25 August 2013

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen is pretty inconsistent these days, so I find myself going in to his movies in kind of a weird head space, trying not to get my hopes up, and also trying not to jump on the hate-train too early. I did not particularly like To Rome with Love, and actually, I thought Midnight in Paris was clever but somewhat sappy. But I did really like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, so I am totally ready to believe that Allen can still make a phenomenal film. And personally, I think that with Blue Jasmine, he has. Though a disclaimer - Boyfriend was much less taken with the movie than I was. He thought it was so-so, and was totally puzzled by my occasional fits of gleeful cackling. I started off being sort of annoyed with the movie and prepared not to like it, but after 20 minutes or so, it won me over, and then I was completely hooked.

So to begin with, I might say that I found myself contemplating this movie in the context of films made in the aftermath of the economic crash that either reflect on that crash, or seem self-conscious/careful/ about, or at least interested in, ways that extreme wealth is represented (See also: Queen of Versailles, which you really must see, I loved it, or more weirdly, Tower Heist, where this comes up in strange ways, or Up in the Air, which took a lot of heat in this context, which I thought was semi-warranted). Also be aware that I just spent two weeks at a summer program in narrative studies, so I may be even more analytical than usual =-)

Anyways. Blue Jasmine is ostensibly the story of a supremely rich woman whose life comes unraveled after her husband's financial scams send him to jail and deprive them of their ill-gotten wealth. She moves from New York to California to stay with her sister and "get back on her feet." The movie jumps around between flashbacks of her marriage, and the continuing adventures of both her and her sister. Cate Blanchett is absolutely electrifying as a woman coming apart at the seams. I mean, my god, the play of emotions on her face. Incredible. 

But what made the movie so incredible to me was that it seemed more like a kind of formal dance between two story types, that of the ultra-rich character, and that of the average character. What makes the movie remarkable is how it models the collisions, cross-overs, and parallels between those types of stories, while also showing you how part of what drives the actions is the way in which these women narrativize themselves. Repeatedly, you have scenes of Blanchett essentially reciting her story to others, or even herself, these cliches that she clings to so much that they seem to break free of reality altogether (or explicitly do, as the movie progresses and Blanchett begins fantasizing a new script for herself), or you see her sister, played by Sally Hawkins (whom I completely adore) thinking through her life in terms of what kind of story it is and wondering whether that's a story she's content with. This is one of the more masterful things about the movie, I think, these subtle links between the experiential and formal levels of the movie. 

So here is Blanchett, living this highly melodramatic rich lady life. And here's her sister, and whose struggles cannot quite be elevated into high tragedy, because, as Erich Auerbach taught us, that is a mode typically reserved for the upper classes. Even when the miseries of the lower classes are pretty much caused by the callousness of those in the upper echelons. There are these moments of almost absurdist comedy, when the two storyworlds collide. Here's Jasmine (Blanchett), having a tear-filled, pill-popping, rich lady anxiety attack, and here's Ginger (Hawkins) and her boyfriend (Bobby Canavale, who is totally delightful) trying to hook her up with work as a receptionist at a dentist's office. It's Woody Allen's trademark humor emerging in a somewhat unexpected way, and it is totally delightful.

My undeveloped and only semi-formed thought about the movie is that it brilliantly plays with ideas of who (class-wise) gets to have what kind of story line, how we respond to similar events told on varying levels (do we feel more sorry for people at one layer rather than another, for instance), and how those different modes/genres work together. My basic emotional response is that I was highly entertained by it and think it's worth seeing. So there you go.

2013 Booker Longlist

FYI: The Booker longlist came out like a month ago.

The only one I've read is The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. Which a lot of people I know really liked, and I couldn't really get into. It's a disembodied monologue, which is challenging enough, but it's also kind of ramble-y and abstract and I just didn't really get what she was talking about half the time. Maybe I was overly tired or not in the right frame of mind. But it just didn't do much for me.

I don't pay a whole lot of attention to literary prizes, but with the Booker, I have this weird conviction that the short list is pretty reliably good, and that whatever actually wins is typically not that great. There also seems to be a concerted effort to be "multicultural," which is vaguely entertaining to track.

I do typically try to read something by the Nobel prize winner every year, but I don't always succeed. I tend to think a lot of those choices are obviously politically motivated and sometimes aren't really deserved.

I don't follow the PEN awards really at all, but if I'm looking at something in a bookstore and see that it's won, I usually take that as a very good sign. Though off-hand, I'm not sure what I'm basing that off of other than Kate Christensen's The Great Man, which is a really fantastic book.

I don't follow the Pulitzer either, but looking at the list of fiction winners, I am inclined to think they are mostly well-written books that make for pleasurable reading, though they have a faint whiff of the middle-brow about them (what a horrid thing to say!). I am inclined to say that they all make for excellent airplane reading - absorbing but not necessarily challenging. Maybe this is because I recently read Olive Kitteredge, and that's how I felt about it. It's an excellent book. Very well written, very enjoyable to read, wonderful reflections on the ways in which people are interconnected, but something in me turns up my nose a little at it. You find yourself thinking, this is the perfect Christmas present for the middle-aged female readers in your life (and I feel gross saying that). Which also reminds me that I want to read this.

Anyways. I started down this rabbit hole because I was writing a post on Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, which brought me back to the comments thread on a past Woody Allen review, and I figured it was worth a post.

05 August 2013

The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett, and The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

Both totally fantastic, but in somewhat different ways. It's amazing that I've loved film noir for as long as I have, and yet never tried reading any of the books. Predictably, I loved them. The Hammett is delightfully light-hearted; a comedy of manners with a little crime thrown in. The Chandler is dark and brooding, but with these incredible taut and lyrical sentences (perhaps my favorite: "her face like scraped bone."). Both of them involve plenty of drinking and smoking and and wise guys and brassy dames (though the Hammett is especially wonderful for having an affectionate and loving husband-and-wife team, Nick and Nora), and somewhat convoluted plots with surprising twists and turns, and both are fairly quick reads. Much recommended.