Redefining rom-coms: Treating every day like it’s our last dance

Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - 10:41am

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Design courtesy of Mellisa Lee

In the seminal classic “Under Pressure,” David Bowie sings what is perhaps the most insightful lyric of the 20th Century:

“Love’s such an old-fashioned word and love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.” 

While it might be considered an overdramatization of what is much more often a mundane and long-winded process, Bowie’s words encapsulate that beautiful, singular emotional experience of being in love. That is the most remarkable aspect of the lyric. See, while most of the art promulgated by our mass media and prominent in our popular culture glorifies falling in love, this song extolls being in love, which is supposed to be the best part. This sets the song apart from the contemporaries we see today and gives it a unique, everlasting presence in our musical ethos.

Similarly, the film “Palm Springs” finds itself at the crossroads of a traditional Hallmark rom-com and “Groundhog Day,” yet it is best described as a treatise on being in love. This makes the movie a generation-defining experience to which everyone under 35 can relate but every American can appreciate.

In “Palm Springs,” we are thrust into a world that feels strangely familiar, given that we have experienced months of quarantine. Andy Samberg’s Nyles — boyfriend of the bride’s best friend — is living in an infinite temporal loop, experiencing the same Nov. 9 wedding over and over until one day something different finally happens; Cristin Milioti’s Sarah — sister of the bride — joins him, kicking off the real story. After the quick obligatory explanation of the loop’s “rules,” the movie ventures where no predecessor has dared. It explores the relationship between two people in a world in which literally nothing matters and, in the process, creates the most insightful perspective on romance since “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” 

This comes to fruition in the desert scene — which I highly recommend you watch before reading the remainder of this article. The pair, after getting high on mushrooms, spend a night together in the desert when Nyles explains his personal philosophy through the metaphor of a chocolate bar, essentially claiming that the past does not matter. He only cares about people’s actions in the present because everything else, the past, the future, is thin air. Then, in pushing back, Sarah reveals her past: The early divorce that scarred her, the impulsive decision-making that still haunts her and so on, which, for the first time in the movie, changes Nyles’s attitude, forcing him to briefly reevaluate his worldview. However, tellingly, Nyles cannot even remember his own past, remarking that “(this feeling) drifts away just like they all do.” Then, the two toast to “pretending not to care,” which is just about the most Gen Z response to a real emotion.

See, for Gen Z, likely the most nihilistic generation, the world of “Palm Springs” does not seem so terrible. Sure, not being able to experience the future might be difficult to reckon with, but, honestly, our world has been so crazy that having a break is appealing. Take me for example.

My life began on May 5, 2000, six months before Bush v. Gore, one year before 9/11 and three years before the invasion of Iraq. My first exposure to politics was the election of Barack Obama amid a recession that ravaged communities worldwide, including my backyard of Southeast Michigan. 

From there, life has been a constant barrage of heart-wrenching mass shootings, devastating natural disasters, increasingly dire warnings about an impending climate crisis, political scandals, gridlock and a global pandemic to top things off; so no, I need little to no drama from my personal relationships. I shiver at the mere thought of some public grand romantic gesture. I, and most of Gen Z, would prefer to just have someone stable to weather the storm beside me. That is the point of “Palm Springs”: In a world that means nothing, our interpersonal relationships mean everything.

That is why there is a newfound audience for romance movies and shows that dare to depict real life rather than the grandiose fiction of running through an airport. Instead, we propel Netflix originals like “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You” and “The Kissing Booth 2” to the top of the charts, not because the acting is amazing — it’s not — or because the lead ends up with the right guy — she doesn’t, because both John Ambrose and Marco got screwed.

We watch these movies because we love to watch broken people navigating an increasingly complex world and making human mistakes. We love to see this journey play out because it is the journey that we are on every single day. In the words of Nyles from “Palm Springs,” we are born lost, but, in each other, you are found.

Keith Johnstone can be reached at keithja@umich.edu


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