Viewed Tyneside Cinema 2nd Oct 2013 Ticket £8.20
Blue Jasmine got me thinking about clowns.
In the Music Halls when disaster struck the cry would go up: “Bring on the clowns!” The idea being that clowns would divert the audience's attention from whatever it was, that had gone wrong. Treating the funny men and women as a distraction does less than justice to their artistry and genius. In particular those who have dominated cinema such as Chaplin and Keaton, whose ranks also include Woody Allen.
But Cinema today has less space for the wise fool. They are crowded out by films that exploit either spectacle or emotions or desires.
Films of course are signs of the times. They say something about the states of mind and psychic moods that underlie the social matrix. The tsunami of apocalyptic films flooding over our cinema screens attests to the insecurities and fears that characterise our world.
And then there's films like Woody Allen's latest movie Blue Jasmine. It doesn't really seem to know what it is. Perhaps appropriate in that it mirrors a society where many people don't know who they are. Also, like many of us, it is a film that would like to be taken seriously. Indeed the final shot of it's A list star Cate Blachette sitting in a public place without her make up and showing her age, stakes out Blue Jasmine's claim to be a drama, perhaps even a tragedy. But the problem is that the preceding hour and a half of its footage have made any such claims ridiculous.
Comparisons have been made between the plot line of Tennessee Williams' Street Car named Desire and Blue Jasmine. Comparisons have been made between butter and margarine. Time usually sorts these things out; and as with butter and margarine, any comparison between Blue Jasmine and Street Car is a case of at best an errant judgement; at worst a cynical marketing ploy.
Williams play, filmed in 1951, is a testosterone soaked wake up call to America about the dangers of the delusional states of sentimentality pedalled by Hollywood and Madison Avenue. Tennessee Williams pitched Streetcar at post war audiences who had not yet totally embraced the consumerist ethos. The collective psyche was at a turning point and audiences were prepared to hear out Williams play. But whatever understanding you had of Streetcar, it was not an advert. Williams was not selling anything. It was a moral statement.
In contrast Blue Jasmine looks and feels like a life style advertisement; and it is assembled in a similar way to those adverts for glossy consumer products that preceded it on the screen. Like a advert or a cake for that matter Blue Jasmine is an assemblage of a number of key ingredients. The Hollywood recipe says: mix into the script one good looking lead actress on whom to hang the story; add sexy locations - New York San Francisco; fold in moody music in the form of a sultry jazz sound track, and sprinkle with products flaunting a pantheon of desirable consumer goodies: BMW Dior Versace etc. Blue Jasmine is a product of a mass communication industry where material desire is now the bed rock of an audience's expectations.
Blue Jasmine is styled like a commercial so how does it work dramatically? It's flashback structure, which seems de rigour for lazy film-makers at the moment, is flabby and delivers little tension as it builds up to the big revelation that Jasmine it was who shopped No pun intended) her husband to the Feds. As a wannabe tragedy Blue Jasmine poses as a morality fable based on the Bernie Madoff story, (Jasmine's husband Hal even has a passing resemblance to Bernie and I wonder if Woody lost a bundle of money in Bernie's Ponzi swindle). But the ethical posturing of Blue Jasmine is not strong enough to overcome its stylistic provenance. That last shot, onto which so much is staked, the naked face of the A lister, is supposed to flag that Cate's character, Jasmine is paying the price for her collusive badness, as she descends into alcohol fuelled madness. But her wretched condition doesn't seem to be the result of any personal moral crisis, any moment of confronting the truth about herself. Her downfall is not the consequence of her self condemnation. Her madness is the result of her loss of her enviable life style and a failure of her make-over as she tried to pass herself off as an innocent. The lesson of Blue Jasmine is that if you collude in your husband's criminality, even if you find out he's cheating on you, don't shop him to the cops,or you'll lose everything.
Ok so Blue Jasmine is a drawn out life style promo which is unconvincing as a drama. But none of this would matter very much if it were funny. Blue Jasmine is not very funny. The issue of its unfunniness goes right to the core of the assembly of the film. Cait Blanchette has all the qualities needed to sell the movie. But she is not a clown. And Woody Allen's scripts usually demand a clown, as the lead roles are alter egos of Woody himself, and and without a clown they don't work: it's like Hamlet without the Prince.
Woody Allen as a performer was a natural clown, and the clown corresponds to a certain sort of archetype. The clown courts disaster without meaning to and always find themselves in the shit; clowns always falls flat on their face because they think they can do something very very well, but can't do it at all; and clowns fail to understand the situation they are in. The clown's face mirrors their mental state: alert idiocy, irrepressible optimism, and well meaning if occasional malicious incompetence. Allen and Diane Keaton were funny because they were clowns who knew how to work the clown material. Cate Blanchette lacks this gift. In consequence her relations in the film with Ginger and her boyfriends lack bathos; the running gags about her work and relationships as a dental receptionist are clumsy and vacuous.
Without the clown persona Blue Jasmine is reduced to being a plodding stylised comedy of manners, a genre which it doesn't fit. I say “Bring back the the clowns!”