My husband and I had a chance to watch Woody Allen’s latest opus, Blue Jasmine, Friday night, and I came away floored. While I have enjoyed many of Allen’s recent contributions (particularly Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris), Blue Jasmine falls alongside Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters as one of his strongest efforts as a writer/director. The film is timely but timeless, expertly structured, well written, and beautifully performed. In short, it’s one of the best films directed and written by Allen in his entire career.
The film focuses on Jasmine Francis, played to perfection by Cate Blanchett. We meet her flying westward and reminiscing about her marriage to a wealthy financier, Hal (Alec Baldwin). Despite her first class seat, Louis Vuitton luggage, and fashionable aesthetic, Jasmine is broke due to punitive actions taken by the government as a result of her husband’s fraudulent investments. Jasmine’s sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), takes her in, despite having been negatively impacted by the investments herself. Both Ginger and Jasmine navigate the rocky terrains of romance as well, with Ginger gravitating toward honest, working class types and Jasmine wanting smooth, wealthy men. This difference in taste causes friction between the two. Like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Blue Jasmine is a character study through contrasts, but it’s elevated above that earlier effort by thoughtful writing and Blanchett and Hawkins’ pitch-perfect performances.
Blue Jasmine isn’t the first time that Allen has written and directed a piece about sisters. One of my favorite Woody Allen-directed features, Hannah and Her Sisters centers on the dynamic between Hannah (Mia Farrow), Holly (Diane Weist), and Lee (Barbara Hershey), three Manhattan siblings with close but problematic relationships. In that film, Hannah is the center that holds the three together as a result of the stability she’s gained through her successful acting career and marriage; however, both Holly and Lee resent Hannah’s role and, in their own ways, challenge Hannah’s supremacy–Lee acquiesces to Hannah’s husband’s romantic advances, while Holly uses Hannah’s marital problems as creative fodder. By film’s end, Hannah’s dominant position remains, but Holly finds her own artistic voice and both she and Lee find love of their own.
In both Blue Jasmine and Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen’s writing and the performances of these amazing actresses capture how dynamics between siblings in childhood reverberate in adulthood; but with both films focusing on sisters, those relationships are impacted by gender. In both cases, it is men that get in the way of the sisterly bond; however, Blue Jasmine incorporates an additional dimension to the contrast between sisters: class. Ginger and Jasmine, despite being of the same parents, exhibit very different tastes, with Ginger choosing the funky, laid-back San Francisco for her home, and Jasmine having previously lived a luxurious life in New York. Their taste in men is similarly divergent, with Jasmine swept off her feet by the smooth, duplicitous Hal, while Ginger opts for direct, working-class guys in her ex-husband, Augie (Andrew Dice-Clay–yes, for real), and fiance, Chili (Bobby Cannavale, my new favorite character actor of the Guido persuasion). These foils reveal interesting contradictions: Jasmine judges Ginger’s men as crude, violent, and ill-educated, but her own husband’s actions have inflicted the most pain.
Here, then, Blue Jasmine questions the social dynamics that allow Jasmine to effectively feign respectability (though the illusion does collapse) while Ginger must defend her choices to her more “refined” sister. It’s an entrancing balancing act that Blue Jasmine plays, one that ultimately tips in favor of the honest sister. And that, ultimately, is what Hannah and Her Sisters and Blue Jasmine share in common: an emphasis on defining oneself authentically, despite the ways in which our familial relationships might pull us back into long established roles. It’s knowing your value outside the family that enables you to survive and thrive.
In film studies proper as well as everyday discussion, the concept of the auteur (or director as author) persists despite the knowledge that filmmaking requires the collaboration of multiple parties. Moreover, both academic and journalistic writers can overlook the impact of industrial concerns such as monetary resources and profit motivations when attributing authorship to the director. Even as someone conscious of these limitations to authorship, I regularly refer to directors of films and sometimes neglect to mention the writers, rarely if ever mention the producers, and often fail to credit important players in the film making process, such as cinematographers, set and costumer designers, and editors. In short, I sometimes perpetuate the concept of the auteur in spite of my awareness of its fallacy.
In an effort to counter this tendency, I am kick-starting a series called Undermining Auteurism. The idea of the project is to identify artists that have played an important role in shaping the horror genre but do not hold the title of director. The first example I bring forward: Bernard Herrmann, the highly influential composer whose Psycho score remains highly influential in the genre. Other films of note: the original Cape Fear, Taxi Driver, and Sisters. Notice that several of these films have big-name directors at the helm such as Brian de Palma, Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorcese, directors who regularly get authorial credit for their work. Yet, Hermann’s work in each of these films can be credited for dramatically impacting the mood by generating tension. Here are a few choice examples:
Of course, one could not discuss Bernard Herrmann in relation to horror without talking about Psycho, a film which has often been described as a precursor to the slasher genre. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the squealing strings characteristic of the soundtrack have become musical shorthand for terror and psychological instability. Just watch the Psycho title sequence:
Now, here is the sequence for the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator:
The latter bears an uncanny resemblance to the former. Other slashers, such as Friday the 13th, also draw heavily from Herrmann’s style. Just watch the beginning of The Final Chapter (scored by Harry Manfredini) alongside the shower scene from Psycho.
The comparison demonstrates the powerful influence of Herrmann’s work on the horror genre, particularly the slasher sub-genre. Still, the same way that Herrmann’s role as a composer undermines Hitchcock’s status as an auteur, it would be a mistake to oversimplify Herrmann’s power as a composer. In other words, the composition could not come to fruition without the labor of studio musicians, sound technicians, and orchestrators.
I hope that by looking beyond the director’s credit, this series reveals the intricacies of the filmmaking process. In particular, I expect that these entries will show that the shapers of the horror genre need not only be its directors, but also those who play more particular roles in shaping these films.