John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, his 2005 contribution to Showtime’s Masters of Horror series, speaks of a film that is so vile, so sacrilegious, that everyone who’s seen it has shared the same fate: gruesome death, often at their own hand. Film-festival screenings become bloodbaths. One viewer puts out his own eyes while laughing madly; another feeds his entrails into the projector. I looked in vain for evidence that Love Story, one of the highest-grossing films of the 1970s, inspired similar mayhem. A Google search for “Love Story” and “self-immolation” was frustratingly inconclusive. And yet, having sat through the film twice in 20 years, I cannot fathom how its release didn’t somehow correspond to an epidemic of mass suicides, or, at least, a little light dismemberment, let alone how its domestic box office could be roughly 48 times its $2.2 million budget.
The logline, as cunningly devised as any high concept in the Hollywood canon, was to create a simple, archetypal love story in an age of despair and disillusionment. Vietnam, Midnight Cowboy, the Beatles coming apart; the world needed some reassurance that the sky was up there, the ground was down there, water was still wet, and two white Harvard students could still hook up between hockey games and espressos of dubious authenticity. From the title to Francis Lai’s iconic, make-it-stop score (which, at one of the film’s many low points, undergoes a disco remix), everything about Love Story pitches for archetypal cred, and pitches hard. Unfortunately, Paramount bigwig Robert Evans’s idea of a baggage-free romance includes a shit-ton of smirking delivery, atrocious cinematography, and some smug assumptions about inherited class and what it means to be somebody-or-other’s son or daughter.
As director, future head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Arthur Hiller scarcely knows the meaning of the word “subtext,” if such a thing can be said to exist in Erich Segal’s script. Every time Ryan O’Neal or Ali MacGraw say one thing and mean another, their performances invariably spill every bean, their faces pitched into the frame as if they were bobbing for apples. When you see O’Neal and MacGraw going full-bore Bressonian in Barry Lyndon and The Getaway, respectively, it’s more than a breath of fresh air, it’s an act of defiance toward one of the towering turds of the American cinema.
All of the above may sound like small potatoes, but it adds up to one of the most unendurable “classic films” under the sun. The viewer who can withstand it, I have difficulty imagining; an actual fan is inconceivable. Watching it made me want to do harm to myself, bodily. Every seven or so seconds brings some new atrocity. O’Neal’s insufferable Oliver Barret calls the love of his life “you bitch” a dozen times, twisting his smile every time to let the audience know it’s all in good fun; supporting players across the board seem to be in a competition to out-eyebrow one another to indicate something that’s gone unsaid; and in what could arguably be the worst single scene in all of cinema, one that would make any sane viewer lunge for the whiskey bottle and the sleeping pills, Oliver and Jennifer exchange personalized vows in a DIY marriage ceremony.
There isn’t even any schadenfreude in Jenny’s inevitable demise, except to recall that Segal’s novel has an even more botched ending, with Oliver breaking down in tears after he utters the movie’s motto to his Horrible Father (here played by Ray Milland, who never trawled lower depths, not even two years later in The Thing with Two Heads). In the end, Oliver’s solitude, perched on bleachers overlooking an empty field, brings the film full circle, thus lending the inhuman punishment a Sisyphean quality, never to be completed, allowing no escape, forever and ever, amen.
What do you say about the high-definition reproduction of a film that may be the ugliest Best Picture nominee of all time? With future Happy Hooker DP Dick Kratina heading up his camera department, Hiller commits visual felonies so specific and ultimately all-devouring, one suspects he was trying deliberately to sabotage his own film. The camera is pushed into emoting faces the way Sam Raimi pushes into Ash's weapons preparation in the Evil Dead films; relentless overuse of fill lighting results in TV-sitcom artificiality that borders on the Fassbinderian while, as a consequence, backgrounds drown in mossy shadows. When in doubt, the beginning or tail end of a long take will be rendered in crumpled, telephoto ruin. The "big goodbye" scene is shrewdly miscalculated, as Kratina pulls out all the stops (F-stops, that is) to shoot the entire hospital as if it was the inside of an old shoe. The cast (even poor MacGraw, who, as evidenced by her 2010 appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, hasn't aged so much as a day in the 40 years since the film was released) have the diseased polish of waxed cadavers.
All that matters, however, is how meticulously Paramount's home-video department executed their high-definition transfer. The answer is, pretty well, for the most part; whatever clues may indicate an imperfect transfer are so faint, you might easily attribute them to the film's original shabbiness. There's plenty of "good grain" and every bad lighting call is preserved for posterity's sake. The print is only 98% free of damage, as there's the slightest wisp of wear running in a broad track down the middle of most of the picture. The 5.1 and mono tracks are clean but never too bright, blunted slightly but well-equalized. The dubbed audio, particularly on the Portuguese track, sounds like a tinny long-distance call.
An enervating audio commentary by Hiller, the theatrical trailer, and a ramshackle "making of" featurette save Paramount's single disc from being completely bare bones, but it's thin gruel, all told.
With this Love Story Blu-ray, Paramount proves that you can, in fact, polish a turd.