The paradox of modern romance is in its contradictory imperatives for responsibility to one's partner. Love should be about taking care of each other, of belonging to each other, yet people should neither expect others to care for their weakness and also shouldn't try to nurse them. The conflicts that emerge can seem like a seesaw and thus the title of 1962's Two for the Seesaw. A thoughtful, sometimes too clever, film about a romance across ideas and ideologies with two great performances from Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine.
The film opens with one of several great location shots in New York City, this one featuring Jerry (Mitchum) contemplating suicide, but most of the film feels very stagebound. It consists almost entirely of dialogue between the two leads and it's not hard to see the movie's origins as a stage play by William Gibson (not Neuromancer William Gibson, another one). But this production directed by Robert Wise does some nice things with the limited space. I liked how the set for Jerry's apartment is connected to Gittel's, the moving camera showing us it's not a split screen and that the actors can likely hear each other.
Gittel (MacLaine) is a young and hopeful member of the counterculture, part of the second or third wave of Beats*. Jerry meets her at the home of a mutual friend during a party mostly consisting of people having shallow debates about art theory. He walks past people talking about dichotomies of motivation and the dogmatism of discussing communication. There are so many people crowded in the little place trying to get their points across it seems like a market bazaar so it's oddly appropriate he comes across Gittel trying to sell an ice box.
All she does is ask Jerry to light a cigarette for her but he has the impertinence to get her number from his friend and call her to ask her out the next day. He tells her about how he's decided he shouldn't be walking around thinking of suicide all the time so he's asking for her help. As she points out to him later, he imposes on her generosity a lot without realising, which is particularly ironic since he spends a lot of time talking about how he doesn't want to be taken care of. "So then you say, 'need you'. I need you. Who says these things in black and white? You care about somebody, you don't make 'em ask. Like a bill that's gotta be paid. What kind of giving is that?" On the other hand, if Jerry hadn't asked, the two would never have been in a relationship in the first place.
But meanwhile, each one understands why the other resents it when someone else presumes to take care of them. MacLaine, as usual, plays a character in a precarious, potentially tragic situation. She doesn't want to tell Jerry too much about it because she doesn't want to "trap" him.
This was around the same time MacLaine was making movies with Billy Wilder and Two for the Seesaw is peppered with fast pace sex jokes that are of the same species as the kind in The Apartment or Some Like It Hot but are a little too corny to be effectively funny and outright lame when they border on dirty.
But they do help serve the dialogue on sexual liberation. Jerry is presented as a more traditional figure, a lawyer who owes his position and wealth to his father-in-law--Jerry's overbearing wife is the reason he's run away to New York to be miserable. He's surprisingly easy-going about Gittel's multiple sexual partners until he sees her kissing a friend with benefits. But both Gittel and Jerry recognise Gittel's sexual attraction to Jerry is as much a part of their relationship as Jerry's sexual attraction to her. When she offers to have sex with him early on because it's his birthday, he walks out because it's another manifestation of the charity he's been trying to get away from.
But where does the charity end and the love begin? When do you start letting someone do something for you more out of their pleasure in helping than in their independent desire to take the action in question? It's a problem Jerry and Gittel are forced to chew on endlessly.
*Incidentally, to-day's Jack Kerouac's birthday
Twitter Sonnet #1214
In cases suited just for travel packed.
In bottles corked for only bees, avast.
For planes were holding ev'ry bag and sack.
And so the moving rocks above amassed.
A waiting sign was mentioned late to-night.
In cheapest coat the frigid thought persists.
A bobbing fruit was stopped and fixed aright.
The apple stilled in cider now consists.
A file found behind the image grew.
A simple use for pages coat the walls.
The words repeat and yet were writ anew.
A chain of lights were spines throughout the halls.
Umbrellas float along the creek of wine.
A voice repelled its way from out the mine.