" My plan to phase myself out is almost complete. "
— Jim Carrey, Liar Liar

MRQE Top Critic

Beauty and the Beast

Diamond edition adds to a top-notch film —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Beauty and the Beast fall for each other

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I’ve never read a romance novel, and it’s doubtful I ever will. But I know something about the habit that they form in their addicted readers. When I was a kid, I loved to build plastic model kits. Airplanes, cars, tanks, ships, you name it, I built one. And as soon as that model was assembled, I wanted to build another. A dollar never rested in my pocket until it was spent on a new model kit. I guess as habits go, this was a pretty benign one though I was a candidate for an intervention. Maybe I would have been better off in the long run if I had found something more useful to do, perhaps like reading more books... but hopefully not romance novels.

Written exclusively for women and almost entirely by women, romance novels are more of a consumable product than literature. The authors are judged by how many books they can publish a year (or month) and the readers gauge their reading in books per week (or day). We’ve heard of being paid by the word, this stuff seems to be valued by the pound.

Voracious Consumption

Barbara Cartland graces the Love Train with her presence
Barbara Cartland graces the Love Train with her presence

In Where the Heart Roams, director George Paul Csicesry takes a nonjudgmental look at the people who prodigiously write romance novels, those who voraciously consume them and those who want to break into that high-volume publishing game. Often it seems the last two are the same group of people.

Heart is ostensibly about the ‘Love Train’, an Amtrak special that traveled from Los Angeles to New York City in 1983. On board were romance novel writers and readers bound for the Romantic Booklover’s Conference, a convention of like-minded romance producers and consumers ... a sort of RomaCon. But Heart is really about the romance novel itself and what makes people read and write them.

Outside of the Whirlwind

Csicesry provides a few voices from outside that vortex of power wordsmithing. There is a husband/coach of a successful author, a husband of a full time reader (hence wannabe author) and a woman journalist from Playgirl Magazine who’s trying to figure out what her sisters are up to. There is also an editor from one of the publishing houses who gives a candid description of the precise recipe she expects the authors to follow.

It is the woman from Playgirl who seems to have the most trouble with the romance-novel ecosystem. Perhaps this is because she is a writer too, and from her POV, the other women are hacks and pathetic escapists. She comes across as being worldly, hard-edged and no-nonsense whereas the romance writers and readers all seem fairly happy with their lot. I got the sense that the Playgirl woman is living the life of real-world romance, whereas the romance novel women are dreaming it. In the end, the dreamers win. Are these the illusions of lotus eaters? Perhaps. More likely, it is that in terms of satisfaction, dreaming the ideal trumps living the reality.

Making a featured guest appearance is the late Barbara Cartland, then the grand dame of the romance novel universe (the movie was released in 1987). She is a creature from another era and in fact disdains the more explicit sex in the younger writers’ work. But she is also the giant upon whose shoulders the others stand, so they all pay homage to her despite her clownish manner.

Chelley’s Passion

At the center of Heart is Chelley Kitzmiller, the power-reader of romance novels and organizer the Love Train. The trip brings her close to successful women authors and publishers of romance novels. Perhaps she can make the connections she needs to become one of the writers herself. Although, if making or breaking it for Chelley were the setup for Heart, it would not have been as good as it is. Instead Chelley serves as the starting point and the bridge to the world of romance publication.

Minor spoiler alert in effect for this paragraph. In the end, not much changes for Chelley and we see her a couple years later at a book signing, where she meets one of the authors from the Love Train. The two are respectful of each other, but Chelley is shown standing in line to meet her and have the author sign her book. The sense is that the author has made it and Chelley is still on the outside looking in.

Here is an interesting footnote about Ms Kitzmiller ( taken from the American Booksellers Association’s web site ) that is not mentioned in the film. Chelley (whose real name is Cheryl Clarke Kitzmiller) has gone on to have a couple of books published since 1987. Also, she is the sister of Gerald Clarke, the author of Capote, from which book the recent film Capote was made. Gerald’s book was published in 1988 so I think it quite likely that Gerald was working on that project when Heart was being made. I have to wonder, if this documentary had been made by a woman, would that fact have been included? Did Csicesry not know that Chelley had an author brother? Perhaps Chelley didn’t tell him but might have told a woman filmmaker? Stranger still, her mother, Inez Clarke, had been published in pulp “true teen confession” magazines, and Chelley was long unaware of that fact. Sounds like material for a follow-up documentary.

Lost in the Ages

For me biggest problem with Where the Heart Roams is that I didn’t get to see it in 1987. For a 20-year-old documentary, it still packs a sweet punch. I think that there may have been an air of sad foolishness about the readers when it was originally made that has lessened over time. Same goes for the ambitious authors, calculating editors, and world-weary Playgirl reporter, all of whom are not as hard-edged today as they probably seemed then. The question now is, what’s up with the romance novel today?

DVD Extras

There are none.

Picture and Sound

Picture quality is good, but the sound is noisy on the train. But hey, it’s a train.

How to Use this DVD

Good for light entertainment and a fond look back to the early 80’s. This is a must see for fans of the genre.