Rambles about sentimentality and About Time

As I’ve gotten older I’ve grown more sentimental. I’ve heard that there’s a relationship between age and sentimentality. We recall more positive memories as we get older, and maybe that affects our taste in film. Over the past three or four years I have been drawn to films that deliberately resist the cynical inclination to point out that things are shit, or that they are at the very least smeared in disappointment. I am particularly drawn to the films of Richard Curtis in this regard. You probably know Curtis for Love Actually, which somehow became a controversial holiday tradition for many people. Curtis has only directed three films, but his influence as a writer is substantial.

Over the years, Curtis has had his hands in a lot of TV, namely The Black Adder and Mr. Bean, but he has also penned some of the most popular romantic comedies of the late ‘90s and early noughts: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Critics describe Curtis as a “Little Englander,” and they claim that his work is patronizingly “middle-class” (or bourgeois propaganda). As one writer put it “If Richard Curtis is brilliant at anything, it’s Upper Middle Class Lifestyle Porn.”

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Kiwi-born Curtis moved to England when he was young, and he followed the path of Grammar School to Oxford. He partnered up with Rowan Akinson, took some writing gigs, and here we are. From interviews, we know a couple of things about Curtis which might have bearing on this post. First, he sees love everywhere. I doubt it will come as a surprise that he’s not the gloomy sort. Second, he once spoke of a critical fallacy, described by Laurie Taylor (I got tired of trying to hunt down the original quote) as “the prevalent cultural idea that anything that is harsh or violent is inherently true to life, whereas anything that is warm and positive is inherently false.” Third, he thinks people prefer to write about tragedies because “they can’t get to the bottom of happiness or comedy.”

Curtis might be constructing a bit of a straw-man, to the limited extent that he is willing to defend his world-view. Many of his critics level the charge of sentimentality, which is presumably a different sort of thing than innocent warmth and positivity. Sentimentality is something to be reviled. As Oscar Wilde once put it, “A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Recently a friend expressed a similar position on About Time, regarding it as “twee anglophilia.” Twee, for those of you who don’t know, is just another way of saying something is sentimental.

For many people sentimentality is seen as a suspicious weakness. Philosopher Robert Solomon attempted a defense of sentimentality, but I’m not going to dig deep into philosophy here. There is, however, a debate going on about the merits of sentimentality as an aesthetic. Some philosophers, and a good many critics, see sentimentality as something approaching a vice. Solomon thinks a lot of philosophers are wary of emotions. That’s probably true, but most critics aren’t philosophers, and I’m not sure how dense aesthetic debates trickle down to popular culture. I will say that philosophers are much more precise about what exactly sentimentality is, while critics tend to throw the accusation around for almost anything that seems too sincere to them.

Curtis’s latest (and possibly last) film, About Time, is regarded as sentimental for a number of reasons, which I will soon discuss. The film focuses on Tim, played by Domhnall Gleeson, and his search for romantic love. The twist is that like all the males in his family, he can travel back in time. Tim mainly uses his power for good or to correct his own mistakes. As the film unfolds, it juggles between his budding relationship with Mary (Rachel McAdams) and his father (Bill Nighy). Nordling, over at AICN, found Tim’s relationship with his dad particularly touching. Then again, he has been accused of being overly sentimental. He writes, “Maybe I am an easy lay when it comes to that sort of thing in films. I cry a lot at movies. I have no regrets about it. It’s as part of me as breathing an I experience cinema on a very visceral level.” For Nordling, About Time earns its sentimentality. Curtis, he argues, doesn’t “force treacle down your throat.”

Other critics have not been so kind. Gabe Toro at The Playlist, wonders about the morality of Tim’s actions (how he uses his power), concluding that the film is About Men, “and how they devise lies in order to create the illusion that all women supposedly want to see.” Peter Travers is a bit more fair, even going so far as to say that there’s “nothing terribly wrong” with the film, but he nonetheless characterizes this “romcom” as a happy puppy, but one that he has no interest in taking home. Peter Rainer at The Christian Science Monitor, apparently sees right through the sweetness (he also uses twee as a pejorative). About Time has a creepy subtext because Tim “uses his time-travel gifts to woo an American girl without her assent.” A. O. Scott of the New York  Times opens with a weary discussion of British manhood. He regards the film as “Anglophile bat,” and ultimately self-satisfied. I read about a dozen other reviews, and they all return to the same two points: About Time is sentimental and Tim is creepy for using his powers to woo a girl. Very little has been said about the narrative structure, character development, or direction. In other words, the analysis doesn’t go deep, which is perhaps to be expected with a genre not be worthy of such attention.

Love Actually received similar reviews, and there are probably enough similarities between Curtis’s films to warrant cookie-cutter criticisms. In “Travels in Curtisland,” James Leggot describes Love Actually as the full expression of a philosophy “about love and human dependency” (p. 185). Leggot argues that Curtis’s films have triggered “epansive, and usually sniffy, analysis,” largely because of Curtis’s view of Britain and romantic attraction (p. 186). Accusations of white privilege aren’t far behind much of the poopooing of Curtis’s work. Curtis has made the mistake of wanting to tell stories about people like him.

Chuck Klosterman wrote that criticism is just veiled autobiography, and so, I wonder what critics reveal to us when they disparage (or even praise) Curtis’s work. On the more positive end of the spectrum, Kimberley Jones writes that she walked “out of the movie wanting to fall in love, hug a small child, call [her] parents, and take back the half-dozen thoughtless things [she’d] said that day.” For Gary Murray, About Time “wraps around like a warm blanket.” David Crow agrees, writing that few filmmakers “can view the everyday passions of ordinary folk with such an unending fascination and earnest optimism.”

Consider, for a moment, a filmmaker who regularly portrays all-consuming love without a sideways glance at the world. Got it? Continuing the thought experiment, ask yourself how many of those filmmakers you actually enjoy. I’m going to hazard a guess that the list is rather short. Do most attempts to convey love, optimism, and joy inevitably come across as sentimental? Is the problem the films themselves, or the audience? Some people think it’s the latter rather than the former. They wonder if the problem has less to do with sentimentality than sincerity. The New Sincerity movement has emerged in recent decades as a reaction to irony or cynicism. Richard Curtis is sometimes identified with New Sincerity cinema, but so is Wes Anderson, the only other filmmaker that I can think of who regular trades in enchantment. Anderson, however, is far more acceptable than Curtis, although I have noticed that critics have also accused him of being twee and many of Moonrise Kingdom’s detractors condemned the film as being unabashedly “white.” Jordan Schonig makes the interesting point that it’s the film’s excesses that make it a target for ideological critique. Moonrise, however, “incorporates ironic detachment,” and Curtis’s films most certainly does not. Perhaps that’s why some people can watch Wes Anderson and feel safe in their delight. Curtis doesn’t offer an escape.

Yeah, I cried a little while watching About Time.