Love and its predicaments: Reality served with a touching honesty
The et cetera in “Love Etc.’’ sounds frivolous. Then you watch vital, 79-year-old Albert Mazur stir a can of Campbell’s soup for Marion, his older, only slightly less vital wife of a half-century, and your eyes well up with tears as much as the makers of, say, “The Notebook’’ would like them to. What we’re watching isn’t conventionally romantic. Albert cuts up some bread first while Marion sits, almost catatonic, at the kitchen table of their apartment. But by this point in Jill Andresevic’s documentary we know how much these two mean to each other, and this old man feeding this old woman is as stirring as John Wayne grabbing Maureen O’Hara in that doorway in “The Quiet Man.’’ Only, it’s real as well as vivid. It’s not simply that he loves her. It’s that love, in that moment, means doing something as mundane as stirring that stupid can of soup. It’s the et cetera, and the et cetera is everything.
It’s possible, I suppose, to overstate what Andresevic has accomplished. You might get to this movie, notice that she’s compartmentalized it into five stages - getting married, starting over, starting a family, first love, lasting love - and find it too tidy. You might watch the acclaimed theater director Scott Elliott fret about being gay and single and in his 50s, while having a surrogate named Lisa bear him a child and assume you could see this on TLC or OWN. You could see something like this on television. But even after many hours and many years of a reality show, you couldn’t get this real this naturally or this gently, and not in 95 minutes. When Chitra sits on her sofa in Queens and testily asks Mahendra whether he married her too soon, his answer is flooring. I’ve probably seen two people have more upsetting conversations on television, but I left “Love Etc.’’ believing that Andresevic came by hers honestly.
That, of course, is the furtive achievement of this film. In an age in which it feels as if seemingly pure intimacy no longer exists, this film thrives on nothing but intimate moments. Andresevic and her crew do a lot of watching, of Ethan, for example, preparing and eating dinner with his two teenage children, who want their divorced, charismatic, but adolescent construction-worker father to find a good woman. Occasionally, someone will address whoever is behind or near the camera: Ethan’s daughter, Chitra’s Indian immigrant parents, or Gabriel or Danielle, a pair of 18-year-olds who start dating toward the end of high school. But it’s in the watching and listening that the film establishes an easy comfort with us. Casting is the secret weapon of any movie, and this one is as perfectly peopled as any I can recall.
Upon seeing Albert and Marion in the opening scene, talking about their aspiring but stalled songwriting careers, I feared for the worst, something terminally cute, a love story without the et cetera. But each of these situations is marked by failure, longing, or doubt. And Albert and Marion’s might be most poignant. They want a hit song but know that that might be a cultural impossibility. Scott, meanwhile, sometimes cannot believe that after a Broadway show opens and gets good reviews he heads home alone to his Harlem flat. Andresevic understands that his predicament is human. So is Ethan’s. He’s not sure what’s happening with a woman he’s dating. Gabriel and Danielle worry that college will ruin their bliss. This is not the sort of movie that spins these lives into drama, but it’s fair to wonder about outcomes. We know what happens with some of these relationships not from the movies but from life, which is to say we don’t know anything, really.
In someone else’s film, the three couples and two single men would have been forced into each other’s lives, to connect. Ethan would meet Scott, and there would be a surprise. The parents of one of the teens would find the lackadaisical Mahendra a law-firm job. But Andresevic has something better than contrivances. She has New York, which unites these people of different lifestyles, skin colors, boroughs, and apartment sizes - unites them, if not physically, then circumstantially. It’s not just the transitional shots of subways, underpasses, and parks, or the people on and in them. You feel New York in the backyards, cramped kitchens, and open lofts of these characters. You hear it in the particulars of their diction. You see it in the hope and apprehension that sneaks onto their faces. That’s the city, and this movie makes it the greatest et cetera of all.