Blue Valentine

blue-valentine-5Today we revisit the past with another of the reviews rescued from oblivion by the internet archive. I believe there is value in it even though it is covered in those archaic question warts.

1. Can “we see” the description? Are the images clear and appropriate?  (10 points)

Part A) Here are our opening images:

EXT. RURAL SUBURBAN STREET – DAWN – PRESENT DAY

A 5-year old girl wanders alone, lost in her neighborhood.

FRANKIE
(barely audible)
Me-gan!

INT. PERIERA HOME – PRESENT DAY

FRANKIE crawls through a dog door. She walks into the livingroom where…

DEAN PERIERA, 30 years old, hefty, sleeps in a lazyboy.

Well, there’s not much to judge by. This seems to be hedging its opening shot bets by making the description as insignificant as possible.

I guess it’s slightly interesting that the girl comes through the dog door?

Let’s take another example because this one gives us so little to work with. From page 56:

Cindy gets off the spinning bed. But it seems like the floor is still spinning. She struggles to maintain her balance.

She finds Dean crashed out on the floor. His pants are around his knees. She reaches to pull him up. But he pulls her down on the floor instead.

DEAN (cont’d)
Come here, you saucy little minx!

He rolls on top of her, mauling her with kisses.

DEAN (cont’d)
You’re so beautiful… You wanna have
another baby with me? You wanna make
another baby with me? I wanna have
another baby with you.

She moves her head away and pats Dean on the shoulder in a
gesture of friendship. Dean kisses her neck.

Unbelievably, this is one of the longer description blocks. I think, maybe, the authors have taken the idea of “lean muscular prose” and concentrated it? The script doesn’t read poorly and don’t think I’m recommending a novelization of your own script, but there is very little “to see”. It’s short at 96 pages, and there are some odd spacing’s throughout the draft which seem to artificially add to the page count. I think filling in a few more of the details would have been appropriate:

6 out of 10 points.

2. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character.
(each part worth 10 points)

Part A) The slow release of the expository details was one of the successes of the script. For sure, the authors follow along with my iceberg intuitions. They give us the broken damaged characters in all their broken damaged glory, and then work backward—in this case literally—with the help of interweaving present and six year’s past storylines.**

The sum of my reviews unfailingly argues for this sort of craftsmanship, and a low key relationship drama like Blue Valentine, I think, demonstrates why. The mystery in a story like this is figuring out how the characters get to the point that the screenwriter chooses to capture. We don’t have a high concept premise or cool special effects to commandeer our interest artificially. In a script like this, if you lead with exposition, you’ve destroyed all incentive for the reader to keep reading.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Another week and another pro script with an impressive accumulation of subtext. I guess I should have expected this, what other reason would one want to make, star in, or produce a relationship drama unless it dripped with subtext? This elusive substance being the sort of thing awards nominations are sown from.

The dominant subtext in Blue Valentine centers on how a relationship functions when its participants don’t fit inside the traditional gender roles society equips them with. I thought this subtext was marvelously articulated and also fundamentally (in other words at the bedrock bottom thematic level) unclear. There is no doubt that powerful gender role statements are being made in Blue Valentine, but… to what end? I can’t say for sure. The resolution to this story is, to say the least, vague.*** That said, let’s focus, for now, on the marvelous articulation of all of that subtext.

From page 2 (this is a father and daughter discussing a missing dog):

Dean carries Frankie to the front yard. They look around.

FRANKIE
When’s she going to get back?

DEAN
Oh Buddy, she’s gonna come back. You know
what we’ll put some water in her bowl,
you know some food. She’s gonna get
hungry she’s going to have to come back
to eat right? I”m hungry right now. Are
you hungry? You know I’m so hungy I could
just eat your hand. Yeah, no no just let
me have bite of your hand okay? Just one
bite. How come I can’t have one bite?
Just one finger.

FRANKIE
No!

Dean’s optimism is infectious. Frankie nods slowly.

DEAN
You’ve got five of them.

Dean pretends to gnaw at Frankie’s hand. Breaks her sadness.

DEAN (cont’d)
Okay we’ve got to be quiet when we wake
up mommy okay.

There’s a whole lot of human stuff going on underneath the surface of this interaction. When I first read it, I sat up a little straighter in my chair thinking that maybe I would be in for an impressive ride. (Spoiler alert—I was let down in the end… and not just by the end).

In this small scene we see Dean, the father, being emotionally supportive of his daughter Frankie. He resorts to kid logic—if we put water in her bowl she’ll come back—and empathy. His “optimism is infectious” it turns into his daughter’s optimism. He uses things she understands in order to accomplish his goal of making her feel better about the missing dog.

None of the gender stereotypical approaches of the modern man as John Wayne/James Bond archetype make an appearance. Dean does not try and solve the problem of the missing dog. He does not tell Frankie to toughen up, or suck it up, or boys don’t cry so go ask your mom. In short, he responds to Frankie using none of the arsenal of modern male archetypal methods of dealing with a child in a rough spot. He interacts with Frankie through emotion, and his solution appeals to Frankie’s emotional self—not her rational self.

Importantly, he succeeds. We’re told, “Dean…breaks her sadness.” Even more importantly, it is after this success that we first mention mom…

DEAN (cont’d)
Okay we’ve got to be quiet when we wake
up mommy okay.

How much implied conflict is there in this microscopic little scene? We don’t know what the issue with mom is going to be yet, but it’s crystal clear there is one. Frankie and Dean are a fully functioning emotional unit that solves problems without her help and then has “to be quiet when [they] wake [her] up.”

The subtext begun in this brilliant opening develops more cleanly into gender-role specific criticisms as it widens throughout the story. Take this example from pages 12-13, specifically, contrast the interaction between Dean and Frankie and then Cindy and Frankie, each while doing the exact same thing– saying goodbye. (Also keep in mind, for later, that there is exquisite symmetry between this first time they all say goodbye and the last time they all say goodbye.):

CINDY
(tO FRANKIE)
Go say goodbye to Daddy. You’re not going
to see him until tomorrow. Watch out for
the water. Okay go you’re clear!

Frankie runs to Dean, dodging the water stream. She hugs his leg. He picks her up.

FRANKIE
Bye Dad!

DEAN
By buddy. Hey, I love you.

FRANKIE
I love you.

DEAN
Have fun okay buddy.

FRANKIE
Okay.

DEAN
You remember what to do when Pa snores
right?

FRANKIE
Cover his mouth and hold his nose.

DEAN
That’s my girl. Go have fun!

Dean hugs her and she squeezes back as hard as her arms
allow. He sets her on the ground running back to the porch.
She screams as the water chases her.

Now for Frankie and Cindy:

CINDY
Alright, run to mama. Come on you can do
it! Come on sweetie pie.
Frankie reaches her mother at the top of the steps. Her
little bangs are dripping wet.

CINDY (cont’d)
Yayyyyy, that was great. That was great.
Alright you ready to go inside?

Dean gets [and gives] all the affection and hugs, whereas Cindy exists as a mere transactional participant in the raising of Frankie. Not only that, she is an INSINCERE transactional participant. Exclamation points, sweetie pie’s, and yayyyy’s, I actually feel sorry for this fictitious child. With a mom like this, her teenage years are destined to be rough.

From pages 16-17:

DEAN
You see I don’t know… I feel like men
are more romantic than women. When we get
married we marry one girl. Cause we’re
resistent the whole way until we meet one
girl and we think I’d be an idiot if I
didn’t marry this girl she’s so great.

This whole speech by Dean is a complete reversal of all the accepted gender-role stereotype wisdom. Guys are the real romantics? Guys want to be faithful and with one girl because she’s so great? Has this guy ever been to the movies?

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that Dean’s idealization of men (based on his own internal experience) is faulty; I’m only saying that it does not fit the accepted gender-role stereotypes. Dean is swimming against the John Wayne/James Bond stream and doesn’t even know it.

Another from page 53:

CINDY
Isn’t there anything you want to do?

DEAN
Like what?

CINDY
I don’t know. You’re so good at so many
things, you could do anything you wanted
to do, you’re good at everything that you
do, isn’t there something else you wanna
do?

DEAN
Than what? Than be a husband, to be
Frankie’s dad? What do you want me to do?
In your dream scenario of me doing what
I’m good at, what would that be?

Cindy’s comments here fit pretty snugly into a gender-role meme—the one where the guy can’t grow up and fulfill his potential. (This meme infuses much of Cindy’s character, by the way. It’s true that she positions herself as mother to both Frankie and Dean. It’s also true that her enactment of this role is transactionally based both times. We will discuss the reasons for this more in question 8, when we try and decide if this script has a clear theme.) Dean’s response, however, is completely atypical. He responds with an apologetics for emotional fulfillment being a higher rung on the ladder of ethical well-being than material Blue-Valentine-4fulfillment. In other words, he gives the stereotypical female gender-role default answer.

From page 55:

Cindy and Dean wrestle. They are very drunk.

Cindy gets the upper hand and pulls Dean off the bed.

DEAN
Okay, there you go…

CINDY
On your back, on your back motherfucker!

I include this not only because Cindy is in the dominant position, but also because things get REALLY weird after this assertion of dominance by Cindy. From page 57:

DEAN (cont’d)
What do you want, how much rejection am I
supposed to take? I deserve affection.
I’m good to you and to Frankie and I
don’t deserve this!

And then 58-59:

DEAN
You want me to hit you?

CINDY
Yeah hit me.

DEAN
Is that what you want?

CINDY
Yeah, that’s what I want.

DEAN
Would that make it okay for you to treat
me like this?

CINDY
Yeah that’s what I want baby, “hit me.”

DEAN
Is that what you want! I’m not gonna do
it. I’m not gonna fuckin do it!
She rolls out from underneath him and stands. She wraps her
dress around her body and slips into the bedroom. Dean
continues berating her–

DEAN (cont’d)
Okay! I don’t give a shit how much you
want it, I’m not gonna do it, okay, I’m
not gonna do it! You want me to hit you?
I’m not gonna do it! I love you.

Now, here’s the thing with this scene:

I believe that as an author, if you are going to push your story subject matter to the point where you are going to say something about an issue which demands to be treated with respect—like domestic violence—then you damn well better know exactly what it is you’re trying to say. That much is, with no margin for theorizing, a sacrosanct duty and responsibility of tapping on a keyboard with the intention that other people will read what you tapped out. You can’t take this duty lightly, and you can’t be in any way ambiguous about what your scenes and dialogue mean. That kind of “intention ambiguity” wouldn’t be artistic.

It would be juvenile and irresponsible.

Let’s wrap up this discussion [finally] with a look at the place in the script where all this gender-role and relationship as violence subtext reaches its apex. Since it’s important to whether or not the script succeeds, and is responsible, I’ll cite the whole scene. It runs from pages 77-81:

DEAN
NO. This is why you talk to me. Cause I’m
here, this is the only reason you’re
talking to me.

CINDY
You fuckin asshole…

DEAN
I’m a fuckin asshole?

CINDY
I’m so out of love with you. I’ve got
nothing left for you, nothing, nothing.
Nothing. There is nothing here for you. I
don’t love you…

DEAN
Don’t say stuff you can’t take back.

CINDY
You fucking asked for it, you asked me, I
talk to you.

DEAN
I couldn’t drive you crazy unless you
loved me…

Cindy steps in closer to Dean, her voice rising, the argument escalating…

CINDY
I gave you the goddamn answer and you
don’t like it.

DEAN
Are you gonna hit me?

CINDY
That’s why I don’t fucking talk to you.

DEAN
Are you gonna hit me?

CINDY
No I’m not gonna hit you, you’re the bad
guy asshole, not me.

DEAN
I’m the bad guy?

CINDY
Yeah, asshole!

She pushes him.

DEAN
Okay.

CINDY
Fuck you, fuck you! I’m more man than you
are, you fucking cunt.

DEAN
Don’t say that shit about being a man.

CINDY
I am, I am. I can handle it.

DEAN
What is it with this shit and being a
man? What is that? What does it even
mean?!

CINDY
Yeah, what is that?

DEAN
What does it mean?

CINDY
You’re scaring us, you’re scaring us.

DEAN
Don’t say that stuff. “Be a man!” What is
that shit?

CINDY
Don’t bully people.

DEAN
I’ll be a man. You want me to be a man?

Dean swings around, sweeps his hand across a nearby desk,
knocking various items to the floor, a child throwing a
temper tantrum…

DEAN (cont’d)
Here, is this what men do?

CINDY
Oh, just stop it.

DEAN
I’m a big man!

Mimi finally enters the office as Dean hurls a book onto the ground…

MIMI
Get out.

DEAN
Look at me, I’m a big man! I’m being a
man!

CINDY
No, I’m the man!

DEAN
Talking doesn’t work, talking doesn’t
work…

Cindy does her best to restrain Dean, but he easily pushes
her off and throws more objects to the floor.
Helpless, furious, Cindy starts hitting him, just as Feinberg bursts inside, prepared to diffuse the situation.

FEINBERG
Excuse me! Excuse me!

Feinberg gets in Dean’s face, attempts to calm him down–

FEINBERG (cont’d)
What are you doing?!

DEAN
I’m being an asshole.

CINDY
Stop!

DEAN
Who are you, by the way?

Dean pulls away from Feinberg, then gets in his face, leaning in threateningly–

DR. FEINBERG
Hey, take it easy, I’m a doctor, I work
here. I’m Dr. Feinberg.

DEAN
You’re fuckin Dr. Feinberg!? You’ve been
emailing my wife?!

DR. FEINBERG
Excuse me?

DEAN
You’re the guy emailing my wife–

Without pause, Dean slaps Feinberg’s face, then lunges at
him, slamming him against the wall, his hand clutching
Feinberg’s neck. Cindy and Mimi scream.

Feinberg pushes back, struggling to break loose, but Dean
refuses to back down. Cindy and Mimi try helplessly to pull
him away–

DEAN (cont’d)
I’m gonna hit you in five seconds if you
don’t get out.

DR. FEINBERG
Take it easy, my friend, no one is
hitting anybody…

DEAN
I’m gonna hit you in five seconds…

DR. FEINBERG
Mimi, call the cops.

DEAN
5…. 4… GET OUT!!!!! 3… 2…

DR. FEINBERG
Think about your wife, will you?

Dean PUMMELS Feinberg across the face, knocking him to the
floor. Cindy and Mimi cry out in horror–

CINDY
You fucking son of a bitch!

DEAN
I’m sorry…

Okay. By my count Cindy explicitly claims that she is a man 3 times in this scene. She claims that being a man is equal to asserting your will with actual violence or the threat of violence 4 times in this scene. She calls Dean a woman in terminology, or by counterexample with her own manly self, 8 times in this scene.

But, what can we interpret from this?

DEAN
I’m sorry…

That is a fantastically empty dénouement to what is, otherwise, incredibly interesting. As a portrait in relationships this scene promises to break new psychological ground, and then quits without giving notice.

By page 81, the only encompassing thematic principle we can dissolve from this script is that the John Wayne/James Bond archetype is emphatically broken. It doesn’t work for men, and it makes women into wannabe Man-Shadows.

I was annoyed because, although I agree that the John Wayne/James Bond archetype is broken, I knew that when I opened the script. My annoyance grew as I read because the script promised to shed new light on the archetype by allowing a woman to assume it. That’s interesting. I was on board for a serious discussion. But then we end all that hype with Dean “sorry” and Cindy looking and sounding ridiculous.

We’ll see in question 8 whether the authors rescue or waste what they set in motion in the rest of the scenes leading up to fade out. For now, and if we are only talking about this part of this question, 10 points is not enough but it is the upper bound, so:

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) The character individuation was well done. There was one issue in that all the characters had a habit of repeating the statement from the previous character as a question. This would be a nice verbal tic coming from a single character, but the author’s allowed all the characters to engage in it, so:

5 out of 10 points.

4. Do the writers understand the challenges and rewards posed by the medium in which they’ve chosen to tell their story? Shorthand version of this is: Is it a movie and not a play?

This is a close call. I’m going to lean slightly more toward the idea that this is a movie because Dean and Cindy’s character’s are so interesting. It’s easy to see why this small script attracted big name actors to play its leads. On the strength of how appealing Dean and Cindy are to play, and the fact that it cost next to nothing to make, I’ll go:

7 out of 10 points.

4. Is there anything unique in what the writers present? Basically, do I have to hire THESE writers in order to get their original take on things? Are the rest of the writers’ ideas, based on this sample, likely to be original?

Well, I can’t have gone on for as long as I did about the subtext in this script and not give all the points here. Plus, I admire the ambition to tackle a thorny subject with honesty. After all, this isn’t How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days… or even, When Harry Met Sally.

10 out of 10 points.

6. Do we have a hook (the first 2 pages)? (10 points)

As we discussed earlier without making it explicitly clear, the subtext is the hook in this script. All that subdermal stuff between Frankie and Dean and the unnamed mommy is intended to be the reason you scroll the mouse downward.

It took me several [okay dozens] of reviews to figure this out, but if you are writing a straight drama with no magic, your hook is your subtext.

10 out of 10 points.

7. Is the hook effective (the next 8 pages)? (10 points.)

Pages 3-10 were just okay for me. It’s as though the author’s went to as much trouble as possible to bring up the missing dog as many times as they could. This makes sort of sense because the dog turning up dead is the catalyst of the story—Dean and Cindy take Frankie to her grandparents house so they can have time to bury the dog. This gives them a night to themselves.

To me it was an awfully long wind-up to a mighty small catalyst. The subtext does continue through these scenes, so I won’t be overly harsh:

6 out of 10 points.

8. Are there enough reveals to maintain the initial hook?

Before we talk about the success or failure of this script’s theme, I want to look at the flashback structure which undergirds the plot.

As I’ve stated many times before, I think the key to a flashback is making sure that the past timeline holds some sort of interpretational, or story-functioning, “key” to the present timeline.

An example of a movie that successfully uses an interpretational-key flashback structure is; Stand By Me.

An example of a movie that successfully uses a story-functioning-key is; The Fugitive.

Blue Valentine tries to be (and succeeds in being) of the Stand By Me type. The flashback timeline takes place 6 years prior to the present. Seeing the naïveté (especially in Dean’s case) of the characters in the past informs our opinion of them in the present. It goes a great deal of the way to explaining why I felt more sorry for Dean then I did for Cindy and why this was, for me, ultimately Dean’s movie—not Cindy’s movie and not even Marriage’s movie. (I maintain that this is Dean’s movie in spite of the fact that Michelle Williams got the Oscar Nomination.) The idea of the structure was well conceived.

However, its implementation was incredibly clunky. This is how it is first introduced. From page 13:

Dean takes another tug on his cigarette. Too much nicotine
today. He is shaky. He drifts into memory…

I think it’s safe to say that that is a pretty paltry transition to a flashback timeline. Not much in the way of originality or effort on display at all.

Picking up where question 3 left off, we can now consider the last page of this script, the immediate story resolution we’re left with, to see if all the wonderful subtext ended up being for naught.

From pages 95-96:

Frankie comes chasing after him as he heads down the
sidewalk.

FRANKIE (SCREAMS)
Daddy!

Frankie pulls on Dean’s belt, playfully trying to stop him
from leaving. Dean stops and turns to her, trying to hide his tears.

DEAN
Frankie, you got to go back, okay?

FRANKIE
Daddy, Daddy!

On the porch, Cindy appears through the front door. She turns to Jerry–

CINDY
Where is she?

JERRY
She ran after Dean…

Cindy hurries to the street, stops as she sees Dean and
Frankie. In the near distance, fireworks blast upward into
the sky like bolts of fire…

DEAN
Go back to your mom please. Go back to
your mom.

FRANKIE
Just come back!

DEAN
You want to race?

FRANKIE
Okay.

DEAN
Ready, 1..2..3… go!

Frankie turns and races back towards Cindy. She scoops
Frankie into her arms, turns back towards the house.
Slowly, mournfully, Dean walks away in the other direction.
Frankie begins to cry in Cindy’s arms…

CINDY
Oh sweetheart, its okay, no, no, don’t
cry, its okay. Who’s my big girl?

FRANKIE
I love him.

CINDY
I know… mommy’s got you, don’t cry,
it’s okay.

In the background, Dean fades into the distance.

Fireworks explode in the night sky.

THE END

ryan-gosling-blue-valentine2What are we supposed to make of this ending? Being a caring emotionally responsive father is going to end up harming your child worse than being a John Wayne/James Bond archetype? Is the message here, if you’re a man and you love something, set it free?

What about from Cindy’s perspective? She forces the only man in the entire script who loved her for what she was away from her because… she asked him to leave and he believed she was serious? Are the author’s saying that if Dean adopted the John Wayne mentality that deep down thinks no means yes, she would have ACTUALLY meant yes?

The lead characters have been no help at all in figuring out what this ending is supposed to mean in terms of gender-roles. Perhaps, Frankie is the key?

Yeah, right.

I suppose the answer is in the fireworks which explode into the night sky.

A tremendous letdown:

3 out of 10 points.

8. Does the script recognize the size of its most likely audience, and deliver a story with a realizable profit?

12 million worldwide on a budget of 1 million.

10 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 77

Conclusion:

I suppose that what the 9 questions told me is that the script was pretty good with a few, significant, exceptions. Maybe this is a script that was greenlit for production a draft or two ahead of the time when it would have been fully solved by its writers.

In the end, Blue Valentine reminded me exactly of its hero Dean: better than average but sloppy, unfocused, and a tremendous waste of potential.

A Flashback Digression:

**I was forcibly reminded by this script how flashbacks are almost always expository. I think this is probably the reason the technique is so demonized. I also think that the demonizers (read as: every person who has written a book on screenwriting), as a group, tend to omit the explanation of their position.

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