Thursday, September 26, 2013

Spiraling downward, spiraling upward

There was going to be a theme to Monday's double feature one way or another.

If I'd piggybacked a free viewing of The East onto my paid viewing of Blue Jasmine, it would have been a double feature devoted to rich crooks getting what's coming to them.

Frances Ha started ten minutes later and was 30 minutes shorter, so it won out, making for a double feature that included one Woody Allen movie and one that pays homage to Allen (specifically the black and white cinematography of Allen's earlier works, notably Manhattan).

The real theme of the double feature, though, was probably this: women whose lives are coming unraveled, and what they do to try to halt the downward spiral.

If you don't want to know any more about Blue Jasmine and Frances Ha, stop reading now.

I'll say it upfront: Blue Jasmine is one of Woody Allen's darkest films. It concerns the widow of a Ponzi schemer who hanged himself in prison, played by Alec Baldwin, who is turned out into the world without any of the money she once relied on for daily creature comforts. This forces her to throw herself into the care of her sister, unrelated by blood because they were both adopted, who lives in San Francisco with a fiance who is anything but Jasmine Francis caliber. This despite the fact that Jasmine and her husband lost every penny that her sister Ginger and Ginger's ex-husband had invested with them. The structure of the story has been compared frequently and quite justifiably to A Streetcar Named Desire.

At first, Frances Ha runs the risk of seeming as frivolous as Blue Jasmine is heavy. It's a character study of a feckless 27-year-old Brooklyn hipster named Frances, who spends the first third of the movie bouncing from one quirky episode to another among fellow Brooklyn acquaintances. Just when you are starting to get annoyed by what seems like a steep decline in ambition on writer-director Noah Baumbach's part, you start to get a real idea about the consequences of Frances' flightiness, lack of drive and lack of accountability. She has a fight with her best friend, who functions really more as a love interest in what becomes a romantic comedy/drama between two heterosexual women. From here her living situations and work prospects become increasingly more dour as she stumbles onto a path toward actual ruin.

It wouldn't have surprised me if you told me that Baumbach's movie had the bleak ending, and Allen's found a light at the end of the tunnel. Baumbach's most recent film, Greenberg, is almost unremittingly acerbic (though I loved it), while Allen's most recent film that I've seen, Midnight in Paris, delivers a big ol' happy ending (though I didn't love it).

Well, the two have switched now.

It's with something close to sadism that Allen documents Jasmine's decline. For starters, Jasmine is almost impossible to like. Her few gestures toward emotional charity are almost immediately neutralized by some careless remark or action, and even the realization that she's being difficult or unkind doesn't change her approach to the next similar situation. We do sympathize with her from time to time, as when she is working dutifully to be the best dental receptionist she can be, but is sexually harassed and eventually assaulted by her boss. However, she's the epitome of a one step forward, two steps back type of person, as she eventually does meet someone who could deliver her back to the life of privilege she so desires, but she screws it up through a number of deceptions that are of debatable necessity. This leaves her, devastatingly, broken and alone on a park bench, talking to herself.

Meanwhile, Frances is pretty likable, though you do want to shake her sometimes because her social half measures seem in some ways more damaging than simple bad behavior. This too has consequences. It becomes clear pretty early that France is a hopeless case, and consequently, she has a number of trials to endure. There's the loss of her hipster best friend to a preppy square who intends to marry her and domesticate her. There's the loss of her paid apprenticeship in a dance company because, though the head of the dance company won't say it, she's just not good enough. There's the eventual loss of her ability to continue living in New York because she no longer has the money, which culminates in a humiliating job back on her college campus at Vassar, pouring wine at school galas. But the ending of the movie is there, just waiting to provide her salvation. As if by an unseen deus ex machina, she gets her shit together, forms her own (low-level) dance troupe that achieves the acclaim of her former boss, makes up with her best friend, and secures her own New York apartment -- albeit in the less glamorous neighborhood of Washington Heights.

The movies are each other's polar opposites, in a way. Blue Jasmine has realism on its side when it comes to the facts of the case, of what happens to these characters, while Frances Ha can claim no such realism. However, Frances Ha has more emotional realism, which is why I ultimately preferred it.

What Frances Ha does so well, without having to put too fine a point on it, is to illustrate the severe failings of a dream mentality we can all sometimes get swept up in. There's some part of the dream that's attainable, but not quite enough, resulting in painful near misses. Take the episode where Frances impulsively decides to correct the fact that she's never been to Paris, using access to a free place to stay while she's there to excuse putting an impossibly large sum of money on a credit card for her last-minute tickets. Because she has to be back by Monday morning, she goes for only two days, so spends the entire time awake at night and asleep during the day because she can't kick her jet lag. She also keeps trying to get in touch with a friend who is in Paris. We think the friend is blowing her off or isn't even there in the first place, but only when Frances is in a taxi back in New York does she get an excited return voicemail from her friend, who not only wanted to see her but to introduce her to an eligible friend. Meanwhile, while in Paris, Frances missed her estranged friend's going away party prior to leaving for Japan -- an olive branch extended at the last minute, when it was too late.

I related to Frances' situation because I've certainly had times where the best move would have been to just stay still. By trying too hard to fix something, I broke it further. The chapter that follows for Frances -- the humiliating return to her college campus to live in a dorm and work among people six to eight years younger than her -- felt like the true fallout period from an epic emotional mishap.

However, the difference between them that makes Frances worth rooting for and Jasmine worth condemning is that Frances, overall, wants to put good into the world. Jasmine wants to extract whatever she can from that same world, as long as it benefits her.

I guess it's my twin senses of humanism and optimism that make me question whether Jasmine's journey has the ring of emotional truth. It's Allen's intention that we should feel like the ending he's chosen is the right ending, the just ending, for Jasmine -- it seems on some level, then, that he just wants to make his own contribution to a recent genre of movies in which the villains of the financial crisis receive their just desserts. So he has to really prevent us from liking her, and the way he does that is to never allow us to fully endorse anything she does, even though she's our protagonist and we spend the most time with her. Eventually, it rings false.

Any person whose story is worth telling has to be likable enough that they fail because of an epic flaw, some deficit that dooms them to their fate but stands in contrast to many of the good parts about them. Jasmine doesn't have this single flaw that mars an otherwise good person; she's a patchwork of flaws, of angers, of jealousies, of pettinesses. Maybe my problem with Blue Jasmine -- which, I should say, I like only a little less than Frances Ha -- is that Allen shouldn't have structured a story around a person if she was going to be impossible to redeem.

I've intentionally failed to mention the actresses who play these two roles so far. As you know, they are Cate Blanchett and Greta Gerwig, and I'm pretty sure you know which is which. Both do such a superlative job delivering on their director's vision for those characters that I don't think you can give the performance edge to either. As Blanchett's character is more or less based on Blanche DuBois, and Gerwig's is inspired by a hipster mentality in which emotions are purposefully small-scale or ironic (see the entirety of the movie The Comedy), Blanchett clearly has the more Oscar bait moments. But Gerwig may have emotional truth on her side.

And yeah, that could be because she co-wrote her own character. 


Thaddeus said...

Nice writeup. Please make sure to give me a headsup for any good Aussie tv or films while you're there!

Vancetastic said...

Hey Thaddeus,

Well this isn't anything new, but I just watched Chopper from 2000, starring Eric Bana and directed by Andrew Dominik (who's actually from New Zealand). Looking forward to a film called Mystery Road, but I don't know if it'll get a release in the states.