Blue Jasmine: too deep for tears

Imagine Shakespeare’s King Lear as satire or more aptly Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. If that works for you, you will love Woody Allan’s Blue Jasmine. You can readily embrace its tragic comedy.

Who am I to complain, prone to black humour as I am? I confessed in an earlier post (
that Samuel Beckett’s advice – Despair young and never look back- was an article of faith for me.

And yet I do complain.

The movie opens with Jasmine French (Cate Blanchett), in the first class cabin of a flight from NYC to San Francisco (a seat she can ill-afford, we later learn) regaling her seatmate with the story of how she met her husband. The band was playing Blue Moon. As it turns out the seatmate can’t wait to be quit of her: “She never stops talking.”

She arrives laden with Louis Vuitton luggage at her sister (Sally Hawkins), Ginger’s, modest flat where she proposes to stay while she finds herself. She blissfully ignores the fact that by doing so, she is preventing GInger’s boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), Chili, from moving in as planned. Gradually flashbacks reveal how Jasmine fell from her Park Avenue/Hamptons height of wealth and privilege to this nadir.

The script is a riff on the tragic Streetcar with Jasmine, Ginger and Chili modeled on Blanche, Stella and Stanley, but it is also a satire. It takes aim at the self-indulgent, spoiled and narcissistic Jasmine, at the shallowness of the wealthy, philanthropic set, and in an equal opportunity way, at the beer-drinking, sports-loving lower class. It is worth noting that both have deplorable taste in art.

Now for the spoilers.

I stumbled out of the theatre traumatized by the last shot of Jasmine’s face. I was half way through a cup of tea before I began denouncing the logical holes in the script.

How believable is it that a woman who signed whatever her husband put in front of her without a glance was able to call up the FBI and cause him to be arrested. (Have you tried turning in anybody? It’s a long and complicated process during which you are questioned like a criminal yourself.) Let’s assume that her impulsive decision was the result of a psychotic break brought on by the sudden discovery of her husband’s (Hal French, played by Alec Baldwin) serial infidelity, not to mention his announcement that he is in love with a teenaged au pair and wants a divorce. Otherwise, nobody could possibly make a decision to turn in the family breadwinner without securing a portion of the ill-gotten gains first.

And is it possible for Jasmine to be quite so reprehensible as to let her sister invest her once-in-a-lifetime lottery windfall of $200,000 in Hal’s Ponzi scheme if she truly understands that’s what it is? Unconscious, willfully blind perhaps but genuinely evil?

Then there is the question of the stepson. He is so humiliated by the revelation of his father’s fraud that he quits Harvard in his final year and disappears. Of course he too turns out to be in San Francisco, selling second-hand musical instruments while his stepmother tries her hand at computer night school and a day job as a lecherous dentist’s receptionist. When Jasmine hunts him down, he tells her he never wants to see her again. How believable is it that such an apparently ethical person would turn so totally against the woman who blew the whistle?

But all of this is mere nitpicking.

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine had got in under my defenses. I identified with her profound loss – and very possibly her narcissism. She had lost her role, the elegant settings, the Manhattan apartment, the beach house, that propped her up. She retained some of her couture costumes that might have made the proffered second chance possible if she were not, at heart, so self-destructive.

At the end of Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche Dubois is led away by people in “white coats” as she declares that she has always relied on the “kindness of strangers”. Jasmine has no such comfort. That last shot of her sitting on a street bench, homeless, without a purse, her hair wet,her elegant beauty gone and totally absorbed in a conversation with no one, is heartbreaking.

Some things are “too deep for tears”. Maybe this loss, which is being repeated around the world as jobs are lost, homes are foreclosed on and people plummet into the abyss, (sometimes literally) is such a tragedy. Woody Allan realized such downfalls can be borne only by comedy.

Walter White, a Macbeth for our time

I’m on the point of cancelling a week at a cottage. So far my satellite company has not posted Sunday’s schedule and I can’t set my TIVO/PVR to record Breaking Bad. I am supposed to leave tomorrow morning, but how can I go away and leave Jesse at the mercy of an ever-worsening Walt?

I know. I’m deranged. That’s what comes of watching Season 4 in its entirety and the first  4 episodes of Season 5 in 4 days.

I’m catching up. I saw only an episode here and there in the first 3 seasons, but when Season 5, episode 1 proved incomprehensible -what happened to Ted and why is it Skylar’s fault? how did Walt blow up the meth lab? what happened to the little kid?- I decided to back track to season 4. By a miracle, I actually found Big Daddy Video up on Dundas St., next door to a shuttered Blockbuster. (I haven’t made the jump to an Apple box and Netflix obviously.) There was a flaw in my plan, of course, because there were things I didn’t get about the beginning of Season 4 because I hadn’t seen Season 3. Never mind.

What I want to say is that Walt is a latter day Macbeth, a good, highly competent person who makes a choice to go over to the dark side.

Macbeth is the charismatic leader of King Duncan’s army and has just successfully defeated a rebellion against the old king. The throne of Scotland is not strictly hereditary, Duncan’s son is young and inexperienced and if Macbeth had not been so impatient, he might well have become king without resorting to violence. In addition, he has the three wryd sisters plotting to make him the devil’s agent and his social-climbing wife calling him a coward if he does not take the knife to Duncan, his cousin and a guest in his castle.

Walt has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, has lost his job as a high school chemistry teacher and, therefore, has no medical insurance. He has a teenaged son with physical disabilities and, at this point, a new-born daughter. Knowing he is going to die sooner rather than later, he wants to provide for them and what better way than to become the cook of the purest methamphetamine possible.

Walt’s wife Skylar is not instrumental in pushing Walt into a life of crime. Initially, he keeps it a secret from her. But by Season 4, she is in on the act and is laundering the money, always cash of course that he is making. And she is making decisions that are equally questionable.

Macbeth has a good friend in Banquo, who is almost his equal in Duncan’s army, just as Walt has his former student, Jesse, almost his equal as a chemical genius. Banquo and Jesse enable an exploration of the theme of loyalty, although Banquo doesn’t survive until Act 5 as Jesses has.

Duncan, the good, mild old king has a polar opposite in Gus, the cold, meticulous target of Walt’s homicidal urge.

At first after the initial murder, Macbeth’s true nature asserts itself and he is appalled by what he has done. Lady Macbeth imagines that she is not so lily-livered and goes back to the murder scene to plant the knives on the drunken guards. After that, Macbeth grows in evil, committing or commissioning murder after murder, reaching his lowest point when he has children slaughtered.

Surely, you say, Walt would not stoop to that. Watch Season 4 very carefully. And what about all those meth heads that hung out at Jesse’s?

Walt’s brother-in-law, Hank, the DEA agent takes the role of nemesis, the agent of justice, and has only narrowly failed to catch the cook of pure meth, nicknamed Heisenberg. Macbeth’s nemesis is Macduff, he who lost “all his little ones”.

The trouble for viewers is that they actually want the hero (protagonist is just such a long word) to succeed. At least at first. And what does that say about us?

True most people have gone off  Macbeth by the time Banquo’s ghost crashes the banquet, although we may falter momentarily when Lady Mac, who was not so tough after all, kills herself. “My way of life is fallen into the sere and yellow leaf….” By the end, Macbeth is dead as he should be, a truly tragic figure for he could have been so much more.

Walt is getting nastier and nastier and more remote from human relationships. Even Skylar is afraid of him. Without a doubt, the second half of Season 5 when it arrives next year, will bring us Walt’s demise as well. Will we still be cheering for him?

Hey, I just remembered. The cottage gets the same satellite service as this place does. I’ll just have to arm wrestle the remote away from the other 10 people staying there.