Romance is dead: Why everything was more meaningful in the past

Jan. 22, 2024, 1:07 a.m.

In the old Turkish romance movie “Vesikali Yarim,” shot in 1960s Istanbul, we see a man falling in love so strongly and so passionately everything else in the world ceased to matter. Set in the old streets of Istanbul overlooking the Bosphorus — streets that are slightly recognizable to a familiar eye despite how much the city has changed — the movie depicts impossible love, a genre admired by our overly dramatic and emotional culture. On one of those old Istanbul nights, Halil, our main character, enters a night bar, where Turkan Soray, Turkey’s most beautiful woman of all times, approaches him to light her cigarette. 

Halil raises his eyes and looks at her face upon her request — and he is struck. In front of him are beautiful eyes staring meaningfully with a smile. The music in the movie stops at this point. This seems to be an intentional choice, for everything stops for our protagonist. The only thing left remaining is this pair of eyes: eyes that are so large, so deep, so capturing that you can look into them again and again and be forever mesmerized. His soul is shaken by this beauty that transcends time, space and his small reality, and at that moment, he is in love. With his face in utmost shock, he asks her to sit down with him, and our love story begins. 

There is a scene in the movie where our characters are holding each other’s hands by their palms, looking deeply into each other’s eyes and saying each other’s names. There is pure love in this scene, and this is the scene that brought me to tears. People don’t love each other like this anymore. With such passion, such innocence, such depth … 

Old Istanbul takes center stage together with the impossible love story of our characters, and I feel nostalgic for a past I never experienced.

Istanbul used to be more beautiful, calmer with only old architecture and streets overlooking the Bosphorus, where one gets lost looking at the serenity of its deep blue. Human relationships had more depth, people genuinely cared about one another, felt more for one another. 

During winter break in Istanbul, I watched a few more 1960s movies, including some old Hitchcock movies. One was “The Birds” — I had seen it years ago, and it had made an effect on me as a capturing thriller movie, but large portions of it had been erased from my memory.

One thing I had forgotten was the love story that gets intertwined with the thriller element; it’s almost as though there are two ongoing narratives in the movie. The movie starts with our protagonist, Melanie, entering a pet shop by Union Square in San Francisco, where she encounters a man, Mitch, whom she finds to be very attractive, only to learn afterward that Mitch had followed her to the shop purposefully to meet her. The man asks for “love birds” in the shop for his sister’s birthday, but learns that there aren’t any.

To impress Mitch, Melanie orders love birds, buys them, drives all the way to Bodega Bay, which is a small district by the ocean where Mitch’s sister and mother live, figures out which house is theirs and, through cinematic adventure, goes to their house by a small boat in order to secretly place the love birds inside the house.

This is quite a romantic start for a movie that brings so much anxiety to its viewers in its later parts, but perhaps what’s so significant is that it actually is very romantic. Melanie pulls a rather grand and playful gesture to have an effect on Mitch. Can we imagine anyone going through so much effort just to impress someone in our generation? 

Movies used to be better too. Such complex human relationships are not depicted in cinema anymore. Instead, we are left with shallow Netflix shows where there is no such depth to the relationship between characters. There is a scene in “The Birds” where Hitchcock’s genius gets us to feel Melanie’s anxiety to its core, where we see her panic gradually grow as she notices birds accumulating at the playfield by the school.

She tries to decide what to do in this novel terrorful situation — should she go inside the school and warn the children, or is there no reason to create panic? As the audience, we feel the tension with her, as if we are the ones trying to decide what to do in a world where birds are losing their sanity. Such complexity in cinema and the creation of such emotions has become quite rare, sadly. 

Towards the end of “Vesikali Yarim,” Turkan Soray looks at Halil from a distance and watches him go through his normal life, for they are star-crossed lovers: she is a bargirl at a night club and he is a family man with two children. From her beautiful eyes, tears are falling as she feels a myriad of emotions — love, despair and perhaps selflessness. She now knows she has no choice but to let go, to let go of the one beautiful thing of her life, her meaning in a way, Halil.

She knows she can’t go up to him and ask him to come back because deep down, she knows he needs to be with his family. Their realities don’t align: it is the impossibility of this love story that tears our hearts as we see the scene unfold and the lovers detach.

Modern movies of our age don’t make me feel so deeply. Humanity is losing its meaning, I am afraid. 

As the movie “Vesikali Yarim” ended, I cried, for the broken love story, but also for our generation. I don’t see such depth in human relationships anymore, where the complexity of emotions and the grandiosity of the human experience take control of reality. We are becoming more shallow in how we love each other, just like the decay of quality we see in cinema. 

If you are romantic like me, perhaps you are waiting for a Mr. Darcy to appear, but a Jane Austen way of romance in society seems to have become, well, extinct. People are ready to do all it takes to not catch feelings, to not become vulnerable, to not fall in love. In the age of situationships, where people are afraid to commit to one another and will continue to see each other without developing feelings, how can romance and romantics survive?

The possibility of love has been reduced to swipes on apps where you are faced with the inevitable fakeness of an online presence. This isn’t what love is. In this day and age, the purity of love has been replaced with a series of actions known as love-bombing, gaslighting, and ghosting. Such a scenario is simply unimaginable in the meaningful world of 1960s movies, and perhaps this is the core problem. Dating apps and social media are reducing the significance and vulnerability of human connection.

Change is inevitable, but my heart yearns for a world of meaning. 

I believe in love at first sight. The first encounter, the eyes, the way someone looks at you. There are eyes I will remember for eternity, beautiful colors of eyes that were, are, capable of shaking my whole existence. What a wonderful, dangerous feeling … doesn’t the impossibility of a love story and all the pain that comes with it, everything that could have happened not happening, make it so much more meaningful? 

I feel nostalgic for a past I never lived, the past I see in old movies. What can a romantic do when human relationships lose depth? Perhaps all we can do is to have hope; perhaps there still is meaning, somewhere, hiding, and I just have to find it. 

Lara Selin Seyahi is a junior from Istanbul, Turkey. She enjoys exploring art museums, reading novels, and discussing ideas in psychology, neuroscience, and about the meaning of life, and love. Reach out at [email protected] to discuss anything.

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