The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Blue Valentine': Is it a movie about sex or about class?

January 5, 2011 | 11:58 am

Ryan_gosling You gotta hand it to Harvey Weinstein. Knowing all along that “Blue Valentine,” though loaded with great acting and filmmaking, was a serious downer of a marital drama, he decided he had to sell the sizzle. Weinstein cagily picked an all-points-bulletin ratings fight with the MPAA over a brief snippet of oral sex in the film, alerting the media at every juncture. If he lost, he could put the movie out unrated, billing it as the movie the MPAA didn’t want you to see. And if he won, as he did, after hiring an all-star team of lawyers to cajole and shame the MPAA into giving the film an R rating, he could run ads, as he has been the past week, billing the film as “uncut and uncensored,” which from time immemorial has been code for "check out the sex scenes." 

As it stands, Weinstein is trying to perk up some interest from potential moviegoers by offering the tantalizing hint of sexual abandon, especially with the image that’s running in the current ads of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams intertwined in a serious smooch.  Of course, that’s why they call it “show” business. You do what you have to do to get people to see your movie, especially when it’s getting good reviews but is clearly not a feel-good crowd pleaser.

But what really intrigues me about the reaction to “Blue Valentine” is not its sexual content, but how it has sharply divided conservative critics. By and large, conservatives tend to see Hollywood films in lock-step harmony, singing the praises of a film like “Waiting for 'Superman',” which gives the teachers union a sound thrashing, while dismissing a film like “Fair Game” for turning Valerie Plame into a saintly crusader and demonizing the Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq.

But lo and behold, conservatives are having a healthy clash of views over “Blue Valentine.” Reviewing the film at Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood under the headline “Another Depressing Anti-Marriage Offering From Hollywood,” Carl Kozlowski sees the arrival of films like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” as the beginning of the end of Western civilization as we know it, ushering in a wave of films that resulted in “any serious portrayal of marriage being filled with hatred and negativity.” (Geez, do ya think he's talking about "Wedding Crashers"?) That brings him to “Blue Valentine,” which Kozlowski views as a "new low point in marriage movies.” As is customary among his Big Hollywood brethren, Kozlowski is persuaded that out-of-touch Hollywood is trying to cram its elitist fantasies down the throats of regular folk. Or as he writes: “Does Hollywood really think the masses are going to want to see a story like this on date night, after a hard week at work?”

On the other hand, the New York Post’s conservative film critic Kyle Smith, who writes one of my favorite blogs, is a big fan of the film, comparing it to Ingmar Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage,” which is high praise indeed. Smith gives the usual kudos to the actors and filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, but he makes a fascinating point, with only a tiny hint of lefty Hollywood bashing:

"Without ever saying so, 'Blue Valentine' is centrally about class, and class, in America, anyway, is centrally about much more than income — it’s about tastes and values, as we see when Dean’s idea of a healing getaway means a cheesy lovers’ motel.... American filmmakers largely avoid class, which is fine because virtually all of them were well-born and tend to portray their inferiors as piteous, comical or (especially when they’re minorities) as sprites whose magical simplicity can be used to cure the angst of therapy-needing professionals. ‘Blue Valentine’ resists such glibness and makes us look deeper."

It’s a really good point, which takes us well beyond the liberal-conservative divide and into a thoughtful meditation on the film's exploration of the class divide. "Blue Valentine's" blue-collar husband is a lot like other members of today's economic underclass, having been forced into a bad marriage by an unwanted pregnancy. The conservative columnist Ross Douthat has written eloquently about this issue, arguing that the Red State family model, with its uneasy mix of rigor and permissiveness, has ideals that don't always reflect the complexity of contemporary life.

He points out that while Red State families tend to be social conservatives, their attitudes "guarantee that their children will get pregnant early often (see Palin, Bristol), leading to teen childbirth, shotgun marriages and high divorce rates. This self-defeating cycle could explain why socially conservative states have more family instability than say, the culturally liberal Northeast. If you're looking for solid marriages, head to Massachusetts, not Alabama."  

"Blue Valentine" is a perfect illustration of this dilemma. Its young couple's hasty marriage causes all sorts of unexpected mayhem, which makes for both compelling drama and a fascinating illustration of current sociological theory. Of course, that's not the kind of thing that sells movie tickets. But I'm glad Smith's review highlighted the prickly issue of class distinction, an issue which rarely rears its ugly head  in contemporary American films. But dealing with class distinction will only get you so far. If Smith had only dwelt a little more about the sexual escapades that occur at that lovers’ motel, Weinstein might have given the review top billing in his blurb ads. 

--Patrick Goldstein       

Photo: Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling photographed last month at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times