On the Contrary: The BLUE VALENTINE Has No Clothes
I love independent film. I really do. Not just the spirit of adventure and creativity that needs to go into even getting them made or distributed in the first place — though I can always appreciate that. I like that they can be about characters, emotions, and stories that are not for everyone. They can be raw, poetic, genuine, artsy, stylized, or sometimes all of the above. Unlike most big budget studio fare, they can even be surprising, taking the story where it wants to go rather than directions that focus groups or marketing departments think audiences want them to go. Independent movies can be the most thrilling experience you can have in a movie theater.
They can also be a real drag.
My case and point would be BLUE VALENTINE. On paper this should be a home run—a heartfelt indie drama exploring the growth and deterioration of a young married couple. It has two great young actors in Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (who just received an Oscar nomination for her role), a concept ripe for good drama and character exploration, and a wave of critical accolades (currently 89% on Rotten Tomatoes). It could have been so sweet. Yet I hated it.
Why? Well, I’m sure some of it has to do with the fact that the movie is a deeply flawed exercise in emotional naval gazing, and its performances (while brave) add up to little more than a series of open scenes, the like of which you can find at any community college acting class (albeit played here by more attractive professionals). Its emotional tactics are well trodden by dramas of the past. Watching the scene of the arguments about the husband drinking, the boss awkwardly hitting on the wife, etc, I realized these clichés are the indie drama equivalent (in emotional terms) of the rote car crashes and explosions in big-budget Hollywood action movies.
A movie needs to have something happen, to have the characters argue/cry/shout about something, so rather than come up with an original and potentially enlightening new dramatic beat, the film opts for the easy way. Ryan Gosling asks the same questions repeatedly then gets frustrated and punches a wall; Michelle Williams cries and takes off her clothes (or takes off her clothes and then cries). The emotional beats in this film were repetitive like a Phillip Glass opera.
I could go on forever about what I dislike about this film, but I wouldn’t be anywhere near as eloquent as the contrarian film critic Armond White, who in his review compares the depth of the relationship depicted in the movie to that of a relationship from MTV’s JERSEY SHORE. He points out examples of films that have tackled similar material with much more maturity, wit, and revelation. Walking out of BLUE VALENTINE the first thought I had was how it demonstrated what a brilliant twist on similar themes ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is.
Here’s the thing, though. BLUE VALENTINE is not a horrible movie. There are good things in it, some great moments, and strong performances (however misguided). Why then do I hate it so much, when a truly bad movie like THE GREEN HORNET inspires no animosity in me?
One reason could be because it seems to be universally respected by critics and many who see it, leaving me with that “Emperor Has No Clothes” feeling. But is that really enough reason? Other than in New York, Los Angeles, and the art houses in a handful of cities, no one is going to see BLUE VALENTINE. It’s not going break box office records. Maybe it will garner an acting Oscar, but in a year no one will really remember it. And as a creative person who values independent film, I should be cheering this movie on. Its success means more movies like it can be made (though hopefully they will be better). Yet I’m not just disappointed—I’m angry at this movie. How dare it fritter away this opportunity to be something special!
In art, particularly movies, we tend to be much harsher judges of things that come close to our taste but then somehow miss the mark. My friend Jason loves character-based independent comedies, but hated THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, a movie I thought would fit right into his sensibilities. From my perspective it was a great little movie, but for him there were a handful of scenes and plot turns that not only made him dislike it—they make him utter an expletive any time I bring the movie up in conversation. I never really understood this—until now.
We develop relationships with movies like we do with loved ones. For two hours we intensely engage emotionally with what is presented to us on the big screen, laughing with it, crying, or becoming frustrated by it. They are like family members, with some being closer than others. It’s always harder to have your mom forget your birthday than some aunt you see every few years. Likewise, it’s much harder when you see a movie that you know should and could be right up your alley but instead find it making a U-turn and heading down Main Street (to strain a metaphor).
BLUE VALENTINE is a deeply flawed movie, but probably is not worth the amount of vitriol I have heaped upon it. Many people might enjoy watching two hours of an unhappy working class married couple who clearly need to get a divorce. I just feel like I’ve seen this story enough in both movies and real life, and would have preferred a movie with some opinion about its story—a filmmaker’s voice—rather than one that just shows actors playing the same intense emotions scene after scene. I mean COME ON! Be about something!
(Joe punches the wall)