Bright Lights Film Journal

Blue Jasmine and the Great Recession: Paean for Our National Nightmares

“Allen delineates the gaudy days of the subprime years and the divided nation in its aftermath — one divided by misfortune, political and economic abuses and a sense of cultural and social malaise. With a central character who complements both aisles of the economic divide with her 1% past and Generation Y career struggles and a narrative that captures a virulent political right from the financial elites of Wall Street to the angry blue collar workers of San Francisco, Allen’s film is a bitter complement to our post Lehman-Brothers era.”

With the audacities of the subprime years gaudily channelled in Baz Luhrmann’s 1920s in The Great Gatsby earlier this year and Martin Scorsese soon to bring 1990s Wall Street crook Jordan Belfort’s excesses to the screen in The Wolf of Wall Street, the spectre of the financial crisis is looming heavily in recent Hollywood discourse. Not just in literary adaptations but also the dominant blockbusters of 2012 and 2013 have conveyed moods of economic tumult. In The Dark Knight Rises, a besieged and starved Gotham was at the mercy of a revolutionary, anti-capitalist insurgence suggesting a broad familiarity with movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. Rian Johnson’s economically depressed Midwestern-set crime dystopia in Looper drew attention to a crisis of confidence in America’s heartlands, epitomized in the battleground of Ohio in the 2012 election. Even the more sanguine Iron Man 3, with its flashbacks to Tony Stark’s new millennium partying, reflected a banal national mood in which Bill Clinton’s 2012 Democratic Convention Speech was a sort of apotheosis of nostalgia for the late 1990s.

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine seems to most acerbically define our malaise in this spate of recession-inflected cinema. A return for Allen to darker fare after 2011’s thematically and tonally lighter Midnight In Paris, Blue Jasmine is perhaps his most lugubrious work since 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, which dealt with similar themes of depression and deceit. The film begins with Jasmine taking a first-class flight from New York to San Francisco to meet her sister, Ginger. The trip has been prompted by catastrophe. Once a prospering New York socialite married to an ostentatious Wall Street businessman (somewhat robotically named Hal), she has been plummeted into a state of perpetual anxiety and economic paralysis. An FBI arrest for illicit financial activities on the part of her husband sent her life into disarray and forced her to downsize. Arriving in San Francisco and meeting Ginger, she feels fundamentally at odds with her sister’s working-class lifestyle in a low-rent neighbourhood of San Francisco. Adding to the difficulty is Ginger’s combustible boyfriend Chili, who is impatient with Jasmine’s high-class affectations and meandering. Jasmine’s difficulties apply to the world of work as she takes a job as a dentist’s receptionist (a capacity she views with contempt) whilst attending evening computer classes to eventually have skills to be an interior designer, more in keeping with her self-image. The film is punctuated with flashbacks to Jasmine’s life as a New York socialite that explore her eventual decline into mental breakdown and penury.

Allen’s film is a rebuttal of the consummate Atlanticism of his earlier works. From Annie Hall (1977) through to Midnight in Paris, the romanticism of cantankerous New York or the sophistication of Western Europe (particularly Paris and London) has preponderantly been integral to Allen’s mise-en-scene. In Blue Jasmine’s opening scene, Allen inverts this geographical and cultural elitism by abandoning any imagery of Jasmine’s former home of New York. Allen’s traditional Atlanticism is shown to be in crisis as Jasmine bombards a fellow passenger with delirious anecdotes about her former high life and indiscretions concerning the excesses of her Wall Street husband. Later, Jasmine asks the hard-up Ginger tactlessly if she has been abroad and describes a romantic visit to France, one that clearly would not be embarked on again. One would not have to look hard to find a resonance in Allen’s effaced Atlanticism. In a financial crisis from the collapse of the Wall Street icons of Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs to the city of London, followed by austerity from Paris to Madrid, Jasmine and the storyline’s notion of “go West” takes on an abrupt and poignant dual meaning.

Critical opinion of Allen’s film has championed its central San Francisco setting as a treatise on America’s class divide, with The New Yorker‘s David Denby claiming the sister’s relationship fitting the “great American divide of class and taste” (Denby, 2013) and Vanity Fair‘sBruce Handy viewing the film as “the story of Jasmine’s further humbling, of upper-class pretension dashing against the rock of working class earthiness” (Handy, 2013). Yet Allen’s story is arguably more immediate and nuanced, his characterization of Jasmine more fluid than on first impressions. Allen’s narrative explicitly frames Jasmine in synch with a surge of disillusionment for university graduates and young unemployed as it becomes clear that her experience of San Francisco will not offer her escape from the despondency of New York. A particularly Generation Y sense of disorientation prevails over her future. Early on in the film, Jasmine mentions her anthropology degree to the abrasive and macho Chili that he lazily confuses with archaeology, disturbing Jasmine over his questions of what she will do. Jasmine is soon disillusioned with the promise of going West, her effete background and meagre resume valueless in the eyes of a virile and aggressively philistine capitalism. This vulnerability is captured in the pace of her work life. Jasmine is unhappy working as a receptionist in dentistry whilst her lofty aspiration of interior design is waiting on a rudimentary computer learning course (one point where she does perhaps break with Generation Y). Her life is cast in the fallout of the Great Recession. She perceives her work as moribund and her goals, like so many on fruitless internships, as taking long to gestate.

Allen connects these contemporary allusions to the recession’s impact on Generation Y with Jasmine’s mental state. She later purports to be a successful interior designer in order to seem more romantically palatable to a wealthy diplomat named Dwight. Jasmine’s fabrication combines her mental illness and genuine nostalgia — Cate Blanchett’s performance conveys both nervous agitation and Jasmine’s genuine longing for the sartorial elegance and affluence of her former years, which she believes she might reclaim through Dwight. This combination of angst and yearning seems to reflect our own nostalgia for the near full unemployment of the late 1990s Clinton era (a time that included the callous repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which ended Roosevelt’s 1933 separation of commercial and investment banking). Allen affirms our own economic psychosis faced with the abyss of the Great Recession — Jasmine’s capitalist self-image and nostalgia for the boom years are derived from her own form of delusion. Though tonally oppositional to 2011’s Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine can be perceived as a darker take on that film’s central theme. Midnight in Paris focused on its central character Gil Pender’s obsession with the artistic and literary cultures of the booming 1920s. Similarly, Jasmine’s delusional nostalgia for the falsities and affectations of the boom years is debilitating and destructive.

The terrifying new world of long-term unemployment and reduced hopes that Jasmine experiences in bohemian San Francisco are consistently paralleled with flashbacks of subprime-oriented New York. The dichotomy of the artistic, cranky brilliance of New York versus the artless populism of the West Coast has been quintessentially Allen and is perhaps most memorably recalled in Alvie Singer’s unhappy journey to Los Angeles in Annie Hall. Allen’s depiction of West Coast life in Blue Jasmine is resolutely negative. Quite perversely, Ginger’s boyfriend Chili is played by Boardwalk Empire star and New Jersey-accented Bobby Cannavale, as if finding a West Coast actor was simply too much for Allen to brace. This geographical and cultural tension is captured in the film’s central relationship between Jasmine and her sister. The scenes taking place in Ginger’s apartment where Jasmine reluctantly dwells are palpably claustrophobic, deftly contrasting the sartorial elegance of Jasmine (regularly adorning her pure white designer coat, as if clinging on to her idea of cultural innocence) with the darkly lit, almost sickly orange walls that have surrounded Ginger’s more frugal life. Jasmine’s experiences of outdoor San Francisco meanwhile are also shown to be banal. Allen’s mise-en-scene is largely confined to the bland and sterile throughout Jasmine’s daily life, only rarely indulging in scenic views of the Pacific and the Golden Gate Bridge and avoiding any traditional tours of the city. The hedonism of Haight-Ashbury is completely absent as Allen’s film takes Jasmine’s moribund daily regime from cramped apartment to a dental reception to her computer course. The once youthful city, a hallmark of the 1960s New Left, has succumbed to a conservatively minded, hard economic reality in Allen’s depressing vision.

With the film’s San Francisco section encapsulating the disillusionment of Generation Y, the flashback New York section of the film chronicles the fallacies and pretences of the 1%. In bleached-out colours and clinically portrayed by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, this is the New York of the philistine trader rather than the struggling artist, characterized in Jasmine’s former husband Hal. Alec Baldwin plays Hal as a clear riff on Bernie Madoff, constantly surrounded by lawyers and engaging in illicit activity whilst enjoying the role of a wealthy philanthropist. It is through Hal that we learn of the rot of the subprime crisis and the social fabric it tore apart in which Jasmine was complicit. In a key scene, Hal tempted Ginger’s then husband Augie into investing into a Ponzi-style scheme, leading the couple to lose their entire investment and consequently, the breakdown of their relationship. This plot motif reminds us of our own shock at predatory lenders manipulating homebuyers with poor credit.

Yet Allen doesn’t restrict his vision of social and cultural malaise to Wall Street bashing. Baldwin also evokes the corruption of other economic gurus and elites who failed in their response to the financial crisis. A central plot thread sees Hal embarking on an affair with a French au pair, echoing the callousness of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal. This leads to a sucker-punch scene in the third act in which Hal’s arrest was revealed to be due to a report to the FBI by a vengeful Jasmine, devastated to discover the affair. In many ways, this self-destructive moment that precipitates Jasmine’s fall from the 1% mirrors our own helpless emotion and anger at the irresponsibility of the culture of Wall Street. Our own protestations at bank bailouts and fears of resuscitation of the greed culture were canned by the political mainstream in 2008 as both candidates McCain and Obama supported their enactment. Jasmine’s sole principled act after years of collusion with Hal is one that goes punished by the precarious America of Allen’s film. Despite her reveal of the crude economic reality in financial institutions and action against Wall Street avarice, she too must, like so many who protested against the actions of a corrupt financial elite, face the harsh conditions of the Great Recession.

Blue Jasmine also affirms political as well as economic stasis. The film’s San Francisco section is a picture of bipartisan consensus in decline, with Jasmine in conflict with a new political right that takes a different form from the Wall Street elites. Her hopeful relationship in the second act with the diplomat Dwight, who wants a wife who lends an effective gloss to his career as he plans a run for a legislative seat, reminds us of the detested, reputation-wrecking Tea Party representatives at home and America’s imperilled and lambasted ambassadors and intelligence allies abroad. Blue Jasmine’s domestic conflicts between Jasmine and the couple of Ginger and Chili recall the vicious fights in Congress since 2011, with agreement and comity permanently stalled as Chili hopes for her departure. Notions of disillusionment and dehumanization prevail throughout Ginger’s tumultuous house as Chili angrily shouts to Ginger “she doesn’t care about you! She’s a phony!” Obama’s stony relationship with and castigation by the Republican-dominated House of Representatives wouldn’t be far from the vituperative domestic scenes of Blue Jasmine. For all her conservative 1% background, the denigration of Jasmine as a conceited and more metropolitan being plays directly into the political innuendo embodied against the current president by Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Indeed, one could see Jasmine’s journey as one tragically dogged by economically conservative forces — from the chauvinistic world of Wall Street finance to the raw blue-collar populism of the Tea Party, Allen’s film affirms the national journey of the political right since the Great Recession’s beginning.

The film’s social mores are also strikingly in synch with the current political landscape, with Allen providing similar delineations of the Great Recession’s social impact. Much has been made of the storyline’s debt to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, with Jasmine resembling Blanche DuBois and Chili having similarities to the emotionally abusive Stanley Kowalski. Critics have strongly affirmed this, with Nick Pinkerton of Sight and Sound noting an affinity between the Williams-style plot of Blue Jasmine and other darkly themed Allen works: “This is Allen’s first Williams cover, though he has done Bergman several times, beginning with 1978’s Interiors, in which Geraldine Page, another Williams belle, became unhinged upon separation with her husband” (Pinkerton, 2013). Time Out: New York‘s Joshua Rothkopf enthusiastically called the film “real Streetcar Named Desire territory” and the tone “hypnotically catastrophic” (Rothkopf, 2013).

Yet Allen has also taken key liberties with Williams’s storyline. Chili is a far less powerful character than Kowalski, and unlike the play, Allen’s film contains no inclusion of rape. Allen instead heightens his male characterizations into facets that affirm the various forms of chauvinism deriving from the Great Recession and in corollary, often tragically vindicating his female protagonist despite her sins of conceit and omission in the boom years. In Williams’s play and Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation, Blanche DuBois is held responsible for a past affair with a 17-year-old whilst working as a teacher. Allen shifts this action onto Hal’s dalliances, which highlights the pervasive problem of the brusque culture of financiers. A brief and failed sexual assault attempted by Jasmine’s dentist employer brings to mind the 2012 election battle’s notion “of a war on women,” in which the seriousness of sexual transgressions were dispelled by an out-of-touch extreme-right Tea Party establishment in the form of men like former Representative Todd Akin. Despite Ginger and Chili’s rough relationship, the world of Blue Jasmine makes little allowance for Jasmine’s tumultuous history, fought against in the manner of blue-collar Tea Party populism. Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, still seething from his financial losses, informs Dwight of Jasmine’s scandalous personal history, leading to her being rebuffed by the affluent diplomat. Liberal San Francisco turns out to be a city where women are refused fresh starts and the chagrin of misdirected blue-collar anger at the recession shows no sign of abating. The film’s signature line, delivered bitterly by Blanchett, reflects on the dismal state of the nation: “There’s only so many traumas a person can withstand before they take to the streets and start screaming.” After years of Tea Party extremity, fundamentally ill government and highly reactionary legislative candidates, many audience members viewing Blue Jasmine can affirm the sentiment.

Blue Jasmine marks an apotheosis in delineating America’s long “national nightmare,” to paraphrase another head of state during a constitutional crisis. Allen delineates the gaudy days of the subprime years and the divided nation in its aftermath — one divided by misfortune, political and economic abuses, and a sense of cultural and social malaise. With a central character who complements both aisles of the economic divide with her 1% past and Generation Y career struggles and a narrative that captures a virulent political right from the financial elites of Wall Street to the angry blue-collar workers of San Francisco, Allen’s film is a bitter complement to our post-Lehman Brothers era. The fatalistic conclusion shows no easy solution to Jasmine’s financial or mental devastation as the film symmetrically ends as it begins, with Jasmine recounting her good times to a bewildered stranger. Allen makes it clear that the psychosis and trauma of our economic ravages are far from subsiding.

References

Denby, David. “The New Yorker: The Film File: Blue Jasmine.” The New Yorker. 29th July, 2013.

Handy, Bruce. “Movie Review: Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is Perhaps his Cruelest Ever Film.”Vanity Fair. 26th July 2013.

Pinkerton, Nick. “Film of the Week: Blue Jasmine.” Sight and Sound, October 2013 issue. 26th September 2013.

Rothkopf, Joshua. “Blue Jasmine: Movie Review.” Time Out: New York. 26th July 2013.