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Derek Cianfrance and Genre

Paolo here. I am the bearer of bad news. Apparently there are Blue Valentine' haters out there, two of whom are close writer friends of mine. One of these friends has repeatedly criticized the movie through Twitter, especially its director Derek Cianfrance's melodramatic tendencies. 

At first I disagreed with this minor yet tolerably vocal crowd, since that movie evinces hard-hitting, unquestionable emotions. I finally admit that yes, its saturated colours do evoke a hispter version of a Todd Haynes picture (nothing wrong with that!). And as it pains me to write this, Young Dean's (Ryan Gosling) appearance and actions are reminiscent of the cartoony, blinding spark on a boyband member's smile.

Maybe it's Cianfrance's new movie, The Place Beyond the Pines, that allowed me come to terms with the director's melodrama leanings. This release is being sold as an epic crime drama and sure, it delivers on that regard; a movie with a masculine cast gets slapped and labelled with a masculine genre. I normally take most movies at face value but I'll share with you how I see this movie. One that features a handsome man from the wrong side of the tracks, dysfunctional families, rapid aging and time lapses, and the revelation of a secret identity.

We're watching a fucking soap opera, people. Revenge with Boys

To me, when I notice the campy and ridiculous in a movie I have no other choice but to embrace it. Which is not to say that this is a typical soap, one reason being its surprising simplicity. Revenge's protagonist Emily Thorne has slogged through two seasons, a fake identity, and a terrorist organization to inflict revenge on her enemies, the Graysons. Nobody from  that family is dead yet. Pines has Jason (Dane DeHaan) in place of Emily. Instead of all of Revenge's elaborate shenanigans all Jason has to do is buy a gun from a bad neighbourhood.

And of course, despite of having both campy and unironic possibilities, the movie chooses the latter. It doesn't reward us with gushing revelations like "You did this to me!" What we have instead  are Jason's shellshocked tears as well as his 'mortal enemy' Avery Cross' (Bradley Cooper). Or if it does, the characters do what I assume straight men do and yell about something as long as it's not whatever the really want to say.

(Speaking of which, I've been reading The Count of Monte Cristo to put this movie and Revenge in context and I make Victoria Grayson faces when the I read a part about death or scheming. I oughta make some selfies.)

Like Sam Mendes, Cianfrance's interest lies on what erodes relationships. In Blue Valentine that force was time. Time plays a similar role in The Place Beyond the Pines, but Cianfrance also shows us social forces that destroy relationships in the most catastrophic ways.


As The Place Beyond the Pines fits both genres of crime and melodrama, it also shares elements from another genre - the western - and not just because of Luke Glanton's (Gosling) bank robberies. Some of you who watch might roll your eyes when Luke and Avery's (Bradley Cooper) short animosity gets passed on through their respective sons Jason and AJ (Emory Cohen). This plot 'contrivance' isn't just a trademark of a melodrama, it also speaks to this mentality that skip a generation or so. The mentality I'll explain isn't just coming from the American psyche but within any nation that has felt amoral desperation. That their communities and families are too intertwined, claustrophobic, and thus inclined towards being bellicose. The movie works as a pre-Western because of Jason's decision to move, well, west. His search for a new frontier is like cleaning the slate that is his troubled parentage.

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Reader Comments (6)

"The movie works as a pre-Western because of Jason's decision to move, well, west. His search for a new frontier is like cleaning the slate that is his troubled parentage."

My personal headcanon is of course Jason growing up to be the Driver in Drive. No one can convince me any differently.

April 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

The Western is just such a profoundly American genre, whether one likes that or not. I always found the Western to be most found in the films of Kathryn Bigelow up until Zero Dark Thirty which was much more grounded in the modern life (even if there are elements of the Melvillian tale of revenge, which I think are critiqued in the movie). No mistake the directors she most took from were Peckinpah, who made the most modern American Western and Kurosawa who culturally found parallels of the samurai in Westerns that were then appropriated back into the modern Westerns. People who derided The Hurt Locker as not as realistic or steeped in realism as critics raised it as missed the fact that Sgt. William James is not all that different than the Western cowboy. He is not portrayed as a celebration of that American mythos but how such an attitude has a ticking clock down to zero, bound to take down the stubborn, proud 'hero'.

It feels interesting that the time and place, my hometown of Schenectady, could possibly be the setting of a modern Western. The West was always about turning another leaf, free will but it also was a dog eat dog world where people, or a whole people, were left abandoned, destroyed by the choices of a stubborn few. Schenectady in this specific period fits more of the place where corporate America retreated from, leaving people abandoned but this movie feels more on the personal level of the choices of a few redirecting the trajectories of other characters.

April 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I was really impressed by " The Place Beyond the Pines" yes it did feel like a very American movie- not just in theme but in setting and style. I think this the years first must see.

April 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

"Revenge With Boys". love it. Interesting thoughts on the genre mishmash. I think this is a very problematic movie but I do like that with this and Blue Valentine you can see how important Time is to Cianfrance and I hope he continues to work with the theme in non-repetitive ways (because these films are quite different)

April 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Ryan T. - It would be so heartbreaking if Jason ended up just like his father.

CMG - I was thinking the same thing when I saw Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker. I was like "John Wayne's back from the dead." There's also this self awareness within Renner and Wayne and K-Bigs and John Ford, that they know that their characters can be jerks sometimes. And it disappoints me that some of the people who watch Westerns/neo-Westerns/Iraq War movies don't see the ambivalent perspective that actors and directors have towards hypermasculine heroes.

And it also makes me wonder that since Wayne is Renner's godfather, the stoic, romantic, collected and slightly goofy Gary Cooper is Ryan Gosling's and Heath Ledger's.

Jaragon - With this movie and No and To the Wonder I'm falling in love with this year. And it's only April.

NAT - I love that the two of us are probably the only holdouts for Revenge. Even the diehard fans admit that it's messy now.

And I'm probably the only crazy person who likes Jason's storyline the most. The story could have been retold as about Jason's phantomic relationship with his father. But then they had to make it a Gosling/Coops picture because Dane DeHaan isn't that famous. Yet.

April 14, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

"I finally admit that yes, its saturated colours do evoke a hispter version of a Todd Haynes picture (nothing wrong with that!). And as it pains me to write this, Young Dean's (Ryan Gosling) appearance and actions are reminiscent of the cartoony, blinding spark on a boyband member's smile."

I felt this and more cringe-worthy components upon first viewing in the theaters, and I've only begun to like it in my head as I read the adorations you all give it in these blogs. It must be good right? Well yes and no.. There's something not right about this movie. Knowing the motives and outcome before sitting through the 2 hour explanation might be a start. Having a super simple story, ala the weakest point of Drive, might have something to do with it. Gosling confusing his cocky self with good acting might have another.. I don't know about you guys, I like GOsling and all, but he never sinks his teeth in, he never gets ugly for a picture, even when he's half bald.

April 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarcello D

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