Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and the Graceless Fall of the Upper Class

The post-Occupy Wall Street world is still obsessed with the super-wealthy, but we now recognise and relish the cracks in their power.

After the global financial crisis of 2008 and Michael Moore’s 2009 documentary Capitalism: a Love Story, international consciousness became focused on the unfair systems of wealth-accumulation which exist around the world. The concept of the 1% of the population who are super-wealthy exploiting the other 99% of the population through unfairly influencing and benefitting from global systems of power, spurred many social movements and began an international debate around inequality. The force of this movement has seemingly died down (much to the delight of the political right), with the majority of the world’s so-called middle classes appearing to be apathetic or even resistant to the idea that they are being systematically excluded from attaining the mythical American dream, and dutifully fulfilling their role as the exploited, mindless, subdued underclass.

For example, in South Africa, major corporations conspired to illegally hike the price of bread, which the poor populations of the country rely on as a staple food, in order to increase their already-exorbitant profit margins. This direct and blatant exploitation of the poor did not even result in a widespread outcry or boycotts from the population, and the companies involved were merely slapped with easily manageable fines and did not issue public apologies or develop strategies of recompense. 34 mineworkers in Marikana, who were part of a wage strike due to the paltry wages they are paid, were killed by police who opened fire on these mineworkers. This was only one of the many strikes which the country sees due to abysmal working conditions, service delivery, job-creation and wages. These strikes are often only fleetingly reported on by media and seem to represent the strikers as hooligans instead of people with real grievances, and there is no tangible government response to the needs of strikers. Our president, Jacob Zuma, has just bought himself more than R206 million worth of “security upgrades”, with taxpayer money in a country with a more than 24% unemployment rate, on his lavish mansion and estate in Nkandla, including a pool and new structures on the property. Zuma also entered the presidency under the shadow of corruption charges for which he never stood trial. Still, all predictions say that this party will again be voted into government. This all demonstrates how the systems of inequality have become so entrenched that people are willingly exploited by big corporations and government and even come to expect and accept it. One might have expected that government and business propaganda machines would be less effective in the information age where diverse opinions are easily accessible, but this is clearly not the case. But while the world does not seem to have changed much, representations have definitely shifted. The super-wealthy, exploitative class are now represented more widely in popular media, as well as being represented with more disdain.
In 2013, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby tackled the iconic text of the same name about American inequality and the folly of the upper classes, showing how they were effectively above the law and how they used the working class characters as pawns in their ego-games. But something was lost in Luhrmann’s interpretation of the text. There was no longer a sense of real disillusionment with wealth on the part of Tobey Maguire’s Nick, and his unravelling did not seem as clearly linked to his distaste of conspicuous consumption and capitalist pretensions as the novel presented. Instead, the film now presented a one-dimensional emotional drama rather than highlighting the added economic and political dimensions. While nothing is omitted, such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby’s failed attempt to force his way into the world of the upper classes, there is still a sense that Nick, and by extension the audience, buys into the illusions of wealth. The parties which Gatsby throws are unironically lavish. The romance between he and Cary Mulligan’s Daisy is somehow less ambivalent, and not as clearly represented as a symptom of Gatsby’s desire to be something that he is not. But it is important that this film was released at this time in our political history, because it highlights our dual fascination and repulsion with the upper classes which was intensified by the Occupy movement.
Even though there are still examples of the benevolent businessman, like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in Iron Man, the businessman in film (importantly, a man), just like his female hangers-on, often is represented as lascivious, self-indulgent, power-hungry, conniving and despicable. While these trends were often visible in earlier films about business and sometimes also in representations of the wealthy, they have become more frequent and strongly critical of exploitative businessmen, self-serving politicians and the super-wealthy in general, with ten striking examples released last year alone: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Gangster Squad, American Hustle, Elysium, The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, Capital, The Wolf of Wall Street and Blue Jasmine. Whereas once the super-wealthy were inaccessible and mysterious in representation, now we are given full access to their lives and their dramas. The rich are not only being vividly represented, but are also dehumanised in representation. This can be linked to the undercurrent of resentment as a result of the fact that the American dream has failed to deliver to all but a very few of us for so long, and that it is becoming even harder to even have a semblance of it in our lives.
One obvious symptom of this heightened trend of representing the super-wealthy as frivolous, self-obsessed and repugnant is the rise of reality television. Kim Kardashian represents everything which our societies worship, as a wealthy, attractive and savvy businesswoman, yet everyone seems to hate her as she comes across as a spoilt, vain airhead. The real housewives of whatever are equally ridiculous, spending more money than many Americans earn in a year on cosmetic surgery or lavish parties. The bigoted wealthy clan of “Duck Dynasty,” even though they are hero-worshipped by similar-minded people, are often viewed as a crude joke. Not only are we mocking the super poor and exploiting their desperation as we have always done, like Honey Boo Boo or anyone who has ever appeared on “Cheaters” or “Ricky Lake”, but we are also mocking the rich. As an extension of this trend, we are also increasingly venerating poverty and the exploited classes, such as the wonderful depiction of the barriers to success in Disney’s recent The Princess and the Frog. At least us “middle-class” people are hardworking and noble, and not as silly, spoilt or ridiculous as the rich idiots who entertain us.
This can also be seen in how accessible social media, especially Twitter, has rendered super wealthy celebrities. Because we have seemingly unlimited access to their lives, we are now much more likely to view our favourite celebrities as train-wrecks, and celebrity culture has morphed from the demigod worship of the 90’s and even early 2000’s, where the revered Princess Diana was hounded to her death by paparazzi and squeaky-clean superstars like Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock were idolised, into a world where the Justin Biebers, Lady Gagas and Miley Cyruses of the world dominate celebrity culture with their increasingly bizarre tactics to gain attention through a very long list of questionable public nonsense.
In this context of greater access to the lives of the wealthy, the fall of public regard for them, and the ambivalence of the American dream, comes Woody Allen’s masterful film Blue Jasmine.The lead character, Jasmine, portrayed by Cate Blanchette in arguably the best performances by any actor in the Oscar race this year, shows the unravelling of this rich socialite after her husband (Alec Baldwin’s Hal) is arrested for illegal business practices and their joint assets are seized. Jasmine then has to move in with her foster-sister, Sally Hawkins’s Ginger, and live a lifestyle that she clearly feels she is above. Of course, the viewer knows that this film is a tragedy, so we never truly believe in Jasmine’s ability to overcome this downfall. And as with all great tragedy, her undoing is of her own making. Jasmine is still a sympathetic character, but she is not a relatable character, and the viewer pities her while simultaneously recognising how she is an antihero and is unlikable in many ways.
The film has clear links to the Madoff scandal, which occurred around the time of the global financial crisis and the Lehman Brothers collapse, all of which created a distaste for the rich exploitative classes. The plot of Blue Jasmine also closely resembles Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, where the character Blanche is similarly plucked from her life of luxury to live with her working class sister Stella. Blanche and Jasmine both experience the crumbling of pretensions and of their illusions of grandeur, creating parallels which make the film a timely update of the play. 
Jasmine is the character’s chosen name, as she is not satisfied with her birth name Jeanette. The name points to the shrubs which bear fragrant flowers, adding a sense of delicateness and sensual allure to her character. This name both feminises and sexualises her, characteristics which she employs to attract rich benefactors as her mates. This highlights her folly by way of her reliance on men and their affections in order to have the material possessions which she desires. Her materialism and reliance on men is shown when she foolishly agrees to marry Peter Sarsgaard’s Dwight, a man who is only seeking her affection for his own advancement, very soon after first meeting him, a lesson which we all should have learned from Disney’s Frozen:
The viewer identifies more with the working class lifestyle of Ginger, and Jasmine becomes a typical upper class antihero. Even though Ginger goes through a similar tumultuous deception at the hands of a charming man as Jasmine went through, the audience understands her choices in life and sees how Jasmine tries to make her question them. Ginger is a realistic, practical character who does not want to face the world alone, and settles for Chilli, played by Bob Cannavale, despite all of his problems. At least he is reliable.
Indeed, Jasmine and Ginger seem to have a fraught relationship, filled with jealousy, resentment and judgement. This conflict could point to the clash of social classes, and more than once the viewer has the impression that other characters feel that she got exactly what she deserved.
The only time we truly admire Jasmine in the film is when she tries to take computer classes and work towards her dream of being an interior designer, even taking a job which she believes is below her station, as a receptionist at a dentist’s office, to pay her way. Her fall to the working class is delicious for the viewer, since she can no longer hold her pompous attitude towards Ginger and others, but it is also respectable for us to see her having to struggle for her rewards in life instead of merely being in the proximity of a wealthy man who can provide for her. This could implicate us viewers as agents of the illusion of the American dream; at that point in the movie, we really did want Jasmine to succeed and for her hard work to pay off, although we should’ve been wise enough to know that for most poor people this simply is not the case. But it might just be a symptom of our distaste with the upper classes, and we might just relish seeing someone who was so privileged and entitled actually having to live like the rest of us for a change.
While popular media seems to be more critical of money and power, it is clear that wealth is still an obsession for many of us. We are now more aware of how many of the world’s super-wealthy become corrupted and are willing to resort to illegal, exploitative measures in order to grow or maintain their wealth. Walter White, a character played by Bryan Cranston in AMC’s television show “Breaking Bad”, seems to become more corrupted the more power and wealth he gains. By the end of the final season, he is rich beyond his own ability to measure, but he also becomes completely dehumanised and is a truly reprehensible character. The audience no longer has any sympathy for him, and we are no longer rooting for him to escape the law.
The same seems to be true of Jasmine, and we only grow to care about her when she loses her wealth and has to claw her way through a system where she has very little hope of success. The film ends on an elliptical note, after the character has fallen beyond repair. And regardless of how most of the real-life super-wealthy are very unlikely to end up in similar situations, Jasmine taps into the zeitgeist of our era which is weary of the systems which perpetuate the gap between rich and poor.