“Why you should hate love stories” advises Subrat

Posted: January 28, 2011 by moifightclub in cinema, film review, Movie Recco, Thoughts
Tags: , ,

“This is how a working class love story should be”, Subrat messaged after watching Blue Valentine. “Wow! Post ?” I replied back. And here it is. If you have seen it, read the post to fall in love with it, all over again. If you haven’t, do watch it. Was also wondering how in the last few years there has been a constant flow of good cinema thats exploring the “couples’ code” – all about man, woman and child. Away We Go, Revolutionary Road, Blue Valentine, Rabbit Hole and The Kids Are All Right. Where’s our code ?

Read on…

You are left stranded at the end. Fireworks go up in the sky. The closing credits come on with a tune that sounds familiar. It takes you a while to figure it’s the same tune that Dean (Ryan Gosling) played on his ukulele years ago while serenading Cindy (Michelle Williams) who dances at the doorway of a shop. And, you return to Apollinaire’s query – does joy always come after pain? Or, as you have just discovered in Blue Valentine, does pain inevitably follow joy? The title places ‘Valentine’ after ‘Blue’ which suggests the filmmaker nodding in assent to Apollinaire. But that’s deceiving.

On the surface, you see two stories in Blue Valentine. These are stories you’ve seen often. Of falling in love and falling out of it. Yet, in examining this over familiar terrain, in twisting and turning it under a steady unemotional gaze, Blue Valentine succeeds in creating compelling cinema.

There’s the present day story of Dean and Cindy. Seemingly, of everyday domesticity on an early summer morning. Their daughter is searching for their pet dog which has run off. You notice the house, the instant breakfast that Cindy rustles up and you sense indifference. Soon, you find the dog dead and Dean doesn’t have the heart to break the truth to his daughter. ‘She must have moved to Hollywood to become a movie dog. She had the looks’, he says.

You are then transported 6 years back in time. There is no reference though to this switching back. With the screen brightening up a touch more, you see a younger Dean looking for a job in a house-moving company. You are in the familiar boy-meets-girl-and-they-fall-in-love territory now. From here on, the film moves back and forth between these two stories of love blossoming and souring, the sweet to the tart without showing us anything that happened in the intervening years.

How does love seep away from a relationship? There’s never a single reason for it. It’s natural erosion. When you see Dean and Cindy falling in love, you might spot the seeds of future discord. Cindy’s desire to study and move up in life is in contrast to the slacker Dean who seems to be good at things but is bereft of ambition. There’s undeniable chemistry between the two but there’s something uncomfortable as you watch them. As the film flips between the two stories, you conclude that all the old adages about love are exactly the reasons why love sours. That love makes you a better person, that love can reform, that love conquers all – each one of them bites the dust. These are all predicated on a colossal lie – of people being made for each other. The film helps you with the benefit of hindsight to see through this lie. But leaves it for the protagonists to discover it as they live through it. That’s the beauty of this script.

As you watch Dean winning his daughter’s love and trust, you see the lie being played all over again. And you can’t help but pity the human impulse. Of deceit forming the premise for all love. We have all lived through it yet when the opportunity presents itself again, we willingly submit ourselves to another lie. Why, come to think of it, even that anthem of first love in Hindi cinema, ‘Pehla Nasha’, is a charade. Nothing is quite as it seems for the three characters in that song.

What aids this clinical exposition of love is the way the characters are etched in Blue Valentine. There’s a visible streak of misogyny that runs through the film. The emotional stack is loaded in favor of Dean. He marries Cindy despite knowing the truth at the abortion clinic. it’s Dean who is shown to be perfectly in sync with his daughter’s hopes and desires. And, he is expressly demonstrative about making the marriage work. You are emotionally invested in Dean from the very beginning. The artless way he admits to not being good enough for Cindy when he proposes to her at her home to his helplessness at the end when he asks Cindy – ‘how should I be’? The story ends too with a definite sense of loss for Dean that tugs at your heartstrings. This is a departure from how a typical marital discord story unspools where the emotional cards are equally dealt to make sure both the protagonists have a good hand (take Kramer vs Kramer as an example). However, if you look closer, you will find the prime mover through the entire film is Cindy. She is the one who makes all the choices in the film. She is willing to live through the consequences of those choices and is unafraid of confronting the truth. While on one hand it’s a subtle inversion of roles, on the other, it’s very clever scripting.

Blue Valentine is a film of deft touches. You almost feel there’s deliberate foolish manner in which love is depicted through the film. The scene of Dean strumming on his ukulele and singing while Cindy dances is not romantic for the viewers. The singing is bad and the dancing pedestrian. You almost feel embarassed to watch the silly couple falling in love there. The motel sequence with its space age suite where Dean and Cindy go to reignite the sparks in their marriage is clumsy and makes you squirm. There’s nothing grand about love and you are constantly reminded about it. The irony of the relationship between Dean and their daughter while you know of Cindy’s backstory is again never once brought up. The playing up of the father-daughter relationship is done so naturally that you forget the truth about their daughter in the last scene of the film.

You will find a similar trick played on you in Rabbit Hole, another film this year that had a beautiful subtle ending. You also sense the way fate mocks at Cindy – from wanting to study medicine, to making that life changing choice at the abortion clinic to ending up as a nurse at a maternity center.

It’s easy to call Blue Valentine a film that’s rich in subtext. That would, however, be simplifying things. Blue Valentine is not an ambitious film. Our ambitions are always an imagined superlative form of what we actually are. Instead, Blue Valentine, is a introspective film. It chooses to pose uncomfortable questions about our normal selves. It shows you the truth once the varnish wears off.

“Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost.” You will find that line in Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. You can read that line many times over today and still not get what he meant there. Then one day you find yourself in a old Mumbai home on Napean Sea Road. You see two sepia tinted photographs of a couple. Both shot at the same location – the now closed Cafe Naaz with the iconic Queen’s Necklace as the backdrop. May be ten years apart. You look closely at the two pictures. And, you understand what Kundera meant.

Or, you can watch Blue Valentine.

(Ed – Click here to read all about the making of the film. It’s a must read!)

  1. kartik says:

    Super post Prof saab. You have articulated many things one felt while watching the film but couldn’t really put a finger to.

    “How does love seep away from a relationship? There’s never a single reason for it. It’s natural erosion.”

    The question I had was – why when despite personality differences, despite the ‘beating’ Dean got at the hands of Cindy’s ex, despite Cindy deciding NOT to abort the child – despite all differences they had, the couple STILL believe they can make the relationship work – and they do for so many years. Then why do they fall out of love ? When Love conquered aformentioned (and yes many more) ‘challenges’ & ‘obstacles’ what happened due to which they drifted apart ? Why can’t they give it another shot ?

    In other words – how to make a relationship succeed for happily ever after and overcome the process of ‘erosion’ ? Is love always doomed to be eroded away ? (Sounds like the title of a how-to-self-help-book)

    Dane does try to ‘rekindle’ the love again – by that “future room” motel booking. Still doesn’t work. He never even laid a finger on her violently. Yes, perhaps as you rightly pointed out – most of my sympathies are with him. Yet at the same time, Cindy is not a Bitch. There is no black or white.

    Why was it that the slacky ambition-less profession-behaviour which used to be a ‘charm’ for Cindy back then, doesn’t work for her anymore ?

    But then that would have been a ‘happy ending’ or even a half optimistic one (like Rabbit Hole). And Blue Valentine does not give us that luxury.

    I guess I have to be satisfied with – “It chooses to pose uncomfortable questions about our normal selves. It shows you the truth once the vanrish wears off.”

    Awesome read Prof saab.

  2. Jahan says:

    As always, Subrat- Biutiful piece. Makes me fall in love with the film all the more. And that love, hopefully won’t erode with time. 🙂 Sooper read.

  3. moifightclub says:

    Kartik – To quote from Ebert’s review….”I wonder what kind of script conferences Cianfrance had with his co-writers, Joey Curtis and Cami Delavigne. They were writing about something ineffable, a void, a need. This wasn’t a story with convenient hooks involving things like, you know, disease — things stories are familiar with. It was about inner defeat and the exhaustion of hope. I’ve read reviews saying Cianfrance isn’t clear about what went wrong as they got from there to here. Is anybody?”

    Read the last two lines! Plus, am sure you have read the article that talks about the making of the film…as they said, its like a mystery. u have to solve it, all the hints are given.

    Oh, awesome post by the way. Last para is the killer! reminded me of that scene in the film where the old man is shifted to the old age home. He takes out the pic, puts it on the table, comes out and a new love story happens.

  4. Fatema says:

    Goosebumps. Gotto watch this!

  5. ravptor says:

    When the consumer gets the creator of a product. Bravo subbu!

  6. chinchu says:

    beautifully written .. loved it

  7. Pratim D. Gupta says:

    Best blog piece I have read in a long, long time! Hail the great Subrat!

  8. Manek Premchand says:

    Are you the same Subrat who wrote for passionforcinema.com?

    I want to quote from an article of yours published on May 30, 2008, the article being Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it. It’s for a book I am doing on songwriting in Hindi cinema, and about how the songwriter’s work often reflects the society of the time when he makes the song, etc.

    I tried getting into the article again, but now it leads me to another site. Do please let me know, I will be grateful 🙂
    Warm regards,
    Manek Premchand

  9. Subrat says:

    Mishraji – Thanks for bringing Manek’s comment to my notice.
    Manek – yes, I am and i think you were referring to the article below. All written with tongue firmly in cheek. What kind of a book are you wrirting? Most curious.

    Post begins (those were the days):

    I was once stumped in an interview when the interviewer referred to my three strong interests in life, reading, old Hindi film music and cricket as trivial. My trivial mind thought that in a way he’s right since the etymological origin of the word ‘trivia’ is from Latin ‘tri’ (three) and ‘via’ (way). I relayed that thought back to him. He knew he was being had. So he dug in his heels and remarked about how most Hindi film songs portrayed the same emotions and situations. I was about to extol the virtues of constancy in life to him when he asked the key question “when have Hindi film songs been a reflection of times that we have lived in?” My first reaction was to ask “sir, ek bechaare se gaane pe aur kitna pressure daaloge?” Fortunately, better sense prevailed and I gave him a dose of Sahir’s Phir Subah Hogi and ‘Door hato aye duniyawalon’ stuff from Kismat to hold up the flag for Hindi film songs..

    After the interview I introspected more on this question. Introspection is my unique strength; not Salman’s, who after threatening chinkaras to extinction introspected long enough to give this gem of advice, “In life, always go straight and turn right.” I would never reach office if I followed his counsel. Anyway, after days of deep thought I wanted to kick myself for not providing some awesome examples from the 80s which truly reflected the times that we lived in. Some of you might perk up after reading this line (yeah, I have that skill). Aren’t the 80s widely regarded as the worst times for Hindi film music? What gems are you going to uncover from that decade which would have been the reflection of those times?

    To such queries, I would counsel patience (shaant, gadaadhari Bheem shaant as Yudhistar sagely advised his younger sibling). So here are my 3 songs which on surface appear, umm, trivial but we will unlock the hidden messages underlying them. The other important reason for doing this exercise is it would open up that decade to many readers who weren’t born then. They would understand the prevailing ethos, culture and thoughts which would enrich them (I have tears in my eyes now just imagining the nobility of it all).

    I’ll give you an example from a 20th century literary masterpiece to illustrate what I intend to do. Let’s take T.S. Eliot’s remarkable work The Waste Land. This is how it starts:

    Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis
    vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent:


    APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
    Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
    Memory and desire, stirring
    Dull roots with spring rain.
    Winter kept us warm, covering
    Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
    A little life with dried tubers.
    Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
    With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
    And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
    And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
    Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
    And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
    My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
    And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
    Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
    In the mountains, there you feel free.
    I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter

    Now the normal reader will interpret the above as some Latin verse followed by random thoughts of a multi-linguist who finds April as a month unbearable and then warbles into some other foreign languages before talking about Marie and then deciding to head into mountains. Quotidian stuff, really, between you and me. But hand this over to some higher level of intelligentsia and they will talk you to about the allusions to foreign languages, the metaphysical deceit, the Old Testament references, Dante’s Inferno et al leading up to Eliot referring to the Waste Land that Western civilization was reduced to after the first World War. Could you see that? No. Do you see it now? Yes. That’s exactly what I am going to do with these 80s songs.

    Exhibit 1:

    Film: Gharana
    MD: Laxmi – Pyare
    Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
    Singers: Amit Kumar, Alka Yagnik
    Picturized On: Govinda, Neelam

    Song: “Tere Daddy Ne Diya Hai Mujhe Permit Tujhe Patane Ko”

    This is an intriguing line when you listen to it without the context of the film. Who is this daddy with such laissez faire attitude towards men in his daughter’s life? Why does this guy believe that such a line will work like charm on the girl? But when you put it in the context of the film, you realize there are wheels within wheels. Prem Chopra has grander and more devious plans that you can imagine and those have been set in motion. So, Prem Chopra has asked Govinda to go out and endear himself to Neelam with his blessings. Simple enough? Easy song to comprehend? Good.

    Let’s now apply the principles of metaphysical conceit and the hermeneutic code to see how the lines reflect the lives and times in 80s. First, see how the poet has stressed on the importance of parental (Daddy) approval. This reflects that despite sweeping trends in modernism (as shown by the strange attire of Ms. Neelam in the song), we were rooted to our sabhyata. Next, notice he doesn’t refer to Mummy anywhere which shows that critical decision making during this decade was still the preserve of the male. But most importantly, please pay close attention to the word ‘permit’. Permit when used in the context of a 1989 song is the culmination of India’s two decades of tango with license raj. You needed permit to start a plant, to increase capacity, to produce a new line of products and to eventually let go off a worker. It was what the government was meant to do. Dole out permits. There was no greater achievement than getting a government permit. Sorry, there was a greater achievement – becoming a Permit Officer. See how skillfully, the writer reminds us about it and ensures that future generations while humming the song will pause and question themselves about this word and then go back and discover India of the 80s. So there you have it, a song that combines social and economic issues of the day while taking the story ahead.

    Exhibit 2:

    Film: Jeet Hain Shaan Se
    MD: Anu Mallik
    Lyrics: Shaily Shailendra
    Singers: Anu Mallik
    Picturized On: Mithun

    “Salaam seth salaam seth, kuchh apne laayak kaam seth,
    Aap to khaayen murg-mussalam, apni to bas rice plate, haan rice plate”

    In the movie, Mithun plays Johnny who when not wooing the “pleasantly plump” Mandakini (Julie) with ‘Julie, Julie, Johnny ka dil tum pe aaya, Julie’ spends most of his spare time fighting for the rights of the jhopadpatti dwellers. So you read the above lines as Mithun mocking a rich Seth while walking down the road street across his bungalow.

    Look closer. Mithun, an able bodied youth (with unique skills in gyrations), is looking for work; a stinging indictment of the unemployment rife in the 80s. He also mentions that he is looking for ‘apne laayak kaam’, therefore, bringing the age old Indian mindset which refuses to accept concepts like dignity of labour. Mithun will only settle for his ‘laayak kaam.” Then look again, Mithun is asking this from a Seth, the face of capitalism then. A subtle message (if there’s such a thing in Mithun’s movie) of failed model of socialism that we pursued for decades. The state has failed while the Seth, the venal symbol amoral capitalism, rules the roost. Mithun also comments on the dietary divide among the classes and contrasts the murg-mussalam with rice plate. Hidden there is a message that once Mithun becomes upwardly mobile, he will trade up his dietary patterns from rice plate to murg-mussalam. This was a visionary line. Indians, with economic growth, have changed their dietary patterns considerably leading Bush to blame Indians on the global food crisis recently. All I can tell Bush and company is the signs were everywhere in the film songs of 80s and you guys missed them. What were you watching when Jeete Hain Shaan Se released in India. Born on Fourth of July, Driving Miss Daisy? Pay no heed to Hindi songs now and you will suffer intolerable pains two decades from now. Be seriously warned.

    Exhibit 3:

    Film: Karate
    MD: Bappi Lahiri
    Lyrics: Indeevar
    Singer: Bappi Lahiri
    Picturized On: Mithun
    Song link: If you’re a Mithun bhakt, please also watch the following links to understand why I consider Karate to be a classic of Indian cinema

    “Jag saara naache, dono haathon mein jahan
    Chorus: karate, karaaate, karaaaate
    Aag nahin, goli nahin, kuchh bhi wahan
    Chorus: karate, karaaate, karaaaate
    Is ka naam hai, karate, karaaate, karaaaate”

    It’s 1983. A landmark year in Indian cricket as Kapil’s Devils triumph in Lords. And what better way to celebrate than a song eulogizing the power of bare hands – Karate. While that’s all good, we were a country that was still coming to terms with the apparent paradox of a strong centre and federal states as evidenced by separatist movements which gained strength in Punjab and Assam. The country was being torn and the sovereignty of the union was under threat. See how cleverly the writer captures this dilemma by mixing metaphors in first line where ‘jag saara naache’ (the world is dancing) while you have the world in your hands (dono haathon mein jahan). A difficult imagery but that’s art. The writer points to the futility of aag and goli in solving such disputes and reiterates the need for diplomacy using Karate as a metaphor. Insightful political commentary of the times. This is deep stuff.

    It’s a pity that such treasures have been buried in the sands of time. But then you’re also lucky that tireless lovers of Hindi cinema like yours truly are working to unravel such mysteries of the past. After all our future lies in redeeming our past.

    • Manek Premchand says:

      Subrat, thanks for your prompt response. It’s me that took so long now, interrupted as I was by a long major-repairs situation in my home that needed all that I had.

      I am a writer with two books and many articles on the subject of Hindi film music. The one that engages me now has to do with songwriting in Hindi cinema. I feel that songwriters have not received their dues…and it’s a long story actually. This book is going to make a small contribution towards a community often given the step-motherly.

      Poetry in Motion–The story of songwriting in Hindi Cinema has Ameen Sayani’s Foreword (common to my previous books too!), and traces the work of songwriting from 1931–with the coming of sound in our films–till now. Of how the lyricist is an important historian, as it were, of the times he lives in. That’s the sketchy idea. The book (delayed 6 months) is now just a month away from completion. Then the publishing part a couple of months…

      I stumbled upon your piece above and loved your style and content:), so was wondering if I can quote from this piece (citing your 3 song examples), of course giving you credits. If it’s ok with you, then should I say authored by Subrat Mohanty in passionforcinema.com, now shut down? Or what would you like me to say?

      I live in Mumbai, and my cell no. is 98203 62010. Hope we can be in touch, Thanks!

  10. Subrat says:

    Manek – Happy to have you quote from this piece and best of luck with your book. Let me know where I can pick it up from.

    • Manek Premchand says:

      Thanks a lot! I will send you a copy Subrat just as soon as the book is published. Do send me your postal address.

    • Manek Premchand says:

      Hi Subrat! Finally my book is done, and should be out week 1, Nov. The book is called Romancing The Song–Hindi Cinema’s Lyrical Journey. It’s going to be released on 12 Nov at Ravindra Natya Mandir Mini Theatre, by Pt. Shiv Kumar Sharma, and a few important film people should be there as well. I do need your address to send you a copy. But if you are in Mumbai–or can come here–why that will be wonderful! Do lemme know…Cheers:)

  11. […] of this blog, you surely know about Subrat. If not, you can read some of his old posts here, here, here and here. So as we all discussed Kahaani, we realised there’s more to it. And who better than […]

  12. […] was the heartbreaking drama, Blue Valentine. If you still haven’t seen it, DO WATCH. Click here to read a terrific recco post by […]

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