In 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote, “The heart wants what it wants, or else it does not care,” and we’ve gone about proving this inscrutable wisdom true ever since. Each of us is a patchwork; who we think we are and what we think we want is often much more complicated than we can understand or admit. The heart wants what it wants, we joke to navigate the contradictory and inexplicable within us.
In no small way, our popular culture is how we learn to fall in love. It’s not just the impressionable age when we see John Cusack holding a boombox aloft, or Jordan Catalano moving in slow-mo to Buffalo Tom. Throughout our adult lives we are met, again and again, with images and evidence of what love is or might be.
Is romance more accurately captured by images of girls on The Bachelor hyperventilating on the floor in a bid to win true love or by husband and wife rockstars making out with each other in their music videos? Is it even possible to fully examine romance in all of its myriad forms, the sad, sexy and sublime? The long-term and the fleeting. The depressing and the awesome. How do we admit that our love lives are wild, knotted up, unknowable things? And once we’ve admitted it, how do we go about depicting or explaining the mystery?
Much has been made of the recent vampire film, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and deservedly so. Nothing in recent memory has illustrated the heart’s desires with such style, or with such a killer soundtrack. This is the love story of a feminist skateboarding vampire known as The Girl, and a sweet James Dean-esque boy named Arash, who dresses up like Dracula, but is not a vampire himself.
“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” he says when they bump into each other at night on the street, and the audience I was watching with all chuckled nervously at his obliviousness. When discussing the fact that they don’t know each other at all yet, Arash asks The Girl to name the last song she listened to. And who among us has not determined our one true love based on their record collection? The strength of the movie is that each moment offers layers of what it means to connect with one another. The silence, the danger, the intimate spaces are all keenly felt. The Girl and Arash must weigh the risks, the consequences, both of being themselves and of choosing each other.
There is something of a shared sensibility between A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Buffalo ’66, Vincent Gallo’s 1998 film about an ex-con and a ballerina falling love. Both movies have urban landscapes, which serve as desolate backdrops for the flawed lovers who exist there. Prolonged vignettes, often of dancing or singing or silence or staring, create evocative spaces. And it’s in these quiet spaces where we can concentrate on what it means to fall in love and why we even do. We are allowed to fully feel the mystery for awhile, if not to be granted any sort of lasting clarity.
A recent Modern Love column detailed the psychological study by Dr. Aron, which examined whether or not intimacy can be “accelerated” by people asking each other a series of 36 questions. These questions culminate in four minutes of looking into each other’s eyes, something that happens a lot in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Falling in love has long been considered to be part soul mate destiny, part statistical happenstance. In Dr. Aron’s questions and their seemingly magical ability to draw two people together, both fate and pragmatism co-mingle. Partly we want to know each other’s fears, and partly we want to sit and watch them flit across each other’s faces. Love might be simply creating the space in which to truly see the other person. So much of A Girl… is about this act of looking, what is hidden and revealed within it.
Our vampire girl and non-vampire boy discuss what they do and don’t know about each other late at night beside an oil refinery, where he later gifts her a pair of stolen earrings and pierces her ears so she can wear them. They’ve both done bad things, they admit. But perhaps love is possible, anyway. Dr. Aron’s study suggests that a shared sense of vulnerability plays a role in creating intimacy. Arash’s vulnerability is of course that he might be eaten alive at any moment, but The Girl’s is that she might be discovered for who she really is. These concerns are relatable.
In 40 Days of Dating, a blog project between two friends (which as of January is now a book as well), Jessica Walsh and Timothy Goodman document their experiment of dating for 40 days. Similar to the love questions experiment, this project plays with the suggestion that love and chemistry are not merely magical things outside of our control, but can be the result of conscious decisions and actions. My favorite part of the “rules” of their project was the daily questionnaire, which they both answered, and seemed to inspire a sense of objectivity and honesty. Though they didn’t end up together, the endeavor was worthwhile in terms of taking the time to examine our own inclinations and ability to create intimacy. In what ways might we take control, look more closely, attempt to understand?
The 40 Days of Dating blog states, “Love is a central theme in humanity across time and cultures. It’s one of the main topics in music, film, novels, poetry, and art. But what exactly is it, and why do we all approach it so differently? How does it affect us so deeply that sane people have gone mad over it?”
These are unanswerable questions, I suppose. It can be fun and illuminating to map and analyze the heart in as many ways as we can dream up, through vampire stories and psychological experiments, through dating our friends, and staring at each other for long periods of time. Though at the end of the staring, the experiments, and the silences, I think no one has gotten much further by way of articulating our desires than Emily Dickinson did those many years ago. The heart wants what it wants, or else it does not care.