Every year when Valentine’s Day rolls around, entertainment outlets flood their pages with lists of couple-friendly movies: romantic films to watch at home, romantic films still in theaters, even the best horror films that happen to be vaguely related to Valentine’s Day. (There are a number of reasons that list is so short.) The assumption is that on Mandated Love Day, everyone will want to be watching films about love and relationships. And we aren’t immune at The Dissolve; on Friday, we’ll be recommending streaming films about romance spanning the human lifespan, from childhood to the afterlife. And we’re working our way through a series of staff interviews discussing unusual films about love, highlighting different kinds of relationships and uncommon themes. Valentine’s Day is a great hook for talking about a specific kind of movie: the kind that theoretically brings people together.
But the dirty little secret of all these V-Day movie lists is that they’re the equivalent of throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. There is no one specific movie, or even one specific kind of movie, that brings people together. There’s no one-size-fits-all romantic film. There are boring stereotypes: Women love swoony Nicholas Sparks-style romances; men dourly put up with them to make women happy; single people hate Valentine’s Day altogether, and grumpily counterprogram against it with those V-Day-themed horror films, or with cynical or violent films. (We’re looking at you, Dissolve commenters.) Most of the standard “Films to watch for Valentine’s Day” lists play into that stock narrative, or at least acknowledge it from a different angle: Valentine’s Day Movies The Guys Won’t Mind Watching, for instance, or Best Movies To Watch If You’re Single On Valentine’s Day. But real people are more complicated than that. There’s no need to be a cliché by dutifully sitting down to Sleepless In Seattle or Titanic because they turn up on all the lists. Any movie can be a great Valentine’s Day movie, if you follow a few simple rules:
Choose the movie together. Talk about what you like, and what everyone might enjoy.
The biggest mistake in the “list of V-Day movies” idea is that a movie’s romance-ometer score is the only important metric for whether it’s a good date movie. Actually, there’s something much better for a relationship than watching a gooey movie together: Talking about whether it’d actually be fun to see a gooey movie together. Not every woman loves them; not every man hates them. But either way, there’s nothing romantic about a shared experience that one person is (or both people are!) impatiently tolerating out of a sense of propriety or obligation. The “What should we watch?” conversation can be more important for a healthy relationship—and more satisfying—than the movie-watching part itself. Especially in the early going of a relationship, discussing what to watch on a date is a fantastic way to explore each other’s interests, tastes, and limits. Picking activities together instead of forcing them on each other is an important relationship skill. So is asserting your tastes and desires without being an overbearing jerk about it. So is learning how to find compromises.
If you don’t enjoy whatever you end up watching, talk about it. If you do enjoy it, talk about that, too.
Dissolve writer Noel Murray recently challenged the rest of us to write about the first film that bonded us with our significant others. Looking at the spread of films involved in that roundup, it’s again clear that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to connecting with people through cinema. Shared enjoyment of a great film can bring people together. Laughing over a terrible film, or a horrible viewing experience, is also a great way to bond. Even a mediocre film can turn into a great conversation. One of the best uses of pop culture is to give people shared experiences that act as conversational stepping stones to bigger topics. Even the most perfect Valentine’s Day movie is wasted if you walk away from it assuming your date had the same reaction you did, and that there’s no point in talking about it further.
Learn to disagree about culture equitably, without contempt or anger.
And when a date movie is divisive, that’s fine too. Culture can, for people who respect each other’s opinions, become a relatively safe space where people in a relationship can learn to disagree. It’s hard to tell, given the level of histrionic hate speech on the Internet, but it’s actually entirely okay for people to disagree, to have different interests and tastes. It’s okay to talk about differences, and it’s important to learn how to do that respectfully, and without dismissal, rudeness, or personal judgment. Learning how well you can disagree about movies—about what to watch, about how to watch it, and about what you thought of it—is a good litmus test for learning how well your relationship will handle more serious disagreements.
Give up on the whole idea of “dealbreakers.”
Nearly everyone at The Dissolve has been in film criticism for a long time, which means years of being asked, over and over, about our “dealbreakers”—the one piece of pop culture that a potential significant other absolutely must love or absolutely must hate, or the relationship is off. But professionals don’t relate to this question particularly well, because we disagree with each other about culture all the time, and we’re used to discussing our disagreements in depth. And that’s something we wish we could share with the rest of the world. It’s certainly possible for people to have such vastly different tastes that it’s hard for them to find common ground, which can make it hard to do things together: If rule No. 1 on this list becomes impossible, if there’s no way to find a movie everyone can at least agree to try, it may be one indication of incompatibility. But fixing all your judgment of a potential partner on whether he or she likes or hates one given thing is simplifying a relationship down to a checklist. All of us have things we love that leave our partners cold. But there’s much more to a relationship than a mutual feeling about one given film.
Give up on the whole idea of “perfection,” too—in movies and in relationships.
The problem with movies about love is that they too often give people idealized, unrealizable standards: The love-at-first-sight moment, the happily-ever-after ending, the one true soulmate, the perfect couple, the perfect date. None of these ideas are particularly realistic, but cinema and the entire Romantic-Industrial Complex have a vested interest in keeping people swooning over them. Every good relationship will have many, many perfect moments, but they won’t come on a schedule, and they won’t necessarily come on Mandated Love Day. Stop worrying about finding the one perfect Valentine’s Day movie that will create the perfect date experience. There’s nothing romantic about over-romanticizing one specific day, or putting too much weight on one piece of culture. Learn to recognize the romantic potential in any shared experience—and the ways any film, like any thing, can be a useful conversational tool, a way to get to know and hopefully respect each other better.
So this Valentine’s Day, don’t focus on finding the perfect love story, or the perfect anti-love story. Share favorite movies from your past, and talk about why they were important to you, and listen to each other. Watch something wholly unpredictable, like The Nines, and talk about whether big-twist movies are thrilling or a cheat. Watch something fun and accessible like The Lego Movie and talk about the shifting line between commercials and art. Watch something weighty like Songs From The Second Floor and talk about how you interpret it and what it means as an aesthetic experience. Watch something scary, or dumb but fun, or intense and explosive, and talk about what you liked or hated. Or go ahead and re-watch Titanic, and talk about whether it connects at all to your personal ideal of romance. The important thing is: talk. Share more than just the passive viewing experience. Use movies as a path to sharing yourselves and your relationship, and any film can be the perfect Valentine’s Day film.