Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: February, 2014

Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, 2013)

One of the more important insights of the Christian spiritual tradition — echoed from Gregory of Nyssa to Thomas Merton — is that life is not so much about accumulating as letting go, not so much a matter of working to acquire as learning to give away. It is, to be sure, a time-honored piece of wisdom, yet one that has little truck with contemporary society. After all, we live in a time where “growth” and “progress” are the watchwords of human enterprise, whether in business, politics, or even religion. If you’re not growing, if you’re not adding, if you’re not better today than yesterday (understood in a variety of terms, from money to prestige), then you’re doing something wrong.

Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, takes aim at this notion. It stars Cate Blanchett as Jeanette (“Jasmine”) Francis — a former Manhattan socialite who lost everything when her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was arrested and convicted for fraudulent business practices. Panicky, overmedicated, and showing signs of psychosis, Jasmine relocates to San Francisco, where her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), lives. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that their relationship has never been particularly harmonious: the sylphlike Jasmine, who, it is remarked, has the “good genes,” condescends to the more homely Ginger, who cannot extricate herself from working-class trappings. Even after Jasmine’s downfall, an imbalance remains. Jasmine disdains Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and she laments having to take shelter in Ginger’s overcrowded flat. What’s the point of living, she implies, if you simply accept mediocrity?

Nevertheless, Blanchett is able to transform Jasmine into a pitiable character: it’s not that she is a bad person but that she has failed to think through the purpose of life. Ginger’s problem, meanwhile, is that she cannot convince herself that Jasmine is wrong. Thus she suddenly finds Chili less than enticing, and, despite having everything that Jasmine doesn’t (a stable job, loving children, etc.), she cowers in her sister’s proverbial shadow. This, Allen suggests, is the real trouble with the “American Dream”: it keeps us from being content with what we do have; it sets up the terms of life in such a way that no one is ever actually happy.

In a sense, then, Jasmine is a victim. The question is: will Ginger, too, succumb to this counsel of despair? Will she come to save her life by learning to let it go? Allen only hints at the answer to the latter question. Indeed, given his “militant Freudian atheism,” it may be that he himself is unsure of the answer or of whether or not an answer even matters. Still, the triumph of Blue Jasmine is that it diagnoses the problem in pointed fashion, and, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, the secret of Christianity is to become sick with some purpose.

Jeremiah Johnson (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1972)

While not a classic Western like The Searchers (1956) and The Wild Bunch (1969), Jeremiah Johnson has long been seen as a respectable contributor to the genre — and, so, the sort of film that is ideal to watch on Amazon Prime, particularly when you are snowed in (as we have been in the Philadelphia area). Set in the mid nineteenth century, its titular hero (Robert Redford, at his rugged best) is a veteran of the Mexican-American War, now determined to take leave of civilization. Armed with a rifle and a few provisions, he heads deep into the Rocky Mountains, hoping to “trap critters” and, in a gesture of Thoreauvian simplicity, to make do with what nature provides him.

Yet, difficulties crop up from the start. Though impossibly beautiful — indeed, Jeremiah Johnson is a veritable ode to Utah, where it was shot — the mountains prove to be a severe environment. There are heavy snows, fierce bear and wolves, and the landscape seems to be littered with human corpses, whether victims of the elements or of violent men. Thus director Sydney Pollack quickly tempers the film’s romantic leanings: yes, the wilderness is resplendent, but it is also cruel, unforgiving.

Johnson soon learns that, for better or worse, he has to rely on those whom he otherwise would avoid, namely, human beings. He picks up survival tips from an old trapper, and, through a series of unplanned events, he finds himself the patriarch of a small family — an adopted son, Caleb, and a Flathead squaw, Swan. They build a cabin in a valley, and each member of the family proves invaluable to the happiness of the whole. Here, it seems, is the human ideal, though, again, the film quickly retreats from any idealistic pretensions. For just as the family unit is a kind of culture, so does it find itself embedded in larger cultures. In this case, Johnson and his clan are caught between the needs of white settlers and the ancient customs of the Crow natives, whose territory surrounds him. He’d rather be left alone, but, even deep in the Rockies, the ways of men reign supreme.

Ultimately, then, Jeremiah Johnson is a testimony to, if also a lamentation for, a postlapsarian world. We all have our ideals, it suggests, and we may even find friendship and love for a time. Yet, on this side of Eden (to put it in Christian terms, though one might just as well say “Utopia” or “El Dorado”), these are but fleeting realities. Johnson learns this lesson firsthand, and he soon (and somewhat controversially) lashes out at such injustice. As the movie ends, however, it is revealed that neither Johnson nor his ostensible enemies pursue violence as an end in itself. What they really want — what all human beings really want — is peace.