The Pitfalls of Serendipity

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of Serendipity and that led me to re-watch that incredibly sappy and pretty annoying 2001 movie by the same name with John Cusak and Kate Beckinsdale. For those of you who have happily wiped this particular romantic comedy from your memories (and really, congrats to you!), here’s a short synopsis.

“On a bustling shopping day in the winter of 1990, Jonathan Trager meets Sara Thomas. Two strangers amid the masses in New York City, their paths collide in the mad holiday rush as they fall victim to a mutual, major attraction. Despite that each is involved in another relationship, Jonathan and Sara spend the evening wandering around Manhattan, all the while not knowing the other’s name. But, when the night reaches its inevitable end, the two are forced into determining some kind of next step. When the smitten Jonathan suggests an exchange of phone numbers, Sara balks and proposes an idea that will allow fate to take control of the future. If they are meant to be together, she tells him, they will find their way back into one another’s lives.”

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If you’re still with me, after vomiting in your mouth at the sheer improbability of this plot, let’s start at the beginning. Time period is first with me in this case, simply because so much has changed from then to 2014. 1990 is the pre-public use of internet era. There was no Facebook to stalk down the person you met with the slight amount of detail you’ve aquired. I mean, just from the information that Jonathan acquires during the short interlude of wandering around NYC with Sara, he could have stalked her down on Facebook in 2014. (All hail Facebook, the almighty). He learns her name, that she’s from London, and a couple other pieces of information that when put into Google would narrow his search to a manageable amount. He could find her 2014 within a couple of days.

Next, we can talk about Sara’s lack of understanding about the entire concept of “serendipity”. Thanks to Google (again), I can tell you that serendipity is defined as “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”. Call me crazy, but that means no external interference. Sara set the events in motion by her actions and changed the definition of serendipity within the English language for the next 10 years after this damn movie came out. They didn’t just randomly run back into each- Jonathan spent time to find the damn book she sold. He checked used book stores all the time to see if he can find her. Nope, no serendipity there.

I could go on and on about the word and about the plot hole and about everything else that is wrong with this damn movie for a good long while, but I doubt that you are want to hear it. It’s making me sound bitter about a 58% rated movie on Rotten Tomatoes. No one should put that much thought into a movie so crap… but it’s so ingrained into the romantic comedy world that it’s now referenced in movies and TV shows by heroines looking for their Mr. Right. They meet someone and just hope and wish that things will go their way from this point forward.

A movie that achieved this effect of chance and serendipity by definition is 1995’s Before Sunrise. Notice the date BEFORE the horrid movie discussed above. Two people meet on a train traveling through Europe; boy convinces girl to get off the train and spend the day with him- randomly. They talk and they learn about each other. They have conversations about what is important to them. They laugh at each other and they try to figure out who the other is. It’s not slick, it’s not perfect. And at the end of it all, they decide to not trade information but to meet back up in that exact place 6 months from now. They make that decision for themselves without trusting the “universe” to deliver them back to each other. They make a choice and the movie ends. Not until 2004 with a sequel as well made and thoughtful, Before Sunset, did we find out that it didn’t work. They didn’t end up together- she never showed up, but he did. Oh, and here’s a real good synopsis of the original movie.

“American tourist Jesse and French student Celine meet by chance on the train from Budapest to Vienna. Sensing that they are developing a connection, Jesse asks Celine to spend the day with him in Vienna, and she agrees. So they pass the time before his scheduled flight the next morning together. How do two perfect strangers connect so intimately over the course of a single day? What is that special thing that bonds two people so strongly? As their bond turns to love, what will happen to them the next morning when Jesse flies away?”

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In both movies, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are real people having conversations about things that are meaningful to them. As New York acts as the third main character in the story of Jonathan and Sara, Vienna does the same for Jessie and Celine. But Vienna is not romanticized by the winter and isn’t a magical place full of beautiful people; it’s gorgeous, historic and full of real people doing random and uncomfortable things. Jessie and Celine’s entire day together was a mixture of awkward, uncomfortable and realistic moments that we’ve all felt when we met someone for the first time and tried to get to know them. And the most honest part- she didn’t show up; and when they did meet nine years later, it was due to the choices that were made. He wrote their story with keen hope to find her and she purposely sought him out when he was in Paris for his book tour. They didn’t randomly run into each other on the streets of Paris. Adults makes choices and that is how the world moves forward.

Must mention here as well, I did not once think of Jessie using technology to track down Celine. And with the second part of the story coming 9 years later, he could have, in 2004, tracked her down. The problem is that for some reason it doesn’t bother me within the confines for Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Although, it might be because Jessie was truly hurt when Celine never showed 6 months later and he poured that into a novel to move on- not to find her. We learn that he wrote the book to find her, but if people lie then so do characters. It’s the standard case of unreliable narrator. I think he wrote the book to help him move on and to fix his marriage, to put Celine behind him once and for all but it brought her back to him. THAT is serendipity. Maybe the sheer unrealistic idea of the Serendipity plot line makes me want them to put more effort into their story, while the realism of Before Sunrise  and Before Sunset makes me hope that they followed through.

So with the backdrop of these two stories, I consider mine. Do I want the magical fairy tale of Serendipity with fate directing my life or should I be making clear cut choices, making decision with my brain, about what my life will be and who I want to spend it with? And even if I make those decisions, will they result in the life I want? What do I avoid and what should I encourage? Do I take a chance or play it safe? Do any of these damn questions even have answers?

For reasons I’ve to discover, all my experience have happened for some reason or another. I’m not keen on the idea that there is some kind of plan set for all people simply since religion or even spirituality doesn’t factor into my day to day life but some things are just so difficult to make sense of when you’re not following some overarching view. So maybe serendipity should be something I would believe in. Thanks to that terrible movie, I can’t get behind the concept. I want to believe that things happen for some cosmic reason but sheer amount pain makes it difficult. At some point, you have to stop and consider why?

And yet, despite everything I’ve said, I must admit that I do believe that things happen when they are suppose to and for reasons I don’t know because I’m meant to experience them. And I learn from the pain and I learn from the happiness and I learn to make decisions. So to bring my journey full circle for you, no matter how much I hate the damn Serendipity movie and as much as I love the Before Series of movies, they really are both just movies and either could spark someone’s imagination to act for love or out of lust. Just remember, for all the faults, the one thing life does offer every single one of us is the power to make choices.

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