I saw Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine with my mother. A New York native, she appreciated the substantial influence Allen expounded in the ‘70s as he rose to the zenith of his abnormally prolific career. Though some 30 years later, Allen hasn’t similarly shaped my entrance into the adult world (until I was 16, Diane Keaton’s sole claim to fame for me was her role in Steve Martin’s Father of The Bride), I’ve since developed deference to his gritty and cunning narrative. After all, is there any franker a scene than that in Annie Hall when Alvy, his mom, and a shrink that practically reeks of bullshit discuss the expansion of Brooklyn? It’s this unapologetic storytelling that I think has continued to differentiate Allen from the vast numbers of good-even great-writers and filmmakers. So when my mother noted that the scenes in which Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine was toying with psychosis were hard for her to watch, I was confused.
“Why?” I asked.
She didn’t answer right away, so I jumped in. “I mean, don’t you think the emotional response her acting elicits is ultimately making the film important?”
This made me think of a story that I’d read at a Writer’s Conference a few summers back that went something of the like:
A man is with his buddies at a camp during war. Maybe it was the Vietnam War, maybe Korean; I don’t remember. It’s bright outside and the sun is shining down and the soldiers are walking and talking and being men and suddenly one guy steps on a landmine and all at once it’s bright again, only this time it’s not from the sun and this time the man is dead.
Sometime later, when they’re all back at site, a bison enters the nearby path. One soldier from the troop takes out his pistol, walks over, stares for a moment, and then shoots the animal. But he doesn’t kill it. He just shoots its ear; just enough pain so that the world knows the burden of living when his friend is dead. Though wounded, the bison is seemingly impervious to the trauma. So the main shoots one leg. Then the other. It’s bright, still, and there’s blood and flesh everywhere and the man is cursing and eventually the bison is dead just like his friend is dead just like this soldier who’s living is dead.
The author wrote this as an example of a true war story. The type that makes you say, “Christ, what’s the point?” and the type that makes your stomach believe.
I think that the latter point- that the staunchest purpose of a story is to find enough truth to make the stomach believe- is the conceit to Allen’s career. Here-Blue Jasmine excelled.
The outward elements of the film were entirely Woody Allen in nature: conflict between social strata, commentary on a seemingly precipitous drop in sensibility that accompanies wealth, the inflated purpose awarded to materialistic pursuits that keep those of affluence from living. Wealth affords us the means to relinquish emotions (the real grit that accompanies being alive), and in turn offers purported perfection. But people become so immersed in living on behalf of societal expectations that they lose feeling. Precisely, living a life dictated by external forces leads to a point where one doesn’t even know who she is. And if one doesn’t know who she is, then emotion and other grounding forces in life are relinquished. There’s danger, then, in living the externally grounded life that we preach as the right one.
It’s like this: you know that feeling you get when you buy something of relative importance and it’s as though that which you’ve purchased actually has had some effect on who you are in the world? Outwardly, it has; by changing the way you see yourself in the world, your purpose, too, is altered. However, when you forge a relationship, or else work toward something more tangible, this same feeling is experienced, yet on a more “real” level. That is, the drive behind your emotion is rooted in something more substantial than the concrete: it’s the result of something that qualifies your existence. The danger then with wealth is that the entirety of this feeling can be absorbed by the more superficial pursuits. And living life in a sea of space fillers, simply to placate one’s deep emotional void, has catastrophic consequences (see Jasmine’s bona fide collapse).
Keeping the previous point in mind, Allen uses Blue Jasmine to explore this quandary, and the audience is privy to Jasmine’s obsession with “making something of herself.” He expands on the surface issue (that which wealth buys can feign real-life sensations), and alludes to an additional concept: money can buy an education, but money cannot buy knowledge. Unfortunately, the two are often synonymous- a misconception that Allen takes great care to differentiate between with the skepticism surrounding Jasmine’s assumption that obtaining her degree will lead her to greatness. (“Anthropology?” asks a Joe the Plumber type, “like digging up rocks and stuff?”)
This topic touches on a second delusion plaguing many “doers”: that passion and mild drive alone will lead you to idyllic roads. For an in-depth invalidation of this so-called “passion-hypothesis”, I recommend Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Essentially, Newport’s theory states that, “passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before.” Such is a concept Allen knows well. Commenting on the realities of filmmaking, Allen conceded, “It is all a lot of hard work, a lot of anxiety, a lot of decision making, a lot of waking up early, going to sleep late. Fun is not really an option; it's a lot of hard work.” Jasmine personifies this belief gone astray; her struggles serve to reinforce this value and provide a moralistic tone in an otherwise emotion-fueled screenplay.
Was Jasmine actually any less happy than her have-not counterparts? Probably not. Yet, her character served as the manifestation of the assumption that wealth brings happiness, and therefore that she should’ve been happier. Maybe because those material possessions do carry an inflated sense of purpose, it’s common belief that many can, at least superficially, buy happiness. But when you think of moments of absolute contentment, it’s unlikely that those scenes were laden with phony relationships, materialistic weight, or a sense of anything other than what is real. The clincher here is that superficiality is often the seed of dissatisfaction.
Allen always works hard to dissociate that band between social stature and emotional stability, and he comes home to his principle that the truth is less sexy than a world of glamour (think Midnight In Paris; Annie Hall). The discomfort rooted in unadulterated emotion is the impetus for that same compassion that differentiates good art from the great. Ultimately, the man (and this film) is notable because he makes you think. Only lots of people make you think. But Woody Allen is Woody Allen because he makes you think about something other than yourself. He makes you think about people. He makes your stomach believe.