“Sentimentality is the failure of feeling,” poet Wallace Stevens once said. I would quote him whenever my father would play one of the schmaltzy operettas that he enjoyed, titles I imagine few people recognize today: The Desert Song, Naughty Marietta, Rose Marie, The Student Prince . . . Fortunately, his real passions climbed upward to Wagner and Verdi, though at the time I didn’t like the Rhine maidens any more than I did merry widows.
It didn’t break the spell, though. He kept on playing them and wondered why I didn’t share warm joys of “The desert song calling, / Its voice enthralling, / Will make you miiiiiiiiiinnnnnnne.” Something about the sentimental taste makes it immune to criticism. I remember going to movies with girlfriends in the 1980s and 90s, fluff pieces such as Tootsie, Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally, and Dirty Dancing, and spotting their dreadful phoniness even at age 26 and single. But it made no difference when I said to one date as we left the theater and she dried her eyes, “But Julia Roberts is a prostitute, not a princess!” To her, it was a sweet little love story with a happy ending. When at the end of Tootsie Dustin Hoffman caught Jessica Lange’s eye on the sidewalk, the sentimentalists in the audience sighed and hoped they would get together. I rolled my eyes and thought that a guy who’s comfortable living and working in a dress for two months doesn’t merit any romantic aspirations.
That’s why sentimentality is so exasperating. It works by ignoring the facts. At sentimental moments, love shines forth. The human heart prevails over time and circumstance. Nothing else counts but the goodness that human beings feel for one another. Such hokey occasions can only happen if we suppress those circumstances, if we pretend that they don’t exist.
One particular example from the 80s shows how easily people fall into the sentimental trap even when entirely unsentimental sights unfold right before them. It’s a romantic feature called Crossing Delancey (1988) with Amy Irving (“Isabelle”) and Peter Riegert (“Sam”), and over the years I’ve encountered many people, mostly women, who loved it. It even made the American Film Institute’s list of 400 films nominated as “America’s Greatest Love Stories.”
Isabelle works in a Manhattan bookstore uptown and fits nicely into the literary world. He’s a grocer downtown and mingles smoothly with working-class Jewish matrons. The Jewish elders arrange for them to meet and court, but when she learns about him she pulls away because of the class difference (which is, to her, a cultural difference).
In the opening scenes of the film, we have a contrast. A well-known author, charming and eloquent, has paid her some attention and she’s flattered. He seems so refined and worldly and sensitive, while our grocer dips his hands deep into pickle barrels. The author represents cosmopolitan values, the grocer neighborhood mores.
Sam is wiser than she thinks, though, and he has in fact worshipped her from afar for some time. Meanwhile, she nurses dreams of romance with the author. But he turns out to want her as just an assistant, not as a flesh-and-blood woman. Finally, she opens her eyes and evaluates both men accurately. The plot is nicely structured: girl-meets-boy, girl-thinks-she’s-better-than-the-boy, girl-realizes-boy-is-great, they-plan-to-marry. Nothing wrong with that. Why should we judge the film false and sentimental?
That’s why sentimentality is so exasperating. It works by ignoring the facts.
Because there is a strange wrinkle in the plot that, if we keep our moral scruples, destroys our sentimental hopes for our heroine from the start. Early in the film, after the handsome author does a book signing at the store and parts from Isabelle with lovely and promising words of appreciation, she heads home starry-eyed and wondering where it will lead. As she opens the door to her apartment, a man springs into view from behind and scares her. She spins in panic and he laughs. It’s an old boyfriend come to say hi. She relaxes and they step inside.
She rummages in the kitchen and he talks about his work and life, clearly comfortable in her home at 10pm and uninvited. His wife is out of town, we learn, and he pauses before asking gingerly if he can spend the night. She walks across the floor, still straightening up, before giving him a casual OK. Her agreement, in fact, amounts to not much more than a shrug.
It’s a jarring turn from the elegant imagined romance of the previous minutes. And yet, as the film proceeds, we’re still supposed to regard her as a special romantic woman caught between a seductive but conceited writer and a solid and adoring grocer. What about this third man? What about the easy adulterous sex?
The episode is hard to fit into the other conflict. It doesn’t advance the plot in any way. The old boyfriend disappears as quickly as he arrives. He doesn’t raise any emotional conflicts for her, nothing she has to work through. Their lovemaking is brief and uncomplicated, like a lunch appointment.
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Contradiction and Sentimentality
Because it has no relation to anything else in the film, we have to conclude that the very meaninglessness of it is precisely the point. This is where we realize that the film has begun to do the work of ideological instruction. The director and scriptwriter (Joan Micklin Silver and Susan Sandler) have a contention to press. It is that sex can be separated from love. For a women in the 1980s, this scene says, there is no contradiction between a naïve infatuation with a romantic man at one moment and a casual hop in the sack with a cheating guy an hour later. A woman can have both, an old-fashioned courtship with one fellow and meaningless sex with another.
That’s sentimentality, and it’s a tempting experience. But it’s not real, and one of the tasks of critics is to guard audiences against it.
We can agree that it might work for Isabelle, but only because she is shallow enough to regard her sexual experiences as dispensable. “Yeah, I slept with him last night, but I’m REALLY excited by this literary prince who complimented me so graciously earlier.” Apparently, the infatuation aroused by the latter doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to make the commonplace arms of the ex an unwelcome anti-climax. If she were a woman of deep feeling, she would respond to her late-night visitor the way Ezra Pound does after he leaves the embrace of his beloved and others enter his rooms:
No, no! Go from me. I have left her lately.
I will not spoil my sheath with lesser brightness,
For my surrounding air hath a new lightness . . .
But not Isabelle. The old buddy wants some pleasure while the wife is gone, and she complies. The filmmakers want us to accept her decision as no contradiction of her higher emotions.
It doesn’t fly, though, not to those of us who take romantic love more seriously, and not in terms of the film itself, either. You see, Isabelle is not the moral center of the film. Sam is. He is firm in his devotions and, unlike her, he appreciates human beings apart from their class. He idealizes her, too, we learn later, and has for awhile. In fact, he engineered the courtship from the start, not the Jewish matchmakers. He has just the right assumptions and feelings to qualify as a man of genuine love, not sentimental love.
Over the course of the film Sam meets the author, who is eventually exposed as a jerk. Isabelle realizes her mistake and elevates Sam accordingly. We can accept her shift in desire from the writer to Joe as a plausible, unsentimental recognition. But what about this other relationship? It never comes up again. Apparently, there is no reason for it to do so, to undergo examination as Isabelle’s first infatuation does. It isn’t a mistake.
We smile but know that love triumphs only insofar as we ignore the meaningless sex.
We have to ask, however, what would Sam think? He is, again, the romantic center of the film, and her night with the ex belies all his lofty conceptions of her. If he knew of her casual liaison, including its conspiracy against the marriage vow, he might not reject her, but he would certainly adjust his estimation. Having seen the whole thing, we can’t share his idealization of her. In fact, we wonder whether she deserves him.
But the film brings them together at the end. It is only her class biases that stand in the way, not the cheap sex. We are supposed to accept the warm finale that comes when they finally “find” one another and love blossoms. It happens, though, only through the exact omission characteristic of sentimentality. We must forget the other episode and interpret the denouement only into terms of the overcoming of class interference. Sex is no big deal to her, and it should be no big deal to us. Sex with one doesn’t hamper her love for another at all.
But, we may be sure, that’s not how Sam feels. A kiss to him is powerful. To hold her in his arms, to whisper in her ear, to press her body against his—this is bliss of a high order. If he witnessed her doing the same thing with an old and married boyfriend with barely a shrug, his dream of intimacy would collapse.
That’s why Crossing Delancey is fake love, a sentimental version of passion. We smile but know that love triumphs only insofar as we ignore the meaningless sex. Isabelle realizes her class misconceptions, thinking that she was stupid to buy into the writer’s flattery. But she never evaluates the other fling, which is just as ruinous to romantic love. If she thought to herself after enjoying Sam’s devotions, “What was I doing letting that guy drop by to join me in my bed?” the sentimentality would diminish. The happy resolution would be touched by a tragic understanding of her past failings.
But no. We have an unmixed conclusion, an everything-will-be-good ending. That’s sentimentality, and it’s a tempting experience. But it’s not real, and one of the tasks of critics is to guard audiences against it.