Wednesday, October 16, 2013

the problem with Woody Allen's new movie

I've watched Woody Allen's last five movies in the theater, and I'm not big on going to theaters. In other words, he's on a roll as far as I'm concerned. Every movie has been a cut above the usual stuff that I can't be bothered to shell out $10+ to go see, and some of them (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, for example), made five-star status in my book.

But his newest movie--Blue Jasmine--is a bust.

It's so much of a bust that I forgot all about it less than twenty minutes after walking out of the theater. In fact, the movie made so little of an impression on me that I only just now remembered it existed, and that I saw it.

I had high hopes going into it, too. The reviews were good, peppered with Oscar buzz for Cate Blanchett, and accolades for Allen himself. One critic went so far as to claim the movie was a "quantum leap" for Allen. Consider that claim for a second. Old Woody's been making movies for just shy of 50 years. His films have earned 23 Oscar nominations, and 4 wins. Sounds like he's already got things pretty figured out, and now a critic is claiming this new film is a "quantum leap" above the rest of Allen's stuff. What the hell does that even mean? Does the movie reveal the meaning of life, or something?

Just in case you were wondering: the movie doesn't reveal the meaning of life. And it doesn't live up to the hype, either. Not even halfway.

Here's why: remember that roll I mentioned earlier, the one that Allen is on? One key element of it is the way Allen uses the settings of the movies like actual characters. The culture of each place becomes integral to the plot. In fact, the city-settings are so important they're mentioned in the movie titles: Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The hype about Blue Jasmine was that he'd been giving San Francisco that treatment. But then he didn't.

Have you seen the movie? It's a New York movie, filmed in San Francisco. The Mission District is Allen's stand-in for Staten Island--you hardly even see any Latino people, and definitely don't hear a word of Spanish. Union Square becomes Park Avenue--a bunch of rich shoppers, not a tourist in site. There isn't even a single Asian character, and more than half the people who actually live in San Francisco are Chinese!

Instead, you've got all the New York stereotypes plugged into a San Francisco setting: loud-mouthed, blue-collar Italian-American characters; snobby blue-bloods for those blue-collar boors to clash with; people jumping in and out of Taxi cabs. All of that is New York.

In the real San Francisco, the Italian-Americans are actually Italian. They hang out in North Beach, wear fancy suits, and speak with Italian accents. The old-money blue-bloods are a marginalized group relegated to Nob Hill, with relatively little presence in the wider city. San Francisco's real money-class is the dot-com startup CEOs.

And that points to a crucial thing about San Francisco that Allen's movie missed entirely: its love of the new, the innovative, the exotic. San Francisco is a city that has always been in love with the wider world. New York is a city in love with itself.

Because of the writing I've been doing recently (my new series is set in San Francisco) I've been thinking about this stuff a lot, trying to understand what San Francisco is, what it means. I lived in San Francisco for more than a third of my life, and I still think a complete understanding of its nature is beyond me. But one thing I will say, with no hesitation whatsoever: my writing comes closer to the real San Francisco than Woody Allen's film does... even if the San Francisco in my stories is being overrun by zombies.

And you can tell Woody I said so.

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