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Güney reminds us that cinematic spectacle has less to do with production values than with an enthusiasm for what movies can do. One learns a similar lesson from American avant-garde filmmakers like Jack Smith and Ken Jacobs—or, for that matter, a lousy studio production like The Vow, which I was obliged to review last week. I can’t help but cringe when I see a movie abuse the wide-screen frame like The Vow does, employing a televisual language based on close-ups and two-shots and displaying no curiosity about the space around the faces. Once upon a time, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio was seen as a spectacle in and of itself; studios proudly developed their own versions of the format and branded them with names like “MetroScope,” “TohoScope,” and “SovScope.” Look at any movie shot in widescreen in its first decade of existence (it was introduced in 1953) and you’ll find few wasted inches in the compositions. You can practically feel the filmmakers' excitement in filling all the space they have to work with.
This excitement isn’t exclusive to widescreen photography. I got a similar feeling from the Güney films I saw on Saturday, and those were shot in the boxy 4:3 ratio of old TV sets. But the disappointment engendered by The Vow is exclusive to its format: watching it is a bit like seeing someone rent a stretch limo to pick up their groceries. Is it unfair to deride this movie for lack of spectacle when the ultimate point of its existence is providing a DVD menu for teenagers to disregard while they make out in their parents’ living rooms? Yes, it is unfair, so I won’t belabor the point.
If there’s anything worth getting offended over in The Vow, it’s the way the film trivializes its nominal subject of romance. I never understood why the characters played by Channing Tatum and Rachel McAdams were supposed to be made for each other. Apart from their physical attraction and sharing a certain pleasant demeanor, they didn’t seem bound by very much—which may explain why the filmmakers include so many scenes of them saying stuff like, “You must really love me, don’t you?” The film conveys their love mainly through things that they share: favorite baked goods and clothing items and a gigantic loft in the West Loop that they couldn’t possibly afford in real life (Tatum and McAdams play a recording engineer and a recent SAIC grad, for goodness sake). Their wedding vows, which we hear three times over the course of the movie, make reference to red velvet cake.The Art of Loving (1956). I’ve been pretty much cursed to do this every year since adolescence, when my social worker mother told me to read Fromm’s writings as a guide for adult life. In The Art, the social psychologist defines love as a skill that takes a lifetime to master, an ongoing challenge to one’s empathy and capacity for self-sacrifice. Fromm argued that relatively few actually become masters, as romantic love tempts people to expend their feelings exclusively on one person, curtailing their feelings for humanity in general. In defense of The Vow, the movie does show Tatum’s character learning to behave altruistically when he helps his wife regain her memory after an accident. Yet the film’s flashbacks to their marital happiness (presumably, the ideal that Tatum wants to recover) show little more than shared materialist satisfaction and a lot of moony gazing into each others’ eyes. This is precisely the sort of égoïsme à deux that Fromm warned against.
How frustrating to see such thin ideas amid such material excess—the intellectual equivalent of The Vow’s waste of widescreen.