Friday, February 11, 2011

Blue Valentine

After a delay due to hunger last night, I successfully dragged my unwilling father to see Blue Valentine. It was a stark contrast from Black Swan, the only similarity between the two being the format of the titles, though I have to say I was blown away by both for different reasons. Black Swan showed female strength at an extreme, in a manner that seemed to me much like Rambo or Full Metal Jacket only from a female perspective. Black Swan felt like an exercise in what happens when you take a concept and just push it way off the deep end. By contrast, Blue Valentine was so extremely real that my thoughts often drifted into my own past experiences and I walked out of the theater with my head spinning about how complex relationships are, the difficult dynamics involved, and the decisions we all make which are never as clear cut as a traditional hollywood movie pretends them to be.

One of the things I both loved and hated about Blue Valentine was the dialoge. It was just so utterly real, so awkward, so tense, and so painful to watch. Notable highlights include the words exchanged about the dog, the discussion in the car about the liquor store encounter, and the dinner conversation in the future room. Those moments were just so painful to watch. As far as actions go, the confrontation at work and the dinner with Cindy's parents were so vividly miserable that I felt my entire body tense up for the duration of each. I really appreciated how those harsh moments were not softened by the few tender moments, the bus ride scene was heartwarming and innocent but yet still very awkward and real despite it's freshness. The dance/serenade sequence was similarly real in how non-pretentious it was, especially the presidents portion.

After an extended discussion with my father, during which time he asked some thought provoking questions, I came to realize that his perspective, although a bit more black and white than my own, is a very valid take on the movie. The bottom line is that she settled for a man who was barely right for the moment, but his aspirations, goals, work ethic, and life plan did not match with her own. He was there at the right time, in the right place, and he was loyal and willing, so he applied for the position and he was picked. It's as if she put almost no objective thought into the decision to marry him, granted she was young and pregnant, but yet this was one of the most important decisions of her life and she did not evaluate it properly. The result was that she wound up married to someone who she had fallen out of love with, and while the blame for making that decision is perhaps more on her, the reality is that he did not fulfill the most basic pieces of the social agreement. He smoked, drank more than he should have, did not seem to help out with chores, and showed no aspiration to contribute financially in the ways that almost any partner would expect.

And yet, it's so much more complicated because he was a fairly fantastic father, relating almost too well to his daughter. And he clearly loved both of them and wanted her to love him back, like she once did, even though they both knew she couldn't anymore. Sure he said plenty of awkward things throughout the movie, and those scenes were dramatically painful, but the dialogue is not what we should judge either of them by. The reality for her was that her life was based on a coupled pair of decisions, one to have a child and the other to marry her boyfriend at the time, and at least one of those decisions was not the right choice for who she was and what she truly wanted out of life. For him, the lesson learned is an all too common one, that some of the things he may not have wanted to do might have been worth a more open mind. It's easy to hate him for smoking around the daughter, or showing up at her workplace drunk and argumentative, but the reality of it all is that if he were even slightly more respectable, if he had a somewhat decent job and pretended to be an adult once in a while, didn't get upset about the oatmeal or the liquor store encounter, maybe he would still have some of the attractive qualities that made her want to be with him initially.

It wouldn't be a complete blog without a dash of self reflection, and I do feel compelled to share some understanding I have from watching their dialogue. In particular, it seems clear that his natural first response when finding out the dog had died was to place blame, and yet when watching it, it's so easy to see exactly how wrong those words were, regardless of whether they were deserved or not. There's a time for grieving and there's a time for asking for behavior changes, and the two rarely coincide. I know I have made that mistake in the past, and I hope to have the foresight to not do so in the future. On top of that, the dinner scene was one that hit home as well, she was really trying to connect with him and have an adult conversation and he just totally blew it. I know how that feels, having been through similar conversations myself, and I know how important it is to really listen to your partner, understand what it is that they want, and attempt to figure out a way to provide it to them without sacrificing your identity. In his case, I guess his identity was as a husband and father and he did not feel that work mattered at all. In many ways, I do have empathy for him because it's not like he sold himself as someone he wasn't, his personality did not waver much, although he did seem more of a burden as he got older. The last moment of self reflection came in the midst of the struggle for physical affection which was as awkward in the future room as it seemed natural during their courtship. Some of his words in those moments showed just how painful it is to know things are falling apart and yet want so badly for them to get better. I do fault him for not making positive change to improve, as much as I fault myself for not having done so in my own past and yet I completely understand how easy it is to live in a state of denial as things are crumbling.

To boil Blue Valentine down to it's essence, I like to take the perspective of who would you rather live with? Hands down, it's Cindy, for anyone older than 10. And the reasons why, other than the fact that she ages better than Dean does, or the fact that Michelle Williams was outstanding in her role, are as concrete and old school as they can be. The partner with a decent job, who does a few chores, and stays sober most of the time is a better catch that the one who is drunk half the time, acts like a child, and doesn't care about money. Of course that is just my perspective, but it seems a pretty clear that she is still a catch and he is still a loser, perhaps even more so as he gets older. Yes it's far more complicated than that, and yes we do empathize with both of them in various ways, and yes they are both responsible for the destruction of their marriage, as are both of sets of their parents who do next to nothing to demonstrate a healthy family environment. It also seems like a little bit of money might help smooth the rough edges a bit, and perhaps poverty is a contributing factor to the pressure on her which causes some of the tension. But the bottom line is that she has options because of who she is and what she tries to make of herself and he is clinging to her because wife and daughter are the only things of any value in his life.

What is so difficult to process or speculate on is what the future could be for them if they managed to work through this situation. Could they grow together? Could he find a passion with music or art and possibly become someone she could love again? And what changes would she have to make in order to help things out? Perhaps being more open to spontaneous affection, although we all know that it's not possible to manufacture attraction or emotional affection. What could she do to enable his success, and what could he do to listen and understand her better? While they don't seem to have much in common other than a shared love for their daughter, people can always grow close and change for the better. These thoughts are felt the strongest during his final pleas for a chance to make it work, which are surely too late after what he has done, but yet somehow that last scene is as gut-wrenching as any because of how difficult it is for all four of them.

I know I'll be thinking about this one for a while. All I can say is, WOW, it definitely made an impact, perhaps even more than I was expecting it would.

Overall, the movie was a traumatic experience, not unlike an actual breakup, and therefore so very real that it forces all of us to think about what it means even if we can't come up with anything coherent to say on that topic.

Thumbs up and down, all at the same time, just like Dean managed to compliment and insult Cindy all at the same time during their conversation on the bus.

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