Love and the Butterfly Effect
How reading a great book or going to a flick will help you find LOVE—and Write it! How to get started coming ...
Have you given up finding the right guy, the right gal? Do you think there’s nowhere to meet anyone anymore, that men are still boys, that women want commitment and children and big weddings—all promised on date three? That men, gay or straight, don’t want monogamy, let alone marriage?
Golly, why even bother?
What to do? I have an odd answer: go to a movie, read a good book. Do both. You will be changed and that change will have a ripple effect. The butterfly effect. Edward Lorenz, who worked on the physics concept, the chaos theory, gets the credit for this phrase entering our vernacular. I’m no physicist but here’s my way to understand it: The unheard move of that delicate wing whispers on the wind. It ripples and is heard somewhere else. Some say a flick of the wing can start a hurricane.
Come with me now as I’m off to the flicks with a book in my pocket. To understand me, and maybe you don’t care, but keep reading anyway: I love the romantic comedy (aka Rom-Com) and Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory that is full of his love of the butterfly. I love the paradox: stuff like what I just asserted that doesn’t seem to fit together but does—or might.
When my heart was broken, a long story that I documented in a quirky memoir, I went to the Rom-Com for wisdom. Now that my heart is healed, I still love them, but now I look for movies that cross the genre boundary and I reread Lolita, the much banned and misunderstood novel, for hope.
The best films cross the boundary of genre, as in Rom-Com, and become literature as in Lolita. When that happens I believe in LOVE, yeah, the all caps kind.
Let’s define one term here. Hitch, Something’s Gotta Give, French Kiss are, for the more literary among you who wouldn’t dare venture to one of these, Rom-Coms. Here’s how they work: two cynics meet, neither believes love works and one or both have been hurt or screwed by believing the open heart is a good thing. So one, or in the case of Hitch, both have shut down. The fairy tale ending doesn’t exist and they both know it. Familiar dilemma?
The thing about great flicks, the ones that cross the boundary to, let’s just call it film-literature, is that the subject is almost always, even if not fully apparent, about the paradoxes of love.
Two movies worth seeking out prove this: The Debt and Beginners.
The Debt, billed as a thriller, was not critically well reviewed by the heavy hitters. I disagree. It’s a daring story that uncovers the lives of three retired Israeli secret agents and provides an original slant on the difficult subject of the Holocaust. The power of this film lies in its cast, both those in flashback and those in present action, who reflect on each other.
John Madden directed. You might remember him from Shakespeare in Love, a flick he directed and that some have called a Rom-Com romp. I think it’s original, full of panache, literary.
In The Debt, Madden ensures that the viewer lives the agents’ experience through the struggle of layered conflict. In this case, the power of what remains withheld is a lie. The heavy-hitting critics say the movie wears you out, but that’s John Madden’s point: in the dark theater I lived the experience of the conflict as Madden entwined past and present, the way memory works. We see the same story retold in the main character’s struggle, the role played forcefully by Helen Mirren in the film’s present action and vulnerably in her memory by Jessica Chastain. Memory, in our unconscious joins past and present by revisiting the past over and over again. Its butterfly wings change us if we listen to the unheard whisper.
I was changed by this film because the key conflict, the ethical problem of the lie, is complicated by the paradox of love, love between two men and one woman, love between the one woman and the man she truly loves and her love for the child fathered by one of the two.
Beginners did not play widely when first released but garnered an Oscar for Christopher Plummer*. Netflix it. I loved it so much I saw it twice. This flick, written and directed by Mike Mills, operates with the deftness and concreteness of a poem. The performances are terrific, but it is the screenplay that stuns. The story and the editing work a bit like The Debt, back and forth through memory.
Here’s a trailer: click the link > Beginners and you’ll also see that you can watch this flick on YouTube.
Ewan McGregor tenderly plays the main character whose father, played with candor and wit by Christopher Plummer, came out, “I’m gay,” after his wife died. We know right off the bat that this character has also died. McGregor’s character can’t seem to find love. His parents’ marriage circles back and forth in memory of childhood. He’s overcome by grief. We watch him care for the dying and paradoxically vibrant- living, loving father.
The movie is transformative because the characters, even Arthur, the Jack Russell terrier, are specific, non-generic. We know their conflicts and we know that love is the answer.
Both these films cross the boundaries of genre. Is The Debt a thriller? Can Beginners even be defined? Both flicks read like literature because the viewer is changed. And the territory of both movies is love.
Love defines us, who we are, who we wish to be, when we fall short, and when we succeed in the deeply human journey we call life.
Love is the chaos theory when you’re trying to find it and sometimes when you’re in it, as I well know.
The book in my pocket is Lolita. The blurb on the front of my copy (see my photo above) reads: “The only convincing love story of our century.” —Vanity Fair.
Nabokov closes the novel, a book once banned for its pederasty, with a prose elegy to the voices of children at play and to the unheard voice of Lolita from that concord. Nabokov’s flawed hero, for lack of a better term, speaks at the end of the novel of the children’s “vapor of blended voices,” of the “spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or clatter of a toy wagon” and his elegy on the sounds of childhood ends this way:
I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from the concord.
Nabokov, who loved the butterfly, has made the point that love corrupted destroys the child and we must be child-like to love passionately, deeply.
The ripple effect of the unheard broken wing does not whisper. It screams.
If you are discouraged by love, if your heart has been broken, if you’ve become cynical about finding love, know you can be changed by a great film or book. You will walk on the street anew and the flick of your wing will sing. Someone will hear.
*Christopher Plummer, born in Toronto, Canada, won a best supporting Oscar in 2011 when he was 82 for his role in Beginners.
<Mary’s Newsletter "Only connect ..."> is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Note for readers and wanna be writers: I teach Creative Writing here in the section Write it! How to get started. Free chapters begin these lessons—so you get an idea of how I teach—then you’ll hit a paywall with occasional free posts: $5 for a month, discounted big time for a year. “With a little help from my friends,” as the Beatles love to sing, we’ll both soar.
Or, I can help you one-on-one for a small fee, via Zoom, an Eight-"session"-course (each session includes 11 parts) with slides and more experiments than in the lessons here.
Email me at
for details on how I work and we'll set up lessons.
I taught variations of this course at George Washington University, in the undergraduate and graduate MFA/Ph.D. creative writing program at the University of Missouri and at the Smithsonian’s Campus-on-the-Mall.
I’m the author of of Who by Fire a novel, the memoir (Re)Making Love and The Woman Who Never Cooked: Short Stories.
Great recommendations here, Mary. I'd heard of The Debt but forgotten about it. Happily, it is still available on Netflix, so I've added it to my 'watch list'.
Many moons ago, when I wanted to meet that 'special' person, I decided to start going to things that she would most likely go to as well. Not in order to actually meet someone there, but to indicate to the universe that I was serious about this!
Oh, this is good Mary Tabor...
Your choice of the Nabokov quote with his onomatopoeic use of “demure murmur” is perfection. It feels like the brush of a butterfly’s wings on the lips when spoken and like any good double negative, it falls in a manner that is neither demure nor a murmur but instead, like a murmuration it is dramatic, sexy and much louder than a whisper. It is a worthy example of the butterfly 🦋 effect… with the flap of a wing, worlds are altered.