It's romance, reeling, for the 1990s A categorically cynical take on Valentine videos


Love, a poet once said, is a dog from hell.

All right, he wasn't a very good poet (Charles Bukowski), but he had a point, particularly in the '90s, when nothing is what it once was. The old romantic notions are dead: Nobody holds doors open any more, sends flowers (and doesn't expect sex somewhere down the line), watches his (or her) language. Unrequited lovers have become stalkers, apt to spray the office with automatic weapons fire.

So what follows is a cynical movie critic's Valentine's Day video selection, conceived to match contemporary reality. No classics, easy shots: "Casablanca," probably the most romantic movie ever made, doesn't get the nod, because it's a museum piece. Nobody loves like that anymore. I mean, what '90s guy would give up ownership of a boss club to go fight in a war? In fact, the movies are taken from the past 10 years, when the New Romance was overwhelming the Old Romance. The list is keyed to the '90s kind of love, the sort that says, "Wild thing, I think I love you but I want to wait till the HIV test comes back before I know for sure."

First off is my favorite kind of love: Self Love. What recent film could be said to most express a person's passionate adoration of him- or herself, carry it to the preening extremes, send it into the world and then be surprised that it doesn't become a hit? Only Warren Beatty, of course. "Dick Tracy," which incidentally will also get a TV screening Sunday night (at 9 p.m. on WJZ, Channel 13), is a valentine to the self. The director protects his star's loveliness in the following way: He lets the star alone appear without makeup, whereas every other male in the movie is buried under tons of makeup. Beatty even restages the famous climax to "Bonnie and Clyde," only this time he's the one firing the tommy gun into the car; it's as if he's gone back to rewrite the past and change the one blemish on his otherwise perfect career. A close second-place follower in the Self Love category also involves Beatty: It's "Ishtar," in which Beatty and Dustin Hoffman believed they didn't need a script, special effects, a plot or even, really, a movie to be amusing. It was just them. The arrogance!

Next: Post-Feminist Love. What do woman want? Freud asked. In "Desperately Seeking Susan," director Susan Seidelman knew, and it wasn't Madonna. The movie, a picaresque set in the scruffy art scene of New York, follows as an uptight businessman's wife, Rosanna Arquette, breaks loose of the constraints of her dull suburban marriage and follows the not quite well-known Madonna in a confused identity caper that turned on a conk on the head; the subtext is the woman's right to choose. Arquette, liberated from the burbs, was also liberated from the male-oriented movie convention, which always offered up the concept of woman-as-trophy. In untold thousands of movies, the hero gets the girl at the end because . . . she's the girl. "Desperately Seeking Susan" offered the radical proposition that she may not want to be . . . the girl. And she may not want to go to the coolest guy. She may want to go not with the best man but with the man she likes the best. In Arquette's case, it was dweeby, scooter-riding, porkpie-hat wearing, sensitive (gack!) Aidan Quinn.

Steve Martin's "Roxanne," a modern re-imagining of "Cyrano de Bergerac," checks into our Classics Lite category. Oooh, who wants to see the great "Cyrano" in French, especially with a big ugly like Gerard Depardieu in the title role, when you can pretty much get the whole thing without those irritating costumes and all that damned poetry in the language? But it clings to Rostand's values, however tepidly. Again, it attacks a male-invented movie convention, that lovers always be beautiful. Martin had a schnoz like a wildebeest's hump; he had to go through revolving doors twice, once for him, once for that nose. The movie is based on Rostand's glorious 19th-century version of 16th-century France but it managed the transformation deftly enough, with tennis rackets standing in for rapiers.

But the most modern love story of the age was set in the real 16th century -- Stephen Frears' "Dangerous Liaisons." At the end, everybody is either dead or mad. Now that's the kind of a love story I like. Derived from the epistolary novel of which everybody has heard but no living person has read, as adapted (( by the very clever British playwright Christopher Hampton, this one fits the '90s to a T: It's the Love Is Dangerous category. It's about a cynical aristocratic seducer named Valmont who values the hardness of his heart above all human things and then makes a crucial mistake: He falls in love. Naturally, it kills him. John Malkovich is wonderful in the key role, but so are Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer as the co-manipulator and the victim, respectively. It's love story as film noir, literate, fast moving, brilliant.

It also has a delicious downside too, leading to our next category: Dumbest Romance Ever Made. This is "Valmont," by the great Czech director Milos Forman. Milos! Does the name "Dangerous Liaisons" mean anything to you? Forman began this version of the same novel before Frears', and he finished it a year after. Thus, he released a big budget film that was the same except not as good as the one that came before, and starring . . . Colin Firth. Colin who? Also in the cast, the excellent Annette Bening who ultimately became Mrs. Warren Beatty. Small, strange world.

Then, in a category called Love Is Expensive, And If You Have To Ask How Much, You Can't Afford It, there's "Pretty Woman," in which a businessman hires a prostitute, dresses her up to mix in the fast lane, then falls in love. The movie enraged the politically correct because it was so mercenary, and it enraged the artistically correct because it was directed by Garry Marshall, whom everyone agrees is a hack, and it enraged the tastefully correct because it made a hundred million dollars. It's one of those damn things that works in spite of itself, with Richard Gere in a career-saving role as a fairly decent guy for once, and Julia Roberts in a career-making role.

The only romantic movie that defies cynicism is the glorious "Beauty and the Beast" of a few years back. Perhaps the conventions -- unrequited love, sacrifice, passion so intense that it doesn't need an expression in flesh, pain and a cascading spirituality of emotion -- only work in the rarefied confines of the animated format. Played straight, without the idealizing lens of animation, the thing would die of terminal corniness. But the animation -- particularly the high-end variety of the new Disney -- has a way of countervailing the baldness of the materials. It's a storybook story delivered in a storybook format.

And a last nomination for Best New Romance: there are two romances opening today, "The Cemetery Club" and "Untamed Heart" and both of them stink. The real romance is found in the comedy "Groundhog Day," where Bill Murray, at once the funniest of men and the most subtle of actors, is able to offer a poignant portrait of a heel saved by love. Cursed to live one day over and over again, he goes through a number of cynical gambits until he finally falls in love and rediscovers his humanity. It's a wonderful little movie.

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