As we approached the age of thirty together, Sayer wrote her first feature-length film script. I read versions from time to time and gave 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 began to question the value of heterosexual relationship and 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 and I asked, “Is this about us? Are you planning to leave me for a woman?” Sayer answered that she necessarily drew upon elements from our 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 shooting began I was sometimes present on the set, documenting the production 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. During the scene in which the protagonist tells her partner that she is leaving him, the male actor wore my silk pajamas. Watching a mirror image of myself getting dumped take after take didn't help to quiet my uneasiness.
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 my own apartment while she was gone. Sayer had written and directed the end of our marriage and we were merely unwitting actors playing our predetermined roles.
Suddenly alone in our apartment, I was stunned and angry; the end of the relationship produced emotions as extreme as the madness of falling in love at the beginning. Sayer and I went to a movie on our first date. Now I went to movies 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 Waterland, an adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel. In the film’s present tense, Jeremy Irons reflects upon his past. Grant Warnock and Lena Headey play the young lovers in these flashbacks. When the couple first appeared on the screen together, I was startled to see Sayer and me in our early twenties. In the subjectivity of my grief, Waterland reflected my own sad story; I have often felt revealed to myself through my affective relationship with the movies. Although I was undoubtedly projecting my inner drama on almost every experience at this time, I’ve just found 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 similar bewildered boyishness. I cried through the film just as I had through the General Cinema trailer a couple of years earlier in the same theater. (I’d like to imagine that perhaps the same solitary man was present again with me thinking, “We’re all in this together.”)
I rented an apartment, moved my things and resumed the ritual of drawing my second animated film Desert Dive-Inn: working all night, listening only to Glenn Gould performing "The Goldberg Variations," and climbing into bed as the sun rose. In the last apartment that Sayer and I had shared, a new baby slept directly below my animation work room. Sometimes while drawing in the middle of the night I had heard the baby faintly grunting and I had turned the music down. After 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 in headphones and realized that Glenn Gould had been the baby, mewling and squeaking involuntarily as he played Bach.
Ingmar Bergman had initiated my cinema education at Lawrence University and his films also accompanied 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 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 gives his actors full freedom 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. At the end of the evening, Johan and Marianne exult self-righteously in their own marital harmony. Johan, however, soon confesses to an affair and the two begin a transformative ordeal of abandonment, reconciliation, pleading, anger, recrimination, self-examination and final acceptance. In the last chapter Johan and Marianne, now married to others, meet to celebrate the anniversary of their original wedding, sleeping together in a country house.
Given my then-recent separation from Sayer, it's odd that I found the film so reassuring, but Bergman suggested that love transcends marriage, possession, definition and will ultimately find its 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 hopeful, but realistic, perspective of the later Bergman gave me the patience to navigate my present confusion.
I had cast Sayer as the villain in my personal narrative 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 sold to us in the movies we had seen and the books we had read. We sought adult versions of ourselves in each other and found only partially focused images of our desire reflected back.
Writing currently from the vantage of twenty-five years remove, the stubbornness of Sayer’s resolve represents for me now the deepest, most instinctual form 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 evolution 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 our first pictures 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 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 necessary changes. 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.