Filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub once said “there is no such thing as film history”. Films only really exist as we watch them, as we play back the footage. If there is no motion, a film becomes miniature photographs or coding. A film in motion transcends the information of period and persons inherent in a picture, becoming, through duration, story, place, form, and characters. Film is an apparatus of world building. Repeat viewings of a film often yield new insights as contexts change, as the film moves beyond its moment of conception. So why measure a films existence exclusively in terms of that moment of conception? What a film says changes over time even if its parts remain the same. Do we place films in history or do we place history into our films?
I saw Nora Ephron’s Sleepless In Seattle (1993) for what may be the fiftieth time on Sunday, but it was the first time I have seen it in a theater on the “big screen”. With a film like Sleepless In Seattle, seldom written about but forever discussed, one doesn’t expect the film to escape its moment of release as if it were trapped in a cage of nostalgia, but Ephron’s sensibilities allow the film a whimsical transcendence, much like Lubitsch, with all of its charm and romance in tact. This prejudice against the seriousness with which one can view and study a romantic comedy or “chick-flick” has more to do with the patriarchal nature of Hollywood than with the film itself (an issue Ephron addresses playfully in her film with the comparison of The Dirty Dozen to An Affair To Remember). Does no one else see the brilliance of You’ve Got Mail?
Now consider if Sleepless In Seattle had Walter, the Bill Pullman character, as its protagonist. The film would be drastically different; a study of the emotional strife of infidelity. Ephron celebrates this infidelity, making Sleepless In Seattle rather unique. Walter, the character Meg Ryan (Annie) leaves for Tom Hanks (Sam), isn’t the kind of villain one is accustomed to in this narrative structure. Walter is not a figure of oppression, cruelty, or insincerity, he’s just a bit of a dork. And Ryan’s infidelity isn’t physical, it is emotional, but with a euphoria and ambition that sets her character apart from figures like those in the “classic” films about infidelity, Rohmer’s Love In The Afternoon (1972) or Fassbinder’s The Merchant Of Four Seasons (1971). This renders her treatment of Walter as somewhat charming and almost inoffensive.
Celebrating infidelity in Sleepless In Seattle seems to be a kind of closure to an arc in Ephron’s work; an antithesis to Mike Nichols’ Heartburn (1986) which Ephron scripted and is based upon her book. Infidelity in Sleepless In Seattle is a means of escape, as in Heartburn, but this time the escape is a rapturous event not a devastating one.
Since romantic comedies are inevitably about a “coupling off” the strength of films within this genre is largely measured in how uniquely this inevitable plot point is carried off. Ephron’s genius is surely for dialogue, but also in how she manifests the internal distance between denial and realization within her characters in their physical world, which, in Sleepless In Seattle, is the distance between Baltimore and Seattle. The motif of maps in this film, and the casual inquiries characters make about different locations of cities reinforce this structure and help to suggest how ignorant the characters (as well as the audience) are of their world at large.
If we can see a film removed from its moment of release, be it 1993 or 1923, what new meanings does that film take on? I wish I had seen Sleepless In Seattle with someone who had never seen it before to hear what their take-away would have been. Having not seen the film myself in years, and experiencing it in a theater for the first time, I found that for the first time I was engaging Sleepless In Seattle with a critical mind. As evidenced above, Sleepless In Seattle deserves to live, to be seen and remembered.