Moonstruck, or How to Ruin Everything
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There are any number of reasons for taking an interest in popular films, but what gets us thinking about them, now or ever? That question, however presumptuous, comes easily, thinking of Moonstruck (1987; written by John Patrick Shanley and directed by Norman Jewison), not only because of the striking absence of thoughtful writing about it since its initial, generally favorable reviews, 1 but because Moonstruck itself seems to raise the question, What gets us thinking about a film? Or more simply: What gets us thinking, and what keeps us from thinking? My aim in what follows is to show that Moonstruck raises some such question. It is not a question every film will raise. That may seem obviously true about what you might call a bad film; it may be equally true about a film that wears its greatness on its sleeve, so that it prompts thought about itself but not yet about the question of what gets thinking going. Consider Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), like Moonstruck a dark romantic comedy inspired by an idea of the Opera. There is no mystery to why we begin thinking about Fitzcarraldo: it is enough to be reminded of its central visual metaphor (art exacts from the artist an exertion as momentous as carrying a ship over a mountain). Herzog’s film contains scenes of dialogue that address explicitly philosophical themes, as well as moments of sublimity—thinking for example of the moment we learn why the aborigines have cut the boat loose—that are nothing if not philosophically sublime.

It is not my intention to compare Fitzcarraldo and its relation to opera to Moonstruck and Moonstruck’s. But to see how Moonstruck could be an instance of superior filmmaking, it helps to see how a film can have depth without making the explicit concerns of its characters serve (as they do in Fitzcarraldo) as a conduit for the audience to descend to [End Page 292] those depths. Moonstruck prompts thinking much the way dreams do, through a structure that conceals as much as it reveals, and by a peculiar juxtaposition of the familiar and the bizarre. In this more-or-less familiar tale of romance, what can strike one as bizarre is, for beginners, the slightly echoing repetition of some of the words (“death,” “luck,” “cold,” “snow,” and the question “How long must I wait?”) and the offbeat cadence of parts of the dialogue (for instance: “Rose. Rose. Rose. ROSE.”—“Who’s dead?”). There are also certain visual repetitions: the recurring full moon, naturally, and the gloved hands reaching for and taking hold of one another, first shown on stage at the Met, in the snow scene from La Bohème, and repeated in the cold outside Ronny’s apartment, where Ronny offers the warmth of his wooden hand to Loretta. And there are the musical repetitions, from Puccini’s opera (“Che gelida manina,” “Donde lieta uscì,” “O soave fanciulla,” “Quando m’en vo’”) and from American popular music (“It Must Be Him,” “That’s Amore”), each heard more than once over the course of the film. Perhaps one does not make anything of these repetitions initially, but one does notice them eventually. They function much the way that repetitions and variations in music do, initiating and advancing their own discourse, establishing their own logic. It is the logic and the attractiveness or attraction of this film, an attraction that we will see is not unlike the gravitational pull of the moon.

First, though, here is a review of the story-line of Moonstruck. Loretta (Cher), an Italian-American widow from Brooklyn in her late 30s, is engaged to marry Johnny (Danny Aiello), an Italian-American in his mid-40s who is not, we sense, a serious candidate for marriage because of his continuing devotion to his mother. When he calls Loretta from his mother’s deathbed in Palermo, he reminds her to call and invite his brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage) to the wedding. Johnny and Ronny have not spoken to each other for five years. Loretta calls Ronny, but he hangs up on her, so she goes to his bakery. There she learns about the accident...