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A Cable Car Named Desire?

Posted on 2013.09.05 at 19:37
Current Mood: busy
CateJasmineWe saw the film Blue Jasmine the other day. Fair warning: I’m going to give away key plot points in this discussion, so if you’d rather not know, best to stop right here.

I can say some wonderful things about Blue Jasmine. I can say some disparaging things about it as well. This is often the case with Woody Allen’s films, even in the best of times. Let’s begin with some of the wonderful stuff.

At the head of the list is Cate Blanchett. If there’s anything she can’t do as an actress, I haven’t seen it yet. She carries the film as its title character. Her performance embraces the big moments and the little ones, her character’s madness, near-madness, desperation, cultured shallowness, and spiritual blindness. If she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, I will be shocked.

Let’s talk a bit more about Ms. Blanchett; specifically about her face. It is a wondrous thing. You could say that her eyes, though large, were kind of squinty and you’d be right. You could say that her nose was slightly bulbous and you’d be right. You could say that her mouth was too wide and you’d be right. You could say that she wasn’t beautiful and you’d be right… and you’d be very wrong. She has one of the great faces in movie history. When she wishes it to be beautiful, that is what it is. I have a theory that Woody Allen has developed a fascination with faces over the years, and in that respect, he may have found his ultimate leading lady.

Blue Jasmine unfolds in two alternating time frames. One is in the present, where we watch Jasmine trying to put her life back together, beginning with moving into her sister’s apartment in San Francisco. The other time frame is in the past, where we watch Jasmine living the high life with her wealthy, wheeler-dealer husband Hal (Alec Baldwin). We watch as Hal plants the seeds of his own destruction – shady business dealings and countless dalliances with other women. Jasmine is oblivious to all of this for years before it comes crashing down upon her. When Jasmine learns of her husband’s affairs, it is she (apparently) who turns him in to the FBI. By the time of the present-day time line, her husband has committed suicide in prison and all of the money, the houses, the jewelry, etc. are long gone.

For much of the movie, we wonder how Jasmine is going to learn to be a whole person again. But the more we see of her in flashback, the more we realize that she’s never been whole to begin with. Still, given the usual conventions of drama, we wait for the moment of self-realization, the moment when she begins to grow into the person she needs to become.

There is a key moment when our expectations for Jasmine begin to tilt irrevocably downward. At a party, she meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a man with money, intelligence, and charm. He aspires to a career in politics, and we get the feeling he might do well in that arena. He is instantly smitten with Jasmine. She realizes in a flush of excitement that he could be her ticket out of her sister’s cramped, working-class apartment and back into the moneyed life of leisure she craves. The key moment is when Dwight begins to ask her about herself and her past. What comes out of her mouth is a string of lies – no child in her past, no disgraced dead husband, no destitute living arrangement with her sister, and a sudden imaginary career as an interior designer. As Jasmine piles lie upon lie, we realize that she is digging herself a deep, deep hole from which this relationship cannot possibly escape intact. We know that her one chance for salvation must begin with an acceptance of the truth and a rejection of her shallow past, but Jasmine lacks the vision and the courage to take that step. When it all comes out – on the day the two of them have begun to window-shop for wedding rings – the dissolution of their relationship is merely the inevitable dropping of the other shoe that we’ve been awaiting.

There is another substantial phase of the plot involving Jasmine’s sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Ginger’s marriage with Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) ended sometime between the two time lines of the film, probably as a result of an enormous monetary investment gone bad. Ginger and Augie were not people of great means, but they’d had the good fortune to win $200,000 in the lottery. They’d handed all of it over to Jasmine’s husband Hal for him to invest and give them a handsome return. Ah, but then came Hal’s downfall and with it went all of Ginger and Augie’s money – which they saw as their one shot to move into a higher social class. Apparently, their marriage was unable to survive this trauma.

By the time Jasmine arrives in San Francisco, Ginger has taken up with Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a big, strong, loud working stiff. He might not be the kind of guy you or I would ever hang around with, but he’s basically a pretty good guy. Ginger could do a lot worse.

There’s a recurring friction between Ginger’s world and Jasmine’s. When Jasmine gets overwrought (which is never far off), she just can’t keep her mouth shut about her low opinion of Ginger’s lifestyle, apartment, friends, and choice of male companionship. There is no happy medium between Jasmine and Ginger, and we know early on that this is not a sustainable living arrangement unless something or someone changes in a big way. I won’t say more about the Ginger subplot, and here’s why: While there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s perfectly watchable and entertaining, it’s ultimately a sidebar to the story that carries us along – Jasmine’s.

It was only after I’d left the theater that it occurred to me that Allen has actually served up an extremely loose retelling of A Streetcar Named Desire. The parallel was pretty clear once it entered my mind – the widowed madwoman forced by circumstance to live with her poor sister and her brutish male companion. But in fairness, Allen has used Streetcar only as a jumping-off point (note that the names Blanche and Jasmine both come to us from the French language). Blue Jasmine is rather like a jazz riff on Streetcar. Just as a jazz riff on the song “Blue Moon” might take it to places that Rodgers & Hart would never have imagined or intended, Allen’s riff on Streetcar creates a wholly new piece of drama that is connected to its source only by its most basic elements.

I have chosen this jazz metaphor quite purposefully. It is no secret that Woody Allen has played clarinet in a jazz combo throughout his adult life. It makes sense that a jazz sensibility should cross over to other expressions of his art.

So what is the downside to Blue Jasmine? A few things stand out. The moment I referred to earlier, when Jasmine and Dwight are shopping for wedding rings. It is at precisely that moment when Ginger’s ex-husband Augie runs into them on the street. He then proceeds, unfortunately for Jasmine, to articulate the truth about every lie she has told to Dwight, even though Augie has never met Dwight and hasn’t seen Jasmine for a few years. It sounds as though Augie, without truly realizing it, is going through a checklist of ways to ruin Jasmine.

In a stylized farce, this sort of scene would be completely acceptable. We might even enjoy watching it happen. But in a movie such as this, which tends towards realism, it feels forced. It feels like lazy writing. Oh it’s dramatic, certainly, but it also takes us out of the drama and reminds us that we’re listening to the gears of a climaxing plot as they furiously grind away. I’m not going to sit here and tell Woody precisely how he should have written these revelations, but there had to be a way of doing it that would have been truer to the style of the film.

My companion at the showing I attended had an intriguing idea. She thought this film should have been made 40 years ago. It certainly seems more in the company of such films as Five Easy Pieces or A Woman Under the Influence than the company of any current American films. But on the balance, I’m glad it got made now, because it stands in stark contrast to the mass appeal confections that more and more define Hollywood.

So do I think you should see Blue Jasmine? How the heck should I know? A certain kind of moviegoer will enjoy it. Another kind will not. I can tell you that I’m glad I saw it and I found it engrossing, thanks to Woody Allen’s intelligent if flawed screenplay and the all-around good performances – with Cate Blanchett occupying the throne (as is her habit in cinema). But make no mistake (here I go again with the spoilers) – the film does not have a happy ending. Jasmine does not have a moment of transcendence, a moment where she grows into the person she needs to become. She ends up as she must, out on the street, babbling to herself and anyone within earshot, depending upon the kindness of strangers.


(Anonymous) at 2013-09-07 14:09 (UTC) (Link)

Perspective is EVERYTHING

I must agree with Chuck's last paragraph. Depending on one's perspective, you will find different aspects of this film engrossing and some simply flat or distorted notes from a clarinet. I can't for the life of me figure out why Chuck decided to eliminate my initials when discussing his "companion at the showing" and I am flabbergasted at his analogy to "Streetcar". He is spot-on with this one. The reason for my comment about this film belonging in the 1970s is that I watched it from the perspective of a woman raised in the old school of thought that we should be contented little wives, living through the accomplishments of our men while never considering the consequences. Of course, that all changed when the time came for my generation to step into this role and we are left with the challenge of re-defining relationships and marriage. So perhaps I was a bit narrow minded in my focus which I do not believe resulted in a bad call, just a different one. I know this: the characters in this film were not very likable. This seems to be a trend in current screenplays so call me old fashioned, but it takes away from my ability to give a damn about them. Augie was my favorite because he was the only one who could tell the truth. He was my hero because he got me out of the theatre by letting all the squirming cats out of the bag. Perspective is everything.
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