Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Really the Blues

Woody Allen's new film, Blue Jasmine, tells the story of a high society wife, with no discernible talent and a planet-sized sense of entitlement, thrown on hard times when her husband is revealed as a Bernie Madoff-like crook. The pivotal moment comes late in the film, when we realise that Jasmine has turned Hal in to the FBI after discovering (or admitting what seemed to be common knowledge) that he had also been unfaithful with a sizeable proportion of the female population of Manhattan. Hal subsequently hangs himself in prison (Jasmine helpfully explains that this breaks the neck instantly, unlike the slow death of strangulation). Her stepson Danny flees Harvard and New York, appalled to discover his parents were phonies all along. Having lost all her money, and with only her Louis Vuitton luggage to console her, Jasmine jets off to crash with her sister, Ginger, in San Francisco, much to the inconvenience of Ginger's new beau, Chili.

The plot has a number of gaps and illogicalities (how did Hal manage to hang himself in a cell with a rope?), perhaps reflecting Jasmine's increasingly frayed state of mind. This is also reflected in the editing, which interleaves the contemporaneous and serial scenes in San Francisco with the remembered but jumbled scenes of life in New York and the Hamptons. Jasmine insists she knew nothing of Hal's schemes, despite being a signatory on various company documents, which suggests she only escaped prison due to a combination of a plea-bargain and her poor mental health (presumably patched-up in an expensive clinic). She is in denial and adrift. She took jobs in high-fashion stores to make ends meet, but the shame of seeing former friends and party guests became too great. You suspect she was fired for being flaky, rather than that she walked of her own accord.

The film isn't a simple retelling of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, but it does lift much of the plot and characters wholesale, from the lazy equivalence of the main character's name (Jasmine French/Blanche DuBois), through her fondness for a cleansing shower and a drink, to the chorus role of Chili/Stanley's drinking buddies. There are structural differences: unlike Stella, Ginger has two kids and works her way through three men; while the Mitch role in Streetcar (played by Karl Malden in Elia Kazan's 1951 film of the play) is now split between a socially-inpet dentist (Dr Flicker) and an improbable State Department hunk (Dwight) with a thing about interior decor and plans to run for congress (we get no insight into his political beliefs, which is revealing in its way).

Music is used as a leitmotif for memory (Blue Moon versus Streetcar's polka) and as an all-purpose symbol of a better world: it's central to Ginger's affair with soundman Al (who proves not to be so sound after all) and the salvation of stepson Danny, who has fled New York in shame and started a new life in San Francisco selling musical instruments. Blues dominate the soundtrack. Colour is also important: Jasmine's ambition to retrain as an interior decorator is justified by her "eye for colour", while her sentimental love of Blue Moon contrasts with her distaste for the blue-collar. This symbolic vocabulary is similar to Williams' approach in Streetcar. (An in-joke is that Alec Baldwin played Stanley Kowlaski in the 1995 film version of Streetcar, while Cate Blanchett has played Blanche DuBois on stage; while an even more recherche joke was Woody Allen and Diane Keaton's skit on the play in Sleeper, in which the gender roles were reversed).

The extensive borrowings from Streetcar have partly obscured Allen's other references to American literature, which are habitual. The suggestive name of Ginger's ex-husband is Augie, echoing the everyman of Saul Bellow's The Adventure of Augie March. His speech towards the end, which serves to open Dwight's eyes to Jasmine's dishonesty, has a Bellovian nobility about it (Allen has been called "the popular culture analogue to Saul Bellow" and used the author as a deadpan talking-head in Zelig, that parable of American reinvention and Jewish assimilation). The use of the emblematic word "phony", by both Danny and Chili, is a clear reference to J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Danny is a Holden Caulfield who actually did quit New York and went west. The alternation of the New York scenes between Manhattan and the summer house on Long Island, not to mention the dodgy source of Hal's money, echoes F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, though Jasmine is as much the delusional Jay Gatsby as she is the insensitive Daisy Buchanan.

There are repeated references to genes and how Jasmine's were "better" than Ginger's (both were adopted). This hints at the actual belief of many Americans in the genetic destiny of class and race, which stands in ironic counterpoint to the ideology of reinvention and "making it". As Jasmine's material position crumbles, accelerated by her spendthrift habits and punctuated by one-percenter rants about how the government "took everything", her financial instability bubbles up into mental instability. This gets to the dark heart of the film, which is that we do not have the degree of control over our lives that we think we deserve, something that Blanche DuBois recognised while Stanley and Stella Kowalski were still subscribing to the American Dream.

Allen's traditional tropes are present too. Europe is still held up as the acme of culture, with Jasmine rhapsodising about Paris and Vienna and how San Francisco is "the most European city" (just as the New Orleans of Streetcar is the most French). The Bay Area is shown in muted, almost bleached, tones, in contrast to the more sanguinary New York. Some have criticised Allen's San Francisco for being too much like New York transplanted, with the characters of Chili and Augie being pure Bronx, but this misses the point that none of his portrayals of cities are anything less than fantasies. His supposed mastery of New York on-screen (largely the result of Annie Hall and the monochrome Manhattan) is simply because his vision matches our own, common fantasy. New York is defined by celluloid in a way that Paris, London and Barcelona aren't.

The other trope is his appalled fascination with solipsistic and borderline-unhinged women (or what he has variously called "kamikaze women" and "emotional and sarcastic and flamboyant" types), which has become stronger over the years as his muse migrated from Diane Keaton through Dianne Wiest and Mia Farrow. Cate Blanchett's Jasmine is as close as he's yet come to full-on termagant, unless you count Penelope Cruz's caricature in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (in a parallel universe he'd have directed The Iron Lady). Allen describes the key moment, when Jasmine phones the FBI in a rage at Hal's infidelity, as a "temper tantrum". Allen sees Jasmine as the representative of a class of woman that has not been changed (or challenged) by feminism, "Guys are more used to the business of making their own lives", yet she is propelled by the self-reinvention (changing her name from Jeanette) and flight from responsibility of the classic American male protagonist, from Hawkeye to Rabbit Angstrom (Allen also changed his name, from Allan Konigsberg, and has been accused of irresponsibility in his personal life).

This tension, between the troubles of the rich and self-determination, stops the film being blatantly misogynistic, though the way that both Jasmine and Ginger look to men for salvation rather tries one's patience (when Al admits to Ginger that he is married, you rather hope she'll trash his car, or at least his iPod speakers). That said, Allen does ratchet up his equal-opportunities misanthropy to the point of near-sadism and the suggestion that we are watching the opening scenes of a longer descent into destitution and madness: Jasmine's gradual transformation into a bag-lady.

Blue Jasmine is being lauded as a masterpiece of "late style Woody Allen". It's very good, but it falls short of greatness. The skill of the film and the acting are worthy of gongs, but the moral equivocation is disappointing. Allen is not a political film-maker, but when you deal with such a subject - the encouragement society offers white-collar crooks and the vicious antipathy of the classes in "anyone can make it" America - you need to do more than express regret and pass by on the other side. The saddest scene of the film is the last, where a distressed Jasmine starts compulsively talking to herself on a park bench as another women sidles away to avoid the loon. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is carted off to an asylum in an ambulance, a concrete symbol of society providing care for the defeated. In the modern world it appears there is no one there to help. Just as high society has abandoned Jasmine, there is no wider society visible that seeks to pick up the pieces of her shattered mind.

A couple of years ago Woody Allen listed his top five favourite books. This highlighted both his admiration for The Catcher in the Rye and the importance to him of Streetcar and the director Elia Kazan. He also expressed a fondness for the 1946 memoir of jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, Really the Blues. Mezzrow was a teller of tall tales, a dealer in marijuana, and self-described "honorary negro". According to Allen, "The story, while probably just a lot of junk, was compelling for me because it was about many musicians whose work I knew and admired and the ins and outs of jazz joints that I knew about and the legendary songs that were played in the legendary nightclubs ... But I know it's not a very good or even a very honest book." Allen admires the style and the context, the mise en scene, but doesn't mind the void at the heart of the work. He's probably quite pleased with his new film.

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