Friday, January 20, 2012

Fate vs Chance: When Harry Met Sally

"You would have to spend the rest of your life knowing that someone else is married to your husband," Marie (Carrie Fisher) tells Sally (Meg Ryan) and what makes this line so funny is the inner-contradiction: if there is someone who is really Sally's husband, then Sally will be the one to marry him, not someone else; if someone else marries him, he must not have been Sally's husband. This crossing of fate vs. chance lines the dark clouds of Rob Reiner's 1989 romantic hit When Harry Met Sally which ranks #23 on the AFI's 100 Funniest Films List, so it's an important film.
But the real reason I am posting on When Harry Met Sally, is because it's one of my sister's favorite films and she asked me to post on it for her birthday. My sister is my favorite person to watch movies with because she always stops the film and turns to me and says, "What does that mean?" and she never tires of my long-winded explanations and it means the world to me when I have managed to say something that pleases her. She loves movies, and I love her. Happy birthday and all my love always!
"No, I don't like to eat in between meals," the sexual innuendos have all ready begin, because by offering Sally the fruit, Harry (Billy Crystal) is offering her "forbidden fruit" because he's all ready in a relationship with her friend. Sally not "eating in-between meals," means that she doesn't engage in sexual relationships in-between her real commitments. When Harry turns to spit out the grape seeds and he spits them onto the closed window, it graphically illustrates for us Harry's attempt to place "his seed" in her and her "obstacle" to his seed; it's okay, though, we shouldn't get too upset: displaying the genuine dynamic between them is what makes the film a classic. Without the genuine, it doesn't endure the test of time.
Many people think this conversation is what the film is really all about; I disagree, but that's pretty typical of me. What is most important about this scene is not the dialogue taking place about whether or not women and men can be friends (because it can be true for some but that doesn't mean for everyone), but that Harry is picking his teeth with a toothpick: we'll see something like this done again later in the film, but for Harry, since the mouth symbolizes the appetites, Harry picking his teeth means that he's cleaning his appetites of what they have been (Amanda) and preparing them for what he thinks they could be (spending the night in a hotel with Sally).
When they make a stop, and they are discussing Casablanca, Sally makes her point about the practicality of being the First Lady of Czechoslovakia rather than being married to Rick who owns a bar and then sprays her hair with Aqua Net hairspray, meaning, that (because hair symbolizes our thoughts) she is as "set" in her ways as Aqua Net sets hair in place (if you don't know anything about Aqua Net, you didn't live through the 80's). What's interesting about this especially, is that Sally is sitting very close to Harry in the car, she's warming to him in her own way, and that he's driving when this conversation takes place means that he's starting to dominate her and "setting" her hair is her resolution not to let him dominate her (her hair has become "loose" compared to what it was at the beginning of the trip).
This is the moment when Harry stops looking at Sally as a potential sex partner and starts understanding her as "other" because her calculations are not the kind of calculations that he makes. Sally calculates everything in terms of fairness, your share and my share; whereas Harry calculates to give himself an advantage and steer things in the course he wants life to take. Recognizing the "fairness" aspect in Sally, and that it is something that he himself values although he doesn't practice it, makes him realize that Sally herself is "fair," or attractive.
What is so important about "eating together," in any work of art, is symbolic of knowledge of the other person(s) that another character(s) is "eating up" and accepting. The way Harry orders, "I'll have the number 3," is indicative of him "taking or leaving it," i.e., he always instantly draws conclusions about what Sally does or does not say; Sally, on the other hand, always has something "on the side," which demonstrates for us that she doesn't come to her decisions about people quickly, she keeps everyone "on the side" as a point of reference, but would rather leave judgments about people open instead of deciding and being done with it, like Harry. (As they step outside the diner, there is a paper posted in the window, REWARD, LOST DOG, and because that is in the window [symbolic of reflection] that probably refers to Harry, who going with Amanda is willing to "stray from home" to find a hand-out some place else).
Harry has a baseball bat; not only is the bat a phallic symbol, but a symbol of "game" and, knowing Harry as we do, it prepares us for when he's divorced and he starts having sex with everyone woman he meets, because, to Harry, sex is a game (this is emphasized again when Jess and Harry are in the ball cage batting). Sally, on the other hand, has to shake hands with Harry as a recognition of the bond that she has made with him, in spite of herself. For Sally, this small gesture proves what we all ready know about her: emotions are everything.
By this point in the film, we have had three couples share their story with us of their love and how they came together; why is this important and how does this fit into the story of Harry and Sally? It establishes the importance of romance films, first of all, that no matter how two people fall in love, or what happens to them, our love story is basically the story of us, as individuals because no one can fall in love for us, and the love we give and receive from another is unique and singular. Love is the most individuating aspect of our lives and that's why the sharing of ourselves is a part of love, because you cannot give something that you do not have, so as love tells us who we are, and we discover who we are, we in turn give that part of our self to another in recognition that they have helped us to discover who we are.
The airport scene is well done because Joe and Sally are kissing as Harry and Amanda had been kissing in the beginning, so it's a mirror-image. Further, it shows how Sally has become at least a little like Harry (after thinking about men and women being friends, she pretty much believes he was right about that at this point) but Harry, in getting married, has become optimistic. However, Sally still calls him the "Angel of Death," because of his not taking someone to the airport. Taking someone to the airport is one of those bonding aspects of creating a foundation to the relationship, and to intentionally skip doing that is to put the "seal of death" on a relationship because, as the entire film demonstrates, no matter whose story it is, there are aspects to love that must be in place for a relationship to survive; at this stage, Harry is still under-baked.
Going from Marie's roll-a-dex file of single men to the Giants' football game means that we have stepped up our level of understanding about finding the person we are meant for: it's not a game. Marie's receipt of the $1,600 dining table means (again, please refer to the scene in the diner above) that the man she's having an affair with is "eating" with his wife, not Marie, and that's why the receipt is important, it's an accurate reflection of who he's in communion with because when Marie meets Jess (Bruno Kirby) they will be at a dining table eating together and it's a quote about places to eat that Marie mentions at the table that lets them--and the viewer--know that Marie and Jess are in communion with each other.
The scenic meal the friends have tells us also how picturesque they view love to be.
"The whole time we were happy I knew it was just an illusion and one day she would kick the shit out of me," and that's pretty much the point of Harry and Jess standing in the arena, doing the wave with the rest of the crowd, because Harry has been "going through the motions," but because, as in the airport scene, he didn't believe in doing things like taking people to the airport (he never really invested himself in the relationship) now, he discovers that there was not a relationship. Because Helen is in love with a tax accountant, we know that poetic justice has run its course: "You go to guys like Sheldon to get your taxes done or for a plumbing job, but the bump and grind isn't his area of expertise" Harry told Sally in the diner, but now, it's the "Sheldon" who has his wife.
Going back to Marie, "He just spent $120 on a new night gown for his wife," is a sigh that no one has invested in her, not monetarily, but emotionally and the money is what tangibly illustrates for us where his heart is, and Marie knows it's not with her.
What's interesting about the scene in the bookstore is that Marie, Sally and Harry are all on "a higher level of thought," regarding relationships because they are upstairs (Marie goes downstairs, to the appetites which is where she belongs right now) but the Shakespeare bookstore and the reference to the movies invokes the seeking out of wisdom on love that art provides us with. Harry, typical of him, reads a book called, What Jung Really Said and, because he is in the personal growth section, we know that for both Sally and Harry, they are trying to grow from what it is that they have learned from their experiences. Just as Harry knew his and Helen's happiness was just an illusion, so Sally realized that her and Joe's happiness was an illusion, also.
Why does Harry specifically remember Sally's full name correctly in this scene? Because he now remembers her and his experiences in life have made what Harry knows about Sally to be more important, and he knows those qualities have a name, Sally Albright. When they are later walking in the park this same day, Harry claims that he didn't really like her, but the truth is, he really thought she was dumb and naive, but he did like her; now, because he lost his wife basically for the reasons that Sally was in favor of (taking people to the airport, for example) he releases she wasn't as dumb as he thought.
It's very important, the conversation they have next, walking in the park, because it's about getting to keep the apartment and then Harry brings up going through the obituaries to find an apartment, "They should combine the real estate and obituary sections." The house (or in this case, apartment) symbolizes the soul, so keeping the apartment means that both of them (supposedly, at this point in the story) still have their self-respect and dignity in spite of their break-ups. But Harry knows that death has taken place by bringing up the obituaries because something always dies within us when a relationship has ended.
Sally being "high maintenance" corresponds with the Olympic game dream that Harry has. It's his mother, disguised as an East-German (a communist) who gives him the low-score; why? His mother taught him how to treat women better and he hasn't heeded her lessons; "Maybe it was the dismount?" which goes back to the airport scene of "How long do I have to lie here holding her before I can go? 30 seconds?"  That Harry has a dream about the "sex-Olympics" illustrates that, just as we saw Harry unpacking Sally's car with a baseball bat (sex is a game) he hasn't changed that part of him. That's why Harry understands Sally to be "high maintenance": sex is the relationship for Harry, but Sally always has other aspects of the relationship "on the side," such as the emotional and the "sharing expenses," etc., and Harry can't share himself in a relationship. Not at this point, anyway.
What does Sally's "sex fantasy" mean?
First, as she describes the dream, she's wearing a hat, which means she's "keeping a lid on it," about all the details that she's not sharing with Harry (this is the only time in the film she wears a hat) and her "keeping herself covered" juxtaposes itself to being "stripped" of all her clothes in her dream. What does that mean? Clothes symbolize who we are because clothes are a self-expression about out status in society and what we think of ourselves (but it can also mean how we hide ourselves, they can act as a facade) so Sally wants someone from whom she can't hide anything, who knows what it is she is thinking and feeling without her having to say it. Because Harry says things that forces her to think about what it is she thinks on something (topics that normally wouldn't come up with someone else) he does that for her in a way.
In the next scene, when Harry tells Sally how they are going to talk, they first "talk" about food (again, this is the sharing of knowledge about each other consistently running through the film) and the changing of the voice means the changing of how they communicate with each other: Harry no longer wants to communicate as a man and woman who are just friends, but as someone going to the movies together... but that's not going to work for Sally at this point. Although she has now taken her hat off, we know that she's still carrying it with her and Harry points out how she's dressed: layers and even a bit masculine, because he points out to her that she should wear more skirts, which she does in the next scene, Sally is going to start being more feminine.
Sally says of her first date post-Joe break-up, that the guy reaches across the table, pulls one of her hairs out of her head and begins flossing with it. Hair is the crowning beauty of a woman, and for him to start flossing with her hair (like Harry in the New York road trip picking his teeth after they leave the diner) means that this guy finds Sally attractive enough (her hair) to satisfy his appetites with her (his mouth) but we know that Sally wants a relationship.
In this scene, the day after they have their first dates, they are in Harry's barren apartment laying a new rug. Sally notices they are putting it down in the wrong direction so they have to change directions. Very aptly, this symbolizes how they are laying the foundation for their new relationship. Harry joking about the Ethiopians not having any food is really a reflection (symbolically) that there was no food during this date for him to partake of. Sally wearing the red sweater means that she's ready for love, but her dark colored skirt (it's either dark gray or black, it's hard to tell, and that's partly the point) is covering her lower regions so she's dead to the idea of sleeping with someone right now (the dark gray/black is death). Harry, wearing a white sweater means that he realizes his "strength" (the upper body) in his relationship will come from being innocent of wanting to have a relationship with Sally so he's willing to work on it (the jeans symbolize work clothes) and not go straight to bed with her.
Most people would say this is, if not the most important scene in the film, at least the most memorable.
As they are eating, again, the importance of food and taking in of the other person, Sally shows Harry what his self-centeredness and shallow attitude towards sex is doing to him. Because sex is having intercourse with someone, Harry's emphasis on the purely physical is a form of "faking" just as much as Sally's "faking" of an orgasm in public is. "I'll have what she's having," isn't funny, it's sad, because "it looks like" Sally is having a good time, but she's really proving a painful, and important point to Harry about why he's so unhappy: he never lets anyone in or truly gives himself to someone else.
The scene where Jess and Marie become interested in each other is really important because, along with all the intimate stories of how couples came together, interspersed throughout the film, this illustrates for us the role of fate; sometimes fate happens instantly and you just know about someone, like you know about a good melon, and sometimes it takes fate far longer to work, but what's important is, it is your fate and it is working in your life for your good. What is so charming about this is, after they have left the restaurant, Marie pulls Sally over to a shop window, "Oh, I've been looking for a red suede pump," and that's exactly what she has been looking for: red for the color of her passions, suede, animal skin, again is the passions and the pump is a shoe that only women wear so upon reflection (the shop window) Marie recognizes that her will (the feet symbolize the will and shoes are worn on the feet) is to be with Jess, and it's because fate has chosen correctly for her that she is uniting her will to what fate has presented for her. So, because it's Marie who always falls for someone else's husband, it's important now that Marie herself has recognized that it's not chance, but fate that brings our heart to someone.
Citing Oklahoma! is one of the many genius strokes When Harry Met Sally takes. After I have a chance to post on Oklahoma! I will link up the two films, but it would take too long here.
When Sally calls Harry and asks him to come over, Harry entering into her apartment is the most intimate intercourse the two of them could have because Sally is really letting Harry in, and Harry (after answering the phone) and saying, "I'll be right over," is understanding her pain, her intimate needs and he wants to stabilize her. This is the point that sets off the direction that the rest of their "conversions," the preparation that fate is putting them through so that they can unite their wills to what fate has prepared them for, is really taking place. Harry wants to be there for Sally because, earlier, when Harry was upset about having seen Helen, it was Sally who gave Harry the discipline ("hospital corners") he needed to get through his emotional roller-coaster; now, Harry has to be the anchor for Sally so she can go on the roller-coaster because she she understood reality to be one way (Joe didn't want to get married) but now she knows reality was something else entirely (he didn't want to marry her). Her "hospital corners" won't fit on this bed, and she needs Harry to help her put things back in order.
A kiss always symbolizes the breath of life we give to another and receive from another.
Sally lamenting that Joe just didn't want to marry her is a kind of contradiction like Marie asked her about, "knowing someone else is married to your husband," because love isn't about wanting to marry this or that person, it's about the love that waters your soul as a garden and gives our soul the life that fulfills us so we can fulfill another, the one we love and only fate knows who that person is and that uniqueness they possess that will show us the uniqueness we possess. The mystery of love and how we come to it, and it comes to us, is what we all desire, but none of us can achieve love like a job or an award, but only mysteriously. And really, that's what, not just When Harry Met Sally is about, but all great films are about.