Arts·Cut to the Feeling

Sorry, but autumn is a lie and these movies are to blame

When Harry Met Sally? More like when scary met sadly. Anne T. Donahue is finally ready to admit that her fall fantasy will never come true.

When Harry Met Sally? More like when scary met sadly

Still frame from the film When Harry Met Sally. Closeup of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal looking at one against a backdrop of autumn leaves.
Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. (Columbia Pictures)

Cut to the Feeling is a monthly column by Anne T. Donahue about the art and pop culture that sparks joy, grief, nostalgia, and everything in between.

Autumn is a lie that I blame on Nora Ephron.

At the end of every August, I begin preparing myself for autumnal bliss. I focus on the promise of bouquets of freshly-sharpened pencils that accompany crisp trips to Starbucks while "Dreams" by The Cranberries plays. I begin my annual pilgrimage through multiple viewings of You've Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally, taking stock of my sweaters and coats, and comforted in the knowledge that no matter how many I have, I will still thrift shop for more. I fold up and put away my shorts and t-shirts, sick with delight as I place them in a bin on the shelf of my closet, never to be seen again (until fake spring in March). I commit to a haircut that necessitates a straightener and a complete lack of humidity. I tell myself I am Meg Ryan 2.0, embarking on a season that will bring love stories and a variety of hats; fall is my time, and not a soul can take it away from me.

And then fall actually arrives and absolutely nothing changes. The weather is balmy and warm, seconds before I am suddenly brushing the snow off my car that somehow always ends up in my face. Newly-acquired sweaters mock me from their sad home in my drawers before I discover that layering all of them simultaneously will still not stave off hypothermia. I do not work in or own an independent bookstore. I do not order caramel macchiatos from Starbucks. I am not privy to the musings of Tom Hanks who is in love with my online wit and charm.

Instead, I am hunched over my laptop, my new haircut expanding as the day is long. It is November, and I am in shorts and a parka, hoping I will strike a balance. If anybody posts another picture of Harry and Sally on an orange-toned walk in the woods, I will scream until my throat is sore. Nora Ephron lied to me, and I can finally admit it: I hate the fall.

Still frame from the film When Harry Met Sally. Long shot of Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal walking through Central Park in autumn.
Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. (Columbia Pictures)

Obviously, it's not entirely Nora's fault. Movies like You've Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally may religiously stoke the autumnal fire, but fall-centric touchstones like Stepmom, Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic, and even Sweet Home Alabama (a movie I dragged a friend to see by promising it starred Matthew McConaughey — only to realize halfway through that the male lead was, in fact, Josh Lucas) add to the romantic lure of a season that hardly exists anymore.

These movies, with their falling leaves, jacket porn, and perpetual golden hour, offer the promise of a few months in which we're gifted a reprieve from oppressive heat or biting cold. Ultimately, the real hero of these stories is the majestic weatherscape which suggests with its sensual caress that anything is possible.

But in real life, September through November delivers disappointment after disappointment, thanks to everything from climate change to American elections to the perpetual darkness of Daylight Savings. Movie magic may offer us an escape, but it's also made it impossible to feel fulfilled during a time of year that somehow feels emptier and emptier. After all, how could anyone feel settled during a November that delivers a heatwave and a snowstorm in quick succession? In what twisted world are we to uphold the sanctity of pumpkin spice while being plunged into the icy grip of early winter?

Still frame from the film You've Got Mail. Long shot of Meg Ryan walking with a coffee around the corner from Tom Hanks walking with a briefcase.
Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail. (Warner Bros.)

Since I always equated fresh starts with fall and the new school year, I placed unspeakable levels of hope in the idea that when I grew up, the season would deliver me the kind of glamour, drama, and love story worthy of a major motion picture. Autumn became the light at the end of a tunnel I found increasingly oppressive: hot weather, the pressure to have the Best Summer Ever™, and the stagnation of days melting into weeks defined by extreme heat warnings. For months, under the cover of air conditioning and/or a strategically-placed fan, I would watch and rewatch my precious movies as I counted down for the leaves to change and me to change along with them.

In real life, though, the mirage of a fresh start begins to fade as we realize that nobody gets the luxury of starting anew simply because the temperature is dropping. The cinematic world may have made autumn seem like a portal to feel-good love stories (or sometimes tragedies peppered with "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"), but in our own universe, we're all still sifting through the mundanity of just trying to get through the day. We may still find our own gateways to magic and change, but they're usually not based on outerwear choices or golden hour. Autumn has never been a genuine fresh start — it's usually just a continuation of everything that came before it. Maybe with a new jacket you can wear, like, once.

Still frame from the film Stepmom. Medium shot of Julia Roberts looking at Susan Sarandon, seated in a park in autumn.
Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts in Stepmom. (Sony Pictures)

But the thing is, the more I've realized that Hollywood's interpretation of this time of year doesn't really exist, the more I feel compelled to lose myself in it. I can't really blame movies or the season for periods of unhappiness or feeling stuck because in the end, it's always been up to me to create the autumn magic I crave in my day-to-day life. Ultimately, I am my own barista, sprinkling the necessary ingredients into my powerful specialty drink.

So while I've accepted that the fresh start of fall was a lie I was sold, I've also accepted that the best part of this specific fantasy is the off-chance some of it might actually come to pass. Without falling leaves and beautiful jackets set to contemporary radio hits, I might have just accepted August restlessness as a permanent affliction. Instead, I can take this time to make the change I need and grow into who I really want to be. Who, for the record, is still someone who won't stop buying sweaters.


Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. You can buy her first book, Nobody Cares, right now and wherever you typically buy them. She just asks that you read this piece first.

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