Saturday, August 17, 2013

Class distinctions

At this late stage, the idea of Woody Allen is as fascinating as the actuality. Well into his 70’s, he generates a film a year like clockwork, seemingly casting anyone he wants, often pulling up shop from one country to another, while returning in between to his Manhattan refuge, where (or so the legend tells us) he’s followed the same Spartan rituals for decades. In a recent documentary, he showed the bed where he does much of his writing, and the bedside desk drawer where he stores many of his ideas on random bits of paper. It doesn’t sound like he conducts much in the way of research, or expends much mental energy on the implications of his projects, or on what traces his body of work might leave in the sands of time. Like Clint Eastwood (who, perhaps ominously, is currently on his biggest pause between projects in years) his image has softened and broadened since his box-office heyday – defined now less by sex and neurosis and intellect than by at least relatively serene pragmatism. If you think back to his iconic line about how sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as meaningless experiences go, it’s one of the best…well, you might sum up his career of the last twenty years by taking out “sex” and substituting “filmmaking.”

Blue Jasmine

His new film Blue Jasmine seems like a hybrid of people and tones from Allen’s home territory, and of other people and outlooks he’s been removed from for years. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is the widow of Hal, a convicted Bernie Madoff-type (Alec Baldwin), now penniless and fallen from her social peak after the government confiscated everything. She moves in temporarily with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco, with some vague idea of making a new start, but she’s hopelessly adrift from any practical knowledge of how the world works, or how to make a living, and her strained mental state just gets worse. A new relationship gives her some temporary hope, but ultimately it’s as bleak a chronicle as Allen has ever generated.

The film is monumentally entertaining – one scene blends easily into another, and it’s structured around fascinating oppositions: between Jasmine’s current predicament and her lavish past, presented in intertwining flashbacks; between Jasmine and Ginger (the two, both adopted, were born to different mothers, explaining what would otherwise seem like the biggest genetic imbalance since Schwarzenegger and De Vito played twins), and Ginger’s boyfriend, and Ginger’s kids, and basically anyone else within a degree or two of separation; between external poise and charisma and escalating internal chaos. There’s already some thought that Blanchett might get another Oscar for this (Allen is extremely good at helping women win Oscars) and indeed it’s an extraordinarily powerful, high-wire performance, of the kind that you can imagine intimidating many directors and fellow collaborators; the rest of the cast (which also includes Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay) is uniformly fine, but epitomize what’s meant by the notion of “supporting actors.”

Another woman

It’s actually possible the film may be a little too entertaining. In 1988, Allen made a film called Another Woman, in which Gena Rowlands played another toxic, troubled New York woman. It’s much more of a grind to watch than Blue Jasmine – so intensely calculated for psychological and thematic effect that it ends up feeling airless and stifling: compared to Blanchett, Rowlands seems to have been allowed little room for manouevre. And yet, as in his other more “serious” films of that period, you can feel Allen trying to expand, to will himself into a different kind of gravity and penetration; the film feels like he worried about it, in a way that’s hard to perceive in his work now. That’s the possible downside of what I called serene pragmatism, that once you’re done with admiring it in the abstract, it doesn’t necessarily deliver much else to take home with you.

Blue Jasmine transcends that limitation though, for an unexpected reason from Allen: its resonance on the very pressing issues of class distinction and absence of social mobility. Various critics have commented that the film’s portrayal of Ginger’s blue-collar environment isn’t particularly subtle: the men are all beer-guzzling, loud-talking, not so much fashion-challenged as comprehensively defeated, never coming within a bowling lane’s length of a complex thought, and shouting pretty much all the time. It’s not clear to what extent Allen intends all of this as a parody versus a celebration, but maybe that’s a large part of the point – he’s not inclined to pretend at this late stage in his privileged life that he can inject himself into such an unfamiliar environment, any more than Jasmine can. Likewise, reviewers have faulted Allen for his somewhat clunky portrayal of an evening computer class that Jasmine attends (it seems to involve endless abstract “studying” and little time actually just, you know, learning to use computers). But these details matter less than the accreting sense of impossibility, that there’s no way for Jasmine to cross the divide created by her life experience to date; alcoholic escape, and even madness, may be as rational a strategy as even pretending to try.

Meaningless experience?

The barrier works both ways of course. On the one occasion when Ginger and her ex-husband had some extra money, Hal talked them into investing it with him, and lost it all. We all know how the system is stacked against those at the bottom, how the gains amass with increasingly wild disproportionality at the top, and yet lawmakers seem more concerned about the self-serving whining of the privileged than about the fabric of the country; a moral atrocity for which they pay no price, given that people seem entirely incapable of voting in their own best interest. Blue Jasmine gets almost excruciating to watch when it faces this gulf head-on, for example as in a flashback of how Jasmine and Hal tied themselves in knots to avoid spending time with Ginger and the husband when they visited New York. Much as the country loves its sea to shining sea rhetoric, it’s increasingly defined by blind incomprehension, if not outright internal hatred and contempt.

Allen – and probably just about everyone else involved in the film – is much more likely to brush shoulders with a Jasmine than a Ginger. But Blue Jasmine carries an unsettling awareness of the fragility of these enclaves, and of the dubious wisdom of believing in an “America” that can somehow compensate when things break down. Its last, piercing close-up of Jasmine seems true to the intractability of these issues, and triangulates between the delectable specificity of Blanchett’s performance and the character’s miserably universal implications. And so, for some of the time at least, Allen has crafted more here than another top-flight meaningless experience.

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