Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine”

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“Old habits die hard”, so the saying goes. It may be said that here lies one of the explanations for why comedy and tragedy are both so abundand in human existence: our psyches have a tendency to stick to behaviours learnt in the past, while the challenges we have to face are often new and unprecedented. I’m not simply stating the obvious – the “Freudian” thesis about how we’re necessarily “shaped”or “sculpted”  by our first childhood experience, when our characters are formed (and deformed…). What I meant to point out is something similar to Marshall McLuhan’s statement that “we look at the present through a rear-view mirror”. Or, as Kierkegaard said it: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine I get the impression a woman who looks at her rearviewmirror with a mixture of nostalgia and disgust, while she drives into the future to see what joys and catastrophes he’s got in store. Jasmine has lost a lot – her husband is dead, her big-money is gone, her son hates her guts… – but she’s still striving to recover what she has lost. What the film does really well is to transport us into a story in which we’re provoked to reflect upon Jasmine’s unfortunate fate, but she’s never merely a victim – she’s also someone who causes herself the disasters because of her unwise choices, her greed and arrogance, her belief that she belongs to a class of people above the rest. She’s diseased with the elite’s myopia: she believes to be part of the Special Caste. It’s a character that wasn’t made for an audience to love, much less idolize: Jasmine is at the same time a comical figure (a caricature of snobbish behaviour, a socialite-poseur who’s all about cheap tricks and bought glamour…), and a tragic one (a flesh-and-bone creature whose Psyche is being shattered to pieces).

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The film, it seems to me, feels somewhat closer to the “dramatic” section of Allen’s oeuvre, belonging in the illustrious company of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Match Point, among others. There’s an artistic statement being made here, and, if I hear it well, is an alarm call against a peculiar brand of cultural madness that gets ahold of Jasmine – this character that Cate Blanchett brings to life so magnificently. The character may seem kind of typical of Woody Allen’s immense gallery of made-up-people: one more cheated wife who tries to start her life anew after the wrecking disaster of her marriage. But Blanchett manages to transform this character in something quite unique, into a multi-dimensional fictional creature.

It’s perhaps one of the greatest characters Woody Allen has created since Melinda and Melinda (2005). When Blue Jasmine ended, I had the impression that Woody Allen had achieved – at least for 30 seconds… – something as powerful and emotionally engaging as John Cassevetes did, in several unforgetable scenes, on the masterpiece of cinema A Woman Under The Influence (1974). If, throughout the film, Blanchett appears to be trying her skills on the art of comedy, as the reel rolls we marvel to see madness stepping in, and Blanchett portraying it in her flesh with a performance that would make Gena Rowlands proud.

Jasmine’s a woman that experiences an earthquake on her life, and the film chronicles the process of her downfall (from high-class to unnemployed tramp, from happily-married to a widowed single who’s “available”…). Woody Allen shows us lots of signs of her position in society’s classes: she’s rottenly rich, buys only fancy clothes and dresses all doll-like. To sum things up: she’s Barbie on Zanax. She’s somewhat similar to women in Lolita Pille’s Hell. She’s hooked on a drug called greed (she perhaps calls it “a comfortable life” and believes it can’t be bought with less than a billion dollars.) Woody Allen portrays her with a marvellous attitude of “no mercy”: she’s shown as someone full of vices and neurosis, a pouseur that acts like she’s a big-shot, refusing to acknowledge that she’s no longer part of the social pyramid’s top-floor. She’s a girl who once was rich and now has been thrown into the gutter, but who is still posing as a princess.

And one the most interesting things, in this movie, is the reason that explains Barbie’s downfall from privilege into the commonest of gutter-lives. Jasmine was married for years with a big-shot of Corporate Capitalism. Alec Baldwin’s character is an embodiment of what’s rotten on the behaviour – increasingly questioned in the streets of urban centers worldwide – of Wall Street, banksters, CEOs, and similar sharks and bulls of our present political and economical landscape. After the 2008 crisis and the Ocuppy Wall Street Movement, there seems to be another political wind in the air that’s also being captured in camera by some of the boldest filmmakers in North America. And Woody Allen and Alec Baldwin, it seems to me, were bold, and not so polite, when they portrayed, in Blue Jasmide, a lying-and-cheatin’ figure, which robbed his way into the top. In Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis we had another similar experience of utter disgust while we witnessed the day of a millionaire, in his limousine, while the riots flooded the streets around him, and a funeral procession for a dead rapper was being followed by thousands… Our are messy times. And perhaps they’re bound to get messier.

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I really enjoyed Blue Jasmine because of it’s down-to-earth feel, of it’s refusal to indulge in the propaganda of a way-of-life. In fact, Woody Allen’s has used comedy as a weapon here in such a way that surprised me – I wasn’t expecting it, after Midnight in Paris, a movie that belongs to that category I usually call: “too cute to be true.” It may be said that, in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen is not so interested in beauty than in truth: by the end of the movie, we see how much Blanchett’s body and facial expression have lost all that top-model-posing-for-papparazis look of her “glory days”. By the end of the movie, she’s a wreck, a walking disaster, and you’re suspecting she might kill herself with a Zanax overdose or throw herself from the bridge. It’s a great ending, pessimistic as it may seem, and – If you ask me – way better than any happy ending could have been.

It may be said that Woody Allen gives vent to his sarcasm against Jasmine – she’s described as somewhat stupid, un-educated, an economically priviledged woman who never payed no mind to her own education and enlightnement. After her husband is jailed, and all the wealth is gone, she discovers herself not only empoverished in money; her whole identity is shattered and cracked. Her psyche is like a broken mirror. And yet she ventures into the new experiences always looking at the rearviewmirror – a shattered one. Her habits sure die hard: she’s hooked on fancy clothes and expensive jewels, but the money to afford them has been flushed down the toilet by her rich husband (Alec Baldwin), who turned out to be both an excellent money-maker and a criminal (doesn’t this happen quite often?). Now, her plan for survival is this: “to learn about computers and to study interior decoration on-line.” Yeah: I’m quite sure that Allen’s relation to Jasmine has a lot to do with sarcastic remarks about a figure he’s aiming to ridicule.

But that’s not all. Of course Jasmine experiences not only a revearsal of economical fortune, but also a personal tragedy – and this is truly where the merit of Woody Allen’s film lies. Jasmine is an object of sarcasm, ridicule, and disgust; but she also has something almost tragic about her. Because we see her in the process of losing all her previous comforts and securities – both material and emotional. She’s lost much more than money: her family has crumbled apart, her wealth has turned to ashes, her American Dream has revealed its true face: that of a nightmare.

Jasmine, once a wealthy high-class figure of New York’s economical elite, finds herself thrown down the ladder. She discovers she’s been married to a corporate criminal, who could only buy them such an easy-living with money earned by illicit means. And while her husband rots in jail, and finally chooses to cut his miseries short with a rope around his neck, Jasmine moves to San Francisco aiming to start a new life. But old habits die hard. She doesn’t want her new life to be much different than the previous (and privileged) one. So she does what mortals such as we so often do: she won’t learn with experience, and she’ll tread a similar path to the one that has lead her to disaster; she’s gonna commit the same mistake twice. Instead of changing herself and her ways, she tries to follow in the same direction she once took: she wants to go back to her former “happy life”, but is constantly discovering that it’s dead and gone. Her glory days are buried.

But nothing can convince her desire to change. She wants the fancy, wealthy, trés chic lifestyle back. She’s hooked on consuming expensive trash and sparkling jewels, and she’s not gonna refrain from a lying-and-cheating behaviour to get what she wants. She wants to be married to a rich guy again, and when she meets a candidate, well… she doesn’t even bother herself asking: “how did he get so goddamn rich?” He might turn out to be another rich criminal – who knows? But it’s as if she doesn’t care a bit about that. In order to seduce the rich-guy into a marriage proposal, she sets her trap and leads him into it with the aid of an invented past, a fictitious construction of yersterdays that never were actually lived. In other worlds: she’s acting like a pathological liar. She’s selling to another person a falsified image of her own past – but this past won’t stay quietly buried. It will come back to life and demand that its truth must be recognized. That’s a theme that also propels Cronenberg’s narrative in A History of Violence, as I attempted to show on this article.

Jasmine, if she was wise, would have truly learned from experience and changed her route. Instead, she followed the path that Woody Allen so frequently portrays his characters following: the comical and tragic tendency to repeat the same mistakes and also manage to discover ways to make brand-new ones. In mood, Blue Jasmine is quite similar a Coen Brothers’ comedy of errors. But its relevance, it seems to me, lies much more in its psychological insight and its commentary on society, culture and politcs. As I’ve said before, in this movie Woody Allen and Cate Blanchett really achieved, working together, an artistic result that brings to mind some of the best elements in the work of John Cassavetes. Jasmine’s descent into the maesltrom of madness is depicted in a truly multi-dimensional way – she’s deeply wounded by past experiences, and almost choking because of too many traumas, but she’s never only a victim of others peoples’ misdeeds: she’s also a victim of herself.

She’s almost like a junkie, but one who’s hooked on wealth and status and is dying from its withdrawal. And, it seems to me, it’s a cultural madness that Jasmine embodies, one that could be summed up by this tendency of uncontrollable greed for material goods, especially those denoting superiority of class. In Blue Jasmine, I believe Allen has made one statement of impressive power. The film provides what we expect from his witty creativity – smart dialogue, good jokes, fast-paced narrative… – and leaves us astonished at Woody’s capacity to continue crafting such marvellous original screenplays at his already advanced age (he’s brain, born in 1935, is still quite sharp!). Someday, after he’s gone to the grave, and after all the clouds of gossip and scandal settle down, perhaps Woody Allen’s ouevre will be deservingly praised as one of the greatest artistic bodies-of-work that North America’s cinema has produced in the last decades.

Read on: Seattle TimesThe InquirerWashington Post – ReelviewsToronto Star – Rolling StoneTime MagazineThe New Yorker.

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Woody Allen: a Documentary [DOWNLOAD PART 1 & PART 2]

Woody Allen: a Documentary [DOWNLOAD PART 1 & PART 2]

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Music from Woody Allen’s Films : listen to more than 3 hours of material

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“From “Blue Jasmine” to “Stardust Memories”, from “Midnight in Paris” to “Hannah and her sisters”, from “Radio Days” to “Mighty Aphrodite”, from “Annie Hall” to “Bullets over Broadway”, Woody Allen has always used jazz in his films. The music underlines the storyline and merges beautifully with each scene. Some of the greatest names in jazz and many of the greatest big bands have featured in his creations: Tommy Dorsey, Billie Holiday, Harry James, Django Reinhardt, Glenn Miller, Bix Beiderbecke, Ben Webster, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Chick Webb, Lester Young, Erroll Garner, Artie Shaw, King Oliver, Red Garland, Jelly Roll Morton, and many more …

The Big Lebowski (1998), a film by Joel and Ethan Coen

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murphys_law“Nothing ever gets so bad that it can’t get worse”: this motto from Murphy’s Law seems to be a theme explored in numerous variations by the Coen Brothers. In their films, no character can ever be considered as someone who has reached the bottom of the well. There’s always a way for him to drown a little bit more, to wallow more deeply in the mire, to sink his wrecked ship even beneath the ocean’s floor. Jeff Bridges’s Dude, in The Big Lebowski, gets entangled in such a mess of chaotic events that we feel tempted to say he’s the living embodiment of Albert King’s blues “Born Under a Bad Sign”: if it wasn’t for bad luck, the Dude wouldn’t have no luck at all.

But witnessing such misadventures on the screen, we tend to smile and rejoice with jolly merriments, rather than cry in pity and depress ourselves over their wrecking failures. While some artists emphasize all that’s grim and terrible in the human condition (I’m thinking of Bergman, Von Trier, Werner Herzog, Gaspar Noé…), the Coen Brothers tend to bring into focus all that’s ridicule and absurd. They make us laugh of human catastrophes and confusions, inviting us to enjoy the laughable spectable of human folly. In a certain sense, they stand in the opposite pole of other artists who would rather focus on the tragicity of it all, thus inviting us to jump from the bridge or cut our wrists. Despite all that goes terribly wrong, they sort of invite us to keep on keeping on. At least for laughs.

In Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, two writers embark on a lively discussion on the theme: is life essentially a comedy or a tragedy? When the film ends, we get the feeling, not uncommon after watching some of Allen’s ouevres, that no life is either one in the exclusion of the other: comedy and tragedy are something like siamese twins, blood brothers, bound together by natural law. Maybe that’s why great geniuses in the history of art – Shakespeare or Beethoven – are able to trip through the extremes of human experience, embracing both comedy and tragedy, laughs and tears, ecstasies and griefs. And also incluing all the diversity that lies in-between these extremes. Shakespeare wrote plays that are both marvellous tragedies and comedies: even the gloomy mood of King Lear is smoothed by the hilarious character of The Fool. And the only re-ocurring figure in his theatre is Mr Falstaff (wonderfully portrayed by Orson Welles in the big-screen [watch Chimes at Midnight]), a bufoon that never lets disgrace silence his sarcasm. 

artmanThe Big Lebowski is a film of caricatures, of traits of character exaggerated for comic purposes: John Goodman’s Walter, for example, is a caricature of the American Man similar to Homer Simpson or a grown-up Eric Cartman (South Park). Bowling and guns seems to be the only passions in the life of this loudmouth bulldog. In the movie, he’s the one who’s aroused by the perspective of getting rich by taking some shortcut, even tough illegal, into big money. By describing the behaviour of this  violent and short-thinking creature, who can draw a weapon in the bownling alley, and menace someone with death because of a minor sports controversy, the Coen Brothers are poking fun at one of the U.S.’s grotesque traits.

This comedy may appear, in the surface, as mere entertainmet for the masses, some king of Theathe Of The Absurd to be enjoyed with pop-corn, but there are deeper layers in which some criticism of the infamous “american-way-of-life” can be perceived. For example, a critique on the wide-spread commerce of guns, in the United States, a country that seems incapable of changing its public policies about fire-arms even after a dozen Columbines. In Lebowski, we almost witness a murder in the bownling alley because of Walter’s macho-man behaviour. Some seem to think it would be an attack on civic liberties and freedom of choice if people were forbidden to carry their own revolvers, but the tragic consequences of this obsession with the private possession of guns are there for everyone to see: with astonishing frequency, some trigger-happy psychopath goes on a killing frenzy, and many times with “guns they bought at Wal-Mart discount stores”, to quote Sheryl Crow’s song. Brazilian graphical artist Latuff has depicted the Denver killings that ocurred at the premiére of Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises:

But I’m drifting away from the Coen Brothers, who aren’t explicitly interested in political critique: their Dude (Jeff Bridges) is another caricature, a tramp-like figure that gets in a hell of a mess, but goes through it without ever losing his cool. This is certainly one of the greatest characters in Bridges career and, as the years roll by, Your Dudeness is acquiring increasing cult status. The Dude has today many disciples and the Dudelites (or Dudelinos) don’t care about much but chilling out and taking it easy, lightin’ up joints and listening to Creedence, among other “improductive activities”…

 When we get acquainted with the Dude, his apartment has been invaded by thugs; his head has been forced into the toilet; and his rug has been pissed upon. But there’s no fortune to steal in the Dude’s modest home. He’s been confused with another man who shares his name, a millionaire in a wheel chair, The Big Lebowski. The Dude is not actually a bum that lives in the streets, hungry and homeless; he has his nest, even tough he doesn’t pay the rent when it’s due, and the only thrills of his life seem to be shared with his bowling chaps, Walter and Donny. The Dude is never frantic about getting rich: it’s Walter, the Vietnam veteran, one hell of a friend, that gets them in the mess they end up tangled in. The Dude isn’t greedy. The Dude just wants to take it easy and enjoy the ride. He’s not the kind of guy to waste much time crying over spilt milk. He seems satisfied enough to listen to his Creedence tapes while riding in a junky car, and wants nothing much of life besides the freedom to smoke his joints in the bathtub. He’s unemployed, and the devil knows how he gets the money to pay his rent and his bownling hours. Unwillingly, he’s pushed into the hellish mess of the Big Lebowski’s miserable existence.

Even tough he’s not a role-model or a hero, The Dude is certainly the coolest character in this galery of freaks. Because the Big Lebowski appears, in the screen, as a creature who deserves only scorn: he has married a blond lolita who’s only after his money; she “acts” in the porn industry, even tough she has no shortage of money, and greedy as hell she offers her sexual services to strangers (“I’ll suck your cock for a thousands bucks”, she says to The Dude upon their first encounter). And while the narrative progresses we get increasingly suspicious that she has kidnapped herself, trying to extort a million from her rich husband. The Coen Brothers, it seems to me, are poking fun at the ridiculousness of the rich-man’s life: he has a mansion with a big pool and fancy cars, but his life is a pile of shit, always drowned in ransom demands and people who want to rip him off. Including some “German nihilists” – another of those caricatures so absolutely un-realistic that it gets us wondering what kinds of drugs the Coen brothers are using in order to imagine such creatures.

The Coen Brothers don’t usually write narratives of triumph and glorious victory, neither they are really interested in the downfall of great leaders or figures of historical importance. The spotlight of their lenses is thrown upon a common figure: the chronical loser, the type that seems to have been born on a bad sign. Most of their anti-heroes could sing with all the force of their lungs that great Johnny Thunder punk-hymn: “Born To Lose”. The Dude goes through one hell of a mess to end up penniless, still in tramp-like condition. To crown his series of misadventures and catastrophes, instead of a Hollywoodian happy ending, he gets his face all covered with the ashes of his deceased friend. That’s a reason to laugh or to cry? For the Coen Brothers, it’s always better to laugh at tragedies and keep on tumbling down life’s absurd road, apparently ruled by Murphy’s Law iron-fist. Wise are the words that I’ve been hearing since childhood from more experienced peers: “don’t take life too seriously, you’re not getting out of it alive!”

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Woody Allen’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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Open Culture >>> Woody Allen elects his 10 favorite films ever.
Voilà the list:

  • The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
  • 8 ½ (Federico Fellini, 1963)
  • Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1972)
  • The Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948)
  • Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
  • The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)
  • The Great Ilusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)
  • Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
  • Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
  • The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

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