by Carl Wilson
[NOTE: This post “spoils” major plot points.]
I couldn’t be less capable of forming an opinion about Sarah Polley’s recent Take This Waltz. It is set not just in Toronto but in my exact Toronto – Parkdale, Kensington Market, the Island, the airport. Call it what you want. (I know what you’re calling it.) The star, Michelle Williams, hits me emotionally on screen more than any of her contemporaries, even when she is just interacting with shafts of light (as she often does here); her romantic foils are Seth Rogan, who’s charmed me ever since Freaks and Geeks and can be enough reason to see a movie that looks unpromising, and Luke Kirby, who’s an old friend-of-friends. (The plot, boiled down to a peashoot: Williams leaves Rogan for Kirby.)
It’s a little difficult, too, living here, not to have preconceived reactions to the very idea of Sarah Polley that I wouldn’t if she were in L.A. or London. (I couldn’t make it through her last film, feeling bored, though I should try again.)
More potently it is also about the Toronto I know because it is about marriages between decent people that break up mainly because, as Sarah Silverman tells Williams in the movie, “Life has a gap in it, it just does,” and it is hard to know how large this chasm is supposed to be and which resorts to bridging or filling it are fair, reasonable or crazy ones. (It is about, in other words, How Should a Person Be?) Some friends and their friends were also on the soundtrack. And it’s titled after one of my favourite songs, more about which later.
But mainly I can’t form an opinion about it because I was crying for the entire final third of the film, almost certainly a personal Guinness Record. I cry easily at movies, which means my eyes are streaming sort of neutrally (I’m not gasping, heaving; often I’m laughing at the same time) while I continue to watch, like an android weeping over a dead electric sheep, but I don’t pretend my judgment can be fully engaged then.
I suspect the film has significant flaws, but I would have to watch it again to articulate them … aside from the sex montage with the two threesomes – one MMF and one FFM, too symmetrical, too concerned with what it might have said to pick one or another, which contributes to the way we fail to get any sense of the second relationship compared to the first, except that there is sex finally, and in a ravishing loft space that those characters could not realistically afford.
That’s broadly a legitimate choice, but its execution seems representative of what the movie doesn’t quite achieve. It feels more like Seth Rogan’s character’s paranoid fantasy of what would be happening (cf. John Cusack in High Fidelity: “No woman in the history of the world is having better sex than the sex you are having with Ian in my head”). Although of course early-relationship sex can in fact be amazing.
But there’s one thing I can judge, which is that Take This Waltz makes the best use of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” in the history of that song, if we discount (as we must) its literal, legendary use as the shot-across-the-bow first video on MTV in 1981.
The other music in the movie is indie twee, though not bad. I loved the Feist cover of “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen (which features Afie and Jason from Bahamas and Mike from Zeus) in the fraught party scene, thinking in that moment that it would be so smart if the movie didn’t include any other Leonard Cohen, especially not the title song. Then that song shows up in the sex montage, and it’s all but awful there, way too weighty, with its double-barreled Cohen/Lorca imagery and lush continental tune, for the scene.
“Video Killed the Radio Star” comes up twice: First, it plays while Williams and Kirby are on an illicit date at Centre Island, on an amusement-park ride, the Scrambler, that they choose ostensibly because it goes “so fast” that they won’t be able to do anything inadvisable, a ridiculous rationalization (yeah, being on a tilt-a-whirl, thrown against each other involuntarily by the force of gravity – no one’s used that metaphor for love ever). There the song is all momentum, giddiness and dreamlike tacky-innocent nostalgia, which is what “Radio Star” typically represents in movies, TV shows or real-life dance parties.
But then it comes back at the movie’s end, when Williams is unsure, half-regretful, over her choices, but also stuck with them, and perhaps content to be. On one level, a conventional flashback – remember the Scrambler, when none of this was real yet and therefore thrilling but also as safe as a stupid old 80s song? Now that’s gone. Nostalgia has lost its innocence, and so is doubled.
Yet of course that rhymes perfectly with the lyrics of the song: “We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far.” And so the the film and the song begin singing questions into each other’s mouths: When we move from one love to another, is it as shallow a difference as that from one delivery method for the three-minute rush of a pop song (or of sex, of a moment of affection, of a good teasing joke that makes the world warmer) to another?
Adam Phillips, in his book, Monogamy: “For the monogamist the thought of infidelity is the secular equivalent of the afterlife. It is the thought of something infinitely better or infinitely worse: something perhaps one has to earn; a blackmail of sorts. Certainly something for the future. But then what no one ever dared think about the afterlife was that it might be exactly the same as this one.”
The Buggles: “Pictures came and broke your heart/ Put the blame on VTR” (video tape recorder).
Did the eclipse of radio by video really remake the musical/media world? For the better or the worse? The joke “Internet killed the video star” has been made many times, framing this within a shift we tend to count as more profound. But perhaps video did have that impact. We came to relate to music through a different scrim after that, one with less mystery, just as the invention of the rock star had altered that balance decades before. Indeed, from the Residents through Jandek and the Weeknd, there’s a recurring counterreaction, artists set upon stripping away visual and biographical cues, restoring mystique to music and therefore in a sense its freedom. (Who would fantasize about fucking Jandek? Someone, surely.)
In our personal lives, as in our pop-culture lives, we don’t know the answers to any of these questions beyond knee-jerk opinions. Everything takes on a cast of inevitability, and so we rationalize in reverse to say that the way things went was how they had to go: Who could have known that a high-speed tilt-a-whirl would be so arousing?
There is a more compelling logic, it seems, in technological change than in personal change, though it’s still open to critique: Read thinkers like the Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul on techne, or Ivan Illich, not to mention environmentalism generally – are we as a species unable to take any other forks in the road than we do? Are we unable to think preventively, and should we? (Put another way: Does free will exist?)
Now reflect that back on the intimate version: Are we unable to do anything else with the ebb of passion than to surrender to the next flow, at least without a social support system that integrates love, and our impulses around it, into a more finely tuned ecology? The downtown-urban life, so pleasurable in so much of this movie, lacks a lot of the traditional embeddings of long-term monogamy, such as the extended family. The movie is careful to show that Rogan’s and Williams’s marriage does have a reinforcing network – though notably, that it is more his than hers, and it is called into existence at gatherings, on special occasions, not so much in the neighbourhood, the day-to-day battleground where magnetic temptation may be just across the street.
A chance meeting on a trip, on a plane, can be more powerful than the bonds of five years – at least in a life in which five years at once feels like a long time and can be compressed by the magic of traumatic transition into a forgettable moment.
Further, can these modes, of sequential passions versus long-lasting loves, somehow coexist, or must they be engines of mutual destruction? And is that dilemma different for men and women? The movie is serious about that.
Phillips again: “For some of us – perhaps the fortunate, or at least the affluent – monogamy is the only serious philosophical question.” That might be the bigger definition of what’s wrong with Take This Waltz. But there is a broader question, implicit in “… Radio Star”, about why people who have so much are so inclined to stop wanting it, to be driven to replace it. These are intractable issues about the persistence of hungers, of shortsightedness, of how much humanity can change. If we cannot find balance in these close-up interactions, with people we understand, can we find it between nations and peoples? Or can distance be the saving grace?
Apparently the lyrics of “Video Killed the Radio Star” were sparked by a J.G. Ballard story in which an opera singer is found hiding in a sewer by a mute boy, in a world in which music has been abolished. That expands what Trevor Horn, in his casual pop-culture tone, is asking: Does video conquering radio mean music itself vanishes? Without marriage, is there love? Like the boy in Ballard’s story, as a viewer in tears I was in a sense mute, unable to join Take This Waltz in duet. Or in a deeper critique.
I knew the injudicious weeping was going to happen when I watched this movie. For that reason I put it off for a few weeks, and waited till I had the right person (who was also of course the wrong person) to watch it with me. When we go into relationships, or enter optimistically into new eras of innovation, don’t we know, really, what is going to happen, at least if we are not kids anymore? (Williams’s character here is about to turn 30.) Yet we “lie awake, intent on tuning in on you,” as the Buggles sing. (I don’t think my viewing companion ever cried.)
We are the creatures, as Cohen has it, of “this waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz” – hear him sing it four times, not the musically symmetrical three, always waltzing one time too many – with “its very own breath, of brandy and death, dragging its tail in the sea.” Does this stale heady air belong to the waltz itself, or to our own mortal, social, erotic myopia, or is it even possible to tell the waltzer from the waltz? What a relief, then, whatever the case may be, to give in, to give it away. “It’s yours now, it’s all that there is.”