To be published only if and when the moods and movies strike us, Movies That Made Us is an occasional look at films that led us all here and still make us wonder about where we’ve yet to go.
And till this day, the events that followed all still seems like a distant dream. But the dream was real and was to change our lives forever. I kept asking Clarence why our world seemed to be collapsing and things seemed to be getting so shitty. And he’d say, “That’s the way it goes. But don’t forget, it goes the other way, too.” That’s the way romance is … Usually, that’s the way it goes. But every once in awhile, it goes the other way, too.
You’re So Cool, You’re So Cool, You’re So Cool.
I was introduced to True Romance through the happenstance of my dad owning the soundtrack, which I found and added to my Winamp library back in 2002 while preparing for a family road trip to — I think? — South Carolina. While making the mix, I happened upon “You’re So Cool,” the film’s theme, a Hans Zimmer composition that borrows pretty heavily from Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer, as heard in Terrence Malick’s Badlands.
It played endlessly on my Walkman during that trip. In fact, I don’t really remember anything about that trip besides “You’re So Cool.” It became my private anthem of sorts over the years, the song I would listen to to fall asleep in any environment, anywhere — camping trips with Boy Scouts, family trips, the school bus, at work. Alaska. I didn’t actually watch True Romance for another three years, but when I did, I fell deeply in love with it.
Quentin Tarantino sold the script to True Romance to fund his debut film — Reservoir Dogs, a much darker movie. In truth, Tarantino’s original script for True Romance was much darker, too, until director Tony Scott flipped a few acts around and saved Clarence’s life during the final shootout. It’s otherwise vintage Tarantino — characters talk like they’re much cooler than they are, women characters fend for themselves, criminals talk about movies and make wild monologues. The cast — led by Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as lovebirds Clarence and Alabama — is more notable for its massive list of cameos: Dennis Hopper; Val Kilmer; Gary Oldman; Christopher Walken; and Brad Pitt in what may well be his quintessential role. Saul Rubinek, Bronson Pinchot, James Gandolfini, Michael Rapaport. Good shit.
Of course, watching True Romance in mid-2005, it never really occurred to me that this was a stacked cast. All I cared about was the way in which Tarantino heightened the relationship between Clarence and Alabama, star-crossed lovers in decaying Detroit who meet when call girl Alabama is sent by her pimp to sleep with comic-shop worker Clarence on his birthday. She meets him at a Sonny Chiba triple feature by spilling popcorn on him; he’s oblivious to her come-ons and is just happy to have someone with whom to enjoy the movies. They meet-cute. They fall in love. And when Clarence tries to free her from her profession, he ends up accidentally murdering her pimp and making off with a suitcase full of cocaine. Oops. The two decide to sell out in Los Angeles.
From afar, True Romance seems like just the fantasy of a teenage boy writing about what he wants from a relationship. Sure it is. But what sets it apart is how honest it nonetheless feels — particularly for a movie written by Quentin Tarantino. He states on the director’s commentary that people often ask if he’ll make a romance movie and he says, “Well, I wrote True Romance.” Beneath the obvious elements of “comic-shop kid meets call girl who falls in love with him, etc. etc. etc.,” the relationship between Clarence and Alabama is always mutual, never lopsided, and the two care for one another without question in every situation. The fantasy of True Romance is about two people who recognize another of their kind, and who want to love and be loved in return.
True Romance never struck me as a movie to emulate per se. I guess the general fear you see online is that some people will see a violent fantasy movie and think it inspires the worst possible outcomes. Although I had not experienced my own true romance at the time, what the movie has always left me wasn’t the desire to wear Elvis glasses or Hawaiian shirts or sell a bunch of coke to a producer, and it wasn’t an impression that women existed to be just like Alabama.
Of all the movies about young men falling in love, True Romance has always felt like one of the most emotionally authentic. Not from its titillating depiction of violence and sex but from the relationship that develops between its lead characters. The romantic notion that maybe you’ll meet someone just for you.
Before I met Aly in June 2013, I had only ever had two girlfriends. Those relationships didn’t go so well. I still went on dates. But like any introverted and, uh, sensitive teenage boy, those didn’t work out. It’s OK. Dating is designed for failure. It didn’t matter. I spent my time on the internet instead, mostly making shit up.
Aly was working at a comic store and I was working in a bookstore. Our first meeting was thanks to a mutual friend who was hosting an online comic-book course with Aly as her teaching assistan. I’d gone up to visit that class and the three of us went out to lunch. Aly did not seem remotely interested in talking to me… she was going to see Iron Man 3 at midnight that night, with a friend she was dragging along for company. Later I slid into Aly’s DMs on Twitter and told her we should go to some bookstores together. Noncommittal. So, later, I invited her to see Man of Steel. Hardly Sonny Chiba. Our after-movie coffee bore little resemblance to the classic scene where Clarence and Alabama go through the Playboy “about me” questionnaire, but I did drop my (empty) cup on the floor a few times while nervously playing with it. We bonded over Guy Pearce and his movies.
A little while later she invited me to see Django Unchained, which was playing again at Castleton. The next day we went to a Star Wars exhibit at the Indiana State Museum. Afterwards we got coffee at a cafe near where we would buy our first house five years later, and during that date she told me about how she spent her teenage years online, making shit up. There are moments when you know, and that was one of them.
The first time I ever visited her we watched Fright Night; the first time I ever cared for her while she was sick, we watched The Omen. The first time she spent the night at my apartment we watched Red Dragon, which we still disagree about but was relevant because of our bonding over the show Hannibal. Most importantly, by the end of that summer we had bonded over a mutual love of True Romance.
It feels like a distant dream. But the dream was real and was to change our lives forever. Three years after that — and three years ago today — “You’re So Cool” played during our wedding, when we kissed as a married couple for the first time.