Marriage is both mundane and notoriously mysterious. It is also a subject that has perplexed Hollywood from the very beginning, according to Jeanine Basinger, a film historian and author of the lively new book “I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies.” From one of the early silent classics, F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (in which a seemingly happy country husband briefly contemplates murdering his fresh-faced wife so he can run off with a hussy from the city), all the way up to the lesbian couple in “The Kids are Alright,” what seem like basic facts of life remain impossible to fathom. Why do two people decide to spend the rest of their lives together? Why do some of them fail, and how do others succeed? What does it mean to be married?
Basinger, chair of film studies at Wesleyan University and best known for the marvelous book “A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women 1930-1960,” specializes in the movies of the studio era; her romp through that period takes up well over two-thirds of this new volume — the most knowing and illuminating portion. This focus is both an asset and a shame because so many of today’s young cineastes are unfamiliar with or put off by movies made before 1960, and for this reason they may not appreciate “I Do and I Don’t.” Sometimes it’s the black-and-white imagery they reject, but more often they’re simply unable to read or adjust to the stylized codes of an era in popular culture that’s vanishing in our collective rear-view mirror.
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