Although there are as many ways to love as there are people to do the loving, we are trained from an early age to value the pair-bond above all else. The tension and release of romantic love (and its loss) powers everything. By the time we’re old enough to question a system that teaches us to pour all of our goodness and rottenness into one other person, pop music and cinema and parents and poetry have already primed our hearts to accept nothing less than the redemptive love of a soul mate.
There is grace in the love between friends. There is power in the love between comrades. There is release in the love of a god. These kinds of love often flow more freely than romantic love, but it is the wicked pain and sublime surrender of romance we long for on lonely nights.
Romantic love is too often experienced as a realm of scarcity, a delimited zone with rules about who we should love and how we should love and when we should love. When we enter this realm, we find bigots who want to police certain kinds of love. We find idealists who refuse to negotiate terms. We find myth masquerading as truth. If we are lucky, we also… find someone cool there.
The best documentaries about love and romance zero in on the conflicts that flare up when we enter this fraught land, when we discover it is not a province of total freedom but yet another long and treacherous path to it, when we realize that love is really, really hard work.
Love Versus the World
Love and desire can be staging grounds for war–battlefields on which patriarchy and white supremacy fight to maintain power and control. In his peerless 1989 documentary Tongues Untied (which aired on POV on PBS), Marlon Riggs orchestrates a soaring chorus of voices and images that lay bare the mechanisms of fetishization and demonization that have tried to keep black gay men silent, invisible and shamed. It is a film fueled by pain and its conquering, a love letter to black men who love black men in a world bent on denying the truth and beauty of such love, and it is among the greatest documentaries of the 20th century.
Nancy Buirski’s The Loving Story (2011) is not as formally daring as Riggs’ landmark film, but it is essential viewing. Arrested in 1958 for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, Richard and Mildred Loving spent the next nine years fighting their case. In 1967, Loving v. Virginia made it to the Supreme Court, which found such laws unconstitutional. Buirski’s film is an infuriating document of our country’s shame, and a vital reminder that anyone who cherishes “sanctity” or “purity” is an enemy not only of love but of humanity.
[Available via HBO Go and HBO Now, and for rent on various streaming services]
After the Honeymoon
We all crave the rush of being swept away by love. It is a truly glorious feeling, even when we know it is bad for us. And much of the time it’s not even really love, but lust that is destined to fade into a more modest kind of desire. The real hard work of love lies ahead. This can be a difficult transition for people hooked on the highs and lows of delirious romance, but partnering up for the long haul can be just as thrilling and weird as any torrid, short-lived affair.
Michael Apted, a skilled examiner of the ordinary, explores that most conventional of human arrangements in Married in America (2002-2007), a made-for-TV documentary series that follows various couples as they navigate the twists and turns of wedded bliss and boredom. Like Apted’s Up Series, the two installments of Married in America proceed as a sort of time-lapse view of human development, and watching them back-to-back illuminates the absurdity of a contract that pairs two constantly evolving people for life.
If Married in America contains a lesson, it is this: each of us will be altered by time in different and unforeseeable ways, and if you’re undergoing those changes with a life partner, you will find that love is just a substitute word for grace and courage and patience.
More on Married in America here:
Chris & Don: A Love Story, which recounts the thirty years shared by writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy, offers compelling evidence that shacking up doesn’t mean settling down. Guido Santi and Tina Mascara’s film is a map for future lovers, as it guides us through the scrapes and tangles of a relationship that never stopped expanding and contracting to accommodate the changing needs of two people who were as committed to their own personal development as they were attentive to the demands of their dyad. Would that we could all be so lucky.
[Available on Fandor, Amazon Prime and iTunes]
Every relationship is at least in part a preparation for severance. Whether through death or some less dramatic mode of departure, you and the person you are with will one day part. It may be a time to wallow, but that pain can be transmuted into something wonderful. Just such an alchemical act was conceived and performed by Marina Abramovic and her partner-collaborator Ulay to commemorate their break-up.
In 1988, having lived and worked together for over a decade, Abramovic and Ulay split up, but not before staging a final creative coup: starting from opposite ends, they walked the entire length of the Great Wall of China and met in the middle. This meeting would also be their goodbye. Murray Grigor’s The Great Wall: Lovers at the Brink is a necessarily meandering film—it’s a movie about walking, after all—but the long journey is worth the last few minutes, when the epic scope of the artists’ project shrinks to inches and finally collapses into a final embrace. [Note: This lovely film only seems to be available as a sort of bootleggy YouTube video but seek it out if you can.]
This has been a rather dour trip down lover’s lane. The predilections of this writer might have something to do with it, but it’s also the nature of documentaries to focus on the jagged edges of a subject.
Let us then end with unbridled pleasure and joy via Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1965; available on Vimeo if you want to track it down there). An abstract collage film documenting Schneemann and her partner making love, Schneemann’s revered (and NSFW) experimental work is one of the greatest cinematic renderings of sex. In 22 silent minutes, Schneemann captures the ecstasy of physical love–the warmth and gentleness, the dissolving of forms, the radical and overpowering intimacy. Sex is not always like that.
Romantic love is definitely not always like that. But sometimes it is. And maybe sometimes is plenty.
Chris Stamm lives in Portland, Oregon. He is a stay-at-home parent and freelance writer. He mostly writes about punk rock for the Portland Mercury.