Ode to a First Kiss

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You've thought about it, fantasized and flirted. You've touched, maybe held hands, felt the warmth of an embrace. You've leaned in awkwardly near, your faces so close you could breathe each other in. And then it happens. A moment frozen in memory. The sweet softness of lips meeting for the first time. It's the first kiss . . . and there's nothing like it.

I live for first kisses. In film as in life, a first kiss can be magic. It can whisper "I want you" without words, change the course of contact and color the eyes through which you see someone. When it does what it's supposed to, there's no going back.

In reality, the best first kisses are like the ones in old movies. They matter. They had to, for old movies were the first dates of film--they didn't go all the way. Sure, there's much to be said for the excitement of a torrid sexual encounter with the proper stranger, but it won't be said here, for this is an ode to a first kiss, something that was sacrificed with the love scene's fade-out.

Long before sex went mainstream on screen, the kiss was the thing. In fact it was the only thing, so everything had to be put into it. A classic one had Rhett Butler enfolding a feisty Scarlett O'Hara in his vast arms against a flaming orange sky, whispering, "Kiss me, Scarlett, kiss me . . . once . . ," and then covering her mouth with

his. It was a hard-won kiss and didn't come until after much sparring, flirting, a dance and a war.

A lot has changed in our society and cinema since 1939. In everyday life, the first kiss has become the casual accompaniment of the dating ritual, the puckered punctuation of "hello" and "thanks for dinner," imbuing it with all the romance and spontaneity of a handshake. How can a first kiss hope to find its own magic when the "right" moment is preordained at the door?

In films, too, the first kiss has been demoted. Once the passionate payoff, it is now merely the setup for the obligatory love scene (i.e., the female nude scene) that invariably follows. Indeed, it's hard to find a film in recent memory where the first kiss did not lead to instant sex but instead was kissed for its own sake. One can't help but wonder if this trend is a reflection of our own behavior, prompting the proverbial question: Does film imitate sex, or does sex imitate film?

Either way, the first kiss wants rescuing. It's too precious to lose to impatience, too unique to turn generic. It's something to be savored, for when you've been kissed well, you stay kissed. And you only get one shot, so you've got to get it right. For that to happen, the first kiss requires its own moment, its own meaning and perfect casting. When it works, it's kinetic, touching parts of you that have yet to be physically touched. It melts your socks. I want to be kissed like that. I admit it. I blame Harry Kurnitz. He wrote "How to Steal a Million."

In this gem of a film, Peter O'Toole stuns Audrey Hepburn with a first kiss that takes her breath away. If it were a cartoon, there would be a ring of chirping birds around her head and a big mallet. As it is, there's only Hepburn in her Givenchy nightie and a wonderful Johnny (later known as John) Williams score. Thoroughly dazed, she looks up at O'Toole, unable to speak, her eyes all afterglow, and slides down into a waiting cab, but he must lift her legs inside.

Later, without him, she'll fulfill his request and wipe his fingerprints from a painting's frame, slowly breathing her way across its surface with a caress of parted lips. The kisser is gone, but the kiss lingers on.

The good ones always do. I know. Like anyone who's ever had a great first kiss, I've replayed it in my mind, basking in the feel and feelings it engendered. Let's face it, there's more to many a kiss than meets the mouth. A lick of the lips, the heat of breath, the taste of the tongue, all presage the prospect of more intimate connections, the promise of things to come.

Jules Furthman and William Faulkner in their screenplay of Ernest Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not" came as suggestively close to spelling this out as anyone. Bacall slinks into Bogie's lap for their first kiss, then tells him that if he wants her, all he has to do is whistle. "You just put your lips together and . . . blow." He then whistles what the 1940s production code won't let him show. It's a kiss filled with subtext, for a well-written kiss has something to say.

But it may not have started out that way. Anthropologists theorize that the human kiss has its origins not in communication but in dinner. Eons before Gerber cornered the market, prehistoric moms would chew their children's food and feed it to them by mouth. Some animals still do this, but one thing now separates them from us: utensils. And thank evolution for them. They have allowed the kiss to become the pleasure and affection giving/getting form of expression it is today, while along with its new benefits, it still packs all the nurturing/bonding punch of its earlier function.

No wonder a kiss can be so potent. It feeds our soul. It's as primal as the instinct for survival.

In "The Quiet Man," John Wayne's and Maureen O'Hara's characters have exchanged only the heated looks of attraction when suddenly they kiss amid the swirling gusts of a howling windstorm.

It's as if all the forces of nature, human and otherwise, have brought them together. The kiss is inexorable, inescapable, as natural as air.

It's that kiss Steven Spielberg used in "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial." Melissa Mathison's script called for the creature to see his first kiss in an old movie on television, causing the empathetic Elliot (Henry Thomas) to simultaneously enact it in class. As the kid mimics the Duke, a plague of frogs is freed and flees dissection, while Elliot has his own first kiss with a pretty classmate (future "Baywatch" babe Erika Eleniak--only in Hollywood). It's chaos born of innocence. As primal as survival.

It's one of the many paradoxes of a first kiss, a Pandora's box that opens with the simplest of satisfactions, the ends to the means that makes new beginnings. It's why a single kiss can make a couple. It does in "Bugsy."

The embrace really begins when Virginia (Annette Bening) steps over Bugsy's (Warren Beatty's) threshold and into the continuous two-shot that holds them together throughout their verbal seduction.

"Do you want to kiss me as much as I want to kiss you?" he asks somewhat rhetorically. She breathes back, "How do you know I want to kiss you at all?" He knows. We all know. But it's still climactic to see them clinched in silhouette behind a lit projector screen, their enfolded forms outlined in the glow of Allen Daviau's brilliant cinematography.

In most movies, where the leads look perfect together, the kiss is expected. You can bank on it. But life is less predictable, and that can be a good thing, for you never know from whom a good first kiss can come. You can spark to someone instantly, while someone else, whom you never thought to kiss at first sight, can defy all expectations and leave you wanting more.

It's the intangibles of attraction, and when it catches you by surprise, it's an added rush. It's happened to me. I've been blindsided. I've had preconceived preferences fall away in favor of previously unnoticed features . . . his expressive smiles, the timbre of his voice, the shape of his hands. . . . (Did those things always move me, or is it just because they're his?) If the kiss fits. . . .

Perhaps it's opposites that attract, or the familiar that draws us, or maybe it's both. Maybe it's "A Place in the Sun." In that film, from the moment Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor meet, we know they're destined to kiss. Like Mick and Bianca, they mirror themselves in each other, a joint embodiment of the myth of Narcissus who drowned trying to kiss his own reflection.

For their first kiss, the camera is in so tight, with over-the-shoulder shots so close, their proximity becomes ours. It's as if we're the ones being kissed. By the time Taylor softly intones, "Tell Mama . . . tell Mama all . . ," it's certain that Clift will lose himself in her, like Narcissus in water.

It's all in the mind anyway. The cerebral and sexual first meet at a kiss. Hitchcock knew it, and in Ben Hecht's stylish "Spellbound," he placed his camera accordingly. When Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, both playing psychiatrists, first meet, his walk from a long shot into an enamored close-up is followed by a reverse of her smitten face.

Later, the same camera positions are repeated, only this time Peck keeps coming, while the reverse of Bergman continues even closer to her eyes and dissolves into the metaphoric image of a series of doors opening, only to dissolve back to the inevitable embrace, mid-kiss. Like a conductor, the camera conveys the electricity they feel. It's a magnetic kiss, as Peck's character says, "like lightning striking. It strikes rarely."

No matter how luscious the lensing, a good line always helps. If dreamy Michael Biehn told me he "came across time for" me, I'd kiss him too. It also doesn't hurt that his character Reese has spent the entirety of "Terminator" saving Sarah's (Linda Hamilton's) butt. When the groundwork is laid, the added build-up gives a kiss extra kick. The more it is ached for, the more it is well worth the ache.

It can be as exhilarating as the first kiss in "Witness," when John (Harrison Ford) and Rachel (Kelly McGillis) break into the broadest of smiles as they hold each other's heads, beaming with the shear joy of finally expressed feelings.

Or it can be as enchanting as the comfortable kiss of Josette Day's Beauty and Jean Marais' transformed Beast, entwined as they fly to his kingdom in Jean Cocteau's exquisite "La Belle et La Be^te." The scene is suggestive in its serenity. We know they will be together because they kiss like they always have been.

When well-crafted characters first kiss, the kiss is as distinctive as they are. We have to know them, to know why they want each other. Only then can we will them together. It's for our own fulfillment. We want them to kiss as much as they do, so that we can escape into their moment.

The same applies to the sources of our own infatuations. Given the right amours, one can think of nothing else. You crave them. They consume you, and only the actualization of your most sensuous imaginings can satiate the hunger. But it all starts with a kiss. . . .

. . . As it all ends with a kiss. One of the sweetest closed "Sixteen Candles." Arguably the best of the high school high jinks flicks to come out of the '80s, it focuses on sophomore Samantha (Molly Ringwald), who spends her birthday pining for cool senior Jake (Michael Schoeffling). The last shot finds them sitting on his table, leaning toward each other over her cake for their first kiss. The candles are still lit. She doesn't need to make a wish. "It already came true."

After much teasing, tempting and missed connections, her goal is realized with a kiss that is so complete in itself that the film stills and fades out on it.

It's clear that all the best first kisses, whether they lead to sex or not, stand on their own, as in "Blade Runner." Deckard (Harrison Ford gives good first kiss) knows that Rachael (Sean Young) has implants--memories that is. She's a replicant, one of the man-made humanoids he's hired to hunt. Still, he loves her and moves to kiss her, but she doesn't trust him or herself and tries to leave. He won't let her doubt her desires and shows his frustration with a fist to the door. Then he reaches for her with a shaking hand, forcing himself to be gentle as he pulls her into a kiss that proves their feelings.

But she's still afraid, so he orders her to repeat his commands of "Kiss me" and "I want you," making them safer to say with each repetition until finally, without prompting, she asks him to put his hands on her and kisses him on her own. One (or, depending on which cut you see, both) of them may not be human, but with a kiss they have made a most human connection and, through it, found a safe place to be themselves in each other.

Ultimately, under all the arousal and stimulation, is a point of rest. It's not just sex, it's security. It's the confirmation of the existence of infinite possibilities, a reaffirmation of the continuance of life. A first kiss is that and so much more. Vital in all its suggestions, it's all at once the consummate question and the open-ended answer.

The most memorable first kisses haven't begun to exhaust their expressive variations, yet each is definitive in its own way. When they're given their own moment, as they are in these films, the plot turns on them and they aren't forgotten. It's what we look for in life. A kiss of consequence. A movie kiss.

The opportunities exist. At a recent dinner party, I had my chance when sparks flew with another guest. We coupled off and saw only each other all night. Afterward, when we couldn't stall leaving any longer, we walked to my car and talked some more, the kind of conversation meant to maintain contact. Then interrupting, as if reading my mind, he asked, "Can I kiss you?" "Please," I invited. And so we had our first kiss and it did everything it's supposed to do. It was having its moment. "Wanna come back to my place?" Ugh. The moment was gone.

In reality, timing is everything. We don't need to cram entire relationships into two hours as some films would have us believe. No ulterior motives need detract. Lovemaking may come later, but that's another ode. First things first. First, kiss me. Kiss me a classic movie kiss. I want that. I want the birds with the mallet. I want afterglow eyes and Daviau lights. When I'm first kissed, I want to stay kissed, and when a second kiss makes me feel that way, I'll stop looking for first ones. So if I don't waste our first kiss on good night, it may mean I can see that given a better chance, you just might take my breath away. I'll wait for it, hold out for it, because I know that sometimes, a kiss is more than just a kiss. . . . Sometimes, it's magic.

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Writer-director Devra Maza has worked in theater, television and film. Her latest screenplay, the romantic fantasy "Meant to Be," has one hell of a first kiss.

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