Monday, August 26, 2013

Blue Jasmine

By Woody Allen

            Despite setting nearly all of his films in the world of the bourgeoisie intelligencia and inhabiting that world himself, Woody Allen has always had an affinity for the blue color and an itching disdain for the sourness of excess.  This is never clearer than in his most recent triumph, Blue Jasmine.  Telling the story of a rags to riches to rags socialite whose wealth vanishes after revelations of white collar crime, the film pits classes squarely against each other and clearly favors the frankness of common folk over the pretense of the wealthy.
            His thesis is that, well, money is the root of all kinds of evil, and this is mainly because it feeds a consuming pride rooted in all of us.  Early in the film, it is revealed that the film’s titular figure Jasmine (an entrancingly haggard and possibly Oscar-bound Cate Blanchett) changed her name from Janette to divorce herself from her lowly beginnings, and throughout the film, Allen builds a narrative motif of deceit to highlight the tendency to lie to ourselves; an inclination to wear facades in the hope they one day become reality.  Though Jasmine knows deep down that she is actually the adopted and ordinary Janette, this very fact is the primary source of her debilitating anxiety.  With the evidence of affluence, she once could much more easily convince herself of her superiority to others, but without it, she has no definition and desperately fights against the reality of her normalcy.
            Allen’s point, perhaps, is that wealth many times traps its victims by forcing them to justify their excess, and this subconscious shame and misplaced ego automatically builds a stubborn resentment for those without.  For Jasmine, she is trapped either way – either she must meet the vain and lofty requirements of exorbitance or she must move forward by admitting her many wrongs and cruel slights.  What Allen so movingly shows us is that many times people who lose meaning found in material things have the strength to do neither.

A strong ***½ out of ****

Blanchett is simply phenomenal as Jasmine.
            Like the sadly overlooked 2011 film, Young Adult, by Jason Reitman (Up in the Air, Juno), Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is unafraid to feature an unlikeable, unchanging female protagonist.  Both have tall, blonde, gorgeous women as their leads, and both leads are so self-centered that they never see (or admit) their own shortcomings, instead frequently picking on the flaws of others.  Both films also, wonderfully, don’t succumb to any audience pressure to “resolve” their issues and the character arcs in tidy, traditionally satisfying ways, choosing instead of allow their characters to remain static, as people frequently do in reality.
            Although this choice may prove alienating to a wider audience, it perfectly fits with the story Allen is telling about a woman who refuses to let go of her past and allow herself to recognize any of her own faults as attributing to her downfall.  And instead of providing us relief by giving us peripheral characters that we can better relate to, Allen provides other flawed characters who make often poor choices that seem to highlight and underline all of the interesting ideas he presents.  Cate Blanchett does bravado and Oscar-worthy work here, stripping her character completely naked (not in the physical sense) and revealing the delusion and sadness beneath as Allen takes us into his protagonist’s inner workings, through the memories of her past life.  Other actors are also excellent, including Sally Hawkins as her sister Ginger, who you should also check out in the fantastic Happy-Go-Lucky.  Allen riskily and masterfully tells this strikingly bleak story that is a study of how people rarely change and reminds us that we must look honestly at ourselves if we are to improve.

***1/2 out of ****

(Per usual, we agree.)

            I appreciate you pointing out the common anthem of many in calling for tidy resolutions and nicely packaged answers.  I, too, have noticed this impulse and if I had to guess, I would say it stems from a discomfort in having unanswered questions.  The very fact that this film (and Young Adult for that matter) leaves its characters’ arcs in a state of flux forces viewers to process the film and postulate what would happen next.  In doing this, whether they like it or not, viewers are assessing the characters and dissecting motivation.  This, to me, is far more valuable than the simple moral slogans of many more popular films, for it asks people to be more involved in the viewing experience.  Films like this force us to ask questions and critically process rather than swallow and regurgitate pad answers.

Deep in memory.
            Not only was this film a bit harder-to-swallow thematically, it also told its story in an interesting and unusual way.  Each time the protagonist has something particularly powerful happen in her life, she flashes back to a parallel memory, and then often snaps out in a way that shows how unstable a person she really has become.  There was story in the present day as well, and that is told in a linear fashion, but much of it happens in the past.  I thought the structure was perfect, as it captured the mind of its protagonist both in memory and how she thinks about those memories.

            I thought that Allen’s use of flashbacks were masterful here.  There are so many filmmakers playing around with timelines in an excessive and distracting fashion that we forget this sort of crosscut storytelling can be very effective filmic shorthand.  Allen has never been one to over-complicate his films, and I think that is why he can be so prolific, and also so hit-or-miss.  His dramatic films either have a very solid thematic core or they don’t, so his trademark stark focus on character and dialogue hinges heavily on the substance of the ideas he presents.  Luckily, here, the ideas are both interesting and challenging.
Ginger, your hair!
            It was instructive to see Jasmine in her previous life as a wealthy socialite.  It reminded me of the importance of context, for without the juxtaposition of her current struggles to her past indulgences, these indulgences would not have been as clearly misguided.  I have, for example, seen many a movie set amongst the wealthy and not thought twice about their excesses, but this film did not allow this luxury, and it is richer because of it.

            I didn’t read the film as so much of a judgment on the wealthy as you did.  Certainly, there is a social critique of this particular type of aristocratic lifestyle in the story, but I think Allen is much more interested in the minds of the characters themselves.  I felt like Jasmine’s coming into wealth was just the inciting incident that brought out her worst characteristics and fed them, but it could have been any number of things that revealed her pride: fame, talent, etc.

Alec Baldwin is really good at playing rich men.
            Allen’s central focus is definitely on his characters rather than any sociopolitical lessons, but I still cannot escape the feeling that he was also indicting capitalism in some sense, or at least what it does to the people it blesses.  Jasmine’s unfaithful and amoral husband Hal, played by a fittingly type-casted Alec Baldwin, clearly represents an impulse to hoard resources from the government because, gal-darnit, those are hard-earned greenbacks.
            In other words, by virtue of the film using wealth as the impetus for Jasmine’s sourness, Allen implies that this is bound to happen in any culture that prioritizes personal agency in creating wealth.  Individualistic societies simply feed selfish human impulses because they very easily preclude humility in success.

Ginger and her decent, but hot-tempered boyfriend.
            While that may be, I thought Allen was more interested in revealing how people never change, although he was certainly able to critique the excess of the wealthy as he explored the circular nature of peoples’ lives.  This particular theme was also a big part of the subplot involving Jasmine’s sister Ginger and her relationships with men.  Ginger seems to be the type of person to never be without a man on her arm, and frequently chooses men with tempers.  Even when she tries to break out of the cycle a little bit, she is disappointed and discouraged, so she returns to the life that she knows and is comfortable with because it is familiar.

            The film definitely comments on the habits we form and the inability of many to find new patterns.  I think this feeds into the motif of deceit, for just as the characters hope their facades will transform them into their own ideal, they also deceive themselves into believing the same paths will work out better next time.  Pride keeps them from taking the onus themselves, so they see no issue with making the same choices.  Allen is commenting on the difficulty in admitting fault, and the destructive ease at which we blame others for our own shortcomings.

A new romance.
            I agree 100%.  I found it fascinating that Jasmine turns a blind eye repeatedly to what is happening in her life with her husband, pretending she didn’t know anything is wrong, and deflecting any blame for her problems.  People constantly call her out on this, but she refuses to see any truth in their criticisms, focusing instead on her recollections of telling people she knew nothing or being completely aloof when it came to finances.  She recalls those memories of aloofness over and over again until she confirms to herself that she is blameless in the financial faults of Hal.  She clearly thinks she can do this again with future romances, asking so few questions and jumping so quickly into relationships that she will once again willingly be in the dark to anything unpleasant, able to be innocent in her own mind.
            Allen perfectly presents a compelling and depressing argument that people rarely perceive their own faults and seek to change, choosing instead to lie to themselves.  It’s a fantastic film, and a story that will hopefully challenge its audiences to reflect on their own faults and perhaps escape any of their own negative cycles.

Two-as-One Rating: ***½ out of ****


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