The widow and the former astronaut converse. He explains that he thought of inviting her to a White House dinner. He describes the social pressures that led him to this decision. One of his usual dates would not be acceptable. She would be too young: he would get too many nasty glances from the wives of the other astronauts. What he needs is someone older. Unfortunately the dinner was cancelled. But would she have come with him if it had not been? This monologue has a structure. The widow doesn't know whether she appreciates the structure or not. She can hardly decide whether she is attracted or offended. Their haggling continues. The widow complains that he's playing with her and he responds: that's right, I'm playing with you—do you want to play, Aurora?
Is the astronaut playing with the widow as a cat plays with a mouse or as one cat plays with another? Perhaps this question remains secondary for the moviegoer at Terms of Endearment. After all, his attention is focused on so many other matters. The widow's daughter is leading a hard, vital life married to a worthless English professor. There's food for thought here. The daughter (Emma) and the widow (Aurora) cannot get on either with or without each other. Characters begin to accumulate around these central ones: the astronaut (Garrett), an amorous banker, Emma's best friend, her two little boys. There are many fine performances; there is a story directed to a real question—on what terms do people love or allow themselves to be loved? The mind finds itself occupied. And yet some viewers —myself among them—will return to the question posed by the widow and turned against her by her wooer. Are you playing with me, Garrett? Do you want to play, Aurora?
The question of human responsiveness is frequently raised in the film. Aurora is going to give Emma a wedding present —perhaps the little Renoir?—but can't bring herself to do so: she hates the groom. Mother and daughter have a falling-out which persists to some degree throughout the story. This theme of communication abruptly or prematurely cut off reappears in a scene between Emma and her husband, the well-named Flap. Flap's been out all night: where was he? Disingenuous Flap is quite evasive. He tells Emma that she is just nervous, just imagining things. After all, she's usually this way in the early stages of pregnancy. Emma replies that if he's lying, he's sunk to the meanest level possible for a human being, and can only redeem himself by telling the truth right now—at which point Aurora calls and Flap gratefully answers.
A conversation has to have two sides. The story keeps telling us so, and I suppose we believe. But what about Terms of Endearment: can we imagine ourselves conversing with the film itself? Taken literally the question is meaningless. We do not converse with movies, no more than with novels, poems, or any artistic work. However, there is a context in which this metaphor makes sense. The notion of conversing with a work emerges from the rhetorical theory of fiction.
If we read the classic works on the subject, we discover that the writing of fiction necessitates rhetorical manipulation. The ordering of events in a narrative, the framing of characters on a screen, the presence or absence of an authorial voice: all these devices shape an audience's attitudes. The most complete case for this position is made in Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction. Booth demonstrates conclusively that we are manipulated by novels, stories, and other fictions. A good reader or viewer will distinguish among different degrees of manipulative skill. He will recognize that the refusal to manipulate—the attempt to stand back at an objective distance, as Joyce tried to do in Portrait of the Artist—invites chaos rather than clarity.1 Having assented to each of these propositions, he will then confront ore further difficulty. Aside from the important but hardly inclusive criterion of skill, we must agree to put ourselves under the influence of some particular work. It is difficult to say what makes us willing or unwilling to do this.
Booth himself appears to have grasped the problem, but did not fully engage it until some years after he published The Rhetoric of Fiction. Rhetoric appeared in 1961; in 1980 came an essay on the unusual subject of friendship as a critical metaphor. Here Booth suggests that one's relation to a work of fiction can be compared with one's relation to a friend. This comparison takes four different forms, or as Booth puts the case, "Reading activity and the pleasure it gives can vary first in the sheer quantity of operations we are asked to perform; next, in the degree of responsibility given the reader, what we might call the reciprocity between author and reader; thirdly, in the intensity of the activity required; and finally, in the kind, or range of kinds, of activities."2
While "reciprocity" can become a buzzword—note the caution of Booth's "what we might call"—it suggests an essential kind of experience, one hard to define in relation to artworks without sounding stupid. There are certain books, movies, plays, and so forth which elicit a great range and intensity of activity but which are nonetheless hard to love. Something is missing: perhaps a little space to breathe in. We may not want the author to step so far back from his work that he seems to abrogate all responsibility for it, except as a presenter of facts. We may not want to feel like his puppets either. There are many different ways to strike a balance. What, however, do we say to a film which pretends to be opening up a big, inclusive, quirky, fascinating world and then—in its last half-hour—puts everything exactly in its place . . . exactly?
Terms of Endearment relies on a group of excellent actors to create the sense of a big, bustling country. The film, it appears, is conceived in the spirit of Emma—the girl who loves life, who accepts it all, who thrives on it no matter what. We may worry a little about the character of Emma: we may wonder whether tomboys grow into earth-mothers, especially when they have real mothers like Aurora. All the same, this messy, lively world comes across effectively. The problem begins when Emma gets cancer. People have complained about the suddenness of this turnabout. The director has defended it on the grounds of his own emotional response when he read the novel on which the film is based. There is a much better—and much more telling—rationale for such a plot twist. Everything in Terms of Endearment prepares us for Emma's cancer.
One example will stand for many. The astronaut, Garrett, is among the most memorable characters in the film. Jack Nicholson's performance is brilliant, giving new life to all his old routines and sometimes going beyond them. Garrett's irrelevance is a good part of his impact. He intrudes into Aurora's neat little world. He is unassimilable. It is therefore disturbing to realize that Garrett is in this movie to prepare Aurora for her daughter's fatal illness. Garrett Breedlove. Yes, that's right. Garrett will teach Aurora how to love, in order that she may have an effective death-scene with poor Emma. Even Garrett is made to take his place.
One of the last scenes in Terms of Endearment sums up the problem posed by this frustrating movie. Emma is having her final conversation with her two little boys. The older one is sullen: for the last year he has been acting as though he hates his mother and he now continues to do so. In order to communicate with him at all, she must act out both sides of their conversation, arguing that he will suffer guilt later for having sulked at this moment, and forgiving him for the guilt that he does not yet but presumably will experience.
Terms of Endearment makes me feel like that unfortunate child. Mommy is talking to me. Mommy is telling me what I feel now, what I will feel later, and forgiving me for my various inadequacies. Perhaps the audience which mommy has assumed—which mommy has indeed created—is really out there. Or perhaps in some cases it is not. In either case, the movie has become a mechanism for forcing various emotions upon us. But the movie, unlike Emma, has established no genuinely urgent reason to do so.
Any rhetorical theory of narrative must include accounts of manipulation and reciprocity alike. Traditionally, the emphasis has been on the former, which means that certain works (the collected novels of Henry Fielding) get much attention while other works (the collected novels of Charles Dickens) don't.3 Booth's excellent essay on friendship might do something to rectify the situation.
His essay can certainly help us with Terms of Endearment, a movie which affirms an expansive, inclusive approach to life as a cover for sheer narrative compulsiveness. What's the use in introducing a powerful character if you're going to use him as nothing but a plot-function? Terms of Endearment practices this kind of trick in a way that has a powerful but dubious appeal. However, it is possible to tell stories of other sorts, even at a moment when everyone longs for reassuring, authority. There is preachiness and then there is preachiness. I look forward to seeing a film about modern America which might just conceivably tolerate my talking back. Anyone want to play?
1 See The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), chap. 11: "The Price of Impersonal Narration, I."
2"’The Way I Loved George Eliot': Friendship With Books as a Neglected Critical Metaphor," The Kenyan Review, N.S.. 2 (Spring 1980). 10.
3This is not an attack on Henry Fielding. The fact remains, his rhetorical skills are so overwhelming we can concentrate on them for a long, long time without having to think about much else. By comparison, Dickens' novels are big messes. Even the most elegant of them—Bleak House, let us say—appeared to contemporaries as no more ordered than a crowded street in London. The apposite comparison, for my present purposes, might be between Terms of Endearment and The Old Curiosity Shop, two works obsessed with the pathos of a young woman's death. Dickens manipulates and preaches shamelessly. But he also does a lot more. Terms of Endearment preaches and manipulates undercover. It ends up doing nothing else.