Here Is Good Horse To Hire

...let me be vilely painted, and in such great letters as they write “Here is good horse to hire” let them signify under my sign “Here you may see Benedick the married man.”

--Much Ado About Nothing, Act I, scene 1


I've always been as close to being a confirmed bachelor as one can get without "confirmed bachelor" needing winking quotes around it. Marriage just never held that much interest for me. Sure, in the abstract, I'd consider it, but in the way you consider dropping everything to go study kung fu in a monastery. Might be fun in theory, but not a great fit with my existing lifestyle.

Nevertheless, I'm planning to get married in March. I find myself deeply happy about that, about the notion of agreeing to extend the best romance of my life indefinitely. So I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the LGBT community for helping make this possible.

On the one hand, the long struggle for marriage equality has nothing to do with me, a cis man, marrying a cis woman. On the other hand, yes it does. I should probably explain that a bit.

Back in 2009, I read the most hilariously wonderful anti-gay-marriage screed, by a guy named Schulman. It's still online, and I heartily recommend it. Schulman isn't just wrong, he's outrageously wrong in the most strange, creative, and revealing ways. He seems to have, or at least feigns, genuine sympathy for gay and lesbian people, but he doesn't think they should be allowed to get married because marriage is horrible and nobody wants it but straight people are forced to do it because of child prostitutes and burly uncles and therefore it creates illicit sex which is necessary to have and anyway one does not wear a tuxedo in the afternoon. Here's a few highlights:

Marriage, whatever its particular manifestation in a particular culture or epoch, is essentially about who may and who may not have sexual access to a woman when she becomes an adult, and is also about how her adulthood--and sexual accessibility--is defined.

But without social disapproval of unmarried sex--what kind of madman would seek marriage?

Gay spouses have none of our guilt about sex-before-marriage. They have no tedious obligations towards in-laws, need never worry about Oedipus or Electra, won't have to face a menacing set of brothers or aunts should they betray their spouse. But without these obligations--why marry?

Few men would ever bother to enter into a romantic heterosexual marriage--much less three, as I have done--were it not for the iron grip of necessity that falls upon us when we are unwise enough to fall in love with a woman other than our mom.

That last one may be my favorite; there are so many things wrong in just that one sentence. I single this article out because it has a particular virtue. It lays bare the subtext of a LOT of arguments against marriage equality, by simply being naïve and ingenuous enough to state its subtextual assumptions clearly and up-front. It's a useful tool for understanding a lot of subcultures: the ones who don't know enough to cover their subtext tell you a lot more than the well-phrased spokesmen.

The crux of Schulman's argument is that marriage is necessarily a grim, joyless, unwelcome fate forced upon heterosexuals because the alternative is libertinism, which he thinks is self-evidently bad for some reason. His explicit fear is that if homosexuals can marry despite the lack of joyless obligation, heterosexuals will no longer feel that the joyless obligation is important.

Which, yeah. Some of us figured that out a long time ago, dude.

Obviously, Schulman's model of marriage is missing two vital components that were key to the successful struggle for marriage equality. The first is the personal value in solemnizing a romantic love, which he acknowledges but genuinely doesn't seem to consider important. (Which might help explain his three marriages.) The second, and the one that people kept having to hammer on during the equality campaign, is the wide array of legal and financial benefits marriage confers. Speaking as a guy currently fiddling with paperwork, there are a lot of them. I for one am looking forward to not being compelled to testify against my wife. Also getting in on her health insurance. And not having to fill out separate forms and agreements granting me the right to be consulted on certain worst-case scenarios, because there's a simple social covenant that conveys to the whole world "She and I are together, and you will address us accordingly."

Because, you see, regardless of the fears of Sam Schulman and all his ilk, that covenant has value, and it's all we want. Marriage has long been tied to a very traditionalist view of sex that holds that being married is the only thing that makes sex legitimate (not consent, mind you), and having never subscribed to that view (big fan of consent here), I never saw the appeal. But within my adult life, I've seen a massive campaign that demonstrated, successfully, that marriage has genuine value even to those whose sexuality doesn't fit into tradition's narrow nonconsensual box.

All of which is to say, in such large letters as they write HERE IS GOOD HORSE TO HIRE, that as of March you may see Benedick the married man.


Oscar Project articles

Wings (1927)

It’s hard to remember now just how amazing airplanes were in the 1920s. Barnstormers used to cruise from one small town to another, charging impressive fees just to show off their miraculous flying machines. That sense of wonder deeply informs Wings, in a way that’s hard to understand from here in the miracle-jaded future. The story of two young pilots and their service in WWI is nothing new even for the time, but the flying shots are spectacular, and in 1927 they might as well have been magic.

The Broadway Melody (1929)

I hated this movie. Hated it. Hated it in a way that started to feel weirdly personal after a while. The title song is repeated every five minutes by someone or other, which would be tolerable if it were a good song, but it’s not. There’s not a single likable character in this movie, which is a serious problem since we’re supposed to find them all charming. It’s about various people trying to achieve true love and showbiz stardom, but I didn’t want anything good to happen to any of them.

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

This is the earliest Best Picture winner that doesn’t require any apology or explanation before showing it to contemporary friends. It holds up perfectly, a stark and even angry look at the pointless, brutal cost of war. Its characters join the German army as teenagers full of idealism and hope and all that dulce et decorum est crap, and everything goes downhill for them from there.

Cimarron (1931)

This is one of those movies that has to be taken in context. It traces the history of the development of the American West through the life of one man, from the first Oklahoma Land Rush up through the present day. Thus, the first piece of context that must be taken into account is that “the present day” means “the Hoover administration”.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Watching Grand Hotel, the 5th-ever Best Picture winner, it struck me how rapidly I was seeing the art of filmmaking develop. An audacious plotline-juggling comedy, this movie makes remarkable use of the camera in ways that haven’t shown up in previous films, but will continue showing up in subsequent ones. (Except for the fact that Greta Garbo has a proprietary lighting system that exists only for her character, as though she’s in a whole different movie by herself. That one’s all Garbo.)

Cavalcade (1933)

This was based on a play by Noël Coward, and the nicest thing I can say is that maybe it worked better on stage. On film, it’s a godawful tedious slog through two generations of affluent London life, showing the great upheavals of the 1899-1933 period via a bunch of colorless, unlikable characters who mostly die, but not soon enough to suit me.

It Happened One Night (1934)

This movie feels like the beginning of an era. Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Frank Capra directing, and a romantic-comedy plotline we’re still using today. These are all elements that became dominant over the coming years, but here they all still had that new-star smell. The storyline’s nothing new, your basic fall-in-love-over-an-involuntary-journey bit, but the journey in this case provides a wonderful look at 1930s Americana, all the little motel cabins and logistical weirdness that made up a pre-freeway road trip.

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935)

A scene I’m 100% sure took place in Irving Thalberg’s office at MGM one day in 1935:

“So, last year Gable took his shirt off in It Happened One Night, and we made… how much money again?”

“All of it, sir. All the money.”

“Oh yeah. That was great. We also won enough Oscars that I had to have my mantelpiece reinforced. Anyway, having said that, what’ve we got this year?”

“We’ve got a picture where Clark Gable is shirtless for literally half the running time.”

“Good start. What’s he wearing the rest of the time?”

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Do you like long, slow musical numbers that involve almost nothing but looking at showgirls’ legs? No? Well, tough shit, because you’re in for a LOT of them. Get comfy.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

This is what you call surefire Oscar bait: a period biopic that talks about an Important Social Issue. The Life of Emile Zola is a weirdly-paced story with a strange two-part structure. First, we have your conventional biopic. Zola starts out penniless and living in a garret, but perseveres and works hard and finds success with Nana, because it turns out sex sells. He raises a family, yadda yadda yadda, and his career and the film are both slowing down by the halfway mark.

You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Of the various films in the genre of “Frank Capra directs Jimmy Stewart and several other stars in a surprisingly funny drama about socioeconomic injustice”, You Can’t Take It With You may be the least of them. Adapted from a George S. Kaufman play, it feels stagebound and claustrophobic, lacking a strong sense of visual expression. The story is just about a rich guy meeting a houseful of Manic Pixie Dream Anarchists, and some of the jokes don’t really work in the 21st century.

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Gone With The Wind is a serious problem for me.

On the one hand, as a movie, it’s pretty good. The cinematography’s great, the actors are gorgeous, the sense of an epic is powerful and heartfelt, and the score is top-notch.

On the other hand, most of that is also true of Triumph of the Will, and it’s hard to escape the comparison.

Rebecca (1940)

In beginning this review, I had to double-check the date. Rebecca was seriously released in 1940? Weird. It feels later than that, like maybe 1950, give or take a couple years. The product of another ten years of the development of film as a storytelling medium, in other words. That may have been what tipped it over to victory; it’s not just emotionally compelling and visually gorgeous, it has a level of nuance and emotion in the structure of every shot and scene that one just doesn’t see in other films from that year.

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Let’s just get this out of the way right now: nobody actually thinks this was the best movie made in 1941. Nobody thought it back then either. It is a truth universally acknowledged that Citizen Kane is better than How Green Was My Valley, but that William Randolph Hearst was a vindictive sonofabitch who owned half the newspapers in the country and had Louella Parsons on permanent payroll. It simply wasn’t safe for voting members of the Academy to support Kane, so they went with a safety.

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

This film is part of a brief, awkward period in Oscar history: the two years following Hitler's invasion of Poland and preceding Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. From 1939-41, there was a very strong "America First" movement in the U.S., which opposed America's entry into the war, often because they were outright Nazi sympathizers. This demographic was not well-represented in the film industry, because many of Hollywood's leading figures, like Lubitsch, Wilder, Dietrich, and others, were German by birth.

Casablanca (1943)

Casablanca. What can I, or anyone, write about this movie that hasn't been written a hundred times? That it's awful darn good? It is. You may have heard this is a very good motion picture. I must inform you that you heard correctly. Glad we had this talk.