Friday, May 20, 2011

Blue Valentine: An atypical movie with a typical message

It’s been quite a while since I have written a movie review –lots of noteworthy movies have come out since Superman in 2006! -- but recently, M and I watched an independent film, which I cannot help but want to write about for so many reasons. “Blue Valentine,” is the story of a marriage at its sad conclusion. It has been hailed as a film that anyone who has been in love and fallen out in the end can relate to. In very vivid, sometimes more explicit than necessary, flashbacks, the film takes us back to the root of this failed relationship between Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling), who are extremely convincing and effective in their roles, despite some very awkward moments shared onscreen. The contrast between the two young lovers who impulsively decide to get married sharing a tearful exchange of their vows and the married couple visibly aged and disenchanted six years later parting ways in total defeat could not be more stark.

The film is an obituary of a relationship that offers an uncomfortably intimate look into a marriage that was troubled before it began. The cause of death (in my estimation): impulsivity, a lifelong commitment made on the basis of feelings, selfishness, a lack of effort to reverse course and desire to make things right, and the absence of faith – factors all too common nowadays in an age where celebrities and mental health providers alike are proselytizing that marriage is no longer beneficial, realistic or advisable and where the divorce rate is alarmingly high, even among Christians.

From the opening of the film, it is clear that Dean’s proclivities, which may have once seemed charming now grate on Cindy’s nerves. The very first glimpse of Cindy, in which she is awakened by her husband and young daughter, who eagerly and playfully rouse her in her bed, reveals how unhappy, disenchanted, and bitter she has become. Dean, on the other hand, is content as a father and husband and with the fact that he can drink before going to work at 8 o’clock in the morning to paint houses. He has no ambition for the future apart from wanting more children and this clearly bothers Cindy who works as a nurse, having abandoned her youthful ambition to go to medical school, which, we learn, was the result of becoming a mother after an unplanned pregnancy (a choice she makes in the middle of attempting to undergo an abortion). It is obvious that Cindy has no respect for Dean and that the fact that his love for her and her child are all he desires out of life causes her to despise him. While it is easy to relate to some of Cindy’s misgivings about Dean, there is never any doubt that his love for his family is genuine. He admits that he never aspired to become a husband and a father but now takes pride in the fact that he honored those commitments and has become who he was meant to be. Who he has become is precisely what Cindy despises. Whereas their marriage and family represents Dean's identity, for Cindy, it embodies the loss of her own.

Over the course of the film, we learn that Cindy’s decision to have her daughter has resulted in a marriage premised on little more than that decision and a few brief encounters spent in reckless abandon between two teenagers in way over their heads. The feelings which marked her early relationship with Dean have turned into such disdain and resentment that she clenches her fists and squeezes her eyes shut during their lovemaking to the point where Dean feels so rejected that he can’t continue - a stark contrast to the sexual encounters that preceded their marriage, including an unnecessarily graphic scene, which lingers uncomfortably long – far longer than needed to make its point. Passive aggressiveness has replaced the passion Cindy once felt and the tenderness Dean once displayed and now seems to reserve mostly for their daughter. The more attentive to Cindy he is, the more she seems to despise him. We do not know what has led to these feelings but the glimpses we get of Dean make it easy to imagine what it is about Dean that Cindy finds it difficult to get past.

To say that Blue Valentine is raw and honest is an understatement -- too honest at times. While I understand the contrasts the director is attempting to draw and appreciate his artistic vision and desire to make the movie as true to life as possible, I wish that today’s filmmakers didn’t feel such an overwhelming need to showcase sexuality so graphically. All too often, such scenes add very little to a film (i.e., the unnecessary scenes in Black Swam which added nothing to the storyline that couldn’t have been conveyed without being so over-the-top and graphic). Hollywood will inevitably continue to push the envelope, but it seems to have reached a level where the public has become as de-sensitized to sex as it has become to violence and cursing. It is one thing that Blue Valentine’s NC-17 rating was downgraded to R. It is another that the viewing public has yawned at the downgrade and argued that the sexuality depicted is “not that bad.” In truth, many scenes in the movie are positively pornographic. I digress…

In an early scene in Blue Valentine, we learn that Cindy has inadvertently caused the death of the family’s dog, which in a rare moment brings the couple together in love as they hold each other and weep at their kitchen table. This is a sharp contrast to the exchange between the couple when they try to rekindle their romance – something Cindy obviously wants no part in – at a cheesy hotel in a room called very appropriately titled “the future room.” It is an even sharper contrast to the terms on which the couple leaves off. Their sorrow over the death of their dog seems greater than the sorrow experienced at the death of their marriage. Just as Cindy consoles Dean after the death of their dog, she consoles him at the death of their marriage, seemingly feeling nothing but certain that divorce is the only option available to her -- the only hope for her to regain her identity or reinvent herself in a life without him, a life not tied to a painful past or quite so many regrets.

The events leading up to the end include a chance encounter on the way to the “future” with a lover from Cindy’s past that gives more context to the father-daughter relationship between Dean and the couple’s little girl than the audience initially suspects. The emotional strain produced by the death of the family dog, this chance meeting which digs up so many past hurts and regrets, and the failed attempt at romance in the cheesy hotel room with the spinning bed, balloons into a violent confrontation at Cindy’s job which results in the end of Cindy’s career as she knows it, as well as the couple’s marriage later that day. In the final scene, we see the couple’s young daughter running after Dean, distraught that the only father she has ever known is being made to leave. While the audience is left with a remaining shred of hope that the characters may ultimately be reconciled to one another, the film gives very little reason to believe that this is a realistic possibility. Blue Valentine certainly conveys a very pessimistic view of love and moreover, of marriage.

While the film does reflect a lot of truth in the way that so many relationships nowadays conclude, sadly, the lesson seems to be that having children complicates good relationships, that marriage takes the fun out of sex, that love doesn’t last, and that individual happiness in the moment is far more important than providing a stable and loving home for children. It is not difficult to imagine that many viewers left the film thinking that if Cindy had gone through with the abortion, her life might have turned out better. How sad is that? The film arguably promotes the concept that marriage inevitably becomes an unbearable hell. While feelings undoubtedly change as surely as they wax and wane over time and in the midst of various circumstances, marriage was never meant to be premised on feelings or happiness alone. The message in popular culture nowadays seems to be that love is little more than a feeling undeniably intertwined with lust and that being in love (i.e. perpetual butterflies) is the primary purpose for becoming and staying married. This is not to say that feeling in love and feeling happy aren’t worthy purposes or a part of marriage but to say that they are the only purposes is an understatement of the greatest magnitude.

In typical movies, most movies, definitely not this one, we usually see the best parts of candy-coated relationship, perpetuating the idea that the best relationships are those defined by constant bliss. Those of us who have loved and gone through life or marriage know that love, marriage and life in general are rarely like that. So while I give the movie credit for attempting to be honest in showing that marriage has its drawbacks and creating something that feels real on so many levels, at the same time, I wish that it did not further promote the message that marriages naturally should end when the initial sparks fade.

Marriages that are able to survive the dark and troubled times grow stronger and the passion deepens over time and with experience and becomes something so much better and more beautiful than "butterflies." Still, I suspect that if the film had shown Cindy and Dean go through counseling, find faith in Jesus, commit to praying for their marriage and working through their problems, honoring their commitment to each other and their obligation to their child, and fighting for their family, it would be less dark, disturbing and thought provoking in the way it was intended to be.

The movie is beautiful precisely because it is dark and haunting; because it gets under your skin and makes you think. I imagine that it caused a lot of married couples facing difficult times to reflect on their own relationships and unique challenges. I can only hope it will not encourage the same outcome...

Blue Valentine was Rated R on appeal for strong graphic sexual content, language, and a beating; originally rated NC-17 for a scene of explicit sexual content.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In Spite of Feeling

Daily, I've been fighting to get past an array of feelings that at times overwhelm and at times are absent when they seemingly shouldn't be. My mother-in-law's illness, my grandmother's accident/surgery/hospitalization, the pressures and struggles that have accompanied this sour economy and the transitions I have made in the last year in life on personal and professional levels (enduring a difficult pregnancy, moving, becoming a mom, finishing law school, moving again, starting my career, studying for and taking the Bar -- trying to wear more hats than my head can hold) -- it has surely taken a toll on me this past year. In truth, most days, I am not thriving. Most days, the most I can hope for is to survive. Most days I feel as though I am barely reaching that goal.

Today is Good Friday. The day we celebrate Jesus' ultimate sacrifice: His death for us on the cross. The day we are reminded of the price that we were purchased at and the extent of His love for us: that He would endure such vile and undeserved punishment just to set us free, so that we might see Heaven someday and be with Him for eternity. This Easter season marks my 11th re-birthday. 11 years since I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart as my Lord & Savior and asked Him to make me a "new creation." As noted above, I do not always "feel" like a new creation. I do not always feel free through Jesus' death on the cross. Mostly, I feel owned and consumed by my circumstances. I forget sometimes that I am His and that He is in me.

During this Lenten season, I committed myself to reading through the Gospels every morning on my way to work. I finished this morning, ending my journey through these books with the Gospel of John. Towards the end of this book, I re-discovered Jesus' prayer for us. I'm sure I have read it many times before, but it "felt" new to me this year. After Jesus prayed for His disciples, He said:

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:20-26).

As a believer, I accept Jesus at His Word. I believe that what He says is true. There is no doubt in my mind. But I don't always feel it.

The world tells us that we should live according to what we feel. Marriages are ended everyday because people just don't "feel" that it can work, don't "feel" happy. Decisions of great and little consequence are made on this flimsy and untrustworthy basis every day. As a woman, I believe that God gave us strong emotions and greater sensitivity than men for a reason. While our emotions and our ability to "feel" things so deeply is a gift, it can also cause us to make poor decisions, to give up when we ought to press on and to doubt what we know is true. I know that I have on more than one occasion...

This Easter, I am reminded that Jesus died on the cross to set me free, not so that I could be subject to feelings of depression, anxiety or doubt. He died on the cross so that I could be free, so that I could be in Him, so that I could seek and follow His will for my life, even when I don't feel the joy that I ought to feel. Though I am seeking to stand on His Word, to discern and follow His will for my life, I recognize that it doesn't necessarily mean that I will always feel joy. That being content may be the most I can hope for somedays. Most importantly, I'm reminded that what I need to recognize and that which I record here for what I hope will be an encouragement to others and pray will be a reminder to myself, is that Jesus is with me whether I "feel" it or not. He promised to work all things together for good. He promised to be the same today, tomorrow and forever. He promised that His mercies would be new every morning. I can stand on those Truths even when I feel that I don't have the strength to stand on my own two legs. There is comfort in that whether I feel it as deeply as I should or wish I could or not.

As a Christian, I have the privilege of worshiping a Living Savior. This Easter Sunday, I hope it will be as powerful a reminder to you as it is to me that though on Good Friday Jesus died a painful, horrible death, On Easter Sunday and every day, He is alive. He is risen. He is risen indeed.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Purpose Driven

I'll be honest. Most days it feels like a struggle. The struggle does not merely concern juggling all of the different hats that I must wear, but surviving another day, making it through another week, counting down the days left before the weekend comes, and then trying to draw from every hour I'm given with my family a measure of joy, rest and peace that will give me strength to start the cycle over again on Monday morning. Life as a working mom is much harder than I ever thought that it would be, but at the week's end I am reminded of why I keep going. As I type this, Noah is coming at me with a broom, not at all happy that I have withdrawn to take some much needed "me time" on the other side of the room. Frustrating, yes, but even in these moments of frustration, I cannot help but laugh as I watch my son's personality grow at a pace much faster than his weight or height. Moments ago, my "tiny tyrant" was standing at my side shaking his finger at me saying "no no," imitating the instruction he had just received from his grandma and feeling the need to show me that he too can give instruction. He has quite a sense of humor, albeit a poor sense of timing...

When I was a stay-at-home mom, finishing up my final year of law school, searching for a job that never seemed to come, I often felt that my only purpose was to change diapers, to provide sustenance and to get my child to sleep. I've often said -- and still maintain -- that being a mom is the highest profession I could ever aspire to. It has been the privilege of my life. Yet, being a mom has certainly involved a measure of sacrifice. Largely, what I've missed most of all is being able to write. And I don't just mean the time. I also mean the energy, the focus, the clarity of thought, the ability to put my thoughts into words or finish something I start. Although I am optimistic that returning to this blog will allow me to return to my first love, I am aware that the demands of being a mom will often leave little time to follow-through. That is OK. It will have to be for now.

In honesty, I have sometimes felt jealous of Michael's ability to serve God by playing lead guitar as a member of the Creative Arts Ministry at our church. I have been searching for a ministry and a purpose of my own and have not had any success in finding my place or roll in which I could serve. Prior to becoming a mom, I always felt that blogging was my ministry and that there was no better forum in which I could use the tools that God has given me. Whether it can be that for me again is to be seen.

I came across a verse today that reminded me that God knows His plans for me, even as I struggle to define a purpose for myself. This verse (Psalm 138:8) is a promise I am standing on and is my prayer today, though my heart is overwhelmed and my mind is tired and the words do not come quickly or easily enough:

"The LORD will fulfill [His purpose] for me; Your love, O LORD, endures forever--do not abandon the works of Your hands."