Time can do funny things to a story. What is at one point common knowledge becomes a quietly kept secret. Details that were at once referred to in shorthand eventually require explanation and context. It’s strange the way that can happen – the way something known to many is eventually remembered by only a few. The story hasn’t changed, and yet the ability to change it presents itself.
In SOPHIE’S CHOICE, Peter MacNicol plays Stingo, a young southern writer who makes his way to Brooklyn in post-war America in search of…something. Perhaps a story to tell, perhaps an adventure to seek. Perhaps both.
Upon his arrival in Brooklyn, he is greeted by a note left by his upstairs neighbours at the boarding house. They have heard he is a writer, and feel as though his nouveau bohemian attitude will compliment theirs nicely. Sight-unseen, they take him under their wing. “They” are Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline). Upon first meeting though, Stingo gets a stiff dose of Sophie and Nathan’s volatility. He seems erratic, she seems overmatched. However, in short order they seem to mend their fences.
Still, the delicate chemistry is clear.
As Stingo grows to know them better and burrows deeper and deeper into their good graces, he learns more and more about their checkered pasts. Neither Sophie nor Nathan is entirely who they seem to be. Nathan is less; Sophie more…and before Stingo’s time in Brooklyn is up, he will learn the truth about both.
The cold, unflinching truth.
The more time that passes, the more I realize I’m drawn to this JULES ET JIM-esque story of three loving souls in one messy moment of adoration. Perhaps I fall for it because it’s a moment inherently tied to youth, and thus a moment I have matured out of. Just as much, it’s a moment that comes when lovers are still unattached and impulsive, which again, is long behind me.
But the thing is, stories like this…or JULES ET JIM…or Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN…or CABARET…is that they aren’t about something young and impulsive. That is to say they are not just about a threesome. Instead they are about a very deep connection between three people, three people who all care about each-other. Three people who want to jump into bed together is easy enough to arrange, and not a very interesting story. But three people who touch each other’s hearts; who make a deep impression on one-another’s souls? That’s rare. It’s fleeting, it’s intense, and it’s the sort of thing that can only ever happen to us during a brief moment in early adulthood.
Most of us will never fin ourselves in such a situation – which is what makes them so compelling. But in seeing them come to life, we can feel every bit of it. We can feel the butterflies in our stomach at the best moments, and the bruising of our hearts at the worst.
Where the intense polyamory of SOPHIE’S CHOICE leaves off, its fascination with storytelling takes over.
We could be here for days just discussing the tale that Nathan spins about himself…who he claims to be and how that affects Sophie’s life, and in a way Stingo’s too. Should we be surprised when people want to paint themselves in a better light? When they want to hide the worst parts of themselves and rebrand their entire image? Wouldn’t we all take such an opportunity if we could? Maybe, but then there’s a great deal of difference between reinvention and rearranging the facts.
If the situation presents itself, why not rewrite your own back story? Perhaps there’s a way to do it without causing the sort of damage that Nathan does. Perhaps there’s a way to bury the worst parts of yourself and be a more attractive version. Or perhaps not…perhaps as Nathan proves, it’s always just lying in some fashion or another, and bound to cause heartache.
Speaking of heartache, there’s Sophie’s long confession.
Long swaths of it are told straight to camera. It’s unnerving. Meryl looks straight at us and speaks with a certain level of honesty. Have you ever shared stories after midnight with people you care about? You talk about things you don’t bring up in the harsh light of day, and you speak with a degree of truth that mixed company cannot allow. That’s what Streep brings to the scenes where she reveals what she endured during the war.
It’s almost enough to wish that we never get to see that which she describes…and instead just listen to her tell it. It’s a rare instance of wishing for “tell, don’t show”.
When I glanced at my watch and realized how little time I had left in SOPHIE’S CHOICE, I found myself struck by just how late in the game that titular “choice” happens within the narrative. If you’ve never seen the film, I won’t spoil it for you, except to say that Sophie isn’t choosing between being with Nathan or being with Stingo.
Perhaps not since A MAN ESCAPED has a film teased out a singular moment of plot, only to get to it with so little path left yet to walk. However, what struck me more than “the choice” coming to light so late in the proceedings is the way what was once an easy shorthand has dimmed back into something a new generation will not understand. Many times throughout the years, I have referred to a brutal decision as a “Sophie’s Choice”…usually with those around me shaking their heads and rolling their eyes at the big, dumb film geek they called their friend.
Now, though, I dare say a whole generation has gathered that wouldn’t understand the reference. What was once a cultural touchstone has dimmed – its stars gone on to be known for other things, its place in the canon of stories of that moment in history supplanted by other harder-hitting stories.
Try it: Ask anyone under 30 what they would do if faced with “Sophie’s Choice” and watch their eyes flicker with confusion.
That might be the most interesting takeaway from my first full experience with this fine film: That no matter how ingrained into pop culture a piece of work is…more often than not it will fade.
So enjoy your references to drinking milkshakes and returning videotapes now…
…in ten years, everybody younger than you will have no clue what you are referring to.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for January so far…
Rebecca watched THE SEVEN SAMURAI
Beatrice watched A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Courtney watched INCENDIES
Keisha also watched A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Erin watched HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY
Coog watched TAXI DRIVER
Don watched GOOD WILL HUNTING
Dell watched WILD STYLE
Anna watched HEATHERS
Jordan watched CITIZEN KANE
Jenna and Allie watched ROCKY
Ruth watched MARIE ANTOINETTE
Katie watched THE INNOCENTS
Michaël watched I WAS BORN, BUT…
Joshua watched DIAL M FOR MURDER
Andrew watched MODERN TIMES
Andy watched PICKPOCKET
Jay watched THE PRODUCERS (1967)
Chris watched WEIRD SCIENCE
Elizabeth watched THE LADY EVE
Dan watched FIRST BLOOD
Mette watched THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
Marta watched NETWORK
Brittani watched ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN
Sean Kelly watched PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Melissa watched ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL
Kristina watched 8 1/2
Kevin also watched ROCKY
Steven watched APUR SANSAR