistress, remains watchful, looking intently from the uncompromising angles of her geometry text to the massive, unreasoning face of the rock.
In the many YouTube tributes to the mysteries of Picnic at Hanging Rock, one crucial early scene remains strangely neglected – or perhaps not so strangely, since it centers not on ripe youth, but on a buttoned-up spinster. During their long carriage ride, Miss McCraw relates the geological history of Hanging Rock. As they jounce along, her tone loses its crisp didactic edge, growing first dreamy, then intense and breathy as she describes the eruptive volcanic conditions that created the rock’s jutting features.
The scene buzzes and vibrates to a weird pitch, driven by her rapt expression, the sway of the carriage, and the zeal in her voice as it lingers with almost lascivious emphasis: “Siliceous lava forced up from deep down below. Soda trachytes extruded in a highly viscous state building the steep-sided mamelons we see at Hanging Rock.” Her pinched face grows soft as she reminds her students – twice – that the million-year-old precipice is “quite a recent eruption, really.” To the fresh-faced girls, a million years (or even a schoolmarm’s 50-odd years) seems unthinkably ancient.
Against all Miss Appleyard’s warnings, Miranda explores Hanging Rock with three classmates. After dozing off on the hard ground, Miranda, Irma (Karen Robson), and Marion (Jane Vallis) arise, spellbound and silent, to ascend into the rock’s heights while their tagalong classmate – awkward, unloveable Edith (Christine Schuler) – shrieks in horror. The abashed French mistress must return to school late, bedraggled, and bearing news that three students and their chaperone have vanished.
Within the story, we are repeatedly reminded of its artificiality, its highly constructed nature. As furor builds around the disappearances, the once-sleepy site of Hanging Rock is beset by tourists, thrill-seekers, and journalists keen to sell the story – and by doing so, they change both the story and the site, as we see when a photographer directs a member of the search team posing for the camera, telling him not only where to look but how to look: “A little more expression in the face, sir.”
Reality seems out of joint. The stopped watches are only the start. Just as the schoolgirls lost track of time, so do all the visitors to the mountain, and events become jumbled. The young gentleman who was the last to see the girls as they began their trek gives a notably inconsistent account to the police. First he claims he saw three girls, then precisely recounts the passage of all four, but out of order, a surprising lapse given his voyeuristic scrutiny. Is this a guilty lie or mere muddle-headedness? Even the girls recovered from the rock claim little memory and cannot give any hint of their classmates’ fate.
Picnic’s breach in rationality extends into meta-text. Like its source novel, the film masquerades as a true story. The placard at the beginning suggests actual, factual events, but no similar incident is recorded. Even the date, so prominently noted, is false: Valentine’s Day, 1900, was a Wednesday, not a Saturday. The film simmers with hints of falsehood and fantasy.
That’s because the facts and words aren’t important; the feeling is. Picnic at Hanging Rock is about the pressure seething beneath the surface, about cloistered schoolgirls – or straitlaced schoolmarms – who wander unaware into the wilderness of their own desires, and about those left behind stewing in their imperfect sublimation. These unschooled innocents cannot not subdue the vast, implacable demands of nature.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
But nature isn’t only the external world; nature is coursing within us, not hemmed in by the rationality of words, and the unpredictable frisson of affinity and significance between kindred spirits transcends words or memory. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind opens on Valentine’s Day morning, 2004, as Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) surprises himself by ditching work to ride the train and write in his long-neglected journal. Some pages are torn out, but Joel picks up the same thread without hesitation…
… until he sees a note from Lacuna, Inc.
Lacuna, Inc., is in the lucrative business of memory modification. Using clients’ mementos and anecdotes, the technicians at Lacuna carve specific events and people out of your memory. They know the market, pulling the New Year’s bargain rate just in time for Valentine’s Day, which is – of course – their busiest season. They wipe away the pain of heartbreak, leaving only a gap. And gaps are there to be filled.
When Joel learns that his ex, Clementine (Kate Winslet), has had him erased from her memory instead of stumbling through the tedium and despair of their break-up, he retaliates in a fit of pique, but regrets it almost as soon as the procedure starts. Trapped in a drug-induced sleep, he frantically tries to signal the techs zapping his memories away, and finally takes refuge with his imagined version of Clementine as the world around them crumbles.
As Joel’s dreamscape tumbles into a vivid visual nightmare, Clementine’s waking world collapses. Patrick (Elijah Wood), the tech who wiped Clem’s memories, has stalked and seduced her, secretly employing her forgotten memories and discarded memorabilia – and later, Joel’s – to recreate their romance with himself in Joel’s place. He rifles Joel’s extensive journals to reconstruct conversations and key moments, he gives her the gift Joel bought and never delivered, he takes her to the same places and utters the same words, believing he can counterfeit the circumstances that lead to indelible love.
This chicanery is destined to fail. Love isn’t constructed out of words and gestures and gifts. Something more than conversations and fights and gestures links Clementine and Joel. As Patrick reenacts the pivotal romantic moments of her now-erased history, he evokes not the rush of ardor he expects, but a cold slide into into terror. The words resonate in the artificial emptiness created by Lacuna, Inc, setting off a landslide in Clem’s mind that can only be steadied by the bedrock of authentic emotional reality.
When words fail, when logic falls away, when we lose our sense and our stability, we can still rely upon our feelings to tell us the truth and keep us tethered to reality. And that’s what love is: a sometimes irrational, ineffable emotional reality that transcends reason and wisdom.
Emily L. Stephens is a freelance writer, archaeology student, and caterer from Portland, Maine. She writes for The A.V. Club, blogs at macbebekin, tweets as @emilyorelse, and is a founding contributor to The VideoReport.