Monday, February 07, 2005

there is no kiss

Last night I watched The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) for about the thousandth time. It is one of those films that I am compelled to watch whenever I stumble across it.

It's just lovely. The characters are fully developed, the score is suitably full of dramatic surges and over-wrought strings, and the seaside setting is simply gorgeous, even in black and white -- perhaps especially in black and white. The cast is outstanding, too: never for one minute does any doubt about the authenticity of Lucy and her Captain creep in. There is no smirking or mugging, and any scenery-chewing is rather circumspect. Everyone plays it straight and treats the material, as flimsy as it is, with great respect.

And of course, Gene Tierney is so luminescently beautiful that all she has to do is stand there and breathe to transfix an audience.

Gorgeous! (Of course she shouldn't be wearing a dead bird on her head, but it was all the rage back then.)

Yes, Gene Tierney alone is a good enough reason to watch this movie again, but what I especially like about it is the relationship between Tierney's and Harrison's characters. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is quite simple: a turn-of-the-century widow with a young daughter leaves her stuffy in-laws in London and moves out to a house ("Gull Cottage") by the sea. The house is haunted by its former owner, a sea captain, and after some initial difficulties, the two become great friends and the relationship deepens further. They are charming together because, superficially, they are working off the "opposites attract" script. Lucy is prim and proper, the Captain gruff and profane (by 1900 standards!). But the reality is that the core of the two characters is the same: they are both honest and discerning, and passionate.

Following the standard formula, having come together, the two must part, only to be reunited at the end. And so it is. But I noticed something quite striking to me last night that is different about this love story.

There is no kiss.

There are two scenes were we would expect a kiss, where, in fact, I found myself thinking, "Why doesn't he kiss her?!"

The first is when he decides he has to go, so she can get on with her life. She's asleep, and he is more or less casting a spell (or planting a post-hypnotic suggestion) that everything they've had together was just a dream. His lips are so close to hers, you think that surely he will brush them lightly, the tiniest phantom of a kiss -- but he doesn't.

The second is of course the final scene, when she has died and finally joins him across that Great Divide. He extends a hand to help her out of the chair, and she rises from her old body, young and beautiful again. If this film were being made today, they would surely embrace passionately. But they don't. Both characters are positively beaming, and the Captain says something along the lines, "Now you'll never be tired again," and they walk off, literally, into the sunset.

So, I watched last night and I realized, I wanted them to kiss, but then I realized why they didn't, and why it was so much better that they did not.

The kiss is sign of love, it's true, but it's the expression of love through physical means, a passion of the flesh. Far from being the best expression of love, a kiss is actually just the easiest way for directors to show an audience a couple's feelings for each other. But how do you convey a passion that is not of the body, but of the soul? Such a passion is not nearly as exciting to see as a mad embrace. It takes time to make such a thing believable, and it's certainly much more difficult to portray. Very few, if any, screen writers and directors bother to make the effort anymore. It's such a shame.

When we mourn someone we love who has died, it's not their kisses and embraces that we're missing the most (although missing those expressions of love is certainly legitimate.) What we miss most is the conversations we had, the understandings that passed between us, the spiritual presence that endeared them to us. Mrs. Muir and her Captain had all those things, in abundance. When they were finally together, kissing had lost all its relevance.

It's pretty obvious at this point how our culture has degraded nearly every aspect of every relationship, whether it's husband/wife, parent/child, or perhaps the relationship most fraught with potential, that we so casually describe as "friendship." This old movie appeals to me so much because of the respect it pays to all of them, and especially its recognition that the love between a man and a woman is so much more than the impulses of hormones coursing through their bodies. There is no sex after death, after all, but love endures.

I can't imagine anything like this being made now.

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