Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s tragicomic ode to ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

On a flight back to KL earlier this week, I got to watch Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine. Mr. Allen can rightfully lay claim to being the most prolific director in the world. Since 1969, when he released his second film Take the Money and Run, he has released one film per year, every year till 2013, with the exception of 1970, 1974, 1976 and 1981 (but he released 2 in 1987). That’s 42 movies in 45 years!

Mr. Allen certainly shows no sign of slowing down with age. He already has his next picture Magic in the Moonlight scheduled for release in 2014. And it’s not that he’s just churning out drivel; he won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for 2011’s highly entertaining Midnight in Paris (and was nominated for Best Director as well), making him one of the few artists to receive Oscar nominations in 5 consecutive decades.

Midnight in Paris went on record as being his highest grossing film ever, although that doesn’t take into account ticket price inflation over the past 50 years; when adjusted for inflation, Annie Hall (1977) is still his highest grossing movie, but both Midnight and now Blue Jasmine are in his Top 10. Talk about getting better with age!

Many observers have noted the obvious parallels with A Streetcar Named Desire – fragile upper class socialite reeling from the loss of husband and fortune arrives to stay with poor middle class sister; tries to retain air of sophistication but comes up short against new rough surroundings, particularly her sister’s partner, who takes an intense dislike to her put-on airs.

Elia Kazan’s 1951 film (based on the 1947 Tennessee Williams play) was a very dark affair, ending with Blanche DuBois’ rape and subsequent mental breakdown. Woody Allen retains the same themes, but presents the story as a tragicomedy; his storytelling gives us a chance to laugh (or at least smile knowingly) at the foibles of his characters, without feeling too guilty at being entertained by someone else’s misery. Jasmine is spared the physical brutalization and the rape, but in the end, she shares the same fate as Blanche; when her attempt to begin a new life ends in failure, Jasmine’s world quickly unravels and the film ends with her sitting on a bench talking to herself, with a mental institution seemingly the only possible destination for her.

No actor can ever claim to have dominated a Woody Allen film in all these years past (other than Allen himself in a few of them), as they are all typically ensemble affairs. That streak has just been broken; Cate Blanchett owns this film. I watched her performance with a sort of morbid fascination, in much the same way that one may watch the slow-motion replay of a spectacular car crash on a race track…you already know that the outcome is not going to be good, but you still feel compelled to observe exactly how the disaster unfolds.

Mr. Allen many times carries over actors from his previous films. But in this case, other than Alec Baldwin, he works with a completely new set. Besides Ms. Blanchett, there’s British actress Sally Hawkins who plays Jasmine’s sister and TV actor Bobby Cannavale, as her fiancé Chili, who considers Jasmine’s sophistication an affront to his working-class pride. Michael Stuhlbarg (who headlined the Coen Bros.’ A Serious Man in 2009) is hilarious as a dentist who becomes besotted with Jasmine and comes on to her at work; this is not a matter to be laughed at in real life, but Stuhlbarg is so ridiculous and so pathetic, and Jasmine is such a magnet for losers that I couldn’t help but shake my head in amused disbelief as the situation unfolded. Alec Baldwin produces a typical walk-on performance – viewed in flashbacks – as Jasmine’s suave financial wheeler-dealer husband, who comes to a sticky end. The only actor who gets a straight-forward role is Peter Sarsgaard as the recently widowed diplomat Dwight, who is drawn irresistibly to Jasmine’s charm and sophistication. It’s the abrupt termination of her relationship with Dwight which leads Jasmine into her final dark spiral.

Woody Allen’s genius lies in his ability to present life’s challenges with a light and ironic touch. I wouldn’t have believed that such an approach could work with subject matter like this, but indeed Mr. Allen comes through with flying colours. In a few months, Cate Blanchett will receive her 6th Oscar nomination and quite possibly her second win. She won previously for playing Katherine Hepburn in Scorsese’s The Aviator in 2004, but this performance is in a different league altogether.


Political/ paranoia thrillers of the ‘70s

In February this year, Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige stated in a widely quoted interview that next year’s Captain America sequel The Winter Soldier would resemble a political thriller. In a July interview at Comic-con, the directors of The Winter Soldier, Joe and Anthony Russo emphasized this thematic direction, referring to the famous movies of the 1970s, which encompassed related sub-genres like conspiracy-thrillers and paranoia-thrillers. All these stories were typically told through a ‘man vs. establishment’ narrative. So I could well imagine Cap’s relationship with SHIELD escalating in that direction in the sequel…he already had strong moral issues with SHIELD’s clandestine efforts to build WMDs in 2012’s The Avengers.

A week ago, the trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrived and indeed it had the look and feel of a political thriller, albeit a high-tech one that has a flying aircraft carrier in it! One of the new characters introduced in the sequel is a SHIELD operative named Alexander Pierce, played by none other than Robert Redford. This is an interesting bit of casting, which the Russo brothers referred to in their July interview. Mr. Redford made his name playing anti-establishment protagonists in iconic 70s films like Three Days of the Condor and All The President’s Men; even the characters he played in Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Jeremiah Johnson or in his more recent thrillers like Spy Game (2001) and The Company You Keep (2012) are patently anti-establishment. Hence the irony of casting him on the other side of the fence, representing the establishment (a shadowy one at that) with possibly a hidden agenda behind Cap’s back!

This trailer got me thinking about those 70s political/ conspiracy thrillers, many of which I had not yet watched. Some were inspired by the real-life incidents of government wire-tapping, such as Coppola’s The Conversation and Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men. Many were adapted from novels – Three Days of the Condor (James Grady), The Odessa File and The Day of the Jackal (Frederick Forsyth), The French Connection (Robin Moore), The Boys from Brazil (Ira Levin), Eiger Sanction (Trevanian) and Marathon Man (William Goldman). Of course the biggest purveyor of the stuff was novelist Robert Ludlum, but very few of his books were successfully adapted to film in the 70s, until the Bourne series came along a decade ago.

Since I was looking to get started on this genre, I googled “70s political and conspiracy thrillers”. Among the search results, I came across Alan J. Pakula’s ‘Paranoia trilogy’. This refers to 3 films that Pakula directed from 1971 to 1976 – Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, which together covered the entire range of assassinations, espionage, subversion and paranoia.

I decided to watch all three over the weekend and discovered three very differently executed films. If I wanted to split hairs, I would say that Klute is a paranoia-thriller, Parallax is a conspiracy-thriller and President is a political-thriller. I’ll talk about them in reverse order of their release dates.

All the President’s Men (1976) is the most well-known of the three movies (Oscar-nominated for Best Picture and Best Director), however, I didn’t find it too interesting from a technical perspective, i.e. music, editing or cinematography. Clearly, the director went for a documentary-style approach, which was probably the right thing to do as a counterpoint to the 4 years of sensationalist high-decibel Watergate coverage that preceded the film. While it may have been the right decision for the time, I was disappointed with this low-key approach which avoided delving into the hearts and minds of the men at The Washington Post. There are a few exceptions and these scenes were the ones I enjoyed the most – the casual but purposeful banter of editors discussing the priority of news items for the following day’s issue; the sharp and strained repartee between two journalists under pressure as they strive to deliver stories with sufficient proof before the printing deadline – these ‘fly on the wall’ moments really humanized the narrative. In spite of these quibbles, there is no denying the appeal of watching two of the biggest 70s heartthrobs Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford share screen time together as Bernstein and Woodward, the journalists whose initial reluctance to work together is overcome by their shared desire to get to the truth.

The movie works well as a tutorial on journalistic practices of the time and I imagine that it must have been used as supporting material for master classes on investigative journalism for several years. It is fascinating to watch how the two men slowly peeled away the layers of secrecy of a government conspiracy that went all the way to the top. All the more so, because they did it in full public view; every phone call or house call they made was done using their real names, no cloak and dagger stuff…and still there was nothing the government could do to stop them. If this had been a made-up story, they would surely have been knocked off by an assassin!

And that’s exactly what happens to a number of people in Pakula’s 2nd thriller, The Parallax View (1974), adapted from a 1970 novel by Loren Singer, no doubt influenced by the Kennedy/ King assassinations of the 1960s. It tells the story of a reporter (yes, reporters were the good guys in those days) who tries to uncover a conspiracy behind a political assassination, with the trail leading to a shadowy organization called The Parallax Corporation, that appears to be recruiting hit-men on American soil. The journalist Joe Frady is played by another 70s sex symbol, Warren Beatty, tousled hair and all! How nice it was to be an actor in the 70s; you could grow your hair really long and you didn’t need to comb it! It seems like only Robert Redford combed his hair (and he’s kept exactly the same hairstyle unchanged for 40 years!). Once again, like the characters in All the President’s Men, there is very little attempt to flesh out Beatty’s character or back story; the director is more interested in telling the story of what Joe Frady uncovers. The film is famous for a chilling sequence where Beatty infiltrates the Parallax HQ and participates in a recruitment test for assassins. As part of the test, he is shown a series of images which appear to blur the lines between patriotism and terrorism…a very relevant concept even today. The film ends on a bit of a downbeat note, implying that there is no way to stop the puppet-masters.

The first of Pakula’s three thrillers, Klute (1971) is in my view, his most accomplished work. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Original Screenplay and it won Jane Fonda the first of her two Best Actress Oscars. Trained by famous acting teacher Lee Strasberg, Ms. Fonda’s method acting performance is extraordinary and forms the emotional core of the film. It is a must-see for anyone interested in her body of work. She plays Bree Daniel, a call girl and aspiring model/ actress who believes that she is being stalked by an ex-client. She crosses paths with private investigator John Klute (Donald Sutherland) who is investigating the disappearance of a friend, who also happens to be an ex-client of hers. As he gets drawn into her world, he develops protective feelings towards her. She on the other hand, is torn between wanting him to fill the emotional gap in her life, and wanting to manipulate him just as she has done with all the other men in her life.

The music by Michael Small is eerie and haunting, using a combination of electronics and abstract vocals (the only time I have come across that in a movie). But he also uses a traditional rock track to great effect in one scene – Fonda walks into a club distraught, looking for some sort of emotional anchor; as soon as she enters, she automatically slips into flirtation mode with various men at the club; she then spots her ex-pimp (Roy Scheider) and quickly settles into his arms, switching in a moment from lost waif to contented cat (you can almost hear her purr!) while staring defiantly at Klute who has followed her into the club.

Fonda’s performance and her relationship with Donald Sutherland lift this film from being a run-of-the-mill thriller to a disturbing and haunting masterwork. Gordon Willis does an outstanding job behind the camera (particularly in lighting Bree’s little studio apartment and the closed confines of the climactic scene). A year later his name appeared on the credits of The Godfather and he was on his way to becoming one of the most influential cinematographers of all time. He shot the subsequent Godfather movies, the other 2 Pakula thrillers mentioned here and the famous Woody Allen films Annie Hall, Manhattan and Stardust Memories. Yet, he never won an Oscar until the Academy belatedly awarded him an honorary statuette in 2009!

To complete my journey from the trailer of Captain America: The Winter Solider to the political thrillers of the 70s, I squeezed in Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, another iconic paranoia thriller of the 70s. This film stared Robert Redford and allowed me to ‘close the Redford loop’. Like Klute, Condor also invests time in building a relationship between the audience and the protagonist, something that the Russo brothers have promised they will do for Captain America in The Winter Soldier; I can’t wait for April 2014!