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I confessed a while ago in this space that I was behind on seeing the 2013 Oscar-nominated movies. No one seemed to get my point in that post that television drama has replaced movies as the cultural currency of the moment — you worried instead that I don’t get out enough. But I don’t need to go out. Thanks to the magic of Redbox, I’m catching up on 2013’s crop of films in the comfort of my rumpus room for less than $2 a show. What can I say, I’m a tightwad.
Blue Jasmine made its way into the home DVD player Saturday night, and as the final credits rolled all I could think was, “Why didn’t anyone tell me it was so depressing?” Cate Blanchett is an updated Blanche DuBois, and her Oscar-winning performance was stunning. But the story itself made me wonder about Woody Allen. Who is he mad at? Mia Farrow, I suppose, and I’m sure conspiracy theorists have written extensively on the internet about how the repeated humiliations of Blanchett’s Jasmine are some sort of parallel to Farrow.
This movie is as unhappy as anything Allen has made, and he’s made some unhappy films. Putting Woody and Mia aside for the moment, after the film I was also left contemplating the nature of storytelling and the human desire for happy endings. Jasmine is an alcoholic ex-socialite with mental illness issues when the movie begins and has made zero progress as the movie ends. There is a violation of a fundamental rule of moviemaking going on here. Even as depraved a character as the The Wolf of Wall Street is back on his feet as the movie ends. Maybe Woody is mad at the human race.
That’s not what we want when we take in a story. We want Bilbo to discover the courage hidden inside of him, for Huck to grasp Jim’s humanity, for Luke to mature and use the Force to defeat the dark side. We want to walk away happy and encouraged. Even dopes like Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell learn something by the end of their movies.
The French writer Georges Polti created the list of 36 dramatic situations more than a century ago. Want to be a successful writer? Learn them. Want to be a successful movie maker? Learn one plot. It goes something like this: Our hero is flawed but has a likeable quality and does something noble (called “saving the cat”) in the first scene to get us rooting for him. He has troubles and obstacles to overcome, but seems to put it all together, getting the girl, getting the job, fixing the problem, eluding the bad guys, and is on track to have a good and happy life. But wait, there’s a setback. The bad guy gets the upper hand by some evil trick and the girl realizes our hero hasn’t been completely forthright. Things look dark, but when they get darkest our hero learns something while the chips are down. He learns honesty is the best policy or that quitters never win (and winners never quit) or some other cliché along those lines and in the last ten to fifteen minutes everything comes together for him. The bad guy is humiliated and the hero is now free to get married, usually on a beach by a denominationally-neutral minister. His eccentric friends and his dog attend the ceremony, and often the eccentric friends are romantically linked at the wedding with eccentric friends of the girl. A terrific band starts cranking out great tunes at the reception, the credits roll and we walk out of the theater equipped to live another day.
The distance between that sort of story and Blue Jasmine is confounding. I’m trying to figure out if Blue Jasmine left me feeling so sad because it didn’t follow the rules of storytelling or if it left me so sad because I know that things like alcoholism and mental illness and ruined lives and class struggles and suicide and Ponzi schemes and Bernie Madoff and the Great Recession are not the stuff of happy endings. Because of that, I wonder if Woody’s real beef is with God. I wonder what it feels like to be angry at someone whose existence you do not acknowledge.
Woody Allen is perhaps our most intriguing filmmaker. But there is a meanness behind Blue Jasmine that left me blue as well.