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Blue Valentine

"I have to sing goofy... in order to sing.  Like I have to sing stupid. "   This the unnecessary disclaimer from Dean (Ryan Gosling), as he's about to serenade Cindy (Michelle Williams) in front of a Brooklyn dry cleaners one evening, early in their swoony courtship.   If you've seen the trailer for Blue Valentine, or the film itself, you've heard Mr. Gosling's "stupid" singing, a kind of throwback yodel of  "You Only Hurt the One you Love," that occurs while he strums a ukulele.   Cindy provides a shuffling, ragged tap dance.  The singing and dancing are both so beautifully goofy that it's hard to imagine not falling in love with either Dean or Cindy in that moment.  

Unfortunately, the couple and the film have to leave the cozy entryway of the Brooklyn dry cleaners with the heart-shaped wreath on the front door.  You know, the inexorable march of time and all that.  Blue Valentine, for its part, goes back and forth.   Director Derek Cianfrance provides nothing in the way of "Six Years Later" sort of titles on the screen, much as he did apparently shoot the two time periods with different film stock.   The early, relative halcyon days of our two lovers is filmed in super 16mm, lending it just a hint of the chromatically rich but imperfect palette of home movies.   The slightly grainy past occurs generally in Brooklyn, after Dean and Cindy meet in a Pennsylvania rest home, he delivering furniture, she visiting her grandmother.    It's a Brookyn (the film was actually shot in the New York borough and in Scranton) composed mainly of bridges and underpasses, where conversations take place against backdrops of corrugated steel shutters tagged with graffiti.  Like Dean's colorfully stripped 80's leather jacket and black hoodie, it's past that seems to be working just a little too hard to establish its indie street cred.     

Blue Valentine begins and ends in the relative present, some six years after Cindy and Dean first met in that Pennsylvania retirement home.   We initially see their daughter, Frankie (Faith Wladyka) in a field, calling out a name.   It's hard to determine the name she's screaming at first, but it's a forboding moment.   As it happens, she's calling the family dog, Megan, who has run away.   Consistent with much of Blue Valentine, the bad thing which lurks is revealed over time, not dramatically amplified in the moments after we see the elfin Frankie alone in the field.   Only in subsequent scenes do we see Cindy finding the dog, Dean burying it in a tarp and then Cindy trying to console a weeping Dean after the burial.   Poor Megan reminds one of the kids in Jude the Obscure, checking out of the family before it all becomes too sad to bear.   

The first scenes with we see of the family life hint strongly that the romance between Cindy and Dean, like the family dog, has left the building.  Dean and Frankie awaken Cindy after looking for the dog.  She's not amused:  "No, No!...I'm sleeping!  Stop!   It's too early."  When Cindy later serves Frankie some instant oatmeal,  Dean hardly helps the process along, suggesting that he and Frankie pour the offending oats on the kitchen table and eat the raisins "like leopards."  Cindy's response - "Oh come on Dean! I don't have to clean up after two kids" - is that of beleaguered wives and mothers from time immemorial.  But when we later hear the "two kids" lament again, it seems an indication that six years of familiarity with Dean's free spirited ways have bred contempt in Cindy.    

Blue Valentine is a series of none-too-subtle juxtapositions of romantic past and grinding present.  Most of the flashbacks occur while Dean and Cindy are spending an ill-fated evening in some sort of love hotel (called Fantasuites in the script).   The decision to use a gift certificate and book a night in the hotel is definitely Dean's idea.  "We have to get out of this house.  Let's go get drunk and make love," he implores her.   He calls the hotel and is told that "The Future Room" and "Cupid's  Cove" are available.  Cindy cannot summon enough  interest to weigh in, so Dean picks:  The Future Room it is.  If there's a moral to this story, and I'm not sure there is, I think it's this:  pick Cupid's Cove.
Dean and Cindy instead find themselves in The Future Room.  The future, as they discover, is a windowless version of outdated science fiction - a Star-Trek-like control panel, a huge image of the Earth projected against a darkly-tinted glass wall, lame' pillow cases.   Even worse, the future, relative to their romantic beginning, is the place where love goes to die.  It's here that Cianfrance, as both writer and director, has some of his best moments.
The extended sequence in the hotel room, broken up by flashbacks of the far more sanguine past, is like a long, torturous, perfectly choreographed dance.   In fact, Dean and Cindy do even dance briefly, even happily.   At this point in their relationship, a moment of mutual happiness is like some parallel dimension into which they can only occasionally slip, though it's not a movement over which they can seem to exercise any control.  For Dean, now a painter, the passage of time is indicated by a receding hairline and tinted glasses, which gives him the air of a less than successful mobster.   His thrift store tastes have not changed:  a sweatshirt embossed with an image of an eagle seems to be a staple of his wardrobe.   Aging Ms. Williams is a trickier matter, given the still youthful contours of her face; the plump cheeks still suggest baby fat.  The toll of the years is told more quietly with her, a weariness that ultimately flares to exasperation.   What becomes obvious during the hotel scenes is that Cindy has become sick to death of Dean, that she feels suffocated by the extremes of his personality.     

Amidst the brief dance, the downing of vodka and cranberry and a contentious, abortive sexual encounter, Cindy and Dean do talk while they're in The Future Room.  The divide seems painfully obvious, as Cindy questions Dean about his potential and the work he does.  Cindy:   "I’d like to see you have a job where you didn’t have to start drinking at 8 o’clock in the morning to go to it."  Dean:  "No, I have a job that I can drink at 8 o’clock in the morning. What a luxury, you know. I get up for work, I have a beer, I go to work, I paint somebody’s house, they’re excited about it. I come home, I get to be with you. That’s like... this is the dream! "  

The conversation begins by Cindy asking, "Why don't you do something?"  Much as Cindy seems to be expressing her own frustration as much as asking Dean a question, his answers are quite asssured:  " Listen I didn’t wanna be somebody’s husband and I didn’t wanna be somebody’s dad.  That wasn’t my goal in life. For some guys it is...Wasn’t mine.  But somehow, I’ve found what I wanted.  I didn’t know that and now it’s all I wanna do... I don’t want to do anything else, it’s what I want to do.  I work so I can do that."  On the matter of potential, "So what! Why do you have to make money off your potential?....What does potential even mean? What does that mean, potential? Potential for what?  To turn it into what?"

Cindy has no answer.   Instead, she complains that the two can't have an adult conversation.  But she's the one who's just reacting out of frustation, who  seems to have no developed ideas about her relationship or life.   She later, rightfully, points out that she's frustrated with Dean "...cause you go from here to here in no time at all," indicating with hand gestures high and low extremes.  When a dying relationship is depicted in a book or on screen, it's usually a male character who's granted the right to be bored, or frustrated, who decides to leave the relationship simply because he doesn't want to be there any longer.  With a female character, there usually needs to be some more compelling reason, physical abuse, infidelity or something equally grave.   Blue Valentine allows its female lead the dour luxury of ending a relationship for no other reason becuase she's sick of her partner.    What it doesn't grant her is a great deal of depth.       

The soundtrack, like the film, finds a good measure of its heart in Brooklyn.   Many of the songs, incongruously lovely though they may be compared to what's transpiring on screen at certain moments, come from the the band Grizzly Bear.  Their sublime tune "Easier" is used particularly well in a scene that begins in New York and proceeds to Pennsylvania, where Dean and his co-workers are relocating a retired man, Walter, to the home where Dean will meet Cindy.

Dean doesn't just deliver Walter's furniture, he unpacks his clothes, hangs his old military uniform, he tacks old matchbooks to the wall and even festoons a couple of walls with Christmas lights.  It's an exceedinly big-hearted gesture.  As with the serenade in front of the Brooklyn dry cleaners, its shows Dean at his loveable best.  

One other song figures prominent in Blue Valentine, "You and Me," by Penny and the Quarters.  We first hear it when Dean inserts a CD in a boombox in The Future Room and begins to sing along, winning a rare wave of affection from Cindy.  In a subsequent flashback, wind find out this is the song Dean years before selected as theirs.  The unique gestures, lovely and excrutiating are for Dean to make; Cindy simply reacts.   Ultimately, when Cindy has to leave hotel early becuase she's on call (as a nurse), the abandonement - as Dean perceives it - triggers an ugly scene at her workplace which is the last straw for Cindy.   By this time, we understand her frustation.   But the lurching story seems to think some violent melodrama necessary for her make up her mind.       

Airlines, understandly, don't screen plane crash films as part of their on-board entertainment.  If there are movies piped into Cupid's Cove, The Future Room, or any such love motel theme rooms, it seems a safe bet that they wouldn't be the likes of Blue Valentine, or Revolutionary Road, another tri-state tale of love gone sour.   If you're in the rareified air of an oceanic flight or the early days of a romance, best perhaps to forget about the grim possibility of the whole thing crashing.

Revolutionary Road and Blue Valentine arrive at their bleak destinations from seemingly opposite directions.  In Revolutionary Road, April becomes disillusioned with  Frank when he's absorbed by the conformity of post-war America of which they had both been so contemptuous.  By all appearances, he has changed so much from the assured young man she met at a party years before.   Cindy's dilemma is quite differenet, though equally numbing:  Dean has hardly changed at all.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are two of the executive producers of Blue Valentine.   Their participation as producers is easy to understand.  The film is a great showcase for their respective talents.   They're both very good here.   Gosling is perhaps slightly mannered in his performance, but just slightly so. 
Beyond the pleasure of watching them work, I'm not entirely sure what's in it for an audience.  One can certainly encounter much worse than a troubled Ryan Gosling or Michelle Williams in the dark turns of a cinematic funhouse.  But you might still might find the whole ride just a bit too rigged for effect.           



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