Love, Failure & Scarves

musicandlyricsI recently knitted a scarf for my partner. I chose really lovely wool for it, so soft it feels like its melting between your fingers, and the colour brings out the hazy grey-blue horizon of his eyes.

It’s also awful.

Like … really bad.

And that’s not just English self-deprecation. That is fair and open acknowledgement that what I created – after hours of incompetent labour – is a pile of arse.

But he wears it. Doggedly, valiantly, unremittingly he wears it. I watch his long fingers moving against the wool as he tenderly wraps it round his neck each morning.

This thing that looks like somebody has painfully vomited up some strings of yarn.

At first, I was ashamed. I would actually beg him not to put it on in public. Because I would imagine people in the street staring at this handsome man as he strides about his business, and thinking “HOLY SHIT WHAT’S THAT DEAD THING DOING ROUND HIS NECK!?”

But then I realised that what was going on here was a disconnect we would never reconcile. Because what I see when I look at the scarf is my own utter failure at knitting.  And what he sees is something his adoring, occasionally incompetent partner made for him. And consequently is fundamentally unable to recognise it sucks.

And now when I imagine people in the street staring at him, swathed about in a home-made monstrosity, I hope what they think is: “He must really love someone.”

My favourite romcom is Music & Lyrics, which is a rather overlooked (and, in my opinion, rather underrated) little film, but it wasn’t until Scarfgate that I really got to thinking about why it resonated so deeply with me. I just assumed I had weird taste. The movie stars Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore: he’s Alex, an 80s pop icon, fallen into obscurity, and she’s Sophie, a quirky romcom heroine. Okay, that’s not entirely fair but I feel the main reason Music & Lyrics isn’t better loved is its incredibly disengaging opening, in which Drew Barrymore turns up to water Hugh Grant’s plants, is adorably eccentric for no reason and then runs away. We later learn that she’s kind of in emotional hiding after an affair with her creative writing teacher went horribly wrong, and he wrote a bestselling book in which he portrayed her as some kind of talentless sex vixen.

But once the film settles down, and lets us actually get to know the characters, it becomes pretty clear that what they have in common is that they’ve both been terribly hurt, and they perceive themselves as having failed pretty hard at the thing they thought they were supposed to be doing. Following the breakup of his band, Pop, Alex released one disastrous solo album:

It sold only 50,000 copies, most of those to my mother. To cut a long story short, I gave up trying to write, lost an incredible amount of money and then my apartment. Chris stuck by me, booked me an ’80s reunion night, and suddenly, they liked me again. It was weird. It was like I’d never been away. The audience was a tad older, as was I, but we were very, very profoundly happy to see each other again.

Meanwhile, Sophie is working at her sister’s weight reduction company, writing only the occasional slogan, taking odd jobs (like watering plants, apparently) and haunted by every cruel thing her teacher wrote about her.

At the point they meet, Alex has been hired by Cora Corman – a Britney-esque teenage pop idol and fan of Alex’s old group – to write a song called Way Back into Love, which is exactly the sort of comeback he needs to be relevant again. He and Sophie ended up collaborating. There is love, conflict, and a happy ending. Also songs, most of them homages to the trashiest, most gleeful sort of pop music, whatever the era. And Hayley Bennett as Cora, who has lines like: “I want to show you the roof. It’s upstairs!” To be absolutely honest, Grant and Barrymore don’t have much natural chemistry, but they’re good enough at this acting thing that is their job, that the film romps along regardless. It’s sweet and funny and basically harmless.

But it’s also rather melancholy, and touched by a surprising sort of rueful gentleness when it comes to dealing with the way life just sometimes kicks you hard in the bollocks. Interestingly, neither Sophie or Alex have changed much by the end of the film. They’re the same people, their dreams aren’t suddenly fulfilled. He doesn’t get an artistic comeback.  She doesn’t become a bestselling novelist. They do embark on a satisfying, joint career as moderately successful songwriters but it’s a noticeably different ending to anything they might have imagined, or chosen, for themselves. All that’s really happened over the course of the film is that they’ve taught each other self-acceptance.

Happiness is, after all, basically learning to live with yourself. And love is perhaps the kindest mirror of all: one that only ever reflects the best of you. Not because it doesn’t see the worst, but because it doesn’t care.

And what I find most interesting about Music & Lyrics is the way it consistently rejects the expectation of triumph that is a staple of most romantic comedies. The moment in Pretty Woman where Vivian, radiant and stunningly dressed, weighed down with bags, walks into the shop that wouldn’t serve her and tells them: “Big mistake. Big. Huge.” And the assistants look suitably devastated as she glides out of there. I think this is a fairly common fantasy for anyone, even outside of the world of romantic comedies.  I know I’ve daydreamed about laying some sort of epic smackdown on people who have been horrid to me. But the problem with this sort of fantasy – perfectly understandable and acceptable though it is – is the locus of power never really shifts: you don’t really reclaim power, you just validate that it was taken. It’s still as much about the person who hurt you, as it is about you.

And Music & Lyrics understands that. It explores not only how difficult it would be to actually fulfil such a fantasy, but how meaningless it would be. My favourite scene in the whole movie comes just after Alex and Sophie have successfully sold their version of A Way Back Into Love to Cora, and have gone out with two old friends of Alex’s to celebrate. They’re exhausted and scruffy, but happy. And then, of course, Sophie’s old teacher – Sloan Cates – comes into the restaurant. Sophie is completely underdone and runs to hide in the bathroom. Alex, eventually, goes after her and Sophie tells him how she’s been dreaming about confronting Sloan for a year. She’s got a speech prepared and everything:

Sloan, even though Sally Michaels only lives on paper, I live in the world. And I can never forgive you for using me as raw material to create a fictional monster. Sally Michaels is my own personal ghost, a shadow hanging over each phone call and cup of iced tea. And one cold day, when age has robbed your mind of its fertile phrases and your hand of its dexterity, all the success won’t be able to shield you from the pain you’ve caused and the shame you deserve.

But, of course, she also recognises that she can’t actually say it to him, because, well, you couldn’t, and she’s suddenly left dealing with the very hard truth that one of our major defence mechanisms against pain and humiliation (getting revenge later) is actually an illusion. Of course, Alex encourages her to confront Sloan anyway because that’s the story we’re all led to expect and hope for when someone we care about has been hurt or ill-treated. So they end up cleaning Sophie up and borrowing a red dress from Alex’s friend, so that she looks absolutely stunning – just as a heroine on the brink of a moment of triumph should – when she finally exits the bathroom.

She approaches Sloan and he greets her as if she was any other old acquaintance which renders her completely speechless. The conversation lurches on agonisingly with Sloan utterly in control, and effortlessly urbane, Sophie stammering and Alex ineptly trying to boast on her behalf about the song she’s just written. Eventually Alex tries to deliver Sophie’s speech for her but, barely a line in, a waiter comes over to tell Sloan his table is ready, and he excuses himself by saying: “It’s great seeing you. Let’s get together, okay?” Leaving Sophie devastated, not just at her own failure to actually confront the man who destroyed her, but at his utter carelessness of the fact he did.

She just wants to go home, but Alex won’t let it rest. He chases after Sloan and tries to convince him to let Sophie say what she needs to say to him. But Sloan is utterly unrepentant: “I know what she came here to say, okay. Some sad little story about how I ruined her life.” Which leads Alex to get into a short-lived physical confrontation with the guy which ends in an absolutely mortifying, face in the butter defeat. It’s hilarious and tragically bathetic at the same time.

So, Sophie and Alex go home. Laugh a little, comfort each other, and end up having sex.

What I love about this little scene is the way it punctures every single genre expectation we have. Sophie does everything right: she’s got the dress, and the speech, but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. And Sloan isn’t even particularly evil, he just doesn’t give a toss. Which, I guess, is its own evil. Meanwhile Alex completely fails to live up to the designated romantic hero role: he fails to empower Sophie and then to defend her honour. He even loses a fight with another man.

But here’s the important thing: none of it matters.  Sophie doesn’t need a moment of triumph, any more than Alex needs to give her one. Because they’re already falling in love, and their shared present is becoming more important to them than their individual pasts.  The thing is, failure is just something that happens to us sometimes. Love can’t fix that or redeem it. But it can change the way we look at it. The film ends with Alex performing a song he’s written for Sophie called Don’t Write Me Off. It’s not a very good song, but the whole point is that it doesn’t have to be because failures and setbacks and not being very good at something are only insurmountable if people give up on you.

And on that note, I’m off to knit poor old H a jumper.

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20 Responses to Love, Failure & Scarves

  1. Anne says:

    Oh Alexis, how I have MISSED your articles! YAY, he’s back!!!!
    I loved this piece. I actually have this movie, it was given to me as a gift and I only watched it once, missing all of the little subtle wonderfulness you mention here. Now I need to go watch it again.
    Just finished Iron and Velvet over the weekend too! So much wonderful creative imagination going on there. I really enjoyed the journey.
    Muah muah!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Aww, thank you. It’s nice to be, err, babbling again. I actually wrote this in December but I messed up the scheduling so that’s why I was quiet for ages.

      I’ve watched it … an embarrassing number of times … so I’m not sure if there is actually subtle wonderfulness going on there or just the reflection of my own preoccupations :)

      And Hugh Grants’ hips are weirdly distracting so I can see how other things got lost. Definitely not a sentence I ever thought I’d write.

      So glad you enjoyed I&V – it’s ridiculously fun to write in a “throw everything squidgy at the wall” kind of way :)

  2. Audra North says:

    This post makes me so joyful. I love that your love is warm and memorable.

    I’ve never heard of this film but now it’s on my to-watch list. Also, I would love to see a photo of the scarf.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’ll tweet you a snap of the current project – it’s actually even worse. It’s meant to be bedsocks but it looks like an elephant’s trunk warmer. In maroon.

      I’m so happy you enjoyed the post.

      “Warm and memorable” is way better than “incompetent and embarrassing” which is the other way of looking at it ;)

  3. Ruthie Knox says:

    This is a delightful description of a film, and now I want to see it. But even more, I want to sit here and be a little misty about this bit: “Because they’re already falling in love, and their shared present is becoming more important to them than their individual pasts. The thing is, failure is just something that happens to us sometimes. Love can’t fix that or redeem it. But it can change the way we look at it. The film ends with Alex performing a song he’s written for Sophie called Don’t Write Me Off. It’s not a very good song, but the whole point is that it doesn’t have to be because failures and setbacks and not being very good at something are only insurmountable if people give up on you.”


    • Alexis Hall says:

      It’s one of my favourite afternoon movies – the sort of thing that you watch almost because you know it to death and back, so that it just feels like a bit of yourself, like a toe or something. That sounded less weird in my head.

      I hope it’s worth the watch. I’ve lost any ability I ever had to be objective about it because of the toe thing – I’m slightly surprised by how many people don’t rate it at all though. Makes me sad.

  4. This movie is a favorite of mine for the reasons you discuss here — that it portrays all of these secret and shared fantasies. Not glorious fantasies, but daydreamy ones.

    Like, the fantasy of someone who’s hurt you suddenly understanding the precise nature of the hurt, and so in that empathy, feeling remorse.

    Or the fantasy of stumbling onto some gift you never knew or understood that you had, and having this gift immediately called to arms.

    The fantasy of joyful collaboration.

    Of someone sticking up for you, when you have been misunderstood for so long.

    I feel that these, like you say, are such ordinary human fantasies that they are hardly mentioned — they are fantasies that we worry when we have been hurt, and feel like we have nothing to offer, are lonely, and have no one coming to your defense. These ordinary fantasies, themselves, are *almost enough* to make us feel better for the ordinary hurts.

    Except, in this movie, the fantasies are realized, even if their realization is sometimes as a tangly homemade scarf. I feel like this movie, for all that it romps, has this way of quietly peering into our little healing daydreams and making us feel good by showing us how they might look.

    That the ultimate argument is, as you say, a statement about what love is, which is the total love and recognition of the person you are, right this minute, makes it so much better.

    Though it also adds another little fantasy to the list, right? To take part in that kind of love.

    I’m so glad you talked about this movie. I love what you’ve shared about it.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you :) I’m glad other people like this movie too – it was starting to feel that maybe it was only me.

      But, yes, you’re right, the way it engages with ideas about and representations of fantasy is incredibly warming, and comforting somehow.

      I have absolutely no problem with trope-driven media. but while I deeply love romcoms, I think it can be quite problematic sometimes certain types of fantasy become … standardised, I guess? Like the *way* you triumph over somebody who has been mean to you. Or *how* you become a better, happier person etc. etc. I guess to put it another way what counts as success and and what love is supposed to do, and be.

      And, as you say, M&L reworks a lot of this – it’s offering the same hopes (I don’t like the word fantasy, really – wanting to fall in love with a human and find happiness, or explore the way such an event might occurs isn’t a fantasy, it’s … being alive) but in a way that feels … I guess … attainable, in all its messiness.

      So you don’t have to wear a red dress and be sassy at your ex-partner – you can just find someone, and be yourself with them, and share things with them that’s … enough.

      *dissolves into pile of mush*

      *exits (squelchily) pursued by a (confused) bear*

      • Shaheen says:

        “I don’t like the word fantasy, really – wanting to fall in love with a human and find happiness, or explore the way such an event might occurs isn’t a fantasy, it’s … being alive.”

        This is the loveliest description of romance I have ever read. I have completely dissolved into a puddle of mush.

  5. It’s back! I read this one when it accidentally posted last month and had all kinds of thoughts, but then it disappeared.

    My favorite romances have always been a bit off the , for many of the reasons you talk about, and for others. None of which I can apparently think of at the moment.

    In 1990 my late-teen self watched a VHS of “Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael” over and over. This one has more teen angst than is comfortable to watch as an adult, but all of the dreams/fantasies are unfulfilled in the ways the characters want them to be. It’s through those failures that they figure out what they actually need.

    Here is the trailer:

    • “off the ,” –nice one Cherri. Very cogent.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Sorry, it was my fault – I ballsed up the scheduling and accidentally nearly posted myself over AJ and then Ruth tried to rescue me and … it all went wrong from there :)

      I think “off the [blank]” is perfectly cogent. I tend to like things that are the off the ; as well. I think it’s just because while all have similar hopes and dreams and fears, and they can be addressed by a wide of texts and individuals, they’re personalised in odd ways, and so things that *do* connect on that personal level, as well as the general “well, yes, it would be nice if somebody loved / I was totally famous” tend to hook into us, and stay hooked.

      I have never seen that, despite my perpetual weakness of 80s teenflicks. Also Winona Ryder was so deliciously odd, and slightly fierce, when she was younger. I kind of miss her.

      • AJ Cousins says:

        You can post yourself over me anytime. ;)

        I’m just sitting here a little choked up because this post is pretty much the summary of all my hard-earned wisdom in life up until now. When I was 20, I wanted to change the world. When I was 30, I wanted my success to glitter and sparkle so bright you could see it from space. Now I’m 42 and although I still lurch into those old feelings from time to time, I have also learned about the warm glow of being *content*.

        I would never have said that I wanted a small life, but I’ve come to realize that keeping my overhead low is something that makes life easier not just financially, but emotionally too. God, this sounds depressing. But really, I like it. The value I find in not constantly hunting for blinding joy, but instead being happy with my day-to-day small pleasures and sweet moments, is immense.

        I feel like this was terribly inarticulate, but thank you for your post. It makes me feel validated and, content or not, that still feels good. :)

  6. Cristi says:

    Aww…I loved this movie. I can’t say I noticed all these things in it but the awkwardness was so sweet. They didn’t have to be perfect because they just fit together. Also, music.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I overthink things. It’s a thing I do.

      To be honest “They didn’t have to be perfect because they just fit together” kind of covers what it took me something like eight hundred words to say :P

      And, yes, the music is awesome – I do actually *cough* own the soundtrack. It’s just so affectionately parodic.

  7. Tradermare says:

    I’d totally forgotten about this movie until I read this post. Loved this movie. That final scene is just wonderful, as Hugh Grant really puts himself out there to show Drew how he feels about her. And your scarf story…. well, now I understand better why my hubby won’t let me delete from his ipod the awful song I wrote and had to sing for a class I took last summer! :)

  8. Kaetrin says:

    I love this movie! I have it on DVD and I’ve watched it a few times (not quite as many times as you) as well as seeing at the cinema first. (I believe I even convinced hubs to see that one with me and we bonded over the bad 80’s pop.)
    I love romcoms and I love singing (and dancing) movies so it’s kind of the perfect fit for me.

    I, too, would like to see a picture of the scarf. I love that H wears it so happily. Sometimes people who love us see beauty in us (and our creations) that we cannot see ourselves. They’re kind of good to keep around :)

  9. sofia says:

    Missed you, glad you are back. Furthermore you came back a spoke of one of my favourite films. I love this film, the hip swivel and all. I also enjoy the fun Alex has at the 80’s reunions. They appear corny but they aren’t really. What’s wrong with being nostalgic and celebrating your memories. Now I have to go find the film because I need to watch it again.

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