13 August 2013

Love and Death; or How to Find Yourself Crazed on the Streets of San Francisco

Blue Jasmine
2013, USA
Woody Allen

Sometime in the 1980s or possibly the early 1990s, Woody Allen shifted from being a "sure bet" to a "mixed bag." Some people might attest that the process of aging and its effects to the body and mind can account for the sort of decline we sometimes see in artists' work during their later years. I'm not sure we'll ever know what, if anything, is to blame, but somewhere after Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen's films started missing their mark; perhaps it was shortly after Allen's messy divorce with the second major muse of his career, Mia Farrow. At the rate of nearly a film per year, it's to be expected that not every one would succeed, though a few of the films (that I've seen) that came after Farrow reached the heights of his early greats (Deconstructing Harry, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Bullets Over Broadway, possibly Mighty Aphrodite).

Allen may have seen enormous success with his 2011 outing Midnight in Paris, which awarded the filmmaker his first Academy Award in twenty-five years and went on to be the most profitable film of his career. Despite these accomplishments, Midnight in Paris brought me to make the claim that I had given up on any further projects the director had left in him. It wasn't just that I disliked the film; it made me want to go to Home Depot, buy a bunch of lightbulbs, and smash them in the parking lot. There were other things going on in my life that might have amplified the violence I felt, but my hatred was genuine. With Blue Jasmine however, the fact that I even considered seeing it was the first indication of how premature the bullheaded proclamation I made was. Blue Jasmine is almost good enough to have erased the memory of grumbling, cringing, and sighing my way through Owen Wilson's magically tedious tour of Parisian history. Almost.

The first thing about Blue Jasmine that should be mentioned—as it has been by nearly every person I know who's seen it—is its star, Cate Blanchett. As most of us are aware, she ranks among a very small list of actresses in Hollywood today who can always be counted on to be somewhere near wonderful, no matter how good or bad the film the film she's in might be. As Jasmine, née Jeanette, Blanchett's performance is the sort of thing to elicit the most enthusiastic of gay squeals. She embodies all of the things that make the gays melt in their theatre chairs. She's beautiful, unbalanced, reeling from a tragic marriage, mentally unstable, alcohol and pill dependent, viper-tongued, and oblivious to her own absurdity, all while traveling down a road that dances on the ultra-thin line that separates redemption from degradation. Oh, and she also has a really expensive wardrobe. But it's not the character alone that would make the gays extend the vowel sounds in the word "amazing" while describing the film, it's Blanchett's possession of Jasmine that makes it so outstanding.

Ostensibly an update of A Streetcar Named Desire set during our current economic crisis, the film begins with Jasmine's relocation to San Francisco to move in with her sister Ginger (a wonderful-as-usual Sally Hawkins) after losing all of her money and possessions to the government after her wealthy businessman husband (Alec Baldwin) is arrested for fraud. She's clearly on a downward spiral, but it's unclear how close to rock bottom she actually is… or if there even is a bottom to land on. It takes a while into the film before one begins to recognize the weight of the drama at hand, as Blue Jasmine isn't drenched in the sort of stark Bergman-esque tone of Interiors.

Handling the film with a light touch and taking his time to expose the severity of Jasmine's situation, Allen turns Blue Jasmine into a much darker Midnight in Paris, exploring the wounded psyche of his protagonist. He cuts between Jasmine's life in San Francisco and her life of privilege in the Hamptons, slowly unveiling the fact that what initially appear to be flashbacks are actually scenes of Jasmine's life that she's reliving and replaying. When you realize that you're seeing what's happening in Jasmine's head, you begin to see all of her fears of appearance, gossip, and other people's judgments reaffirm themselves. Though she never explicitly acknowledges these fears (looking the other way is one of her specialties), the film tells us that everyone around Jasmine knows exactly what's going on in her life and that it's a pretty hot discussion topic. An early scene where Jasmine is at the airport talking all about herself to the unlucky old woman seated next to her really struck me as the camera veers away from Jasmine at the baggage claim to capture a brief dialogue exchange between the old woman and her husband about the "strange woman" hollering goodbye to her. Throughout the film, it appears that everyone else is privy to intimate details of the sordid life of her husband, as well as Jasmine's own shaky mental state, though this too could be all in Jasmine's head. It's almost as if the truth about Jasmine's life exists everywhere but in her own delusional mind.

For anyone who has spent any time in San Francisco, Jasmine's fate at the end of the film has a sobering ring of truth to it. A friend remarked after seeing the film that he had to suspend disbelief when people on the street stop to watch Jasmine have a breakdown outside the dentist's office, because such outward displays of crazy are so commonplace in San Francisco that few would have taken much notice. Granted, it isn't every day one sees that sort of eruption from someone who looks like Cate Blanchett. I don't believe one needs to have lived in San Francisco to be haunted by the closing scene, but for those who have, it certainly provides an extra layer of bleakness to the experience. I guess Allen will never cease to be on my radar, and I'm okay with that.

Though we didn't feel the same way, I highly recommend that you read Jonathan Rosenbaum's assessment of Blue Jasmine and Allen's class obsession.

With: Cate Blanchett, Sally Hawkins, Alec Baldwin, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Sarsgaard, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Stuhlbarg, Max Casella, Alden Ehrenreich, Tammy Blanchard, Joy Carlin, Richard Conti

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