Our Promise Parlor part two: Blue Valentine

This is the second of two Discourses from our Salon: The Fight for Women’s Promise.

 The Movie Salon The Fight for Women’s Promise posted first and set out our issues. 
The first Discourse on Revolutionary Road posted earlier. 

And now for some thinking on Blue Valentine.  

In the middle of her fight to keep her Paris promise to herself, April of Revolutionary Road listens to that crazy guy soothsay, “I know one thing.  I know I’m glad I’m not that child!” as he points at April’s womb.

April, already ready twice a 1950’s mother, knows he speaks the truth.  She knows what’s up.  That she doesn’t have enough emotional resource left to keep her promise of a creative life and to birth another child, too.  She just can’t do it all.  Another pregnancy signals the end of it.  And so, once her husband Frank destroys the dream of Paris, April just lets her promise go by letting go her life, making her exit right out of the male narrative just as much as Thelma and Louise did going off that cliff.

Sitting in the empty dark after witnessing this tale of April’s extinguishment and our loss of what more she might have become, I ask myself – what kind of, for lack of a better word, weltanschauung would rather lay to waste its lifeforce than let woman out from under its service to explore what her promise might be?

In Blue Valentine, Cindy’s promise of a healed life is manifested in her dream of becoming a doctor.  But in the all-too-real world, with her meager resources compounded by a family legacy of futility and rage, Cindy traverses not a path of healing but the American underclass of tired retro hip, drinking, and dead end jobs.  Remnant disappointment lingers everywhere.  All slightly, what is it?  Sticky. This frazzled edge of loss is no one’s dream life.  And in this story of Cindy’s love with Dean the seeds of that love’s end are sown in the beginning. We are spared the dreary middle. 

Blue Valentine is set a half century later and things have shifted some from April’s particular constellation of negative forces, social history-wise.  Most obviously, the politically tortured issue of reproductive choice is no longer hush hush.  In this story it  comes to surface matter of fact and clinical in the scene of Cindy’s almost abortion.

Clinical that is, up until that rushing moment when Cindy seizes on her impulse to continue her pregnancy.  It’s difficult to speculate about the source of this impulse, other than from the instinct of maternal love, in the 18 year old Cindy.  Certainly having the abortion would have given her a much better chance of escaping the destructive patterns in her family.  Perhaps by going forward with her pregnancy, Cindy is dreaming of a new, a redo family for herself.  But as those of us not 18 and pregnant know, having a baby will not enable Cindy to better walk away from the brutal dining table of her father and mother.  More likely, it will seal her into the probability of ending up just like them.

How difficult it is to change the ways of relation we inherit.  Yet Cindy tenaciously refuses to forsake her promise to grow beyond the lack of resources, material and emotional, born to her.  This refusal is the force behind her arc of realization, seen back and forth through the story bookends of the beginning and end of her marriage to Dean, that she’s been doing a lot of settling for rescue and legitimacy, settling in the same way her own mother must have settled.

Cindy convinces herself Dean is a man she can love.  Yet she never expresses any expectations of him.  In the scenes set later in their story we see she’s continued her own effort at growth but only once, in the Future Room, does she wistfully suggest that he too might “do something.”  But it’s without conviction: she knows who he is, she just thought, at least in the beginning, that she could do the growing for them both.

Cindy’s only clear expectation of Dean is that he do what her own father had done, be a provider.  Only nicer.  By choosing this deadend pattern with Dean, Cindy sets her own trap – the one she must claw her way out of at the end.  Life becomes more complicated once pregnancy’s promise of a child turns real.  At the very least, and often as priority, now the promise of the new life comes first.  Or so it is in the biological, animal order of things.  Witness, as example, the calcium leached out of the mother’s body as priority for a fetus if there’s a not enough in the diet.

Turns out, Dean is not capable of growing with Cindy, let alone through her, out of what in this story might be called the ukulele stage of love.

“Heartbreaking,” my friend said of the oft cited serenading scene set in the doorway of a bridal store during the stage of sparking attraction between Cindy and Dean.  Wooing Cindy in that storefront, strumming his ukulele, offering her a song sung “in a stupid voice” cause he “can’t sing” Dean is being playful, displaying his charming, if adolescent, innocence.  If Cindy were conscious of anything besides her own need for love she might focus more on his lack of potential as a mate; that he, essentially parentless himself, has no model for adult behavior in a relationship.  More importantly he is, as their story unfolds, unable to conceive of an other way. “You got any hidden talents?” he asks her, encouraging “innocence.”  And, just like a little girl, she recites all the presidents while doing a tap dance.

Not that Cindy, as a pretty young woman, has been encouraged to develop any talents, hidden or otherwise.  This is expressed succinctly by Dean in response to Cindy’s sharing her ambition to become a doctor.  “Really?  Yeah right.  Girls like you, girls that look like you don’t go study medicine.  Girls like you are supermodels.”  He’s paying her the highest compliment he knows: that she’s so pretty she should be a super model.  But here he reveals his total lack of understanding of who she really is or what she wants for herself.  Yet Cindy misses, or makes the choice not to recognize, this warning sign that Dean’s not likely to be much help to her unfolding promise.

How did Cindy find herself in this bridal doorway?  In the clinic we learn her sexual history.  Only 13 when she became sexually active, she’s had 20-25 sexual partners by the time she found her way onto that table of decision at 18 or so.  This tells us all we need to know about Cindy’s need to be confirmed by catching a boy/man’s eye.  This has nothing to do with passing moral judgment but plays out as exposition on how important the single trait of attractiveness has been to define and confirm this young woman’s existence.  Otherwise she’s simply afloat as to her value as a human being.  No wonder she missed the warning in Dean’s “compliment.”  He went straight at her learned behavior, the strokes she’d been trained to respond to.  Unable to establish any other sense of herself as having real value, she trades on her prettiness, and on the resultant sex, and this sets her up for entrapment.  And so she is.

Cindy needs a partner for the incoming life.  But her seeking alliance with Dean is an unfortunate miscalculation for them both.  And sure enough, what looks like rescue in the opening stages of their relationship has become, by the time that fetus is the little girl Frankie, an emotional triangle mired in rutted, fallback notions of how families should work.  And everyone’s suffocating.

In the opening scenes all Dean’s overt affection and love is directed at this little girl, Frankie.  “Sweetheart.  Honey,” he calls her incessantly.  “I love you like crazy,” he tells her and Frankie parrots back the same from the backseat as Cindy drives off.  Dean can barely let the car go.  Looks normal enough.  But what in these first scenes plays out as affection between dad and daughter is already a little hard to watch.  This “love” is grasping, excessively protective and shot tight.  Later we realize that by these end times of the marriage, shown first in the film, Dean is holding on for dear life to his family.  Exhibiting his daughter’s love for him is not about Frankie.  It’s a message from Dean meant for Cindy.  In his desperation to not lose, Dean’s doubling down on Frankie’s love to reinforce the ties that bind Cindy to him.

What is the source of the inequality of energy flow between Cindy and Dean for which she can never compensate?  If it’s that Dean sacrificed something to be a husband to her and father to Frankie, what is that something?  “Listen,” he says to her, “I didn’t want to be somebody’s husband, and I didn’t want to be somebody’s dad.  That’s some guys’ goal in life.   But it wasn’t mine.” And yet in their final battle this comes out as, “all I ever wanted was to be your husband, Frankie’s father.”

Dean shrouds himself in this role of husband and father bestowed through the luck of Cindy’s eye falling on him in her time of need.  But he allows his emotions to run rampant and adolescent through exhausted substitutes for love hoping she doesn’t notice his refusal of the chance she’s offering, through his relationship with her and their child, to grow and develop otherwise.  In fact the role’s become Dean’s excuse not to grow, to keep on being who he has always been, doing what he has always done, taking the easy way, filling the tried and true role, not having to re-invent himself or that role.  Instead, in an effort to somehow return to the ukulele stage of their love, Dean books a night for drinking and sex in the Future Room.  This is a boy’s conception of a remedy for a man’s marriage.

There, over spaghetti, Cindy gives one last try to transform the marriage asking Dean, “Isn’t there something else you want to do?”  The implicit meaning in the question is, what in fact has he sacrificed, put off (as she has) for his familial obligations?  But his response is his defensive line, “Like what, besides being your husband, to be Frankie’s dad?”  Then he puts it back on her, “What do you want me to do?  In your dream scenario, what would that be?”

Although it’s Dean’s choice to do nothing, be nothing except a husband and father, using his provider/protector role as excuse for his stunted growth, this nothing has become Cindy’s burden.  He did this for her.  His sacrifice is for her.  And here, at the origin of the bargain with Dean is what Cindy can never ever rebalance.  The martyr equation.

And by putting herself in a place where accepting Dean’s proposal that they “make a family” seemed possible, Cindy agreed to her side of the martyr equation:  that the man will be endorsed in his sense of self and his expectation of being rewarded (with sex, loyalty and affection) for martyring himself by his loss of autonomy (a most treasured noun of the male narrative) in accepting the role of husband and father.  Especially if he takes on the father role when there is a question of paternity.

This is the root of Dean’s hazy notion of his sacrifice, in this loss of autonomy.  For the man who willfully forsakes his autonomy by “tying himself down” is less of a man. Domesticated.  Dean focuses on the question, “What is it to be a man?” asking it of Cindy over and over as he realizes he’s losing her.  After all, hasn’t he played by the rules?

But here’s the clincher.  Dean’s full on willingness to be sacrificed to his role of husband & father demands in return that Cindy will stay being what Dean needs.  Since he remains stuck in the ukulele stage buttressed by his role of rescuer and refuses to admit anything but “happiness” with his lot in life, this necessitates that she release her promise, too.  His refusal to grow stops her growth.  That’s the deal.

It’s the same deal that made Frank’s refusal of theParis promise stop April’s growth.  But there’s a bit of gender shift that’s taken root between April’s time and Cindy’s.  And here lies the hope for growth in us all.

Through everything, Cindy’s promise to herself of healing keeps nagging at her heart.  Hers is a tenacious, strong muscle in the middle of her chest.  She just can’t let it go and she doesn’t turn it inward and poison herself with it, as April did.  Its nagging helps her realize, as desperate as her first moves toward separation are, that she just can’t do this any longer; this marriage based upon her old need for protection, a need that traps her in the obligation to provide affection and everything else Dean needs so that he can “be a man.”  Marriage on the terms she entered into, and for her own legitimization, does not work for a woman who wants to know herself to be more than “just body, only,” just for propagation, sex and support of men.

And so Cindy takes the plunge for separation.  And she does it now as much for the sake of her child, Frankie, as herself.  A mother, Cindy’s promise must grow up.  In her own kind of calcium equation, Cindy transfers her still germinating seed of promise to Frankie.  In letting go of her own girl child dream of doctoring, developed as protection against her brutalizing father, Cindy creates a more realistic reapplication.  She keeps alive her promise of an evolving life by removing Frankie from any more imprinting with Dean’s regressive, ties-that-bind, misconception of love.  Cindy breaks the cycle.

This severing is not without danger.  Cindy knows it will cause pain in Dean, in Frankie and in herself.  She must grow past her own want to return to being a protected little girl, as if she ever were.  As a mother, for the sake of her child’s current little girldom, Cindy must risk becoming her most feared state of being – a woman unendorsed by male desire.

Because right now, Cindy’s with Frankie.  A worthwhile sacrifice.  Much better than sacrificing them both to Dean’s need of a reason for being.

Written with substantial philosophical and editorial contributions from Kathleen Gyurkey.

For those of you hungry for more on Blue Valentine, over on our PERIODIC LINKS page is an interview with director and writer Derek Cianfrance from The Rumpus.net.   

  1. Enjoyed all your insights so very much, Annie. I heard/saw an interview with Michelle Williams (Charlie Rose? Fresh Air?), who as you probably know was with the project for a long time. Her sense of the marriage was that it wasn’t necessarily doomed, as I recall — that this was just one day in their life, the day when everything changed for them. Interesting, I thought. But then that’s what I love about that write-your-own-ending ending!

    • Randy Sue. Wonderful to have you weigh in. And you’ve put your finger on a source of some debate around here about what Cindy might do now, after those closing shots of Dean crossing back and away with Independence day fireworks in the bg.

      If Cindy does go through with leaving Dean, will she try to go it alone for a while, get a little rest from the whole male thing? Maybe she will just work away (having found another job, hopefully) and be a mom in order to grow through the emotional damage done, in particular to Frankie, by this brutal leaving. Maybe this would give her a little breather and some time to take a good look at her patterning with the men in her life up to this point.

      Clearly the clinic doctor as the next love interest is out.

      If, on the other hand, it’s simply a matter of being “just one day when everything changed for them,” as you recall Ms. Williams saying was a possibility, then perhaps in the sequel Dean will become inspired with all he’s learned from his near loss of everything he says is dear to him and take a good, hard look at the underpinning of Cindy’s dissatisfaction with their marriage. Cause there are legitimate reasons for it. And it’s his chance to grow. Wouldn’t that be lovely…But then, where would the conflict to generate the drama come from!

    • Theresa Majeres
    • August 16th, 2011

    Wow, lots to think about and take in. I love your insights, Annie. I just watched Sophia Coppola’s “Somewhere”. Her Johnie Marco character has some similarities to Dean. As we see more stories about women finding meaning beyond their spouses and children, so we also see stories of men who find meaning ONLY in their spouses and children. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the shift in family dynamics. Should we celebrate it as progressive or is it a new way for men to take all the credit and have power over our lives?

    • Thank you Theresa…And thanks for the reminder. I unintentionally let Coppola’s movie slip by, but have promptly put Somewhere on the top of my Netflix queue. Am anxious to take a look at it, especially in light of, as you say, shifting family dynamics.

      Humm. “…celebrate as progressive”… OR …”yet another way men take all the credit and have power over…”

      I think I’d like it best if we could have some kind of synthesis. Could we recognize that it’s terrific (for all involved, including our children) that men are participating more in the care and keeping of things of home and heart. Terrific because, besides the welcome help with the work, what the understandings of this fundamental vein of life could catalyze in men, the growth that might be stirred up in them by their involvement.

      To the extent Dean was trying to have power over Cindy through his bond with Frankie, the danger lies in the emotional use of another for one’s own ends. This is what is unhealthy and destructive for all involved, including, most tragically, the child. As much as this protective reaction is a given of who we are, especially when we are afraid of being hurt, if we could try to recognize it within ourselves it might give us a chance to work with it some, roll it around and help each other get perspective.

      I always think it’s somewhat the same as how one must approach a drowning person. Very carefully. Because they can, in their desperation, drown you even if your intention is to save them. A reason to be a good swimmer, take some water rescue classes. So Dean was dangerous in this way, emotionally speaking, to Cindy and Frankie, because he acted from his fear. And Cindy, a green growing tree, was having enough trouble learning to swim, herself.

      We can only hope that as Dean integrates his experience of his loss, he comes to understand that he used his bond with this woman and her child for his own needs, which were regressive, trying to hold everything in some imaginary “fine” place. We can hope, if he gets another chance at family, he comes to see that there might be an other way of being together, more fluid and changing, through which they all might encourage growth in one another.

      An ideal, I suppose. But one we swim toward.

    • Paul Schmidt
    • September 19th, 2011

    Based upon the comments, perhaps we could write to the director and ask that the movie be renamed “Black and Blue Valentine”?

    Dean loved Cindy and Frankie. He was doing just fine. There was really nothing much else he wanted to do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The idea that Cindy had “outgrown him” is as presumptuous as it is unfair. People grow differently sometimes- sometimes apart. Nothing was wrong with Dean. He was a mensch from start to finish. Cindy just ended up wanted a different kind of experience in a man and there is nothing wrong with that either. – Paul Schmidt

    • Paul, so glad to have you in the Parlor, glad to have your matter of fact defense of a guy’s pov (especially a mensch’s.) Always welcome.

      As your comment underlines, this exploration of love between the sexes is an inexact science, dependent by and large on one’s perspective – It’s a relative subject, that is. But all we are grows from love’s couplings. And not just physical life, most obviously, but also, I believe, it is through relation with one another that we grow in consciousness and spirit. Not sure about presumptuousness (yikes!) or being fair, but I’d still have to hold steady with the idea that the arduous and also joyful work of human growth in all its permeations is our task, when all is said and done, here on earth. And it is through the evolution we catalyze in one another that lies our chance, however fleeting, at comprehension of our being.

      Yes, Dean did love Cindy in his way. But there really is something wrong with Dean’s way of love, from my perspective, if it means endless going in circles hoping to somehow reignite some emotion dredged up from some storefront mingle of years ago. Cause it’s not there anymore. Life is change. And the love we hold and spark between us changes, ready or not. Either that or devolve, which we’re all pretty familiar with. And the growing up that Cindy is trying to do, grasping for some definition of her self besides the way so profusely offered (confirmation of her sexual self, and this dependent upon stirring men’s desire of her – woman as body, only) is her desperate try at encouraging her own emotional evolution demanded, really, by her life as a mother. All Dean’s running in circles, no matter how much he declares his love for her and Frankie, will get Cindy and her girlchild, nowhere. Except dizzy.

    • sue
    • November 10th, 2011

    Annie, I learn so much reading your discourse. It’s so exciting.

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