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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Woody Goes West: "Blue Jasmine"

With each film, the whole “career retrospective” thing for Woody Allen proves unavoidable–which is ridiculous, considering how he has a film every year, and, seeing the 90+ year life span of both his parents, may well be active into his 90s. But since watching Blue Jasmine, a fantastic serio-comic study of unraveling materialist Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, staggeringly good) who’s tumbled from Fifth Avenue riches to the modest guest-room of her just-making-ends-meet adoptive San Fran sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), I’ve been on an Allen kick, going through my collection which plays like ambient background noise as I go about my day. Does this happen with every new Allen release? And if so, isn’t having a 14-day Allen immersion kind of like a seasonal cold? Again I’m delighted with Love and Death, fawning over the Gordon Willis compositions from Manhattan and Sven Nykvist set-ups from Crimes and Misdemeanors, and even struggling to watch the why-so-serious September from beginning to end without falling asleep.

Blue Jasmine

Reviews typically bring up how Allen’s either “lost it” or is “back in good form,” so talk about the macro career while mining the micro details of the new picture on hand is familiar, if distracting, stuff. Yet bridging the hills and valleys of yesterday to what’s new can be a positive exercise. Current movies want to pound us to dust with rapid sensory firepower, immersing us in right now without much perspective. But Allen is bent on reminding us, to quote Midnight in Paris (or rather, William Faulkner), the past is not past.  Maybe the bulk of mainstream films are like Allen’s protagonists, such as Jasmine, overpowered by present temptations that impel her to feign ignorance or reformat history to suit short-lived opportunities (when coping with real history proves too difficult).  Blue Jasmine‘s first image has Jasmine fleeing her past in a grossly obvious CGI airplane, while Allen pulls us back into the pre-digital.  Nearly 80 and bearing the same creative sensibilities of someone who cinematically matured 40-50 years ago, Allen is uncannily old fashioned, maybe, some might say, “out of touch”–I’ve seen Facebook posts complaining about how he uses the phrase “making love,” which I guess people in reality never say anymore. He’s still tirelessly punching out feature-length scripts, presiding at an altar like an existential bishop with sacramental reiterations of perennial themes, humor, despair, and, in collaboration with some of the very best cinematographers (such as Willis, Nykvist, Carlo DiPalma, and in more recent years the likes of Darius Khondji and Harris Savides), unshowy though absolutely impeccable craftsmanship.

I suppose if Allen’s “lost” anything–aside from not scaling the heights of Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors (and you know, like Francis Ford Coppola with his ’70s masterpieces, he really doesn’t have to)–it’s his woman foil, embodied by Keaton in Love and Death and Annie Hall, Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, and most especially Mia Farrow throughout the 1980s, each case reflecting brilliantly on Allen’s male directorial voice.  The collaboration with Farrow was severed, infamously, with 1992′s Husbands and Wives and in a way he’s not recovered. He’s written wonderful women since that period (Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown, Elaine May in Small Time Crooks, Penelope Cruz in Vicki Cristina Barcelona), but they’re marked less for stalwart attributes than for self-deluded silliness, hubris, duplicity, stupidity, naivete, and destructiveness (to be fair, the men can be just as bad). They’re in the irrational vein of Anjelica Huston’s scorned lover from Crimes and Misdemeanors, or the manic Judy Davis from Husbands and Wives.  Farrow might have exhibited negative characteristics, for example as the tough-talking mob moll from Broadway Danny Rose or the aspiring ditzy performer who evolves into a sophisticated diva in Radio Days, even displaying facepalming weakness by choosing slimy Alan Alda over Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors. But she was still a pillar of assured stability balancing out Allen’s misanthropy, a glimmering sentience in the muck of a world given up for folly. Allen has never created as soulful an image as Farrow’s Cecilia, the neglected Depression-era housewife in The Purple Rose of Cairo, gazing up at the movie screen with adoration and fascination, escaping God’s crapshoot universe. Since Farrow’s split with Allen, we’ve lost Hannah and are left only with her sisters.

The Purple Rose of Cairo

Blue Jasmine has Allen’s most remarkable character since Martin Landau’s guilt-stricken eye-doctor Judah Rosenthal in 1989′s Crimes and Misdemeanors, and his most potent woman since Farrow. That’s not to say Jasmine is as lovable or exudes the integrity of Farrow’s best creations, but she’s the richest ink-blemish born from Allen’s antique typewriter in many moons. A woman absorbed in overactive delusions, much like the New Age fancifulness lightly parodied through Gemma Jones in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Blanchett dazzles as someone who initially reads like a Blanche DuBois reprint, a hungry ghost assaulted by passing shades of departed happiness.  Her wealth went away with her conniving Madoff-like husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), incarcerated for unethical financial behavior.  Tapped out and babbling incoherently about her life, she pursues an artificial dream.  After Allen opens with the aforementioned CGI airplane, she name-drops Horace Greeley, “Go West,” fleeing her infamy and worn-out prospects, but her spirit is stuck in the past, in Manhattan, and in her wealth.  Even though the government has taken everything she’s got, she’s still somehow splurging, flying First Class with the best luggage and casually giving her cab driver $100.  Unable to be independently prosperous–plagued with the “freedom” of free enterprise– she’s increasingly rattled and alone with the damning consciousness of her self-made undoing.  Allen effortlessly relaxes the film in a perfect rhythm of downward spirals and beaming prospects, through San Francisco’s Inferno with flashbacks of Manhattan’s 1% Paradiso. Through different times, places, and economic conditions, Blanchett could be playing two women. But she’s not.  Indeed, she’s not playing one or three women either. What we come to understand in Blanchett’s performance is that Jasmine is an assorted myriad of drives acting and reacting, groping and adapting. Constructed by the contagion of wealth, there’s not really a “there” there.
Predictably, Blue Jasmine continues the director’s long-held Freudian notions of instinct-driven human nature and his commitment to exploring human despair, but, rare for Allen, it’s a topical film bridging present day realities to his protagonist’s madness–in this case, an insane economy enabling amoral privilege for the lucky few.  That might not sound like too novel a framework as it joins a corpus of recent Too-Much-Excess pictures like The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street, and The Great Gatsby (it also suggests that Woody Allen’s The Great Gatsby would, believe it or not, be much better than Baz Luhrmann’s), but Allen’s loudest condemnation of the ruling class, whom he’s always mocked even as he lives and dines among them (remember Rachel McAdams’ contemptible right-wing family in Midnight in Paris, eager to prosecute their lowly hotel maid for some missing jewelry, McAdams telling her sympathetic nice-guy fiancé Owen Wilson, “You always take the side of the help! That’s why daddy says you’re a communist.”), has an unexpected flavor in tying elites to the most famous enemies of human freedom.

Blue Jasmine

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen asked his father “How can there be a God if there were Nazis?”  In Blue Jasmine, the post-2008 world leads him to examine a present day Banality of Evil with Hal and Jasmine. The rich get by moral perimeters with a winning strategy of flagrant, casual sinning.  Hal’s affairs occur as openly as his shady financial dealings, with propositions to sexy lawyers, personal trainers, and decorators in Jasmine’s plain sight.   She pleads ignorance when it comes to her husband’s money matters.  She has her habit, we’re reminded, of looking the other way. Hal, meanwhile, even has that heralded bad-guy Nazi line, “There are ways,” when asked how it’s possible to keep one’s fortune out of the government’s hands.  The casting of Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale as the uncouth men in Ginger’s life doesn’t simply tie them to Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski, a macho demeanor juxtaposed against Jasmine’s pretentiousness, but emphasizes an ethnic barrier between the two worlds.  When Augie (Clay) and Ginger visit Hal and Jasmine, there’s a tacit contempt exchanged between the wealthier couple for the earthier tourists.  Though siblings, we’re reminded of the differences between Jasmine and Ginger, who aren’t biologically related but were both adopted.  Ginger ran away from home while their parents favorited Jasmine because, according to Ginger, she has “better genes.”  Jasmine may deny it, but she can’t resist implicating Ginger and her men she attracts as second-class citizens.

Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe capture San Francisco in a way that accents ethnic idiosyncrasies (building murals, the multicultural grocery store) in addition to something working class.  The film’s most troubling–and overlooked–chapter, regarding Jasmine’s part-time job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office while she tries to understand computers (so that she can take online classes for interior decorating), addresses an unspoken racial dimension.  Jasmine retreats the advances of Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is undoubtedly creepy, but his Semitic attributes (Stuhlbarg’s appearance in a dentist’s office can’t help but spring the very Jewish A Serious Man and “The Goy’s Teeth” to mind) juxtapose against the WASPy “substantial” men Jasmine gravitates toward, like Hal or the up-and-coming politician Dwight Westlake (Peter Sarsgaard), with whom she sparks a flirtation at a party.  All three men are successful, but considering how Jasmine voices bitterness toward the government it’s curious how she has no problem in adjusting, chameleon-like, to the prospect of being a wealthy politician’s wife while refusing to even acknowledge Flicker–the one man who would make demands on her (he chides her for doing homework on the job).  Allen invites us to ponder the dark observation spilled by Ginger earlier: she had better genes (Flicker himself mentions how she has good teeth), and the dark eugenicist mindset that’s explicit in fascism is implicit throughout the almost exclusively white world of Jasmine and Hal’s luxurious parties.

Blue Jasmine

Those “genes” work behind Jasmine’s gears, and miserable as she is throughout her San Francisco ordeal, her luck is astounding when we consider how easily she bags Westlake through some recklessly drastic self-reinvention, rewriting herself as a widowed interior decorator, whose surgeon husband had a fatal heart attack.  And of course he buys it–Jasmine has the poise, diction, and genes (tall, blonde haired, blue eyed, aesthetically sharp) to sell it, even if it’s totally absurd.

The dark haired and ganglier Ginger has different problems.  She struggles with Augie, to whom she’s now divorced, and new beau Chili (Cannavale), both despised by Jasmine as “medial” brutes. Augie’s bitter because Hal and Jasmine ruined his one big chance to be an honest businessman after luck granted him a $200,000 lottery win.  He was convinced by Hal, for whom such money is a drop in a bucket, to invest in offshore real estate, and the money was lost with Hal’s subsequent imprisonment. Augie’s now laying pipe in Alaska; “Go West” isn’t about individual achievement. For Augie it’s linked to necessary servitude to big capital (oil) interests.  Chili, “another version of Augie” for Jasmine, isn’t afraid to interrogate her about Hal’s guilt (“Did you not suspect anything or did you just not care?”), but he’s susceptible to being childishly overwrought when Ginger meets sex-crazed sound system installer Al Munsinger (Louis CK), a “gentleman” who pays sweet compliments before getting dirty in cheap motels.

It’s not about genes.  Things aren’t fixed. Adaptation is aided by inheritance, opportunity–and finally fate (to quote Husbands and Wives, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe, he plays hide-and-go-seek”).  The Manhattan women we see with garish wedding bands can afford to luxuriate in baths, go to yoga, and spend hours with a personal trainer. A child born from money, like Hal’s son Danny (Alden Ehrenrich), can transition from an Ivy League golden boy to an unkempt and addiction-rattled seller of used musical equipment in a matter of years. Under Jasmine’s influence and Al’s “charms” (his craft does, after all, change the atmosphere of an environment), Ginger lies to Chili and irresponsibly leaves her children under the care of booze-drenched Jasmine, telling them her life story, at Chuck-E-Cheese. People change all too easily.

Blue Jasmine

Allen shows this in an early and unexpectedly moving scene between Augie and Ginger, fresh from their lotto win and vacationing in New York, returning to their hotel room after Jasmine’s birthday party. Ginger is disturbed because she believes Hal’s cheating on Jasmine with a family friend, Raylene (Kathy Tong). She struggles to express the suspicion to an inebriated, though affectionate and sympathetic, Augie.  Augie remembers Raylene by name, which means that she also caught his attention (when we see her talking with Hal at the party, her nipples threaten to burst through her dress). Ginger jokes with Augie that she has nothing to worry about, because a woman like Raylene would never sleep with him anyway.  Allen’s banter between the two is very poignant, because the scene conveys how if things were a little different (say, Augie wasn’t the kind of person to tell Polish jokes), he could be as unfaithful as Hal, and the imperfections these two modest characters wear openly make them closer to each other than Jasmine and Hal ever could be.  We also know how misfortune will tear them apart.  Later on, audiences may scoff at the sexual politics between Ginger and Chili as being crude and regressive (“the man always gets the last slice of pizza!”), but Jasmine, with either of her lovers, is bereft of that organic degree of intimacy.  In Allen, love is always seeking if rarely successful, and even when it’s honest and true it treads on fragile thread.

We’re told that Jasmine’s real name is Jeanette, but that she changed it for something classier, demonstrating how the wealthier characters tap dance and shape shift their way through life. Hal can fix some financial glitches by switching a few words around in the paperwork. Even if she’s disdainful of the government, Jasmine isn’t lying when she tells Ginger that she has the pedigree for a life in politics. An empty vessel who babbles about her life to uninterested strangers, Jasmine once majored in Anthropology, the study of human origins, ironic considering how she severs her own roots and lacks an origin. She now wants to go back to school and be an interior decorator, reflecting her tendency to camouflage psychologically, deceiving herself along with others when she’s in the throes of fantasy. She recalls another one of Allen’s great characters, the far more sympathetic human chameleon Leonard Zelig from Zelig, whose insecurities lead him to transform into the guise of surrounding people.  As with Jasmine, he also undergoes “Edison’s medicine” of electric shock therapy in attempts to set his mind right. But in the meantime, he has several wives in accordance with multiple personalities. Both Jasmine and Zelig are strained by the uncertainties of freedom and become aligned with respective evils–the absurd greed of Wall Street, and the Nazi Party.


Zelig is saved, though, by the one person who would listen to him, Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Farrow), a voice from the past who calls him back from Hitler’s circle, the epitome of evil conformity.  Fleeing Germany with Fletcher, Zelig heroically lands a faulty plane by flying upside down. “It goes to show that you can accomplish anything if you’re a hopeless psychotic,” he tells a crowd.  Psychosis almost saves Jasmine too, in her compulsive lies to her prospective trophy husband, Westlake. As with Zelig, her Manifest Destiny is also interrupted by a voice from the past, Augie, who by perplexing chance runs into Jasmine and Westlake in front of the jewelry store where her new ring will be purchased.  He lays his bitterness on thickly and the carefree Jasmine dismisses him, “Can’t you put this behind you?”  Confronted with reality, Jasmine’s defenses regress her from high class sophisto to an unreasoning adolescent.  The blueprint for her new golden pavilion begins to crumble.

Luxury affords Allen’s heroes to live life disconnected and rootless, unbound to relationships and responsibilities, morals and ethics. When we hear Jasmine say, “Can’t you put this behind you?” and later see how Hal eventually falls in love with one of his mistresses and then, without much discussion, has plans for moving on to his third wife, you could speculate that Woody Allen is sublimating some feelings about Mia Farrow and his own infamous affair, his excuse for which simply was, “The heart wants what it wants.” His son with Farrow has, much like Danny to Hal and Jasmine, become hopelessly estranged from him, which certainly affects his creativity (it’s a strain that undoubtedly influenced a troubled father-son relationship in the more buoyantly comic Hollywood Ending).

His condemnation of Jasmine, the architect of her own demise (like Chili, heartbreak and neediness leads her to do something quite destructive with a telephone), might be an attack on what he sees as Mia Farrow’s over-reaction; or, rather, perhaps it is his own self-censure, however subconscious.  Neither the guilty or the innocent can put the past behind them, and it’s the human condition to deny, rationalize, and run. Andrew Dice Clay, a comedian whose star has drifted far from the heights of 25 years ago, almost breaches a fourth wall when he tells Jasmine, “Some people, they don’t put things behind so easily.” It’s a moment beautifully played by Clay (whose work as a Lefty Rosenthal-type in Michael Mann’s Crime Story proved long ago that he had solid acting chops), embracing his derided Ford Fairlane persona by tossing a barely-smoked cigarette on the ground after speaking his piece, the specter of What Could Have Been having the final word before sadly walking away.

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine is an immaculate and fascinating portrait of a scattered identity being painfully exposed, going from First Class airs to rambling nonsensically as armpit sweat builds up on an expensive blouse. It’s a funnier film than it’s been given credit for, and also a richer one, but its bitterness–and sympathy–toward human folly is the lacerating testament of a great misanthrope and human observer. Jasmine has hidden from herself in the ritual of the remembering the lyrics of “Blue Moon,” the song playing when Hal swept her off her feet. But young Danny’s lowly station in life emphasizes how the instruments behind music are used, refurbished, and resold cheaply, just as the slimy Al Munsinger can change a room with a little iPod. Did the Hal she construct from her imagination during that incipient musical moment ever exist?  Did Danny, a holdover from his previous marriage that she’s nearly taken as her own adopted son?  Did anything from that warm and luxurious life, quickly taken away from her, actually belong to her, when she wasn’t even there? The anthropology of Jasmine/Jeanette is a foolhardy expedition, another delusional Manifest Destiny, and now she wanders aimless and mad while the words to “Blue Moon” are forgotten, just a mash of jumbled words.

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