To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
I realize that it's presumptuous to write about a film one has only seen three times.
review by Anthony Lane | The New Yorker, January 3 2011
TThe first thing we see in “Blue Valentine” is a small girl, standing alone in the grass, crying out a name. It’s a simple sight, yet fraught with alarming possibility, and that goes for the rest of the movie. Here is the tale of a man and a woman falling in and out of love: something that happens every day, to millions of people, as if that were any consolation. “ ’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all,” Tennyson wrote, and instinct tells us to agree. But he was writing of bereavement—of a love cut off in its glory, through nobody’s fault. What if the love wizens and sours, through everyone’s fault, making the loss too bitter to endure? Who wouldn’t wonder, in a low moment, whether the whole damn thing was worth it, after all?
The girl is Frankie (Faith Wladyka), aged about five, the only child of Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). Frankie is calling for their dog, which has run off, and Cindy’s search for the wanderer strikes the first note of desperation in the film, though hardly the last. When she arrives late for a school concert, her eyes are wet; the news is not good, and you want to know how Dean will break it to their daughter. “Maybe she moved out to Hollywood and became a movie dog,” he says to her, which is as good a working metaphor for death as I have heard. It’s also a hint of how closely Dean is tuned to Frankie—more closely, sometimes, than her mother is. Together, father and daughter lick the raisins from her oatmeal off the kitchen table (“We’re eating like leopards,” he explains), which shows what a kid he is himself, and what sort of laceration would result if they were parted.
As if in response to this worry, the movie then parts company with itself. One moment, we’re watching Frankie being dropped off with Cindy’s father (John Doman) for a sleepover. The next, we see Dean, looking spry and chipper, applying for a job with a firm of house movers. What’s happening? It takes a while to realize that this is a flashback, to the period before he and Cindy met—the era in which, like all lovers, they feel in retrospect that they were arrowing toward each other. But notice what Derek Cianfrance, the director and co-writer, does not do. He supplies no title saying “Five years earlier,” or whatever, and arranges no major shift in tone, aside from a slight cranking up of the colors. In other words, the past is not so different from the present, and what should be horribly confusing about “Blue Valentine” becomes its most rending aspect; namely, that as we swipe backward and forward through the rest of the film, we can’t always tell the now from the then. Given that one means rage, silence, and failed sex and the other meant a flurry of eagerness and lust, you would imagine the gulf to be unbridgeable; but it doesn’t look that way, and the bridging is the saddest thing of all.
Nothing out of the ordinary happens in “Blue Valentine,” and that, together with the vital, untrammelled performances of the two leading actors, is the root of its power. Dean and Cindy try to mend their marriage by taking a short, child-free, romantic break—a sure sign that the damage is now beyond repair. They go to a motel with a choice of fancy suites: Cupid’s Cove or the Future Room. They pick the latter, which, with its revolving bed and planetary décor, is a tacky, dated vision of a future that will never be. “Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars,” Bette Davis said at the end of “Now, Voyager”; but she was eons away from the cratered desolation of these two, and she didn’t have a guy with smoke on his breath, arms covered in tattoos, and a head full of vodka trying to muscle her into submission on the floor. Not that the past was a paradise; when Cindy runs into an old boyfriend (Mike Vogel), we are spirited further back to the time when she got pregnant by him, with harrowing results. If you want to see an entire abortion debate dramatized in a few minutes, every angle is represented here, from the brutishness of the conception to the delicate courtesy of the doctor and the sudden, terrified realization of the woman that she cannot and must not withdraw her child from existence.
All of this demonstrates that “Blue Valentine” is that rare creation: a love story that doesn’t shy away from sex, ignore its consequences, or droop into pointless fantasy. The result is adult entertainment as it should be, in other words, right down to the laugh that Cindy lets out, in her leaping delight, when Dean goes down on her. Needless to say, the M.P.A.A., which cannot bear very much reality, took fright at all this and hobbled the movie with an NC-17 rating, which was overturned only after a concerted challenge. It is now an R-rated picture, and rightly so, although you have to ask: In what circumstances would you take a teen-ager, let alone a child, to see it? Who, on the verge of growing up, would wish to learn that the first heady bloom of rapture is doomed to rot and fall, and that even someone as devoted as Dean will wind up pleading to his paramour, with a kind of bullish grovel, “Tell me how I should be”?
Where Ralston is radically different today, in the flesh, compared with his pre-accident self as portrayed by Franco in the film, is in his recognition that he depends on other people. The love of others, his relationships with his family and friends, kept him alive, he says now. "It was very much a spiritual experience and different from Joe Simpson in Touching The Void. That reinforced his agnosticism – 'I did this all on my own and God doesn't exist because if he did, he would've helped me out, that fucker.' For me it was to go through this and realise, well, God is love, and love is what kept me alive and that love is what got me out of there."
True Grit? True Grace.This is edited from a longer essay posted at Cathleen Falsani's blog "The Dude Abides." Just so you know, I didn't provide elipses (those sets of three little dots) every place where I trimmed stuff out of Cathleen's original piece: this is a blog post, not a dissertation. But do read the full piece, and check out the rest of God Girl's site.
by Cathleen Falsani (AKA godgrrl)
author of "The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers"
. . . While it most assuredly would be a leap of faith to claim that Ethan Coen’s 1979 college study of Wittgenstein directly shaped the making of True Grit, hints of the philosopher’s take on religiosity float through the stellar film like tumbleweeds. “If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different,” Wittgenstein said. “It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God.”
In the worlds created over the last quarter century by the brothers Coen, clearly the greatest good and highest moral value is that of decency. Their heroes are never perfect, but they are deeply decent folk.
The moral anchor of True Grit and the character who embodies Wittgenstein’s idea of helping-your-way-to-God is 14-year-old Maddie Ross, the precociously pious, profoundly Protestant daughter seeking to avenge the murder of her father by the sociopathic simpleton Tom Chaney. Maddie’s faith and sense of right-and-wrong are reminiscent of the Coen’s spiritual heroine Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Young Maddie is the epitome of unspoiled decency.
Like Marge, Maddie steps into the midst of mayhem with the force of a giant, her morality as simple as it is immovable, and sets about trying to reestablish order from chaos. She enlists the help of Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges)— a classic Coen antihero in the mold of Bridge’s indelible Dude character from their masterpiece, The Big Lebowski. . . . Maddie has faith in the unlikely hero and his “true grit.” It’s more than a personality trait. With her simple yet epic faith, Maddie believes Cogburn is the man, no doubt sent by God, to help her achieve moral retribution for her father’s death.
Explicit religious and scripture references appear throughout True Grit as they have in past Coen films such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Barton Fink. Maddie quotes from the book of Psalms — Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will have no fear, for Thou art with me — an image that comes to fruition later in the film when she walks through a literal valley of death. A soundtrack of traditional Protestant hymns, most notably “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” function as Maddie’s internal monologue (or, perhaps, her dialogue with God.)
While many will argue that God’s grace is notably absent elsewhere in the Coeniverse, it is powerfully present in True Grit. At the start of the film, Maddie says, with characteristic frankness, “There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.”
As the plot unfolds, it is precisely true grace — deserved by none yet given freely to each — and not “true grit” that makes all the difference.
The Movies That Changed My Life:
A Film Geek's Retrospect on Cinematic Paradigm Shifts
by Matthew K
Best Of The Decade #7: The Passion Of The Christ
Dec 18, 2009
Currently, Michael Phillips and A. O. Scott of At the Movies are each counting down their lists of the best films of the decade. For the rest of the month, I will be offering my own lists, not only my 10 "best" list but also my 10 "worst" list as well. As criteria for both lists is hard, I have decided to base my film choices on personal experience: My "best" films are those that lingered with me for weeks after I saw them, and my "worst" films are those that pissed me off the most.
Counting them down in chronological order of release dates, we continue with #7 on my "best" list:
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
directed by Mel Gibson
Step away from all the external drama surrounding The Passion of the Christ: The accusations of anti-Semitism; the controversy of the violence; Mel Gibson's erratic and un-Christian behavior some months after the film's release; Gibson's divorce of his wife Robin, mother of his massive brood of kids, and subsequent impregnation of a starlet/model young enough to be his daughter.
Step away, too, from your core belief system if you will. This I address to the agnostics, the people of Jewish descent, and the hard-line Christians quick to point out Biblical inaccuracies in the film.
Simply take a moment to judge The Passion of the Christ on its merits as a film. Look at all the elements that come together to make it so effective--the performances of the actors; the exquisite cinematography; the realistic effects; and ultimately, the way Gibson structures this chapter in the life of Christ.
By now, most of you know what the movie is about. Christ's Passion, which means His suffering, is reenacted in a series of movements meant to reflect the various Stations of the Cross in the Catholic faith (and feel free to correct me here; I'm not Catholic and am going solely on memory of a conversation with a Catholic friend several years ago). Much is made about the violence, the gruesome depiction of Christ's flogging and crucifixion, and there are moments in the film that are difficult to watch. And yet rather than coming off as a two-hour torture porn with a message, Gibson manages to create a sense of dramatic urgency by making Satan a key figure in the piece.
The only way to really explain why I liked this film is to look at it from a Christian perspective. For those who don't believe in the Christian doctrine, I respect your position, but without some background in the film's theology it is impossible to appreciate the film's narrative craft.
Simply put: The Christian faith believes that Christ was the Son of God, in essence the physical manifestation of God Himself, and that he came to our physical plane of existence to suffer and die for the sins of mankind. An analogy I have used to explain it to people is the scene in Mission: Impossible II when Thandie Newton takes the last syringe of a deadly virus with the potential to kill millions and injects it into herself; she sacrifices herself to save humanity. Likewise, it is as if God became man to "inject" Himself with a "syringe" filled with all of man's sins and then allow Himself to be brutally tortured to death as atonement for those sins.
Digressing: There is a story of a Roman general who was captured by the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars. He is told by his captors that he can be released to return to Rome if he gives his word that he will persuade the Roman Senate to come with a peace treaty to end Rome's war with Carthage. The general vows that he will do just that, and if he fails to persuade the Senate to draw up a treaty, then he will return to Carthage to be tortured to death. As the legend goes, the General returns to Rome and says, in essence: "Do not make peace with Carthage! They are at the end of their rope and will not resist for much longer!" He then returns to Carthage, being a man of his word, and allows himself to be tortured to death.
This story, set up as an example of Roman pride and integrity, gives us some idea of what the Christians believe about Christ. In Milton, there is a scene where man has fallen from Grace, and God tells his angels that as man is now living in sin he is unfit to be in God's presence. God says the only way to save man is if one of His angels will go to earth to take on man's sins and then die to give man salvation. None of the angels volunteer, so God's only Sons steps up to the plate and says, "I'll do it!"
Remove all the dogma, the judgmental finger-wagging of some Christians, and the tired cliches, and the legend of Christ is pretty exciting stuff. Christ in Milton is an entity of great courage and honor, and combine that picture with that of the Christ in Gibson's film being broken on the Cross and you come away with something moving and impressive.
And then there is Satan, played by the creepy-looking Rosalinda Celentano in the film. Satan's role in this film is what the Christian's believe his role is in the lives of men. Basically, Satan hovers over Christ, whispering lies into his ears, telling him he is not strong enough, that his sacrifice won't matter, that the sins of mankind are too much to bear.
One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Christ is praying in the Garden of Gethsemene and Satan stands above Him, taunting and tormenting with his foul words. Finally, Christ rises to his feet, exhausted, literally sweating blood, and looks Satan in the eye. James Caviezel, who plays Christ, displays a masterful sense of subtlety, gazing at Satan with an expression of both recognition and disgust. He is like a tired prizefighter, battered but not beaten, and his eyes seem to say, "Okay, buddy, let's dance." It's Stallone in the original Rocky, dragging himself to his feet to keep fighting when Apollo Creed is celebrating what he thinks is a victory. Thrilling stuff.
There are other moments too, of course. The most mentioned scene by the film's many critics is when Christ is carrying the cross to Golgotha, and his mother, Mary, sees him stumble and fall. At once, Mary has a flashback to when he was a child, stumbling and falling, and her maternal instinct kicks in as she goes to him. This scene gets most people, especially parents, weepy-eyed. It doesn't affect me so much until the scene's denouement, when Jesus looks at Mary, his face a rictus of agony, his body twisted and bloody, and says, "See, mother? I make all things new." I don't know about you, but that line elicits the same kind of emotion as when James Bond mocks his torturer in Casino Royale.
There are some Christians who complain about the film's ending. After two hours of watching this grueling and tortuous death, the Resurrection of Christ is covered in the span of 30 seconds. Why? these Christians wonder. Isn't the most important part of the story the fact that Christ conquered death?
I, on the other hand, like the succinct treatment of the Resurrection. I am reminded of the ending of The Long Goodbye, starring Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe. Throughout the entire film, Marlowe is depicted as a bumbling idiot, a rumpled, mistake-prone, frightened little man trying to solve a murder but clearly way out of his league. But in the film's final frame, when Marlowe tracks down and confronts the killer, he suddenly shows focus and nerves of steel. Marlowe was strong all along, you see, and he always had the essential tools to play with the big boys. But he was acting dumb, coming off as weak and unthreatening, so people would let their guard down, make a mistake, and lead him to clues that will help him solve the case.
Likewise, The Passion of the Christ is so elegantly handled that Christ comes off as a helpless, weak little man. Even though I went in knowing the story and believing in the Divinity of Christ, in the context of the film I found myself sensing what the people watching his crucifixion must have felt: The man looked like a nothing, a nobody. Surely, someone this meek and lowly could not be the Son of God.
But at the end of the film, when the stone of the tomb is rolled back and the once-broken Christ stands in the light, fully restored, I had a revelation. Christ was not a weak little man. Like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, He was strong. In fact, because we see that He has the power to conquer death, we realize that during His entire torture and crucifixion he had the power to stop His suffering at any time He chose.
And yet He did not. He allowed Himself to be tortured. He allowed Himself to seem weak. Not to demean the faith, but this also reminded me of the episode of Happy Days, when Fonzie let a lesser man bully him because he wanted the man to seem a hero in his son's eyes. Christ let lesser men abuse Him, torture Him, kill Him. He could have stopped it, and yet He did not.Why would anyone allow such a thing?
This, I think, is the real core of the Christian faith, something that many followers of Christ do not contemplate enough. And when you see it on film, as vivid and realistic as it can possibly be, the message is all brought home to you. I can't watch the film without shaking. My faith may waver, my mind may be filled with doubt, but I watch this film, and it reminds me of the very core of the faith. The Christians believe someone willingly suffered in their place--someone powerful enough to avoid that suffering if He so chose.
What could be more beautiful than that?
If I cannot see evidence of incarnation in a painting of a bridge in the rain by Hokusai, a book by Chaim Potok or Isaac Bashevis Singer, in music by Bloch or Bernstein, then I will miss its significance in an Annunciation by Franciabigio, the final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, the words of a sermon by John Donne.And, heading down yet another link-strewn path, since the controversies surrounding poor Mr Gibson have caused so many to lose track of whatever truths they may have been likely to miss in his Passion movie in the first place, tomorrow I'll offer up something I found online that refreshed my palate for that film as well.
If we are unable to see hints of incarnation in Lars Von Trier's BREAKING THE WAVES, Sofia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION, the Coen Brothers' BIG LEBOWSKI, P.T. Anderson's MAGNOLIA — we are likely to miss the truth in Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.
- Kate Bowman, Overcome With Passion, Christianity Today Movies
This is a somewhat restrained coming of age story centered on Finland's Laestadian (Lutheran) sect, a faith-based community of Biblical literalism, and 18 year-old Maria, now old enough to decide for herself whether she'll remain in the community she grew up in or move to the city to live. While she's been taught to believe in the God-based, family values at the heart of the communal focus, a move to the city represents temptations from the "Arch Fiend," in boyfriends, drinking and dancing. Maria's friend is sent to track her down and guide her through this transitional phase, and most of all to call her to her roots, to urge her to come back home, to give up the city and its allure. But the film explores more than just themes of body/spirit or country/city temptations. The idea is that a friend will follow you anywhere, even to the heart of a strange city you can't possibly know how to deal with -- that your friend is one who will struggle with you, that she'll aid you in the hard times -- and that quite possibly the two of you will both change in unexpected ways because of what you've been through together. The strict religious ideals and how the two girls learn of its value make this an easy pick for my Top 10 this year. It's a heartwarming tale, but ends on a note that is... well, it's complicated. But I've a feeling that no matter what approach the two girls take to daily living, they won't be separated from a faith that is more resilient than anyone thought. This is a beautiful, quiet, carefully crafted film, rich with longing, friendship and spirituality. I honestly can't wait to see it again.