I had been looking forward to Blue Valentine for some time when I finally saw it on its opening night in Vancouver this January. I beat away my friends with sticks so that I could see it alone, and I wondered when I got in line what the crowd was going to be like on opening night.
There were many dates. There were more than a few groups of girls out together. Many very young, late teens or early 20s. I wondered if they knew what was in store for them. I wondered what effect it might have. There were no lone guys, save the few that were waiting for their dates to arrive. A couple of scattered lone ladies that I spotted, generally a bit older then the younger groups.
The film’s opening scene sets the tone for the experience – without spoiling too much, I will simply say that the film starts in the country, on a small plot of Pennsylvanian land, amongst the roar of evening crickets, and what transpires there is merely to set you up for what you’re in store for: This isn’t The Notebook 2. In fact, we’re leaving Hollywood pretty far behind for this one. It tells you right off the bat, “this might get rough, so we’re turning on the fasten-seatbelt sign right out of the gate.” It’s a bit like Moulin Rouge but without the excessive obnoxiousness (the “get the worst over with early” routine – Believe me when I say Blue Valentine does NOT get the worst over with first.).
Speaking of Blue Valentine “not being The Notebook 2”, there is one poster for Blue Valentine that I thought was pretty ridiculous.
“‘Nobody baby but you and me.’ Ugh. I’ll sit through it as long as she puts out.”
She won’t. Next time do your homework!
Hm. Yes, you can see why some people may have been a little bit confused and did a fair share of squirming as this movie laid out its beautifully bleak case. So let’s just put aside The Notebook for the rest of this – I don’t mind if you loved that movie, but my point now is merely that Blue Valentine, for the love of god, is not The Notebook, and in fact there is very little real shared between the two.
Blue Valentine is an incredibly ambitious film full of big ideas and an earnest, passionate attempt to express great truths. The filmmakers’ nuts-and-bolts obsession with finding a way of transmitting contrived truth has been well covered in magazines leading up to the oscars, and it’s a good thing because it’s noteworthy stuff. When Ryan Gosling’s character wakes up to his young daughter in the morning, the director stayed up getting tipsy with Ryan the night before, and woke up early to set up the shot – when the daughter character (with whom Ryan and Michelle and Derek spent a month nearly living together in the preparation for this film) wakes him up, it’s real. Ryan was out like a light, and is already in character when jarred out of his sleep and whatever strange identity he was dreaming in. The result is a surprisingly truthful snapshot of an intimate, mundane little family moment – a very difficult thing to create in the fundamentally-contrived illusory world of narrative filmmaking.
And that mundanity is key to this film. These characters aren’t bound for greatness. They aren’t highly-exceptional human beings who stand out from the crowd for any blazing reason. The storytellers here are giving us poetry for the ordinary working class family – the American Unhappy. Life didn’t work out quite like they hoped. In most cases of modern human life, this is in fact what transpires. So the truth is a big one because it is shared by so many – and yet it goes largely underexplored and under-awarded in Hollywood where the escape fantasy reigns supreme. Why would we want to spend money to be reminded of difficult and painful truths?
Because in fact this film is also screaming a warning. These things sneak up on you! When “life just doesn’t work out”, there often isn’t anything that can be pointed to for blame, no single cause or regret or reason. It is, simply but by result of a world made of grey shades, what happens most of the time. To the wisened and weary of being lied to in movies, it is a breath of poetic fresh air. To the younger and relatively unscathed, it is a warning shouted from a mountaintop: This happens. And it happens all the time. Beware!
Blue Valentine is frequently posing big questions that are always present but unpleasant to look at. Things big enough to define us and frighten us but that we always cover up with whatever we can hastily drape over them. That hideously grotesque monster in the corner, did you notice that just because it has a doily on its forehead, it is in fact actually NOT an endtable? You probably forgot.
Questions about growing old, about loneliness, about the incompatibility amongst humans, each of us with our own perspectives and baggage. With Michelle’s character Cindy we even witness the unpleasant side of being very pretty. With Ryan’s Dean we see the decay that results from convincing yourself you are comfortable. And a million other tiny bits of crumbled paint and domestic tragedy. This is the real kind of doomed love story. There is a sinking ship involved, you just never quite see it literally.
The most important thing to note about the movie’s big truths is that it doesn’t spell anything out. There are no bulleted notes to take. Relationships are complex, people are often not meant to be able to share such intense intimacy over a long term and still maintain a personal identity. So rarely do our cores synchronize. We can only ever hope for an occasional eclipse.
When the dazzling credits began to roll (they seem to scream a reminder: “you just watched a big thing happen!”) I took in a bit of the crowd reaction. It was mostly quiet, there wasn’t a lot of instant chatter. Sitting to my right was a woman in her 30s, maybe early 40s. To my left was a pair of young girls, maybe 19 or 20. Our little pocket of four people stayed through the whole credits and even sat for a silent few marinading seconds after the lights came up and the projector stopped. There seemed to be a particularly effective pocket right around our seats – Perhaps they were acoustically superior?
It bears some of the most noteworthy performances in recent movie history, was hideously snubbed across the board at the Oscars (and nobody was surprised) and should be required viewing for any 20 year old who adores The Notebook.
And thankfully, we can still have a Blue Valentine poster with an appropriate hint of poetic scale and the desperation of the terrible ticking clock hanging just above these wretched souls.
One final note on the tagline: “A love story” – Perhaps a little bit deliberately misleading considering the sort of movies that might also bear this tagline. In fact it is exactly true in this case – Blue Valentine is the story of love as it actually exists and as it so frequently rusts. Here we only glimpse the beginning and something approaching an end – and the great poetic realm in which the two overlap.
“My end is in my beginning.” – Mary, Queen of Scots