Summer Movies: Class Dismissed
August 22, 2013
Aug 22, 2013
5 Min read time
Admittedly it’s a lot to ask of a late-summer movie—or any, really—that it solve the world’s problems. But the decision to take those problems on at all should at least imply an effort not to insult our intelligence. Though they hail from very different corners of the showbiz trade, two new films, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, both make the same awkward reach for topicality. Both put across grossly over-packaged visions of haves and have-nots.
In Allen’s film Cate Blanchett plays the title role, Jasmine, a beautiful, formerly wealthy snob, forced to move in with her estranged working-class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Reasons for the estrangement may include parental favoritism and that one time when Jasmine’s then-husband (Alec Baldwin) bilked Ginger’s then-husband (Andrew Dice Clay) out of a potentially life-changing lump of lottery-won cash. In fact Jasmine’s ex, recently incarcerated, was a white-collar swindler of Madoffian proportions, and the same self-delusion that once let her look the other way now hinders her required downgrade from the high life. Blue Jasmine is similar to Allen’s madcap mockumentary Take the Money and Run (1969) in that it’s set in San Francisco and predicated on larceny. It’s dissimilar in that it’s not a comedy.
The thing about any given Woody Allen movie is that he’s already on to the next one. Allen’s one-a-year work ethic has become his signature aesthetic trait. Where once he dared to improvise, now he is content or even compelled to vamp. Theoretically Allen’s facility with a quick turnaround should count as a qualification for appraising topical themes, such as the financial-crisis fallout, but not if he’s on autopilot. He’s too used to broader subjects, such as mutual human disappointment in general, and to his familiar grab bag of dramatizing tricks. Blue Jasmine uses bicoastal stratification to contrast Jasmine’s luxe Manhattan memories with the presumptively scruffier urban outpost of workaday San Francisco, where Ginger lives. San Francisco these days is not an unreasonable place to set a movie about class conflict, but for Allen it’s an arbitrary choice, and a missed opportunity. He hands out some postcard views, but the city’s social geography—including its current wave of tech-industry gentrification—is all but unrecognizable. For context, Allen’s lower social classes still reduce to stagey “new-yawk” types, which, here, really isn’t much context at all.
What is more, Blue Jasmine’s resemblance to A Streetcar Named Desire seems almost pitiably reflexive. Allen is grasping for a classic reference to jump-start his own stalled inspiration. As its highly schematic complications ensue, with the problem of income inequality seeming at once overstressed and perfunctory, Allen’s film does bear greater resemblance to a Tennessee Williams play than to our own present-day reality: however “tragic,” it is still a romanticizing abstraction.
Elysium is similarly an inert class-warfare fable, though Blomkamp takes a different approach to the material. You may remember Blomkamp from District 9, the 2009 action thriller that subverted alien-invasion formula into a parable of Apartheid. With Elysium, Blomkamp has gone full Hollywood, bringing studio resources to bear on his own press: he is the sci-fi allegory guy, and here’s his big Matt Damon spectacle to prove it.
Blomkamp imagines 2154 Los Angeles as a vast slummy dystopia, above which hangs the glittering privilege palace of a huge sky-wheel space station—an orbital epitome of white flight. There, presided over by Jodie Foster as a severe, square-shouldered defense secretary with a weird accent, the quasi-immortal well-to-do enjoy perpetual repose in futuristic McMansions whose appliances include cancer-curing MRI gizmos. These are of special interest to the suffering masses down below, particularly Damon’s beleaguered factory-grunt parolee, who conspires with a crime lord to run a deadly mission up there on behalf of immigration reform and universal health care.
What makes these films hard to take is not the grim social realities they purport to reflect but rather the thoughtlessness of class as a jaded add-on.
This seems pretty rich coming from a movie so thrilled by disposable stock characters and grievous bodily harm. Long on over-plotted nonsense, Elysium is mostly show-offy world building and gory action scenes tailor-made for an eventual video game release. Here, reports of middle-class extinction are greatly exaggerated, with the upper and lower classes crudely oversimplified in the service of commoditizing their conflict.
Indeed, class warfare is a longstanding commonplace of the science-fiction spectacular, and accordingly one of Blomkamp’s bored formalities. Similarly, by short-handing economic background, Allen’s Blue Jasmine seems lazy, like an idea scanned from a headline and hurriedly grafted onto old theatrical artifice. Both films are too preoccupied with plot to bother with anything but the most rudimentary characterization. In both films women represent real-life social conditions largely created by male power. (Blomkamp has acknowledged that he originally wrote Foster’s role for a man.) Both treat their themes reductively. Both propagate desensitizing clichés, dressing them up, respectively, in the borrowed garb of classic dramaturgy and sophisticated spectacle.
What makes these films a little hard to take, then, is not the grim social realities they purport to reflect but rather the disappointing thoughtlessness of class as a jaded add-on. Thus their topicality is neither cathartic nor illuminating. Both filmmakers have been praised at other times in their careers for vision and originality; both therefore should at least be held to the standard of saying something useful about our world now. Instead, they give their audience permission to ignore the nuance of historical context.
It always has been Hollywood’s prerogative to cash in on political talking points, and movies have derived entertainment from class disparity since their earliest days—or at least since Charlie Chaplin’s Depression-era classics City Lights (1931), about a tramp and a millionaire, and Modern Times (1936), about an assembly line worker and a homeless woman. Preston Sturges’s 1941 satire Sullivan’s Travels, another classic, depicts a director of escapist comedies who patronizingly strives to imbue his work with authentic social relevance, only to learn the hard way that escapist comedy has its own social relevance.
Neither Chaplin nor Sturges could be mistaken for describers of contemporary American life, but thanks to empathy, humor, and humility, their old films reach across time and seem persistently true. To look back on Chaplin’s admittedly antiquated silent-film syntax is to see the difference between durable simplicity and the diminishing simplification of Blue Jasmine, Elysium, and, say, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), arguably the film that did more than any other to turn Hollywood astray when it comes to the cinema of class. To view Sturges again is to see a clever way around the inherent inability of mass-marketed movies to speak forthrightly about societal divisions. For all their sophistication, it’s the new movies that seem hopelessly old-fashioned.
Photograph: Cate Blanchett as Jasmine, Sally Hawkins as Ginger, and Andrew Dice Clay as Augie in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. / Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
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August 22, 2013
5 Min read time