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MANY HARVARD STUDENTS seem to have--on the cultivated surface at least--an unbounded propensity for cynicism. Whether this stems from truly eye-opening, hide-hardening experience or whether this is simply an immature attempt to appear worldly and sophisticated is questionable. One suspects it's a little of both. In any case, First Love, directed by Joan Darling--the person who brought us Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman--is probably too maudlin and sentimental to touch the hearts of many Harvard students. Most will guffaw rather than cry. The most blase will leave laughing at the film's triteness and superficiality, confident that they will never fall victim to the treacherous pitfalls of first-time romance.
The movie is your basic "boy meets girl" film cut from the Love Story mold and based on a fairly respectable short story that first appeared in the New Yorker. The movie panders to the millions of soft-hearted Americans who thronged to The Way We Were and will throng to Oliver's Story. Nevertheless, a fairly realistic, sobering message about the inherent disillusionment in first loves manages--barely--to emerge. If you can sit through the movie without sliding out of your seat in fits of hysterics, then you may even gain a few insights that will serve as a warning if you have never been in love or offer a little perspective if you have.
First Love tells the story of Elgin Smith, a handsome young college student played by William Katt, and his traumatic first encounter with that profound, earth-shattering emotion referred to as you-know-what.
Tender, sensitive and deep, Elgin is repulsed by his college friends and their flippant attitude towards love and sex. Convinced that debasing bed-hopping is not the only alternative, the handsome soccer player turns down myriad opportunities to jump beneath the covers with sexy partners in order to save himself for something of a purer, more aesthetic ilk.
So the blue-eyed, blonde-haired All American practices abstinence and manages to live for his studies and soccer while he waits for the girl of his dreams to trot into his life. One day Elgin criticizes his roommate David's lifestyle and David, played by John Heard who captures the essence of the jovial, macho stereotype, lashes back: "So you want to be Romeo do you? Well, you know, Romeo ended up dead." This little piece of not-so-subtle adumbration ends Part One and sets the stage for the next phase of the movie. Enter dream girl.
Up to this point, the viewer tolerates a certain modicum of fatuousness. But about half-way through the encounter scenes of the two lovers-to-be, one begins to have serious doubts about the movie. Caroline, the girl Elgin falls in love with, is played by Susan Dey--former member of the Partridge Family--who does a decent job, considering she must portray one of those vague people who consistently has trouble figuring out what it is all about.
Caroline attracts the very particular Elgin by looking aristocratic, reading French novels and expressing an affinity for the symphony, all of which somehow set her apart from the other girls on campus whom Elgin finds so vulgar and vapid. Caroline confesses her loneliness; Elgin decides this means she is looking for a meaningful relationship. He romantically believes the two of them will transcend the mundaneness of life. Then they discover sex.
BEDROOM SCENES demand tact on the part of the director, and this is one attribute that Darling certainly lacks. The audience can't help feeling that they are watching something that they really do not have any business seeing. After all the moaning and groaning (the most oft-repeated line is "ah...that feels good") it is difficult to believe what is going on between Caroline and Elgin is all that different from the hedonism that Elgin previously renounced.
First Love continues along its unoriginal and poorly executed path. At this point, though, one begins to suspect that Darling has got her tongue in her cheek; the uncertainty of this, however, leaves viewers wondering whether they are wasting their time. The banality peaks at the soccer game: Caroline is in the stands, but to Elgin's distress the coach has kept him on the sidelines. suddenly, one of the players twists an ankle and is carried off the field. Elgin is sent in as a replacement and--you guessed it--saves the game. The film bottoms out when Elgin--teeth gritting and muscles straining--suddenly kicks the ball and the camera follows it in slow motion up into the air and over the tips of the goalie's fingers.
Thankfully, the movie improves appreciably from here on in. The relationship passes through its utopian phase, and after discovering some Freudian flaws deep in Caroline's psyche, the cynical viewer gets the sadistic pleasure of watching a helplessly idealistic relationship march inexorably to its demise. At this point, those in the audience who have never been through this painful process will weep, and those who have will smile smugly, nod their heads and derive a pleasant satisfaction from knowing that they were not the only ones.
Toward the latter stages of First Love, Katt and Dey reveal that they have facial expressions in their repertoire other than the gaping, cow-like look of innocence that pervaded until then. Both actors begin to exhibit a fair amount of talent. Katt in particular allows his character to excogitate about the changes Elgin is undergoing with enough sang-froid to indicate that the soccer hero is gaining some perspective on life.
Unfortunately, the cinematography does not improve with the acting. Darling, who is accustomed to television, rarely experiments with interesting angles, and this adds to the film's blandness. In some scenes, the camera is filtered to produce a soft, hazy ambience in an attempt to accentuate the romantic elements. The effort instead pushes the movie further into the realm of unreality.
Elgin's final blow comes when Caroline runs off with an older man who serves as both a lover and a surrogate father to Caroline. Her own father had committed suicide when she was a young girl. Caroline's about-face is a total shock to Elgin who fantasizes about marrying her. In an attempt to console Elgin, Caroline tells him that she still cares for him and respects him. Her insistence that he has done nothing specifically wrong simply infuriates him more. After the requisite number of tears and drinking bouts, Elgin is forced to realize that he had deceived himself throughout the relationship; Caroline is not a perfect princess and their love did not a fairy tale make. Elgin's child-like dream of a relationship more exalted than a callous one-night stand is smashed unmercifully. His realization that he loved Caroline only as long as she reciprocated becomes an important lesson to him.
AT THE END of the movie, Caroline loses her older lover, and crawls back to Elgin. But, alas, it is too late. "You're not my first love anymore," Elgin says and turns away. A disillusioned man, Elgin knows there will never be another "first love."
The movie ends in the zoo. Elgin sits facing a rather forlorn-looking camel while snowflakes fall around them both. The old zookeeper walks by and Elgin asks him if it snows in the camel's natural habitat. "No," the zookeeper says, "But don't worry about it. He'll get used to it. He'll adapt."
So there we have it: a sequence of first disillusionment, revelation and finally, adaptation. But after all is said and done, you will probably leave the theatre not galvanized with a feeling of optimism, but feeling as though Elgin's entire first love experience was a demeaning one. First loves tend to be like that.
But then again, cynic, you might leave laughing.
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