A couple of nights ago my wife and I watched an indie movie called Ruby Sparks. It was one of those movies that you could tell would be so indie that it hurts. One of those movies where you expect weird and quirky characters full of too-much emotion and neurotic energy, as if everyone were channeling Audrey Hepburn and Woody Allen at the same time. I expected it to be a light, funny, and poignant romantic comedy. I was incorrect. This movie made me think, and when I think I like to write. I will be completely spoiling the movie here, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
The film is what I would call ‘magical realism’. Calvin is an author, a child prodigy who published the quintessential Great American Novel before he turned 19. Ten years, one broken relationship, several hundred trips to the therapist, and one dog later, Calvin lives alone in his expensive house, unable to write a word. Calvin definitely reminds one of Woody Allen – neurotic, self-obsessed, narcissistic. He believes that he used to be a genius, and so does everyone around him. In fact, they still believe that.
The film sets Calvin up as a sympathetic character. I wanted to identify with him, and I hurt for his loneliness. Anyone who has felt alone in a crowd full of people will wince at an early scene where Calvin is expected to schmooze with readers of his novel. The despair written on his face is absolutely apparent to the viewer, if not to his crowd of adoring fans.
In the midst of his melancholy, Calvin is visited by the girl of his dreams. Literally. She first actually appears in his dreams. She inspires him, and he begins to write about her. Suddenly, and without warning, the film becomes magical realism and Ruby Sparks appears in Calvin’s house. Apparently completely real (other people can see her too), Ruby is convinced that she and Cal have been in a relationship for months already. After a little convincing, he decides to go along with it. She is his dream girl, after all – again, quite literally.
With red hair, a spunky personality, and a troubled past, I resonated with Calvin’s affection for this imaginary woman. I think many guys who struggle with self-esteem (and I would count myself among them) subconsciously seek out a girl that will make us feel like a hero. We look for the girl who has never had what we would consider to be a ‘healthy’ relationship, so that we can be that beacon of light in their life. We will be the gentleman, the knight in shining armour, the guy who is most definitely ‘not her type’ (as Ruby herself actually says early in the film) but whom she will find hopelessly enduring nonetheless.
Calvin believes this relationship will be perfect. He wrote her, after all – she embodies everything that he could want in a girl. She cooks, she’s adventurous and daring, she’s spontaneous – everything that he wishes he could be. His projection of the ideal has become manifest in reality, and he has fallen head over heels. He learns that he has the power to change her whenever he wants by adding to her story, but promises himself that he will never use that power. He locks her story away like a good hero, and falls into his supposed paradise.
While the early stages of their relationship seem perfect, there is something disconcerting about it. Ruby lacks character – although she has a history (written by Calvin) and a personality (written by Calvin), she doesn’t seem to have her own voice. At first I chalked this up to poor writing on the part of the script, but soon realized there was something more going on. Ruby hardly leaves the house – she can’t drive, has no occupation, and no professional training. Calvin pays for everything, and has no friends of his own. They spend their days talking with one another, making love, swimming in the pool… but it’s empty. Ruby becomes increasingly dissatisfied with this sterile existence, much to the consternation of Calvin. He is discovering that she is a real person with her own voice, her own dreams and desires. And the viewer is discovering just how withdrawn and introverted Calvin is. He makes no attempts to satisfy her dreams, or even to acknowledge them. He withdraws further into his books, just as Ruby is beginning to discover the real world outside of his house.
Ruby begins to drift away, taking art classes, spending time at her own apartment, finding less and less time for Calvin. Convinced that she is going to leave him (through no fault of his own, of course), he breaks out the script and rewrites her, making her desperately in love with him. Instantly, she becomes incredibly needy, unwilling to allow him to EVER leave her sight, crying if he so much as answers the phone instead of holding her hand. And so he rewrites her again, making her a permanently happy, bubbly person, who cannot help being cheerful. No matter what he says or does, she is stuck in perky mode.
And so he goes back to the drawing board again, changing her back to ‘normal’, even though he knows this threatens the relationship. After she ‘acts out’ again, he reveals to her the secret of the story in a powerful and disturbing sequence. He controls her while she’s standing in front of him, against her will. Although nothing sexual happens in this scene, it feels like rape. He twists her will to prove that he can, and hates himself for doing so. Through quick cuts and a pounding score, the sequence leaves the viewer feeling emotionally exhausted.
In the end, Calvin writes Ruby an exit, allowing her to leave. He then writes a proper novel about the experience, which of course becomes a best seller. The film ends with him meeting a girl in a park, who, Surprise! happens to be Ruby, although she remembers nothing of the experience. Personally the epilogue of the film was the weakest part for me, and felt very tacked on. I would have preferred the film to end leaving a question mark hanging in the air. Regardless, the film says some very powerful things about the idols we create and the selfish lives we live.
Calvin isn’t actually interested in a relationship – He’s interested in an ideal. He believes himself to be a stalled genius, and if only the rest of the world would get their act together, life would be perfect. He is of two minds – self-deprecating and narcissistic. Again I have to draw parallels to Woody Allen here – I watched Annie Hall last night and saw a lot of Alvy in Calvin.
Ruby likewise isn’t a real person, at least at first – she is simply a projection of Calvin’s reality. It is clear that he doesn’t even want her to be real – he clearly doesn’t even know what to do with a real relationship, a real person. He has no concept of give and take, sees no need to change or adapt himself in any way. In his mind (and in ours, often), a relationship ‘works’ when serendipity provides two people perfectly suited for each other. We often fall into this same trap. We see the Other as our Ideal. In the early stages of the relationship we ignore the faults and human-ness of the other. We don’t actually love them – we love our projection of who we think they are. We dehumanize the other person by denying their humanity and replacing it with our projection of perfection.
The problem is that no two people are ever ‘perfectly’ suited for each other, because there is no perfect person on the face of the Earth. When we love someone for their ‘perfection’ we don’t actually love them – we love an idol that we’ve created in their image. Ruby Sparks reveals the self-deception and lies that we must all overcome if we actually want to be involved in a healthy relationship. We must accept the other person for who they are, rather than who we want them to be. We must realize that love is choice and an action, not purely a result of a serendipitous meeting of kindred spirits. We must realize that change is part of the process of relationship, that healthy relationship comes from give and take, from the relinquishing of self-interest in favor of interest in the other person. Our society is not geared that way right now. Our society is geared towards infatuation, lust, and emotional highs. We’ve been trained by society to jump from one emotional high to another, and when those highs disappear, we plummet into the depths of emptiness. We’re bipolar, and we create ideals in an attempt to stabilize our fractured minds.
I believe this stability can only truly be found in Christ – that he is the ideal that we seek. I’ll be talking more about this in the future.