Thursday, February 24, 2011
Screening Notes #1
For a while now, I've aimed to find a solution to the endless pile-up of movies I see and don't end up writing about right away. The problem has increased exponentially the more work I have to do outside of blogging, and it just so happens that I'm in the thick of pre-production on a new short film right now, so matters have become worse. Less time to write, less time to commit myself to thinking about a movie for four or five consecutive hours. So the ideal way to solve this is to do quick-and-dirty write-ups on all these stray films, making sure I don't forget my primary thoughts on them by the time I do a formal essay. Therefore, I present "Screening Notes", an idea heavily indebted to Ryland Walker Knight's "Viewing Logs" over at his blog Vinyl is Heavy. I like the off-the-cuff quality to his work, and I find myself reading it (and other work like it) with more frequency than long-form essays simply because I don't have as much time to devote to them. This is not to say that I will be eschewing my common approach at all; I just hate to find myself abandoning films because I forget what I wanted to say about them in the first place. Here's the first entry in what will likely be a continuing journal of notes, and as you'll see, my notes will refer to both full features I've seen and other various media clips (single scenes, short films, youtube videos, etc.).
Lost in Translation (2003): In some respects a theft of the calming, moody nighttime ambiance of Hou Hsiao-Hsein's Millenium Mambo (and more generally all of Hou's films), Coppola's most popular film nonetheless gathers its own steam over its modest running time, due largely to Murray and Johansson's chemistry. Like her male protagonist in a Japanese scotch commercial, Coppola is mostly posing for cool sensuality without actually being sensual. It can be a dull slog, but I suppose that's the point. Great soundtrack and great hidden final line.
Leon the Professional (1994): In spite of his hitman/pre-pubescent girl romance taboo, Luc Besson's debut is fiercely unimaginative, more interested in being a Hollywood sleeper hit than in using its independent spirit for something worthwhile. Some of the dialogue here - particularly in Jean Reno and Natalie Portman's first revealing conversation - is hysterically obvious, and Gary Oldman's sniveling villain makes me laugh more than cower. And for a work that purports to be a muscular action film, it doesn't actually grow any muscle until its final act.
Marie Antoinette (2006): Unfortunately, I caught Coppola's third feature on the Sundance channel at what I suspected to be somewhere in the middle. Normally, I would never continue watching a film I haven't seen before if dropped awkwardly into the bulk of its run-time, but Coppola's sedate rhythms were striking to me, especially after a long and physical day of skiing. She certainly was watching some Malick when she made this one, evidenced by all the offhand shots of blowing grass and sunlight. Turned out it was the final thirty minutes that I watched, but I was unusually moved by it. I'm not sure what all the negative fuss was about. I'll be returning to it in its full glory for sure.
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004): A similar story here, except I've already seen Salle's sprawling travelogue/coming-of-age tale about Che Guevara before he became Che Guevara. Complaints are often lobbed at the film's generic apolitical tone, or more politely, its refusal to stuff the blossoms of Che's ideological tenets down the audience's throat, but I like the universalism of it, the way it treats the notorious revolutionary's drama as a hazy realization of global inequities rather than a scholarly essay on the precise forces that cause those inequities. The final act, set on a Peruvian island full of the terminally ill and deformed, is a prime example of honest, humane filmmaking with a breathtaking backdrop, and the epilogue, a series of moving postcards of the various people Che meets on his journey, is a reminder that time is not a static document but a continuum.
The Lord of the Rings (The Return of the King) (2003): A single cadence within all the mayhem is quite lovely: little Mary sings a local folk tune while the barbaric warrior beside him devours food. Elsewhere, an army charges violently at orks. Jackson builds a rhythm by intercutting between these two scenes, and the collision between the gentle airiness of Mary's voice and the impulsiveness of man around him is a marvel of Eisenstinian montage.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
My Winnipeg (2007) A Film by Guy Maddin
Found footage, super 8mm, and shoddy digital video collide in Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg just as much as fact and fiction do. In a conventional sense, this is a documentary, one made for Canada's Documentary Channel at that, but Maddin, as usual, has little to no interest in a straightforward presentation of factual information. Narrated like esoteric beat-poetry throughout by Maddin himself, the film's title is on-the-nose: this is not necessarily the real Winnipeg, but rather his Winnipeg. Maddin, one of cinema's greatest living mythologists, has created a potent dream space that collects the mood of Manitoba's cold, dreary capital and refracts it through his singular aesthetic, one that filters autobiographical information through a dense collage of lurid 1940's Hollywood melodrama, the handmade spectacle of Georges Méliès, the formal experimentation of Stan Brakhage, the cryptic associative strategies of Soviet Montage, and just occasionally, the familiar practices of low-budget documentary filmmaking. His films are funhouses of cinephiliac associations, inviting an active engagement with film history along the way, but miraculously, in spite of all the pastiche, Maddin emerges with his own individual style that is so steeped in the hyperspeed sprawl afforded to film production by modern technology as well as the giddy postmodernism that inevitably results from a century's worth of images that it could only exist today.
A tip-off to Maddin's tongue-in-cheek, self-fictionalizing attitude arrives early when we see that he does not cast himself in the part of himself - a man sleeping his way through an endless cross-city train ride - but rather Darcy Fehr, a recurring actor in Maddin's corpus. Furthermore, his mother comes in the form of Ann Savage, a burnt-out actress who achieved fleeting cult status in a variety of Hollywood B-films in the 40's and 50's, hinting at Maddin's interest in letting pop culture overlap with personal history. No doubt indebted to her experience in the kinds of stuffy melodramas Maddin is consciously reworking, Savage brings a terrifically authentic presence to the film, playing out Maddin's outsized Oedipal Complex perfectly in grand, often times hokey gestures and menacing facial expressions, which frequently dominate the screen in the film's many shambolic superimpositions. In fact, Maddin frames the whole city of Winnipeg as an emblem of maternal possession. One of the film's many repeated inside-jokes is a succession of cartographic images of Winnipeg's various bodies of water, within which Maddin uncovers perverse visual analogies to his mother's body parts. (The "forks beneath the forks", or the merging of two major rivers, aligns with a crotch, and the "lap", the pool where the rivers dump, is self-explanatory). It's a bizarre turn of comparison and allegorical guiding force, but it effectively communicates the fact that Maddin's obsessive urge to escape Winnipeg is also, and perhaps more fundamentally, an urge to escape the clutches of his mother.
His logical solution to escape? Well, he decides it best to "film his way out" by re-staging ordinary domestic scenes from his youth with local actors and actresses, which ultimately end up looking like a cross between the hysterical "Ledge-Man" sitcoms Maddin claims his mother watched religiously in his youth and the disturbingly off-kilter dinner scenes in Eraserhead. Maddin's approach is hilariously self-referential in these artificial family mini-dramas, as his voice-over comments explicitly on what is happening and critiques the deliberately hammy performances of the amateur actors, giving the sense that the scenes are being directed as they unfold. The long, mundane two-shots and flat lighting absolutely nails the aesthetic of cheaply-made 50's sitcoms, and the scenarios - Guy's sister is chastised and picked apart by her mother after coming home too late from a date, the children force their mother to get up and make pancakes by scaring her with a bird - are so convincingly goofy that Maddin's affection for campy home entertainment is made palpable. Through staged reenactions of his own past, Maddin is being open about his effort to use the filmic medium as a way of exorcising past demons, even if those demons are more laughable and eccentric than they are unsettling.
Political and social histories of Winnipeg are interwoven with the personal musings, but even in his handling of potentially drier material Maddin is no less whimsical. The film is almost anti realism in its approach, always creating a larger-than-life story out of raw information like historical data, geographical and architectural sites, and wayward Winnipegian rituals and festivities. In one of the film's most thrilling passages, Maddin documents his alleged birth and impassioned upbringing in the grandstands of the Winnipeg hockey stadium, which the film proves through crummy prosumer camera footage to have been recently demolished. Maddin critiques the modernizing behavior of his local government not with cold polemics but with unapologetically childish pathos; a sequence introducing each and every one of the Winnipeg Maroons players that Maddin looked up to as a child is playfully staged as a classic sports broadcast, with each washed-up, near-geriatric athlete skating into position in front of the camera as Maddin, with the intonation of a sportscaster, announces their name. The film's charting of the illicit back roads that are used only by citizens and not by public transport becomes a minimalistic exercise in road hypnosis, with Maddin's hazy, snowy camera sprawling relentlessly down the dark and narrow shoots as if placed on the hood of a car. And of course actual occurrences transform into surrealistic nightmares: an ode to the local pool becomes a trip back into the recesses of Maddin's pre-pubescent mind when his sexually curious peers made a simple swimming excursion into a "Dance of the Hairless Boners", and the tragedy of the racetrack fire, which left a great number of stampeding horses frozen beneath acres of snow, provides the film's most haunting images.
Historically, My Winnipeg may be the inaugural (if not one among a very small handful of) instance[s] in which a pure mood piece disguises itself as a documentary, and vice versa. Retrospectively, the film is more about layers of snow and darkness - literalized in the many kaleidoscopic black and white collages in the film - than it is about anything else, and in its own unique way crystallizes a feeling of being in Winnipeg without actually being there. But Maddin's vision is never excessively dour or overtly self-involved; it's joyously self-deprecating, and universal in a way that manages to loosely connect all the manic eccentricities to concrete stages in the development of a modern human being - the obsessions, the couch-ridden over-saturation in media, the sexual awakenings, the various releases from parental figures, and most importantly, the feverish connection to one's hometown. My Winnipeg is an emphatic argument in the latter half of the nature vs. nurture debate, suggesting that the imprint of one's local experience becomes hardwired in a complex manner, revealing itself deeply in the pains and creations of an individual.
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Camera (2000) A Short Film by David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg has been fixated throughout his career on the idea of the camera, the apparatus of cinema, being an intrusion on the human body. Often times, as in The Brood and Naked Lunch, this is merely a hidden subtext, its implications obscured in the onslaught of body horror, but other times, as in Videodrome, Cronenberg makes it explicitly clear what his thoughts are on the relationship between the voyeuristic mechanism of the camera and the vulnerable human body. But perhaps his most direct and potent evocation of this theme is his 6-minute short Camera, which is not only open with its title but also with its blatantly suggestive imagery, vacillating between crude, claustrophobic digital video and clean, formulaic production values.
What’s particularly fascinating about the film is its all-encompassing array of ideas, which sneak subtly into the film despite the seemingly obvious nature of the premise: a group of young kids jovially wheel a new Panavision camera around the interior of a house, preparing to shoot a scene with their “father”, the actor Leslie Carlson. The film begins with a long monologue by Carlson addressing his disenchantment with aging and acting, especially how the two interact in a not-so-glamorous fashion. Cronenberg shoots these scenes by getting right up in Carlson’s face, roving over the contours in his expressions like a satellite observing a foreign planet. His camera makes an abstraction of the face, watching closely as the sweaty sheen on his skin dances around in response to the moving shot. Ultimately, Cronenberg is capturing the unvarnished “truth” of the human face, as opposed to the mechanical artifice of the climactic shot when the children spruce up Carlson and prepare for a slow dolly in that illustrates a commodified perception of the human face. His makeup conceals the growing threat of his own mortality, suggesting that the dominant cinema form denies acknowledgment or exploration of human mortality and aging.
Carlson’s shifting manner of performance – from grizzled, hostile cynic to pleasant, easygoing actor – further implies that the camera has a hypnotizing power that suffocates accurate human feeling, encouraging a strained approximation of truth. In spite of Carlson’s impassioned resentment of the overbearing weight of the camera lens, and the way he sees it as a machine that neglects and thus emphasizes his aging, the moment the children turn it towards him, he alters his behavior. Tellingly, Cronenberg makes the film crew a group of children Carlson treats as his own kids, a conceit that is at first a silly sight gag and subsequently a rather insightful commentary on the increasingly youthful film industry. It’s as if, while recognizing the promise of this young talent pool, Cronenberg is also lamenting the loss of the older, and potentially wiser, school of filmmakers and actors, as well as the scarcity of elderly concerns in films. Camera, notwithstanding its short length and deceptively limited scope, is actually one of Cronenberg’s most multifaceted dissertations on his own medium and its industry.
Monday, February 7, 2011
Dogtooth (2010) A Film by Giorgos Lanthimos
(Many spoilers ahead!!!)
Giorgos Lanthimos wouldn't be out of place in Texas Chainsaw Massacre based on the number of times he cuts off heads in his third feature film, the otherworldly and mordant Dogtooth. His default image is a geometrically ordered room whose occupants eventually situate themselves in such a way that their heads skirt just above the top of the frame, leaving only their lifeless bodies within the composition. Unsurprisingly, the effect is dehumanizing, and the accumulation of all of these seemingly offhand but very deliberate images is akin to being forcefully denied entry to these characters' thoughts and emotions, encouraged to see them only as figures in a grand design. And of course, to the psychopathic parental unit at the core of the film, they are. Lanthimos is blending both an insider and an anthropological eye to capture the sick social malpractice that is the film's central premise: a married couple have cultivated their children in a closed-off, forbidding domestic atmosphere, teaching them that the world beyond their backyard's imposing walls is cruel, dangerous, and amoral. The irony, readily obvious from the very beginning of the film, is that the absurdly overprotective lifestyle they have carved out for their offspring is the only real danger.
Before cracking the whip on Lanthimos as a misanthropic freak himself, it's important to realize the glaringly obvious: Dogtooth is a bold thematic brushstroke, a cautionary tale about, among many other things, the intricacies of a child's impressionability in which the shocking behavioral experimentation on display has nothing to do with the director's own belief system. The film is aggressively acontextual and timeless - save for one possible reference to 9/11 that is, before any extratextual associations, more about the extremity of the childrens' sensory deprivation and numbness to figure/ground relationships - in an attempt to be applicable to any time or any context. It is an intellectualized, Brechtian form of cinema, so what seems like an absence of humanity at first is actually the intention. Sometimes within the same extended camera take, Lanthimos is alternating between viewing the children through the lens of the father and mother - that is, as passive, nameless objects - and viewing them as living, breathing humans capable of independent thought and rational rebellion. Witness the first scene, for instance, when a small portable device mechanically reads off new, coded vocabulary for the children to learn. First, they sit silently, digesting the artificial knowledge. Then, in a spark of imagination, they rail against their parents' insistent computerized lesson, attempting to devise a game that will put to use their newly acquired understanding of "endurance." Moments like this, as well as the eldest daughter's incorporation, later on, of behavior she learns illicitly from Rocky and Jaws, are proof that the stilted, robotic qualities of these children are entirely the product of external forces, that they possess an ability for individuality that is being oppressed by their parents.
At this point, it's necessary to drop the fact that these "children" are actually not children at all. The young daughter, the son, and the older daughter - played by Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia, respectively - must all be in their late teens at least, if not their twenties. Their ages are obviously not followed closely by their parents, who prefer arbitrary bodily check-marks as indicators of their development in life. The film gets its title from the parents' rule that the children may not leave the grounds of the home until their dogtooth falls out and grows back. Of course, the "dogteeth", or the pointed upper teeth on either side of the mouth, never naturally fall out, meaning the parents have created an obstacle that cannot, in reality, be overcome. They tend to rely on these kinds of false manipulations to insure they have complete control over the evolution of their children. At one point, the mother (Michele Valley) threatens them with the prospect of giving birth, stating that she will not "have to" disrupt the orderly flow of life with a new kid if everyone behaves themselves. The father (Christos Stergioglou), who is the film's most disturbingly senseless creation largely due to his greater screen time, comes home from work at his factory and sneaks three large fish into the backyard pool either to force his children to deal with an unknown object or perhaps just to screw with them. Supposedly, the parents do what they do because they love their children, and in an age of increasingly wayward homeschooling practices, their unconventional methods, though exaggerated, don't stretch the imagination too far.
The film's most fascinating plot ingredient is the figure of Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a security guard from the father's factory whom he hires to relieve the instinctual urges of his son. In light of so much autocratic suppression, it's unusual that the father actively allows his son the freedom of sexual release, but even this act of seeming indulgence becomes a calculated contrivance, a nearly unwatchable display of passionless, somnambulistic sex captured by Lanthimos in extensive, harshly symmetrical compositions. When Christina loses interest in the somber and inexperienced son, she goes against the father's wishes and engages in bartering with the daughters, leading to the trading of various outside goods for oral sex. The household becomes a sexualized free market economy, and ultimately Christina represents the infiltration of the external world in spite of the father's persistent attempts at security (blindfolding her on the way to the house).
Lanthimos has an immensely refreshing aesthetic sense, a genuine knack for composing striking shots. The world he has created is a warped replication of our own, a quiet, bucolic countryside where everything, even the patch of bright palm trees in the backyard, seems to seethe with malign purpose and menacing geometry. Lanthimos contrasts the vibrant, overabundant jungle of the backyard - with its artificial ideals of a slickly manicured lawn and a spotless pool - with the more lifeless triangular formations on the buildings at the father's factory lot. There are rich internal editing rhythms at work (the lovely sound bridge that takes us from an underwater shot of one of the daughters swimming to a family dinner scene where the son is playing on the out-of-tune piano in the living room) and dynamic interplays between minimalist shot structures and off-the-cuff handheld camera. In an interesting touch, Lanthimos actively engages with lens flares, often making bubbles of light a part of the composition rather than an intrusion or an optical error. All of this lends a phenomenal sense of place to the film, which is crucial given the fact that it's the only atmosphere the children know.
Dogtooth could very well be interpreted as a modern-day riff on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, insofar as the domestic prison represents the cave. What's interesting, in this scenario, is that the ultimate enlightenment, the moment where the eldest daughter "sees the light," is brought about by popular culture. In one of their many secretive trades, Christina presents the eldest with Hollywood films on VHS tapes, and slowly, before she is punished violently by her father, Lanthimos works in scenes of her appropriating behaviors from the movies, such as her pretending to be a shark attacking her brother in the pool. Rather than decrying the mass media's influence as demoralizing, it seems Lanthimos is embracing it as a form of catharsis, reacting to a general anti-media bias within some schools of developmental psychology with a scenario that posits the integration of media into life as the only route to freedom.
The final thirty minutes, wherein the eldest daughter finally devises and enacts her clever escape plan without taking into account a fundamental precaution, left me feeling a kind of deep-seated unease that I haven't experienced in quite a while. Long after I completely discredited Dogtooth as the "dark comedy" it's been marketed as (though, admittedly, there were moments where a restrained chuckle or two slipped out of me), the film settles into a daunting, challenging, and horrific denouement that is littered with one shocking, retina-burning image after another. Far from being out for simplistic shocks though, the film has a deceptive, understated quality of disturbance to it. Yet it's this understatement that makes the film so difficult to grapple with on thematic levels, simply because it gestures vaguely in so many directions. Although somewhat simplistic in its overt criticisms of dictatorial family units, the ideology of homeschooling, and the more widespread idea of national security, the film has such a distinctive stylistic sensibility that it's disingenuous to make any claims of lackluster artistry. I haven't made up my mind yet as to whether Dogtooth actually is as intelligent as it's cracked up to be, but it's certainly a tense, unforgettable experience.
Announcement and Anticipated Films
I have recently joined a relatively new online film journal called Cinelogue as a contributing writer. It's an interesting outlet for me to publish my essays because for the first time it offers a collaborative atmosphere within which to write, a place where my writing exists beside the work of others. At least in my experience, that's a new and exciting concept. I'll be cross-posting most of my work from here on Cinelogue (my piece on Blue Valentine is already published), so there's a good chance I won't have any completely original, exclusive material on there, but I would still encourage any of my gracious readers here to check out the site and roam around. There's some great writing to be discovered by relatively unknown writers. In the long run, my contribution to this site might lead to more stream-of-consciousness posting here (image essays, general jots) and more substantial essay work there. Who knows where this will take me. As for now, I'll be linking each post to their respective double on Cinelogue, just in case it encourages you to explore beyond.
On another totally unrelated note, here's some of the films I most enthusiastically anticipate seeing in a theater setting this coming year. I'm probably missing a bunch, but to gain some semblance of organization, I've compiled the films that will either definitely reach American theaters this year or which I hope will gain niche distribution. Heck, some of the films might not even be completed by the end of this year.
Turin Horse (Tarr, Hungary) and Tree of Life (Malick, USA): I'm banking on both of these being the closest thing I've ever had to a religious experience at the theater. The former, Bela Tarr's supposed final project based loosely on the source of Nietzsche's enigmatic psychological "madness", and the latter, Terrence Malick's long-awaited Brad Pitt-starring opus about, well, everything, seem to comprise everything I value in cinema today from two of my favorite directors. Malick's trailer alone is a visually resplendent work of art.
Meek's Cutoff (Reichardt, USA): Kelly Reichardt is slowly building what I hold to be one of the most distinctive and important oeuvres in America. I'm utterly thrilled to see how her minimalist, social-realist sensibility will play out in a period piece about the Oregon Trail.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand): The moment when I became infatuated with this film now seems like forever ago, but it nonetheless remains at the forefront of my curiosity, due no doubt to Joe's absolutely sublime short earlier this year, Letters to Uncle Boonmee. With a Palme D'Or on its back, I see no reason why this won't get an independent theatrical run.
Film Socialisme (Godard, France): Maybe someone will pick up this obscurity by cinema history's least obscure director? No, who am I kidding, it contains more than three languages.
Restless (Van Sant, USA): The trailer for this romance involving the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot from WWII (?) looks rather anticlimactic, even disappointing, after the extraordinary, thematically cohesive string of films Van Sant has been creating of late, but because it's a danger to submit too much to marketing campaigns and because it's still a Van Sant film, it has to be at least marginally interesting.
The Grandmasters (Wong Kar-Wai, China): I never saw My Blueberry Nights, but the generic negative reaction to it isn't enough to suggest Kar-Wai has lost a touch of his magic. This one's about a martial arts master who trained Bruce Lee - fitting content for a director who has somehow managed to capture on film all the intangible essence Lee tends to muse on about. It's still in production though, so there's no saying the IMDB release date of 2011 is really accurate.
Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois, France): Hopefully a Bressonian religious drama pitched somewhere in the gaping terrain between Doubt and Into Great Silence.
Into Eternity (Madsen, Denmark): "Defamiliarizing the snowy Nordic landscape, this delicately lurid documentary has a somber beauty. It is meant to boggle the mind and inspire awe — and it does. As in 2001 or The Time Machine, the story of the human race comes full circle. The unknown past meets the unknowable future in a wintry ground zero."
- J. Hoberman
Heartbeats (Dolan, Canada): According to reports, young director Xavier Dolan's second feature made something of a fuss at Cannes this past year, and the trailer, while somewhat of a Wong rip, certainly looks like candy. It seems to have enough of a "hip," post-Nouvelle Vague quality to gain at least limited distribution in the states.
Caves of Forgotten Dreams (Herzog, France): It's about ancient, nearly untouched caves in Southern France and it's by Werner Herzog. Sounds like a feast.
Melancholia (Von Trier, Denmark): Lars Von Trier's name now puts a bad taste in my mouth, but there's no doubting that his films - from the ridiculous and preposterous to the viscerally affecting - are events unto themselves. Among other nonsense, Melancholia treads Persona-esque psychological penetration via intergalactic collisions, and it's going to be interesting, as always, to watch Von Trier either fail uniquely or succeed horribly.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Blue Valentine (2010) A Film by Derek Cianfrance
When I first saw trailers for Derek Cianfrance's Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams vehicle Blue Valentine, I immediately expected a revival of The Notebook phenomenon: that is, a film so slack-jawed and precious in its celebration of "true love" that it would inspire red-cheeked mayhem from young girls nationwide. The only difference, seemingly, was that Cianfrance's film was posing as something more mature and adult, something digestible for an experienced romantic crowd. Not once did I expect it to actually be a mature evolution of The Notebook's earnestly sappy themes as well as a potent reversal of that film's ultimately optimistic, fairy-tale perspective that love triumphs all and is everlasting. Cianfrance's view here is a decidedly contemporary one sensitive to the transient pleasures and euphoric thrills of falling in love but also fixed in a very specific context where the idea of lifelong happiness in a relationship has become impoverished in the face of widespread divorce. Blue Valentine dissects this harsh reality by centering in on a young married couple who are at the brink of marital collapse, staring into the abyss of a single life but still grasping onto traces of an idyllic past. Limited in its scope, it's nonetheless a powerful, brutal, unsentimental film, but one not without a poignant realization of a kind of historical optimism, the ability to turn to memory as a way of coping with a dismal future.
Although there's no direct suggestion that the 16mm past sequences are being envisioned by Dean (Gosling) and Cindy (Williams), it's as if as the film's turbulent cross-cuts between present and past grow increasingly cued, Cianfrance is encouraging his beaten-down characters to just remember the origins of their relationship, to plumb the depths of their long-term memory banks as a way of reminding themselves of what made them so attracted to each other in the first place. Of course, even as he does this, he acknowledges that it's a near impossibility because the thick traumas of the present stand in such strong opposition. This is why the film's back-and-forth structure serves as such an effective device, for it allows the relationship's evolution, its peaks and valleys, to be deeply felt, but at the same time, in the gaping absence of what tied together the two extremes, it presents a portrait of two inconceivably separate worlds. How did Dean and Cindy get from point A, a pair of guileless lovers traipsing through Brooklyn streets, to point B, a married couple with an oppressive inability to communicate coherently? This disconnect illustrates the tendency for the majority of impulsive loves to experience an exponential decline in satisfaction rather than a static preservation of it. Every time Cianfrance cuts from one of the pungent snippets of newborn, spontaneous affection (which wouldn't seem out of place in The Notebook if they weren't so downright convincing) to a chilly episode from the present, the despondency and decline are palpable.
In a way, any echoes of The Notebook were extinguished in Blue Valentine's opening moments, a collection of fragmentary images that gradually reveals a complete, if claustrophobic, domestic setting. A young girl isolated in tall grass, a bizarre, telescopic view of a forest road, a stray bike, Gosling surfacing like a mirage smoking a cigarette beneath dark aviators: these images immediately and abstractly convey a warped domesticity, and it's unsettling how sealed off we are from a panoramic view of the surroundings. This is Cianfrance's primary cinematic vernacular for the entirety of scenes taking place in the present. Long lenses, tight close-ups, and an extremely shallow depth of field limit the plane of view to a few bobbing heads in blurry visual putty. The effect is discomforting, thrusting us into the hesitant non-communication of Dean and Cindy without an escape route as they bicker with veiled hostility about Cindy's chance meeting with her old boyfriend Bobby (Mike Vogel) or the tragic death of their golden retriever (a scene handled similarly to the main character's inciting incident in The Headless Woman by letting the source of the tragedy exist for only a moment in the lower portion of the frame) which propels the drastic emotional decline that takes place over the course of the film. Bicker may even be the inaccurate wording for what actually bubbles up between the two, which is less a form of rational conversation or argumentation as it is a minefield of half-finished ideas beating around the bush, a bunch of syllables left dangling in thin air.
In this drama of muddy logic, where actions are hard to understand and even harder to articulate, Gosling and Williams are remarkable. Gosling, in particular, manages a scarily good balancing act of humor (in his stupid, simultaneously charming and charmless city rat accent) and feral intensity (in his sudden bouts of verbal fire and perpetual passive-aggressiveness). Although a climactic scene late in the film at Cindy's hospital workplace seemingly stretches Dean's character type by giving him a scene of uncontrollable violence against an innocent third party, Gosling's gradual ascension to this behavioral inconsistency is well-played, believable only because it's sold so passionately. Williams, on the other hand, communicates a great deal of her character's bottled-up irritation and disgust solely in the muscles of her face, which change from loose and elastic in past scenes to tight and constricted in the present, most salient in one of the film's greatest scenes - and one of the greatest in recent American cinema for that matter - in which she deflects Dean's sexual advances in the shower of a sleazy hotel's "future room", captured by Cianfrance's dreamily claustrophobic camera. It's only in her snatches of dialogue that the script delivers some of its most leaden lines about Dean's childlike behavior and stubbornness. In the past sequences, Cianfrance's light, improvisational approach gives ample space for the performers to shuffle through and discover their characters' respective tics, lending an air of on-the-fly, by-the-minute character development similar to what unfolds with Truffaut's young heroes in Jules and Jim, right down to Cianfrance's quoting of Truffaut's famously bumpy shots of the lovers running down the street. The weight and totality of Dean and Cindy's potentially doomed relationship is reflected in the vivid physicality of Gosling and Williams, and simply put, their intense method acting.
If there's one glaring obstruction to Blue Valentine's well-mounted patina of realism, it's the musical score of Grizzly Bear. One could make the argument that the Brooklyn quintet's unique psych-folk is a natural extension of the film's location, its "indie" vibe, and its evocation of dreamy in-between states of love, but I found myself stopping to listen to the music every time it interjected, mentally singing along or otherwise tapping to a familiar movement. In a word, I wasn't watching the film in these moments and digesting the drama, but rather finding enjoyment in the already enjoyable music of Grizzly Bear. If there was one instance when the music worked wonderfully with the film's gradation of moods, it was in the final few minutes with the alternate version of Horn of Plenty's fifth track "Shift", released on 2007's collection of loose-ends, Friend, probably largely because it's a song I haven't listened to much. Maybe this is purely my problem as a fan of the band, but I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that any film runs the risk of diluting its drama when it uses as a tie-in the ubiquitous music of a band in the popular sphere. Or maybe it's just that the lyrics in "Shift" so interestingly compliment and complicate the onscreen relationship: "Baby I've got silver and I've got gold / But when push comes to shove, this is getting old / I wouldn't have it any other way". As much as Dean and Cindy know it's for the best that they push apart, they wouldn't have it any other way. Such is the essentially self-destructive paradox in a sad number of modern marriages.
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