Film Politicians are often asked, "What you're favourite [insert album/television programme/film]?" and I'm usually pretty sympathetic when on hearing their answer it clearly sounds like something which has been chosen by their advisors or even through a focus group to best position their candidate or incumbent in relation to the portion of the electorate who aren't cynical about these things. There is in fact no worse question because even your answer, as Nick Hornby writes about in High Fidelity, will have a profound effect on how other people view you for better or worse. Hornby suggests that in the end it's not about what you like but who you're like. But as I think most of us know that's wrong in almost every respect.
For years when I professed to be a film fan knowing full well that the next question would indeed be "What's your favourite film?" I never did have an answer for just this reason. It's horrible. For one thing if you're a film fan there is no single answer because there are films we admire, films we love, films with memories connected to them, films which are technically brilliant and the last great film we've seen which is still marinating in our consciousness before we decided the way in which we love it. And it is also that we know that if we say the wrong film to the wrong person it can change a friendship or relationship going forward. I know, because this has happened to me. In both directions.
One of the harshest examples of this was in the first meeting between students and lecturers during my MA film studies course, just before lectures began when we were to introduce one another. In other words, you're sat in room with peers and lecturers, all of whom are going to judge you in one way or other and whatever you say will be used against you later in some way or other. Having just spent the past few years catching up, I could say without hesitation I rather liked French New Wave but something in me couldn't say I liked sci-fi. I couldn't. So I think I said something like "But I still admire films which are visually interesting even if the storylines aren't that great or some such." On that occasion, I could have said sci-fi since one of the modules was just about that. Yet, I fretted.
It's because of all of this, the pressure, that in the end I decided that I needed to choose a favourite film. By then I'd narrowed it down to the most necessary five, When Harry Met Sally, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Seventh Seal, In The Bleak Midwinter and Star Wars. But keeping those rattling around in my head and knowing that sometimes they have a habit of swapping in and out (In The Bleak Midwinter was Citizen Kane for a while and Ferris Bueller is in for Adventures in Babysitting) and there's also the rather sticky conversational moment when you end up saying, I can't give you one but I have five, which shows you've really thought about this. Oddly, if you can just real off one film people tend to think you haven't thought about it much at all.
Here's how I made the decision. For official reasons related to important things (I know!) I was asked to name my favourite film and rather like the random letters out of the Scrabble bag at the end of the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy it allowed me to give the answer without thinking about it and my ultimate answer was When Harry Met Sally. Partly I wonder if it's because it was the first film on that list and with a previous shuffle it could just as easily be Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which was there for a while too and would have been on this list too if it hadn't been for Before Sunset). Then a bit later I was asked the question again in the predicted social setting, gave When Harry Met Sally again and it stuck. When Harry Met Sally is my favourite film ever.
Why? That's always the next question. I think because people are surprised. It's a film which is admired I think but it's from a genre which generally isn't thanks to it being thoroughly devalued by one too many Katherine Heigl or Jennifer Lopez vehicles and a general sense of making them all in the "chick flick" subgenre when for decades they were actually perceived to be enjoyed by men and women thanks to a more balanced approach to the gender portrayal within. Perhaps if they already know me a little bit, on that basis they might expect me to say either something falling out of the art house or science fiction. But I love them both equally so what would be the point. Which isn't to say I didn't spend about six months saying Inception. That was hilarious.
When Harry Met Sally is very funny. Which it is. As Hadley Freeman notices in her book about 80s films, pretty much every line is quotable and I do still at length. "You made a woman meow?" "Baby Fish Mouth." "Fur zee vest ov zee dey vee jall tuk lyke ziss." "On the side." "Married..." "There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance." "Sheldon?" But some lines are simply philosophical. "You're right, you're right, I know you're right," are words to live by not least because it reminds you that sometimes you might be wrong and you need someone to remind you. "Everybody thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor but they couldn't possibly all have good taste." "No one has ever quoted me back to me before."
Arguably it's Nora Ephron's greatest script, though she collaborated somewhat with all the main participants, director Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Its key feature is that it doesn't have some high concept thing like even her later scripts and pretty much every romantic comedy since, other than that they meet each other over a number of years. The "impediment" which stops them from entering the relationship isn't time-travel, or being geographically separated or a number of dresses, it's that they're afraid that falling in love will ruin their friendship. We don't have enough of these kinds of films any more, at least outside of television movies and even then they tend to be beset by tragedy.
It's perfectly structured. When Harry Met Sally follows the classic Hollywood structure to the minutes. The set-up section which covers the stuff in the past, the opening ride to New York and them meeting on the plane is exactly the first quarter of the film, about twenty-five minutes. The next quarter, almost exactly twenty-five minutes, is about them becoming friends but the turning point is at the New Years Eve party when they realise they have stronger feelings than that. The next twenty five minutes are about them trying to still be friends under these circumstances and the sexual tension leading to them having sex leading to the final twenty-five when they're apart leading to them falling love. Then at the very end Harry and Sally, talk through this structure to camera. Wow.
It's a film which changes as you age. When I first saw the film, on rental video in probably about 1990, perhaps at a friend's house, all of these characters seemed to much older than me and worldly wise and having lives I could only dream of. Now that I'm forty, the characters will seem much older than me and worldly wise and having lives I could only dream of. But the process of aging which is one of the film's many topics runs deeper with me now. Example: When Sally says "And I'm going to be forty!" "When?" "Someday!" "In eight years!""But it's there! It's like a big dead end!" She proposes it's different for men. She's talking about the biological clock but for all kinds of other reasons that scene rings oddly hollow.
This speech: "I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible." Which is more than enough to make up for the film resolving to type and having Harry run to the place to try and convince Sally to return to him.
Plus there's the atmosphere. Whilst aping Woody Allen in some respects (though as I suggested in an earlier discussion without actually copying him as the film has reputationally been implied) (that would be Miami Rhapsody) the seasonal colours, the brownstones, the Manhattan streets. When it came time to refurbish my flat, I asked for a faux-wooden floor in my bedroom as homage to carpet rolling scene in When Harry Met Sally. It's the film which made me want to move into a city centre where everything is just accessible, all the time, when it's just as easy to go out for lunch as stay in. Granted it's a dream-like place and like Woody Allen's films ignores most of the rest of the city, but as a school boy this was one of the films which almost acted like a portal to somewhere better.
It's another film I've owned in multiple formats. My first copy was recorded from the BBC during its first network premiere on 26 December 1992 at 10.05pm. Imagine my surprise a few years later when I bought a 4Front budget copy from HMV on Church Street and found that they'd snipped out a whole chunk of the wagon wheel coffee table scene for swearing. In about 1995, The Independent gave away VHS tapes with their paper at the weekend and the first was When Harry Met Sally. I didn't get it. I already had a copy. I eventually bought a dvd from Music Zone in Williamson Square in the early 00s after having established it was one of the films affected by MGM zooming and then in June 2013 finally purchased a blu-ray when it was released in this country.
Having had to reiterate all of that have a feeling that I probably would have chosen it anyway. I can't think of a single reason why I wouldn't. For everything above but also because it's the film I most want to watch. For various reasons I don't have my copy to hand right now and it's "killing" me. I think I might end up buying another one too since Netflix didn't renew their license for it and having written about it again here, I'm desperate to see again. Have you seen it? The film, I mean, not my copy. If you haven't, I hope this hasn't spoiled it for you too much and I recommend, no I plead with you to watch it as soon as you can. It'll spoil the modern romantic comedy for you, but it's worth it for the pretty much the whole thing.