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Blue Valentine: a film analysis

This is not a “review” per se. I am not attempting to give you plot points and tell you why you should or should not see a film. What I am trying to do with these blogs is “analyze.” I want to absorb my first reactions from the film and tell you about the characters and the story and relate it in some way to our lives. I do not want to focus on the camera movements and editing styles and mise-en-scene, though all of these things may pop up in a review or analysis if extradordinarily important or prominent in some way and must be mentioned to explain or explore the film properly. To really get the most from what is written below, see the film first. All of my blogs on movies are poised in a way which assumes the reader has already seen the film. Thiese blogs are enrichment and discussion.

So I begin by saying this: This film ripped my heart out. It’s fantastic to get to the end of a film and not even want to budge to pop out the DVD or go to the bathroom. Not just yet. It has to sink in for a minute longer. I had to reflect.

Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling (Cindy and Dean)

“You always hurt the ones you love…”

Academy Award nominated Blue Valentine (starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling) is a tender, intense film which took the director (Derek Cianfrance) 12 years to complete from the writing phase to the final release date. Please see my last blog about how fiction can come from experience, because as I collected some information for this analysis, I learned that Cianfrance really put this film together out of experience. So much so that the “older” Gosling and his pattern baldness is directly copied from Cianfrance’s real head, and the younger Gosling’s aesthetic style and clothing style was mimicked after his own wardrobe from back in the day. Talk about having balls and putting yourself out there. (On another note: this is Ryan Gosling at his best.)

This is a film about unrequited affection, reciprocation, reconciliation, and the feeling that as good as a love can feel in the beginning (and as worth it as it may seem) it may end in a firestorm. You can never tell for sure if it will collapse or stay afloat, and there’s no way to see into the future to be sure. All you can do is hope and try to be a better partner everyday.

Like so many dark dramas similar in tone to Blue Valentine’s (exploring romance in the way of feature-length slow-motion train wrecks which you can’t look away from), Blue Valentine does it in a very honest way. It is by far the most emotionally poignant and honest film I have seen in a long time to take on these themes–especially considering this type of story has been done before.

Many films utilize the back-and-forth cross cutting between the current hellish prediciments where the love is utterly dying and the jumping back to scenes from years ago to tell of how these two came to fall in love. Though it has been done before, both well and poorly, this story seems to fit this mold well. Telling the story chronologically would have worked well enough for this film, and I would be curious to see it, but I do feel that delivering certain parts of the past at very specific and intentional times, when done well, does add something to the narritvie and to the emotional context of certain scenes. It also aids in a unique way the audiences progression of undersatnding these characters and their ambitions or short-comings. 

 So is Blue Valentine saying all love fleeting, doomed to flicker then fade; or were these two never supposed to be together and did they misread an evening long ago for the beginning of real love? This is a movie of despiration and ignornance — a misundersatnding that loving your spouse wholly or intensely is not the same as being a good spouse. It takes more than sweet sentiments and words. It takes actions.

I also felt while watching this movie that the direction (for obvious reasons) fell into the category of sympathy for Dean (Gosling) more so than Cindy (Williams). And while this may or may not have been intentional, I understand how the director with his life being so saturated into the film in one way or another impacted the audience’s ability to not “root” for Cindy the same way we do for Dean. We feel Dean, for all his fuck-ups, is at least rying and is gettign the short end of the stick from someone who is emotionally crippled in someway and it’s not fair for Dean. I don’t know if that line of thought is fair to Cindy’s character, and I just think a lot of the story makes Cindy out to be the one not fully trying to save the realtionship and therefore we all say: “Aw. Poor Dean.”

When Dean told Cindy all he really wanted to be was a husband and a father, it was the final nail in the coffin. The first nail was probably agreeing to raise another man’s child. His ambition was lost with his charisma and their newly discovered sexuality. Where Cindy desired both of them to reach for the stars, he was resigned to a life he settled for. He would never say this, but she knew, and because she knew that she was partially responsible for this talented, promising man to give-up on his aspirations, she hated him and herself.

 I would now like to talk about some things I did not see in other reviews and feel are important to explore. Not just in Blue Valentine, but in content of today’s films in general: Sex. Oral Sex.

Through disappointment and rejection, Dean is constantly trying to give what he can of himself to Cindy, and since he did not complete high school, he is limited in his offerings. These offereings often end up being in the form of physical affection, in both publicly acceptable kisses and more intimate endeavors. What I would like to discuss is the “Man” going down on girl multiple times in the film. It interested me as film and media studies graduate because too often in films it is the girl orally gratifying the man, and the truth is that in the real world it is often give and take. In the healthy relationships, anyway. However, perhaps that is not true of our culture anymore if we are so frequently exposed to the woman as an object. The internet and HBO and Rated-R films have shown audiences that it is always the female being subservient to the male. Maybe people in the world think that it is a one-way street in regards to certain foreplay, but I would bet that the reality is this: many would be shocked by the amount of satisfaction which both partners feel from certain reciprocations. Finally, I will say that it was interesting that Dean was the only one seen doing these actions; never Cindy. Furthermore, he always seemed more than happy. I thought that was counter-culture of the mold set by Hollywood and, for some strange reason, a lovely little thing to add. The truth is that men do this to women when being intimate, not all, but some, and why should we be so afraid of showing men doing it to women and so unafraid of showing  women doing it to men?: A great conversation that falls right along with female vs. male nudity in society/entertainment and which one has the majority. Take a wild guess.

The whole abortion room scene was incredible to watch and certainly shows what it would really be like. I’m glad that a movie was bold enough to show the interations and jargon used in such situations to really let men and women know what it really is like to have to have such a procedure. Maybe they will think twice about contraception and safe sex when realizing what one of the real life outcomes can be. It was anxious for Cindy in the scene and conveyed equal anxiety to me. Truly affective and viceerally rendered. I never once doubted any of the characters spoken lines or faces. Not once.

Dean says near the beginning of the film to a co-worker in a furniture moving company something about love at first sight being like hearing a song and just having to dance. You don’t know why, you can’t explain it, but you just have to dance. I like that. And as far a worth remembering quote from Cindy, I leave you with this: “think about what you say instead of saying what you think all the time.” I think all realtionships could benefit from such adivce.

Love is messy. Love is complicated. Love is imperfect. That is love.

And it can’t be stagnant. We gotta grow. Both together and as people. Dean wasn’t. People are complicated. So was it worth it? If it ended like that, was the love worth it for the early times when it was good? Cindy ended it. Was it for the kid? Will it improve their lives in the long run? Maybe. Maybe not. That’s love. That’s life. There aren’t always answers. There are rarely answers. 

I’m out.

MH

(Movie here. Buy on Amazon.)

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“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

On the Road -- Jack Kerouac

On the Road -- Jack Kerouac

A close reading is where one focuses on a certain portion of the book–say a chapter, or a scene, or a paragraph–that they find resonates thematically and can be used as a major sign post for directions as one read through a novel or any work for that matter, including films. The following is not the only interpretation residing in “On the Road” because there are many things going on within this text. But here is a brief overview of what I found very significant and said a lot about the characters, the time, and the author. Enjoy.

 

There Will Never Be Enough Time: Dean Moriarty’s Beliefs

 

One has to die before they go to “heaven,” but why does this have to be true? Could it be possible to visit heaven before we die? On the Road is a book about identity and life; all its ups and downs; its malleable ebb and flow; the tasting it, feeling it, being it whenever possible. There is a quiet fear in most men and women—perhaps even more heightened during the time period presented in the book—where American youths were beginning to realize that death can come at any time, and when it does will we have experienced all we wanted to experience? In a very philosophical sense: within the phenomena of life on earth and consciousness, it just may be that the only meaning to be found in one’s time here is the meaning one gives it.

            I reference part two, chapter one to make this point, however will only highlight the strongest lines in the block quote below. I am close reading the jazz-like pages of 113 and 114 of the Penguin Classic Edition, 1991, where Dean and Sal are finally beginning their first real road trip and Dean is driving, swaying, chuckling, speeding up, slowing down, going on tangents, and generally pumping his every thought into the minds around him for digestion:

“All right now, children,” he said, rubbing his nose and bending down to fell the emergency and pulling cigarettes out of the compartment, and swaying back and forth as he did these things and drove… he slowed down the car for all of us to turn and look at the old jazzbo… trailing off and stopping altogether, and suddenly jumping the car back to seventy… This was the new and complete Dean, grown to maturity. Fury spat out of his eyes when he told of things he hated; great glows of joy replaced this when he suddenly got happy; every muscled twitched to live and go… [Dean] “Oh man, we must absolutely find the time…”

(p. 113, Penguin Classic Edition, 1991)

Dean continues to speed up and slow down, weave in and out of traffic, and all in all come off looking like a bi-polar addict into page 114 and beyond. His addiction however is not some pill or syringe, but rather the interaction with his environments and the people. If we are destined to live a life riddled with confusion, choices, and some unanswerable question, the least Dean can do is live and feel everything possible. He feels all should do this, but they can only find this state of mind when they are ready. That is when they shall find “it.” (I believe that this novel gets unjustly placed as exclusively a “beat generation” book and is thus subconsciously limited in what can be drawn from it. This is about life in a much bigger picture than a single generation’s interactions and influences with their particular social cultures and political trials.)

Another deconstruction of the quote from above can focus on the statement about having to find time; the time to tell tales; make admissions of aspirations and fears; time to live and live well. To live fully. The problem, as one would find throughout the novel, is that this way of life and this set of ideals are sometimes contrary to the expectations of others and societal norms. Not everyone reaches or respects or can even comprehend the attitudes and outlooks of Dean Moriarty. People will reach this plane, if at all, at different times in their lives and for different reasons. Sal continues to learn from Dean throughout the story, and comes to understand the inherent benefits and detractions which acting this way can have on one’s life. He cannot live like a mad dog and experience everything that life has to offer. By the end, it is proven that little can be held on to when one is trying to do everything and anything.

Lastly, the jazz influence and elements of this block quote must be reviewed; the very nature of both the long-block writing style of Jack Kerouac in this section and the way in which Dean is speaking and driving. Its metaphorical comparison to jazz and the free-flowing style of bop musicianship cannot be overstated. It is clearly the first and strongest indication in the book that not only is Dean a creature entirely his own, but Jack Kerouac is doing something very specific. Dean’s speed changes in the car mirror the tempo changes of a jazz tune; the same way his emotions are never masked—it’s always clear how he is feeling, just as the emotions can come through during an saxophone or piano or clarinet solo. There is anguish and lust and sorrow and excitement.

            Furthermore, on page 114:

… he roared into downtown Testament, looking in every direction and seeing everything in an arc of 180 degrees around his eye balls without moving his head. Bang, he found a parking spot in no time… he leapt out of the car… Furiously he hustled. It was a shaking of the head, up and down, sideways; jerky vigorous hands; quick walking, sitting, crossing the legs, uncrossing, getting up, rubbing the hands…

 

He is hungry and maniacal. These actions can be directly connected with the realities of finite time and mortality. There is only so much time in our days and only so much one can do in their lives. When there is cerebral clarity in an individual to understand these complex, fleeting concepts, what other reaction besides near madness and chemical imbalance could one expect from an individual? Let the vices and obsessions come! Made even more complicated by the expectations of others and the fears of our own limitations, it’s plain to see how enlightenment, regardless of one’s generation, can result in near metaphysical break-downs.

Even though the gang feared that “death with overtake us before heaven” they did all in their power to experience as much of Heaven as they could while they were still alive. (Nabou.com review)

Works Cited:

  1. Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Penguin Book. New York. 1991
  2. Nabou.com Book Reviews. April 30, 2011. http://bookreviews.nabou.com/reviews/ontheroad.html

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“Lolita” by Vladmir Nabokov: an Essay

Intellectual, erogenous, controversial, and poetic: all inarguable descriptions of Nabokov’s Lolita. But a love story unlike any before or since? If anything, it can be conceded that this book “offers a depiction of love that is as patently original as it is brutally shocking” (NPR). It is not love in the American sense of equal reciprocation we have come to value and understand and expect in our society. This book is a single “depiction” of love. The idea of love as the majority of civilized cultures display it is not shared by Humbert. His idea of love and is highly reprehensible.

But this is already known to anyone who has read the book or the glowing reviews for Lolita. The issue brought up here is why so many claim it to be “one of the most beautiful love stories you’ll ever read” or go as far to say “it may be one of the only love stories you’ll ever read” (NPR). Through artful prose and detailed descriptions the reader is swayed to empathize with Humbert; it is not hard to do given the small amount of love (better described as “attention”) Lolita gives to him. But no reader walks away from having read this book honestly believing this is a true love story. True love is reciprocated. True love is understood by the parties involved. Not that true love always has a happy ending, but these emotions described by Humbert throughout the text are manipulative, complex accounts given to us by a man with an obsession who had been to mental institutions—nothing more; regardless of his aptitude, cleverness, and scholastic conquests.

True love is reciprocated equally and in the same manner. Let’s suppose that these two characters love each other equally quantitatively, and Lolita simply never wanted to show it or knew how to show it. Though loving each other deeply, these two characters, hypothetically, showed their love in two very different ways. Lolita saw a father and a source of cash; Humbert saw a body after which he lusted, and that was it until near the very end. He never liked how she treated him for the majority of the story, but thought he loved her anyway. Lolita did not have the capacity or interest to reciprocate qualitatively in the same way. Does Lolita have a physical attraction to Humbert like Humbert has an attraction to Lolita? No. Humbert certainly thinks this is love, but true love this is not. This is obsession and infatuation; an unfortunate consequence of unremitted love.

Humbert says “I would hold her against me three times a day, every day” talking about why he would pretend to love and possibly marry a poor woman he finds not attractive at all to be able to touch her daughter (pp 70). He continues: “All my troubles would be expelled, I would be a healthy man.” Most would disagree. There will always be troubles for everyone, even people with lives not as wild as Humbert’s.

The tragedy of the novel is that Humbert, while perhaps really loving Lolita, will never be able to stay with just her. Even if he stayed with her and she was the first nymphet he stayed with even though she grew up and Humbert did not go after another young one, one day Lolita will be old and die. Again, with the provocative language Humbert uses when writing his incredible story to us, it’s not hard to read passages like this and be fooled into having a heart swell of empathy and notions of true love:

“… she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt arm-pits… hopelessly warns at seventeen… and I looked at her and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else (pp 277).”

This passage certainly supports this idea that Humbert must really love her. After all, the majority of the book must have had the forward thinking reader presuming that once Lolita grows out of her current body, Humbert will surely be moving along to the next little girl. But despite all of the pieces to the contrary, and despite her tired, unkempt, worn body, Humbert is willing to give up his life-long infatuation with the body type he was most obsessed with to stay with Lolita who will never look like a 12-year old again.

And there lies the problem with the whole notion of true love given to this text by critics and fans! Do not forget that she never showed him any real sweetness. She only had her hand out for sixty five cents and eventually thousands of dollars throughout the text. This is not true love. Especially considering Humbert said numerous times how difficult it was dealing with her moodiness and attitudes. How can this be anything but physical and psychological attraction? Humbert does not breakdown at the end of the story begging for Lolita to come with him out of lust for her body. That young body is clearly gone. So some would say it was for love. True love. But that is too idealistic and cliché and simple. Humbert—poor, permanently disturbed Humbert—cannot change that quickly. Even though he realizes the error of his ways, the truth is that Lolita is simply that last person that spent a large chunk of time with him and made memories with him. He is in love with the memories of having a sex buddy on a road trip, though he tries to tell us directly that “it was not that echo alone I worshipped” (pp. 278). He is trying to convince both himself and the reader this is the truth, but this is simply lip service by Humbert to appeal to our hearts so we see him as less of a monster and less of a fool. He cries and writes the passage on page 277 because he is lonely, lonely, lonely.

There is no happily ever after here.

Works Cited: 

NPR – National Public Radio. Ellen Silva, producer. “Why ‘Lolita’ Remains Shocking, and a Favorite.” July 7, 2006 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5536855

Nabokov, Vladmir. Lolita. 1955. 50th Anniversary Edition. Random House, New York.

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“On Becoming a Novelist” by John Gardner

The above title is a book that was recommended to me by my professor while in a Writing Fiction class last year. The list he gave to all of the students had several books on it, both from great authors of the past and present, as well as some “how-to-write” books, though he hesitated to call them that. Doesn’t like to in fact. And honestly, he doesn’t read or recommend “self-help” books, but prefers the books on solid concept and structure. Structure again and again I say. Without that, without solid scenes moving the plot along, character development, and three acts with a thematic metaphor somewhere in there, you have nothing.

I’ve learned to appreciate a good book that helps teach “methods,” not how to write a certain way, but rather how to think like a writer. How to live that life. How to massage your brain into filling the shoes of your character and how to make a piece flow and have all the peaks and valleys it needs. A good book on writing will do these things without dictating the genre in which to write. After you know these things, you have the rudiments, and then you can write anything on top of this structural skeleton.

“On Becoming a Novelist” does just that. It’s a book written by John Gardner in 1983, and Gardner is regarded as one of the great American writers of the 20th Century. Having written novels for decades in the middle of the century, including Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues and October Light, his modern classics are still poignant and sweeping. Within his lifetime of writing, there was a time where we was a teacher at Chico State in California. There, in 1958, he had the serendipitous luck of teaching Raymond Carver in his class, a man at the time who would learn to love writing under the stubborn tutelage of Gardner. Raymond Carver wrote The Big Sleep among other detective novels, thought The Big Sleep received the Hollywood treatment staring Humphry Bogart.

Gardner was a chain-smoker, a rebel in his own way, and a believer in rewriting, rewriting and rewriting. Draft upon draft upon draft to get it just right. And he stuck by his students and helped each to become their best–either that or he simply feared someone more stupid than he coming and filling the students heads with crap on down the road, and wanted to make sure there was no vacancy, for their heads would already be filled with the good stuff.

I have found this book to be particularly helpful, and unfortunately, unless someone else reads every “help” book for you, you never can really tell which ones are good and which ones are bad. People need help in different areas, and frankly, some people are idiots, not knowing what they are looking for and think all help is good.

However, a warning: it is possible to fill your head with so much advice and be influenced by so many other writers or people who think they know all about writing that your head will simply pop. And if it doesn’t pop, it will become goop, suitable for nothing but regurgitating someone elses thoughts and ideas because you inhaled so much work from others you forgot to write and think for yourself.

Here is a particularly humourous and clever passage. Some of these–not all–I found to fit my bill:

I. The Writer’s Nature

“Like other kinds of intelligence, the storyteller is partly natural, partly trained. It is composed of several qualities, most of which, in normal people, are signs of either immaturity or incivility: wit (a tendency to make irreverent connections); obstinacy and a tendency toward churlishness (a refusal to believe what all sensible people know is true); childishness (an apparent lack of mental focus and serious purpose, a fondness for daydreaming and telling pointless lies, a lack of proper respect, mischievousness, an unseemly propensity for crying over nothing); a marked tendency toward oral or anal fixation or both (the oral manifested by excessive eating, drinking, smoking, or chattering; the anal by nervous cleanliness and neatness coupled with a weird fascination with dirty jokes); remarkable powers of eidetic recall, or a visual memory (a usual feature of early adolescence and mental retardation); a strange admixture of shameless playfulness and embarrassing earnestness, the latter often heightened by irrationally intense feelings for or against religion; patience like a cat’s; recklessness, impulsiveness, and improvidence; and finally, an inexplicable and incurable addiction to stories, written or oral, bad or good. Not all writers have exactly these same virtues, of course. Occasionally one finds one who is not abnormally improvident.”

A bit of humor in the end there. Long one, ain’t it? Well, the whole book is not like this, but I loved the rediculousness of it’s delivery, filling three-quarters of a page, and truly being not far off from most screenwriters, fiction writers, poets, and critics of the arts I have met or seen interviewed. If you have any of these things, maybe you should grab a pen.

Coming soon: movie reviews, excerpts from my upcoming release, and I will be answering your questions as they come. Simply click on the “Question” bar at the top of the page!

Matthew Hughston

Quote from:

On Becoming a Novelist, Gardner, John.

pp. 34 W.W. Norton & Company, INC., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110 www.wwnorton.com

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