Earlier this year, Christian film company Skoche Films released a trailer for Old Fashioned, calling it the “anti-Fifty Shades,” then adding the tagline: “This Valentine’s Day, chivalry makes a comeback.” For those of us who refuse to participate in the culture wars (*raises hand, jumps out window*) and won’t be going to see Fifty Shades of Grey (*raises hand, shows up anyway*), the premise was intriguing. It’s terrifying to admit, but many of us will go to our graves STILL ONLINE DATING. Does this sweet, tender little Christian indie from the heartland maybe – just maybe – have something to teach us about love?
Of course not! Did you really think it would? The problem with Old Fashioned, however, has less to do with any knee-jerk secularism on our parts. For all the movie claims to be anti-Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s actually just the story’s mirror image. On a material level, Grey is a story about romance and denial, examined through a BDSM lens, concertized with a cock ring. While Old Fashioned maxes out at hand-holding, it explores all of the exact same BDSM themes – dominance, submission, denial, repression, power – with twice as many delusions. The two movies may position themselves at opposite ends of an imaginary cultural spectrum. But Grey and Old Fashioned are two strangely similar stories fueled by the same regressive fantasies about love and romance. Available to you this Valentine’s Day weekend!
Old Fashioned stars Rik Swartzwelder, the film’s writer and director, playing Clay Walsh, a Christian frat boy gone Luddite. Before you laugh (whoops, already happened!) it’s important to remember that Clay is a “good guy.” Not a guy with personality, per se, but a good guy nonetheless. He’s handy and has his own quirky, primitive sense of morality. When Amber (Elizabeth Roberts) moves into a building Clay owns, Clay refuses to do any repairs in her apartment unless she stands outside her apartment door. As Clay explains to Amber, he’s just an “old fashioned” guy who refuses to even be in the same room as a woman until they’re married.
There’s part of Clay’s chivalry we’re supposed to find charming until you start to think: Wait a second. At what point in American history were men not allowed to go into a woman’s kitchen and unclog a kitchen drain without her being locked up outside in the polar vortex snow? As the film progresses, and Clay and Amber pursue a traditional, dong-less, celibate courtship, more and more eyebrows are raised. Amber and Clay love to hold hands in church. They enjoy whitewashed country drives. They learn to like each other. Old Fashioned portends to travel back to a different time in our history, ruled by chivalry and courtship and non-verbal white men. But the era that Clay and Swartzwelder so desperately and heroically clings onto is a fiction. Old fashioned romance doesn’t exist today because it never existed at all.
Love and property have always shared a bathroom, from the beginnings of marriage to the final season of Sex and the City. Back in medieval times – when princes and princesses danced in ice castles! – most people got married for the joint bank account and sick tax rebates. Even in postwar America, at the height of normative courtship and the nuclear family, materialism and romance were seamlessly intertwined. “Modern man’s happiness consists in the thrill of looking at the shop windows,” Erich Fromm wrote, “so he (or she) looks at people in a similar way.” Even though Old Fashioned ridicules the commercialization of sex (including a scene where Clay “rescues” everyone from having to witness the awesome boobs of a consenting stripper), sex and commerce is the one marriage that just might last. The film’s belief that we can transcend it, or that we ever once did, is nearsighted, patronizing and really irritating.
Old Fashioned is built on a strong foundation of delusions, some of them more malicious than others. Much like Fifty Shades – the film it pretends to hate – the story is constructed using the same archetypal characters. Clay – Old Fashioned’s Christian – is a withholding older man who owns property, denies affection, sets limits and fears women. Amber – Old Fashioned’s Ana – is a struggling, if charming, younger woman who looks to Clay for fatherly guidance and support. At one point, Amber reveals to Clay that her previous marriage ended in divorce because the two didn’t really know each other. Amber’s husband, we learned, didn’t like it when Amber painted her nails. “Would that bother you?” Amber asks Clay. “Depends on the nail polish,” Clay answers. He’s not joking. This movie’s not joking. Somebody made this. And we’re watching it. Right now.
Like Fifty Shades, Old Fashioned isn’t really a love story – it’s a rescue fantasy, told with impressionistic details and disparate conclusions. While Amber portends to rescue Clay from his fuddyduddiness, it’s Clay who ultimately saves Amber from her nomadic ways and open legs. In that way, Old Fashioned is the most old fashioned of narratives, grounded in ancient fantasies about men and power and women locked in castles. Thanks to Clay, Amber now is able to look forward to a lifetime of Christian prayer, exurban mansions and babies falling out her vagina. Whee!
Still, Old Fashioned is one of the more coherent Christian films to come out this year. Saving Christmas featured way too much Kirk Cameron, wandering for 40 years in the desert of his own mind. Old Fashioned includes a lot of carefully choreographed fall foliage scenes, which are beautiful if you like a Windows screensaver kind of aesthetic. To the film’s credit, it really tries to do a good thing. It tries to tell a nice story about a man and a woman falling in love. It tries to make the leaves pretty and the hand-holding sexy and the romance, last.
But Old Fashioned fails in the same way nearly all our modern stories about love fail: it pretends that people can be something they’re not. At one point, Amber’s gal pals from the flower shop (sorry, give me a minute, that sentence was painful to type) chastise Amber for being attracted to a man so “reliable.” We’re supposed to villainize Amber’s ugly stepsisters for their cynicism, but their snide remarks are actually grounded in wisdom.
Humans aren’t attracted to predictability because predictability isn’t exciting. Our brains can only feel love when they can experience excitement, which is grounded in risk, ambivalence and the potential for loss. I’ve spent years as a therapist. Do you know how many people said to me: “I’m really sexually attracted to responsibility?” Zero. Do you know how many people started a sentence with “Call me crazy” and then ended it with “I’m attracted to jerks?” I don’t know either. If you find out, will you tell me? I can’t remember. It was a lot.
Old Fashioned refuses to let humans be humans, attracted to all the dumb and terrible things that make us feel alive. Like Fifty Shades, the movie it calls the enemy, Old Fashioned doesn’t feature real people – just cute props in a failed rescue play. You can’t totally blame the filmmakers either. Who doesn’t want to believe that real romance lasts forever, in pretty little towns with pretty little people just waiting for you to show up? It feels so much better to fantasize about a handsome stranger than to try and swipe right for love.
Grade: “Depends on the nail polish.”
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at email@example.com if you aren’t from Moveon.org.