With the wedding season upon us, and certain kinds of marriage the topic of an unceasing national political conversation, here is a question for anyone who has been married, contemplating marriage, or has watched with love, horror or fascination as two people tie the knot:
What is the difference between a happy wedding and a happy marriage?
"A wedding is easy to make happy," says Rabbi Jonathan Blake in the new documentary "112 Weddings," which is airing on HBO this week. "You just throw a ton of money at it, and liquor. But when you throw money and liquor at a marriage, it often makes things worse."
Filmmaker Doug Block's premise seems almost like a gimmick: a documentarian who needs to earn as much cash as possible between projects begins moonlighting as a wedding videographer, and is shocked by the instant intimacy and rapport he develops with "ordinary" people on the most "extraordinary day of their lives." He shoots dozens of weddings in a "cinema verite" style, producing 90- to 120-minute videos for each couple. After nearly 20 years of this work, he decides to reconnect with his couples in order to make a documentary about marriage. He wants to know whether their expectations about marriage have lived up to reality. If you have ever uttered the words, "I do," you can guess the answer.
And yet, even knowing what to expect, the documentary is a surprisingly touching and poignant examination of what Zorba the Greek so memorably dubbed "the full catastrophe."
Despite their happy sameness, the footage from beautifully shot wedding videos offers a kind of voyeuristic thrill, especially as we know what travails are in store for many of these couples: A groom slings his bride over his shoulder, caveman-style, and, three kids later, will leave her for another woman. A joyful wedding day couple later compulsively talk over each other in a style that will be familiar to long-married couples. A couple who opt for a partnership ceremony because they think marriage is rooted in patriarchal ideas about property and ownership end up marrying 13 years later when parenthood finally slaps some sense into them.
"We're all fascinated by the marriage of others," said Block, 61, who has been married 28 years, and is known for a pair of documentaries he made about his own family, "51 Birch Street" and "The Kids Grow Up."
"When we go to a wedding, we think, 'They can't possibly be as happy as they are today in five years. What will happen when life wears them down?'" (I'm so glad to hear him say that. Despite my decades of experience with marriage, I have always felt uncharitable when that thought flits across my mind at a wedding.)
Block's 10 couples are necessarily a certain type of New Yorker – professional and affluent (you'd have to have money to pay for your own personal wedding documentarian) – but within that limited pool, there is some diversity: an African American couple, a mixed-race couple, and a lesbian couple who reflect on the importance of being able to participate in a universal social institution.
"I was in a unique position to explore the subject of marriage," Block told me, even as he acknowledged the impossibility of capturing the truth about a marriage in his limited time with each couple. "I could be there for years and not be closer to the truth of what these people's marriages are, but by making these little portraits, based on quick, hopefully objective, almost snapshots of what these marriages were like, I hoped it would add up to something bigger."
So what do we learn? Nothing that you didn't already know. Marriage is hard, children change everything, illness can foil the hardiest relationships.
And yet, it's refreshing to hear a sentiment as vividly expressed by Augie Alexander, who never fought with Jennifer Hyjack until they had a child: "We had a kid and that is when the [poo] hit the fan," Alexander says. "The first nine months was minute-by-minute torture…. A friend of mine, his quote fit us perfectly. He says my wife and I agree 95% of the time, but that 5%, we're just at each other's throats."
When Olivia and Dennis Langbein married, she was so excited and nervous, she seemed to be hyperventilating. Several years later, they have a little girl struggling with cancer. They are flat, the loft gone from their sails. "There's no real book on how to take care of a child who may be taken from you at any moment, and that fear," says Dennis. "You're thrown into a living nightmare…. Are we happy? Yeah, you know, sometimes."
Three years after Danielle and Adam Hark married, they had a child and Danielle began a truly terrible struggle with depression. A pregnancy-related hormone treatment caused suicidal thoughts. As the two talk about their marriage, she is so palpably depressed that it's painful to watch. Adam's verbal tap dancing, trying to lift her spirits, is heartbreaking.
Of the 10 couples whose weddings Block shot, there really is only one groom who telegraphs the marital devastation to come. On his wedding day, David Bromberg shows Block his bottles of anti-depressants, and is briefly captured on video speaking viciously to his mother. "I had the strong idea that marriage was not going to last," Block said.
Bromberg later provides the shock of the movie when he says, "Janet was just a horrible wife. Janet was abusing her anti-depressants and it just became too much for me. No. I'm sorry. That was me. That wasn't Janet."
It's sad, and funny, and brutally honest. This documentary is a salutary counterpoint to all the rom-coms that have twisted our imaginations about what love and marriage entail.
As Rabbi Blake put it, "Happily ever after is complicated."