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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.
Great post, Jeff. I love your summary of the "one plot." There's an emptiness at the heart of Woody Allen that lost me on him long ago.
In storytelling there are pebble people and putty people. Pebble people hit the wall, bounce off, and are unchanged. Not interesting. Putty people hit the wall but emerge with a different shape. Interesting. But in Allen's more recent films, we often get pebble people who do NOT change (Blanchett's character here) and this bolsters Allen's nihilism and his utterly bleak vision of human life. The only putty people he gives are like Martin Landau's ophthalmologist in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and the main character in the grim "Match Point." These characters do indeed change but only in the sense that they get away with murder and so come to realize that there is no real meaning in life, no real consequences (good or bad) for anything, and so the best you can do is muddle through and live for the moment because the universe is a cold, bleak place. Cheerful! And you're right: Allen is terribly angry at God for not existing.
Thanks, Jeff, for saving me the trouble (and expense, and anguish) of sitting through a Woody Allen (post-) existential film. We, who still feel somewhat ambivalent about our emancipation from the "no card-playing, no dancing, no movies" atmosphere of our growing-up years, depend on the likes of you to do our screening and protecting. By providing us with a blow-by-blow we can both remain pure and informed.
I think Woody Allen hit it on the head with this one … the tenacity of greed and the self-delusions of the wealthy. Blanchett's character is truly the "American Tragedy." While she seemingly prevails with her estranged sister for a time, the sister comes to her senses, but Jasmine can't. She chooses endlessly to live in her past and in her dreams of beauty and wealth. Woody Allen isn't on any kind of rampage here; I think he's simply offered us a view of a kind of life we see all around us – from the Donald Sterlings to the Donald Trumps, and those who admire wealth and wanna be rich, "just like them." Totally out of touch with reality, and thus unable to know herself, care about anyone else besides herself and be of any "socially redeeming value," Jasmine blunders on in her fantasies. A figure of enormous tragic proportions.
It’s funny…I was completely miserable after watching this film as well. I actually Googled “Blue Jasmine depressing” which led me to this blog. We as the audience feel sympathy for Jasmine, wishing for some sort of catharsis for her, simply because we are told the story from her perspective but not because she actually deserves it. Jasmine is far from “evil” but she’s also pretty far from being a good person as well. She is both selfish and self-centered, her actions only having the pretense of being “charitable” when it comes to her sister as just one example. I have to agree with Tom in the sense that this felt like a snapshot of a particular kind of life. The last scene especially, of Jasmine destitute and talking to herself on a bench, seemed to be saying “This is how someone gets here. The homeless woman ranting in the park has a story that you couldn’t possibly imagine.”
Agree with Tom. This movie seems to be a reaction to the financial crisis and the reality is that lot of wealth is generated from highly dubious (win lose) deals not unlike the one in this movie. I think he is encouraging us to look beyond the surface of seemingly successful people and to redefine the meaning of success. And that we have a choice to be contented with what we have and who we are rather than try too hard to be someone or something we are not.
I thought it was quite inspiring