As we approached the age of thirty together, Sayer was writing her first feature-length film. I read versions of the script from time to time and gave my feedback. In the story, a woman in her late twenties was married to a decent, but self-absorbed, man in his late twenties. The protagonist, despite the fact that she loved the man, began to question the value of heterosexual relationship and, more specifically, the limitations of maleness, which was characterized as emotionally primitive and inarticulate. She ultimately left the man to experiment with romantic intimacy between women. The story felt uncomfortably familiar to me and I asked, “Is this about us? Are you planning to leave me for a woman?” Sayer answered that, necessarily, one drew upon elements from one’s life as material, but her writing was just creative exploration for character development in the movie.
The screenplay was finished, the film was cast and when the shooting began I was sometimes present on the set, documenting the production process behind the scenes with a video camera. Sayer’s sister had traveled to China shortly before this time and had bought me a pair of silk pajamas as a gift. For the scene in which the protagonist tells her partner that she is leaving him, the actor getting dumped was wearing my silk pajamas. That night I again expressed my uneasiness with the resemblance between the film and our life and Sayer again reassured me that I had no need to feel threatened.
But at the end of the shoot, Sayer packed a suitcase and told me she was relocating to New Orleans for a month; she had fallen in love with her lead actress, who was essentially playing her in the film. She added that I should look for an apartment of my own while she was gone. Our lives had followed the script of the film just as I had feared. We were merely unwitting actors playing our predetermined roles; Sayer had written and directed the end of our marriage.
Suddenly alone in our apartment, I was stunned and angry, consumed by an extremity of feeling that was almost identical to the madness of falling in love in the first place. On my first date with Sayer we had seen a movie. In this first stage of our estrangement, I went to movies instinctively seeking solace, but they only amplified the pain. Shortly after Sayer left town, I drove to the suburban multiplex in which I’d seen “Bad Influence” a few years before and bought a ticket for the film adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel “Waterland.” In the film’s present tense, Jeremy Irons reflects upon his past; Grant Warnock and Lena Headey play the young lovers in these flashbacks. As soon as the couple appeared on the screen, I was startled to see Sayer and me in our early twenties. In the subjectivity of my grief, every movie seemed to be a reflection of my own sad story. I’ve described the double feature of Ingmar Bergman’s “Summer with Monika” and “Summer Interlude” as a form of vicarious travel; the movies expose us objectively to places and people we may never actually visit directly. It is also true (and one of the main themes of these essays) that we are revealed to ourselves through our affective relationship with the movies.
Though I was undoubtedly projecting my inner drama on almost every experience at this time, I’ve just looked up stills from “Waterland” online and the pair did look very much like Sayer and me at age twenty-three. Grant Warnock has a prominent mole on his right cheek in exactly the same spot that I do and a similarly bewildered boyishness. I cried through the film just as I had through the General Cinema trailer a couple of years earlier. I’d like to imagine that perhaps the same solitary man was again in the theater with me thinking, “We’re all in this together.”
I rented my own apartment, moved my things and resumed the ritual of drawing my second animated film “Desert Dive-Inn”: working all night long, listening exclusively to Glenn Gould performing Bach on cassette tapes that I’d recorded from library albums, and getting into bed as the sun rose. In the apartment that Sayer and I had shared, a new baby slept directly below the room I used as my animation studio. Sometimes while drawing in the middle of the night I had heard the baby faintly grunting and I had turned the music down for fear of keeping him awake. Within a few days of working in the new apartment, again in the quiet of the hours just after midnight, I heard the baby. I thought it must be a hallucination associated with Sayer and our former life together. I turned up the music and realized that Glenn Gould had been the baby; it had been him mewling and squeaking all along.
Ingmar Bergman had accompanied the welcome release into my twenties at Lawrence University and he was also present during this difficult birth into my thirties. About four months after my separation from Sayer I saw the three-hour version of “Scenes from a Marriage” that had been released theatrically in the United States in 1973. The film stars familiar Bergman collaborators Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman, who survive the dissolution of their marriage. Shot in long takes that convey the feeling of a stage performance, the director allows his actors full latitude in the spirit of 1970’s naturalism.
Early in the story, an apparently happy pair, Johan and Marianne, invite another couple over for dinner. In an exhausting scene (which John Cassavetes must have envied) the guests get drunk and humiliate each other. When they leave, Johan and Marianne congratulate each other self-righteously for their own marital harmony. Johan, however, soon confesses to an affair and we follow the two through a transformative ordeal of abandonment, reconciliation, pleading, anger, recrimination, self-examination and ultimate acceptance. In the final chapter Johan and Marianne, now married to others, meet to celebrate the anniversary of their original wedding, sleeping together in a country house.
Given what I’ve just described of my then-recent separation from Sayer, it may seem odd that I found the film to be reassuring, but Bergman suggested that love transcends marriage, possession, definition, and will ultimately find its true and appropriate expression. The struggle to understand love through interdependence is what allows us to develop true independence. “Scenes from a Marriage” was, in fact, the antidote to some of the original notions of romantic love that I had absorbed from “Summer with Monika.” The ultimately hopeful perspective of the later Bergman gave me the patience to endure the immediacy of my present confusion.
I had cast Sayer as the villain in my own version of our separation. But as I reflected more upon that script after seeing “Scenes from a Marriage,” I realized that this characterization wasn’t fair. Our marriage ended because our identities were too unformed when it began; we had simply been too young, auditioning a version of love that had been culturally sold to us in the movies we had seen and the books we had read. We had searched for adult versions of ourselves in each other and found only partially focused images of our desire reflected back.
Now, writing from the vantage of twenty-five years remove, the stubbornness of Sayer’s resolve represents for me the deepest, most instinctual kind of love. She forced me to confront myself in isolation, as she confronted herself. A dairy entry from September 8, 1993 indicates the influence of “Scenes from a Marriage” on my thinking at age thirty:
I saw Sayer yesterday for the first time in weeks. We went out to the meadow that we like above the Willow River in Wisconsin and we buried a photograph of ourselves. It was one of the first pictures of us together. As the dirt began to fall on those innocent, smiling faces that had been the younger version of us, I had the urge to dig them out again and I said to Sayer, “Shouldn’t we save them?” But we didn’t and a moment later I felt happier and relieved and simply walked through the meadow hand in hand with Sayer, not talking. We’re not together anymore; everything has changed.
I have a strange sense tonight that somehow none of this is personal. That there is a larger pattern at work that drives us through the changes necessary to us. Falling in love with Sayer and losing my connection to Sayer are just waves in the pattern. We are the momentary shape, the medium in which the wave takes its form, but we are not essential to the energy. If I could just relax into the necessity of it, the inevitability, it would be easier than trying to chase down a goal, trying always to force circumstances to my purpose.