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Why I Love When Harry Met Sally

Chicago to New York is a lengthy drive and mere minutes in Harry grabs his grapes, eats one, and with alarming vigour, spits the seed out of Sally’s car window.

Only problem: the window’s up. 

Leaving the glass splattered in grape-spit, Harry isn’t bothered. He continues to eat and expectorate like a hunter attempting to fell a beast with a blow-dart. The sound design of this is geared to maximise our irritation and unlike many films set in NYC When Harry Met Sally rarely looks overly sumptuous and alluring. It’s really a series of theatrical conversations.

Prior to the grape-eating episode as Harry and his girlfriend exchange their sloppy farewells, Sally honks her car horn to tell him she’s eager to leave. This shows us she’s also a little cantankerous and that the central conflict’s going to be tantalising. Knowing the conclusion, this awkward start heightens our curiosity.

How will the romance between Harry and Sally unfold?

Each is flawed, but charismatic and after a decade of brief, seemingly inconsequential encounters, their friendship finally blossoms.

And what a tremendous friendship it is.

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Central to the film’s celebrated status is the use of extracts from interviews with older Italian couples. Inspired by actual conversations, the screenwriter Nora Ephron crafted these six scenes so they’re earnest, funny, and emblematic of enduring love.

MAN: I was sitting with my friend Arthur Cornrom in a restaurant. It was a cafeteria and this beautiful girl walked in and I turned to Arthur and I said, “Arthur, you see that girl? I’m going to marry her, and two weeks later we were married and it’s over fifty years later and we are still married.

These segments Illuminate our perceptions of Harry and Sally and function collectively as both a prologue to their love story, but also a euphoric epilogue. They help to enlist our hope. We want our central characters to tell a similar story.

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Playing Pictionary on a Saturday evening years ago with friends (including my now wife, Claire) and one pair was trying to identify a grumpy-animal blob. Of course the game’s dark goal is to cruelly enjoy the other participants’ frustrations. Their attempts went like this:

              Koala! Koala!

Partner shakes head. Waves pencil at ambiguous drawing.

              Sad animal! Sad animal!

Partner again shakes head. Stabs at picture which is now representative of violence towards the partner.

              Bear! Bear! Frown bear!

Frown bear?

Decades on, we still talk about frown bear. We’ve all known a frown bear. When Harry Met Sally is also a celebration of friendship, and an illustrative moment is the Pictionary episode-

Harry: Rosemary’s Baby’s mouth! Won’t you come home Bill baby!

Woman: Babababy…kiss the baby!

Harry: Melancholy baby’s mouth!

Jess: Baba…baby fish mouth, baby fish mouth!

The deft, heartening bond between Harry and Jess is a counterpoint to the pronounced pessimism that Harry often shows Sally. During a football game the two men talk unreservedly. Meanwhile, a Mexican wave circles the stadium and their mindless participation in it as Harry delves into his marital woes is comical and poignant. He speaks of his estranged wife

Harry: “I don’t know if I’ve ever loved you.”

Jess: Ooo that’s harsh.

(They partake in the Mexican wave)

Jess: You don’t bounce back from that right away.

Harry: Thanks Jess.

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A tightly crafted monologue is always a cinematic treat, and having arrived at his epiphany, Harry runs across Manhattan (there’s always someone running during the climax of a rom-com) and delivers this to Sally

I love that you get cold when it’s seventy-one degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend a day with you I can still smell your perfume on my clothes, and I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of the life to start as soon as possible.

Harry’s speech has an appealing rhythm and the repetition of key ideas like love and you add to its enveloping intimacy. A joyous soliloquy, ‘and I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night’ is a great, starry-eyed desire that holds very true for me.

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So, before Christmas devours the calendar, Claire and I enjoy an early December tradition, when on a Sunday night with wine and chocolate, we arrive in the kind-hearted, affirming world of When Harry Met Sally.

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The Week Before Christmas

Claire and I made a pact that we’ll watch When Harry Met Sally once a year. So, a couple Sundays ago we did. It features great dialogue by the late Nora Ephron but also some moving monologues and my favourite is delivered by Harry to Sally on New Year’s Eve when they both finally realise exactly what they want. It’s a list of the things Harry loves about Sally.

Groundhog Day is another romantic comedy from the same era and it, too, includes a simple yet touching list of the things Phil finds astonishing about Rita.

Inspired by these two monologues I wrote one too, in the week before Christmas. Before Love Actually had its annual airing!

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I love when we go to the beach how you kick off your shoes and abandon them on the sand by a rock and trust that they’ll be there upon our return. I love that you care nothing for cars and will never tell the difference between a BMW and a Mazda. I love that you run your life with a paper diary which is misplaced every few months, but somehow always turns up. I love that Angel understands you are the most compassionate person she’ll ever see because dogs just know. I love how I can catch your scent in an empty room and then our beautiful, rich past rushes back towards me. I love when I meet your eye across a busy space and how at that moment, we share many secrets without uttering a word. And I love when you smile because it shows me that this world is bursting with joy and promise and magic.