My Executive


    Jun 27, 2013

    Marriage as work? Sounds right

    The New York Times

    ACTOR Ben Affleck caught some flak earlier this year when, in the course of his Oscar-night speech, he referred to his marriage to actress Jennifer Garner as "work".

    Matrimony, at least among the famous, is not supposed to seem that way.

    It is either a magical fairytale, or a train wreck of betrayal and heartbreak. Hollywood marriage, like everything else in modern celebrity culture, is both aspirational and cautionary.

    But the phrase "marriage is work" rolled easily off his tongue partly because it represents the conventional wisdom of the moment.

    The idea that lifetime love equals long-term labour is repeated so often that you may never stop to wonder what it means.

    Yet, it's not as if our attitudes about work are any simpler than our notions of marriage.

    Work can be thankless or productive, a sacrifice or a reason to get out of bed in the morning, the cornerstone of a worthwhile life or a crucible of exploitation.

    Which of those is marriage supposed to be?

    In film and on TV, work and wedded bliss are now synonymous: The harder marriage is, the more romantic it seems.

    We know and, for the most part, accept that many people will marry more than once or not at all. The institution of marriage survives as a choice - as a range of choices - rather than a single norm.

    Some effort - of assembly, maintenance and completion - is required, and the effort is what justifies the choice.

    And yet, at the same time, marriage remains a romantic projection, a utopian realm in which all our contending unruly drives find simultaneous and permanent fulfilment in a world of transience.

    Wedded bliss is a nice idea, but it does not usually produce a satisfying narrative.

    In I Do And I Don't, film historian Jeanine Basinger's study of Hollywood's ambivalent relationship to marriage from the silent era to the present, she observes that "marriage has no story arc".

    A marriage plot is a story with a wedding at the end. The exchange of vows provides a satisfying and efficient exit from an intricate story. After the chaos of misbehaviour, misunderstanding and missed connection, order is restored, the curtain falls and love's essential labour is done.

    Richard Linklater's new film, Before Midnight, probably comes closer to the messy delights and petty frustrations of modern monogamy.

    The flirtation between the central couple, Celine and Jesse, that began 18 years before on a train to Vienna and resumed in Paris - a prickly and contentious meeting of minds and hearts - has hardened years later into a power struggle.

    And the negotiation of power is what gives substance to modern marriage stories.

    In TV show The Office, the bliss of Jim and Pam threatened to be destroyed by the former's second job at a start-up.

    The possibility that their happiness could be shattered by diverging desires - his restless desire to achieve something beyond the walls of Dunder Mifflin, her need for help and support at home - made them real and sympathetic.

    Even if the solution was a bit too neat, it nonetheless felt right, and romantic.

    In other words, it worked.

    The writer is chief film critic for The New York Times.