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My “Reel” Love Affair


One film critic ponders how his "reel" connection with work differs from his love for his wife. Has his cinematic obsession affected their marriage — or are they headed for a happy ending? Find out here.

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

ometimes I feel like a two-timing lout.

Before I allow this pointed bit of misdirection to continue like some trumped-up American romantic comedy pitch based on a sophisticated French relationship farce, I should clarify a few details: first off, I am a film critic. After a decade in the dark as a professional (in addition to what seems
I wasn't ready to use going to the cinema as some kind of rigid relationship litmus test.
like a lifetime before that as a devoted suitor of the craft), I'm hopelessly smitten. And, like Chris Rock's character in his 2007 film, I Think I Love My Wife (which happens to be a remake of the 1972 French film Chloe in the Afternoon by Eric Rohmer), I really do — love my wife, that is.

But several nights a week, I kiss her and my stepdaughters and head off for what feels like something akin to illicit encounters in darkened theaters. That my wife knows about this state of affairs fails to completely justify the situation, although I secretly relish the idea that we're one of those hip European couples from France or Italy, ensconced in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Not that I ever intended to find myself in this predicament.

As a single Internet dater six years ago, I peppered my Match.com profile with alt-pop cinematic references — i.e., "a meeting of passions and minds with a trip-hop score directed by Steven Soderbergh" — and professed my fanatical love of the Paul Thomas Anderson/Adam Sandler collaboration Punch-Drunk Love as well as the Three Colors trilogy by Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. After a beguiling "meet cute" coffeehouse chat with my wife-to-be, I even arranged a second-date home screening of Punch-Drunk Love as an impromptu compatibility gauge for us (although, to be fair, I wasn't ready to use going to the cinema as some kind of rigid relationship litmus test… especially considering the apparent-but-welcome multitude of differences between us). I am an African American Catholic guy from the south, while my wife defines herself as a non-religious, culturally Jewish New Yorker, so a movie should have been little more than a mildly amusing diversion for the two of us.

But now, nearly five years into our own "happily ever after," I sometimes worry that if I'm not careful I'll end up like Pete, the hang-dog husband played by Paul Rudd in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up — a man who's married with kids and weaving an elaborately flimsy web of lies to cover the time he invests in his fantasy sports addiction (or
I have tried to use Pete's dilemma as a cautionary tale.
cinema, in my own case). I have tried to use Pete's dilemma as a cautionary tale. Despite my best efforts, there are moments when I see a too-true reflection in this celluloid image. Beyond the standard concerns around childcare and various scheduling conflicts that all families have to negotiate, film — that diversionary mistress — rears her alluring head and teasingly reminds me of the countless secrets that my wife has yet to discover.

In The Film Club: A Memoir, British novelist and film critic David Gilmour says that "you can't be with a woman you can't go to the movies with." And while every part of me wants to laugh at this absurd claim, somewhere deep in the dark theater of my soul, I have to own up to a hint of fear that he might be onto something — although it's less about the inability to go to the movies together than it is the sheer wealth of shared experiences occupying the seat between us that I continue to nurture. Can this "reel affair" tear us apart? And more importantly, am I actually having an affair in the first place?

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis, a marriage and relationship counselor practicing in Washington, D.C. and Cincinnati and the author of Why Don't You Understand? A Gender Relationship Dictionary, defines having an affair as "anytime you have an emotional connection to something or someone other than yourself. It's the kind of connection that takes away from your spouse, if you're not replenishing the connection in some way." Lewis explains that "sometimes, devoting significant time and emotional energy to something or someone other than your spouse will feel like an affair," but as long as that investment is not "in lieu of" the energy and time spent with your spouse, then there's nothing to fear.

As real as those memories and experiences borne of the time I have spent in darkened theaters might feel, it's obvious that they are based on virtual simulations — in other words, they're "reel" connections rooted in passivity, whereas the investment of that time and emotional energy with my wife results in the creation of our own stories. For all that it has taught me, I've learned that "reel love" is nothing like the real thing, baby!


T.T. Stern-Enzi covers film for the Cincinnati CityBeat and Dayton City Paper and also hosts an after-school film and writing club for teens.
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