I saw Last Chance Harvey on the plane to California last week. Two icons of contemporary loneliness — the man unmoored by divorce, now just an ex bearing sorrowful witness to his former family, the woman still single after years of skating on the very thin ice of dating noncommittal men. Is loneliness the cost of our present-day zeitgeist?
One of my graduate students took issue with the sociology of family this past semester, arguing that the books we read seemed to assume that people need to be connected, need intimacy, need partnering. And a battery of recent research argues that singles are just as happy, more likely to help take care of their parents, and create fulfilling lives by knitting together communities of friends. Do we even need romantic relationships? Do we need intimacy? Or is that just an ideology, one that makes Cherlin’s marriage-go-round turn?
Perhaps because of my focus on dependency and need, I tend to think we need relationships that last even when they are not immediately gratifying. As our cultural idea of intimate partnerships moves away from that model, perhaps they are better thought of as an intermittent luxury. Meanwhile, other relationships — parent-child, sibling-sibling, even sometimes neighbor-to-neighbor, as I discovered on my trip back to my old street in Oakland — can accrue enough ballast to last the tougher moments. What do all these have in common? You don’t choose them, they are just what you get. As my kids like to chant when someone is clamoring for a particular piece of birthday cake: “you get what you get and you don’t get upset.”
So is Last Chance Harvey yet another propaganda film — albeit one with a sort of gentle elegance — about our need to couple up? Maybe. But still the palpable loneliness of the film rings true. Maybe we just need to get Dustin and Emma some neighbors.