Archive

Monthly Archives: September 2013

 

It may be redundant to discuss Woody Allen’s use of faces, yet I can’t help but turn to the close-ups in Blue Jasmine (2013), particularly of Cate Blanchett who plays the role of Jasmine. Even more difficult here is to pinpoint a theoretical foundation for writing on the close-up because so many film theorists, classical to contemporary, have much to say about the face.

That being said, I’ve recently finished reading a book by Sarah Cooper, The Soul of Film Theory (2013), in which she does a near complete overview of the major figures in film theory from Hugo Münsterberg to Torben Grodal and their respective uses of “soul.” The first and second chapters, focused on early and mid-twentieth century theorists, finds its thread in the close-up as that shot which provides a window to the soul of a character and oftentimes co-constituting for the spectator an experience of their own soul. In this review of Allen’s film, whether I take as my starting point the French Impressionists, Balázs, Ayfre, Agel or Morin, matters little. With Blue Jasmine the perfected close-up is not a link to a spiritual beyond, interiority equated with identity or truth, or tied to a moral dimension. We see in the intimate and close encounter with Jasmine’s face, as Tarja Laine would perhaps put it if we place her chapter in Feeling Cinema (2011) alongside Cooper’s text, a soul imprisoned in madness.[1]

The song is “Blue Moon”, Jasmine and husband Hal’s (Alec Baldwin) tune to celebrate their coming together.  With their inevitable demise Jasmine herself becomes, so to speak, blue. The film furthers her blues as most the soundtrack features songs that are either part of this genre or mention the blues in their titles. Jasmine is blue because her life of luxury has been buried with the husband and the government has seized her assets; she must now take refuge in San Francisco with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) who leads a modest existence as a grocery store worker. Blue Jasmine works with flashbacks to propel us to the moment of Jasmine’s arrival in San Francisco – we trace her relationship with Hal, his criminal activity, and his eventual arrest. The diegetic present, beginning with Jasmine’s arrival on the West Coast, depicts her challenging relationship with Ginger, her new lower class surroundings, and the replacement upper class partner Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), with whom she must keep her past locked up lest he discover the prior marriage and its scandal. But lies will quickly be exposed; in life and in film we know this to be the case for both ethical and melodramatic reasons.

Blue is the color of sadness, which could also be depression, which is itself a mental health issue. The story goes that Jasmine turned blue on a street corner one day after (finally) discovering the truth about her husband’s extra-marital affairs, and after his criminal dealings were exposed, and after his suicide in prison. While the first of the three is clearly the dominant trigger for Jasmine’s breakdown, the subsequent schizophrenia and her general unease and anti-social behaviour points to crisis at a more universal level. Crises are difficult to prevent, mediate, and resolve whether an individual was fed by a silver spoon or consistently received a wooden one to the backside. In Jasmine’s case her soul is crushed by the weight of the affairs which happened under her nose and the bad decision to then inform the FBI of Hal’s illegal activity. Her blues extends further toward the end of the diegetic present with the step-son whose hatred of his father’s criminality does not reach the intensity of his hatred for the step-mother who was largely the cause of his father’s suicide. The description of this feature, thus far, is one of drama and tears; yet most audiences would classify it as a comedy.

Blue Jasmine would fully retain its comedic tone, without argument, if not for the seriousness of Jasmine’s plight expertly framed in close-ups as well as superbly acted by Blanchett. Otherwise the comedy is all there: the similar yet economically divergent buffoons Hal, played by Baldwin, and Ginger’s poorly-cast boyfriend Chili, played by Bobby Cannavale; the obvious comic relief in the sister’s extra-monogamous object of attraction Al, played by Louis C.K.; and possessing the critical flair of a Luis Buñuel feature, Allen depicts the hilarity of the upper and lower classes converging and mingling in San Francisco. Even the distance between the average movie-goer and the luxurious life of Jasmine has a comedic effect; few of us could see the everyday realism of world travel, expensive restaurants, and a seemingly infinite bank account.

But Blanchett’s face and the photography of Javier Aguirresarobe (who also worked on Allen’s worst film Vicky Cristina Barcelona [2008]) loosen the categories of genre. Blanchett is shown contorting her face, scrunching it, furrowing her brow, and swelling her eyes with tears numerous times throughout the film, each shot a new and degenerated visage as Jasmine’s life and mental state worsens. My initial reaction to the shot was always a chuckle, but as the camera lingers a little too long on Blanchett’s painfully still face, full of shame, anguish, guilt, and despair, my pleasure switches to a mild horror. Allen literally makes Jasmine sweat; she is covered, head to armpits in fear and discomfort, especially in the last scene as Jasmine’s world crumbles entirely. She sits herself on a bench, like May-Lin (Kuei-Mei Yang) in Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive L’Amour (1994), begins to talk to herself, and with a final close-up on her sweaty face and greasy hair, the film plunges into darkness. Blanchett’s performance plays out the horror of psychosis without needing the mise-en-scene of Carol’s (Catherine Deneuve) apartment in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). I would argue both Carol’s hallucinations and Jasmine’s facial expressions have the same effect on viewers.

There have been few actors capable of portraying so much madness. Jasmine’s soul is put on display – Allen may have intended a satirical narrative but what we see instead is a terror latent in Jasmine, the presence of a tortured soul bubbling and finally culminating in a twisted, crooked face. While we may not “feel” or identify with the character, her richness, pretentiousness, and bourgeois existence nauseating us, what is revealed, like the Ancient Greek Tragedians whom operate in Allen’s oeuvre implicitly and explicitly, is that even those atop the very peak of the upper class have the capacity to experience immense suffering.

The suffering of the soul effects the individual’s psychology then manifests in facial expression. Body and soul are connected, the soul appearing on the surface of the skin. The surface of Jasmine’s face calls us to laugh initially then look away; hers is a face not cleansed as Henri Agel would describe it but torn and sullied by an anguished soul. A film does not touch us in mind, intellect, or body alone, says Agel; Allen’s close-ups, which give us the souls of the characters, are so repetitively invoked by spectators, critics, and theorists because that soul onscreen makes contact with our own.


[1] Tarja Laine, “Imprisoned in Madness: Repulsion,” in Feeling Cinema: Emotional Dynamics in Film Studies, New York: Bloomsbury, 2011.

[I wasn’t able to formally share these thoughts on the night of the 4th. I provide them here.]

Image

My claim is that there is no better contemporary film which so explicitly deals with the topic of rape culture than Spring Breakers, or at least, for those who despise the feature, Korine’s film gives us the tools to think critically about it. Korine accomplishes this by refusing to critique or give this culture a direct address. Instead of the obvious critique of someone like Catherine Breillat or other directors associated with New French Extremism or New Extremism more broadly, Spring Breakers presents the setting and conditions under which rape culture exists.

The first half of the film, up to the moment Faith (Selena Gomez) goes back home, underscores my point. We have images of the diegetic characters and the extras engaging in common spring break activities. As Francey Russell notes in her review we can find any of these images on the internet: partying, asses shaking, alcohol and drug use, young women exposing their breasts, young men gawking and groping young women, and everyone there, as Faith relates in a voicemail to her grandmother, having the time of their lives. The shot Korine returns to repeatedly, therefore calling our attention to it, is the topless girls beckoning the alcohol phalluses of young men followed by the spraying of liquids over their breasts. With this shot Korine shows us the importance of the beach and party scenes; these individuals appear as faceless extras, the normal crowd already there on spring break – in a sense this is the authenticity or truthfulness of what Korine presents, blurring the division between a documentary picture or series, e.g., Girls Gone Wild, and the story of Faith, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine). The fictional narrative, as the excessive account of an otherwise banal spring break shot through a point-of-view with the same tone and color as the partying extras, therefore depicts a realistic or true account of the events that take occur in St. Petersburg.

In addition to the authenticity this pseudo-documentary footage provides it also highlights the consensual nature of the acts and events. This is reinforced in the scene in which Cotty is intoxicated and a young man pours alcohol over her; he commands her to “Take it like a stripper,” and mentions how he wants “that pussy,” the one that is (perhaps unfortunately) attached to the rest of her. She playfully sings to him, “Never gonna get this pussy,” and exposes her breasts. She eventually consents to kissing and, we should expect, further sexual activity. In both beach/party scenes and in this diegetic scene Korine stresses a completely fabricated or false consent, and a commenter on Russell’s review observes much the same, i.e., Spring Breakers does not contain even the slightest hint of rape or sexual aggression (except briefly between Alien and Faith) and is, against Russell’s argument that the film is about rape culture, simply a testament to a group of consenting youths which we can then read into as similar to real youths on a real spring break. This commentator, whether he agrees with Russell or not, suggests that the film is the truth of students on spring break – is it not much of a leap then to claim it is also the truth of sexual violence?

This ambiguity or lack of clarity is what I find so appealing about New Extreme cinema. With the inclusion of violence and sexuality to a narrative picture the critique is often lost on spectators. For the most part, when sex and violence appears in a Hollywood narrative feature, the director and film crew are complicit in that sex and violence, showing images of sexuality to titillate, arouse, and excite, and scenes of violence to show off their skills at choreography, special effects, or CGI. New Extreme cinema disturbs this habitual response to sex and violence; viewers don’t know whether directors are providing a spectacle, enjoying the filming of sex and violence, or critiquing some aspect of sex and violence in contemporary Western culture. Korine has a history of not saying anything specific about his films and I think this is his brilliance. For Spring Breakers I believe he tries to make a play or make fools of the viewers by stating that his images and sounds are nothing but “candy,” but this I don’t fully accept, or I’ve been giving the director too much credit. I agree with Russell that there is a right way to view this picture, regardless of Korine’s seemingly irresponsible statement that “there’s no right or wrong way of viewing the film.” Russell states, “if someone could watch Spring Breakers and not experience a moment of fighting rage or bleak sadness, I would say they haven’t seen it rightly.” The question is what we should be getting out of these first 45 minutes, and later the irreal second half of the film, which I’ll leave open for discussion.

*

Now I can provide a provisional answer to some of the film’s more confusing elements and how it more definitely relates to rape culture. Quoting from Russell’s review, we have in Spring Breakers the beginning of an analysis of rape culture, irreducible to any one of these singular items: “gun culture, consumerism, wealth inequality, college culture, American Christianity, racism, our global obsession with underdressed young girls,… and Britney Spears.” Yes, Korine gives us Spears twice in the film. A young girl dressed in an outfit which reveals much of her skin, telling the viewers of her music video, Hit me baby one more time. But the public discussion about clothing, namely the consensus that a woman’s attire does not give a man the right to sex, does absolutely nothing to answer the question of where this right came from and why a man is still able to pose the question today of whether or not to assault a woman who is dressed in such a manner that causes him sexual excitement and the will for violence.

All these factors, and likely much more, contribute to the posing of the question to rape or to not rape. It is not enough to claim the solitary male who stumbles upon an unconscious woman will rape if he hasn’t been sufficiently reminded not to – and this is why I find the “Don’t be that guy” advertisements ineffective. Where is this man, what music has been playing, has he been drinking, is there binge drinking, what has he been drinking, which drinks are more likely to confront a man with the question of rape, are there friends nearby to make suggestions for sexual assault, are they drinking, what have they been drinking, and so on. It is naïve – but nevertheless satisfying for the legal system – to do an analysis of an occurrence of rape based on the responsibility or irresponsibility of an individual.[1] It is a simple answer for conservatives to go the responsibility route. The conservative position – opposed to a radical or revolutionary position, one which would actually want to change the structures of oppression, etc. – would believe that through an individual’s will and intelligence he is author of his own destiny, so to speak. Complete freedom of choice is the philosophical position conservatives begin from. This would be what the reminder ads reinforce: from nothing, or out of nothing, you can decide not to rape. There is no empty and valueless space or process of decision-making however – each space brings its own history and challenges, or in different words, before we can talk about some essence in Man, i.e., the desire to rape which needs to be quelled by posters, commercials, and even scholarly articles, we must begin anew with the problem of rape and ask in each of the instances in which it occurs or we think it likely to occur: how does this environment facilitate the posing of the question of whether one should rape or not. In other words, study the environment and the objects in it; from there we can perhaps determine why individuals still pose the (absurd) question of whether it is permissible to be a rapist or not.

This is what Spring Breakers shows to us. We are all complicit in this culture of violence against women when we are participants and consumers of spaces, objects, and things which contribute to it.


[1] Of course I hold rapists responsible for their actions. My discussion here is hopefully providing provisional hints towards an analysis of the phenomenon, not individual cases after the fact.