Blue Jasmine & Philip Roth

Having just watched Blue Jasmine last night, Woody Allen’s riff on A Streetcar Named Desire, I came to realize the extent of Mr. Allen’s longstanding dislike of WASPs. While he’s largely incapable of depicting Jews (and to a lesser extent Italians) in the same critical light (with the possible exception of Crimes and Misdemeanors), he has no problem depicting Protestant whites in a highly critical light.

In Blue Jasmine, working class Italians are the surrogate for the profane, working class, urban Jews who often pepper Allen’s earlier films. (Andrew Dice Clay plays an ‘Italian’ guy.) And when Allen needs a vastly rich Wall St. guy whose entire wealth is based on fleecing his customers, instead of creating a more representative character of the Wall St. banking demo (e.g., Bernie Madoff, Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Jordan Belfort, etc.), he gives us… Alec Baldwin, with every conceivable country-club stereotype he can adorn him with (the tennis clothes, the house in the Hamptons, the coldness, etc.)

I suspect Woody doesn’t personally know very many WASPs, neither rich ones in The Hamptons nor the ‘earthier’ ones in flyover America. As a result, he treats them as zoological specimens, a cold and alien people. Because he has little idea of what they are really like, Allen gives his WASP characters dialogue that is, particularly in this film, simply awful. These people are two-dimensional, cardboard cutouts of WASPs, which has long been de rigueur in Jewish Hollywood depiction of American culture. In Blue Jasmine, most of them are little more than quickly-sketched plot devices. While Baldwin is the cardboard cutout of the rich scumbag WASP, Peter Sarsgaard is the cardboard cutout of a rich, liberal, effeminate, San Francisco idealist (the only conceivable ‘good WASP’ in the Woody Allen universe.)

I suppose that in the same way I, personally, am rather unfamiliar with the intricacies of leftwing Manhattan Jewish life, Mr. Allen is unfamiliar with the intricacies of WASP life. In the same way that Jewish stereotypes (however well-founded and empirical they may be) resonate more strongly with me, so it is that WASP stereotypes (however well-founded and empirical they may be) resonate more strongly with Mr. Allen.

As a character study, the film’s focus — Cate Blanchett’s “Jasmine” character — is an update of Blanche DuBois, Tennessee Williams’ similar eulogy to the dying culture of the conservative Southern belle. (In Streetcar, one of Blanche’s traumatic incidents, leading to her insanity, was catching her husband having sex with another man, then her husband’s subsequent suicide. Williams, a flamboyant homosexual, was certainly trying to say something here. One must keep this in mind when processing the update of these tropes in Blue Jasmine.)

Jasmine is the gentile WASP stereotype personified. She crashes at her sister’s apartment in SF, only visiting her now that she needs her. The sisters are adopted, it is pointed out, because in Allen’s universe there is no way someone as earthy and likable as Ginger (Sally Hawkins) could come from the same genetic stock as the cold and selfish Jasmine. (“She got the good genes,” Ginger tells people, when discussing Cate’s elegance and good luck earlier in life.)

Jasmine reluctantly takes a job as a receptionist for the kitsch Jewish dentist “Dr. Flicker”, with Jasmine rebuffing Dr. Flicker’s clumsy, over-intellectualized sexual advances. (I’m not sure what that was all about, but I have an idea.)

The arc of Cate Blanchett’s “Jasmine” follows much the same arc as Blanche DuBois, with a similar tragic result in the end.


In The New Republic is another review, this one by Adam Kirsch, of the new Philip Roth biography:

A writer who, in the first part of his career, seemed defined by transgression—against Jewish self-esteem, against sexual decency, against the conventions of fiction—has been transformed, over the last fifteen years, into an official American classic…

Roth, unlike Allen, has explored some of the patterns of Jewish collective behavior in his fiction, and has suffered the slings and arrows of more ethnocentrically-oriented Jews as a result.

Pierpont, who is a friend of Roth’s and a pre-publication reader of his work, does not skirt these arguments, but she does not allow them to worry her. She approvingly quotes Roth’s explanation that to portray individual Jews as absurd or flawed—like the complacent Patimkins in Goodbye, Columbus or the overbearing, stool-examining Sophie Portnoy—does not constitute stereotyping a whole group: “He noted that people read Anna Karenina without concluding that adultery was a Russian trait; Madame Bovarydid not lead readers to condemn the morals of French provincial women en masse. He was writing literature, not sociology or—Bellow’s helpful phrase—public relations.”…

In “Defender of the Faith”—the story that, as Pierpont shows, caused the greatest commotion, when it appeared in The New Yorker in 1959—a Jewish soldier is manipulated into giving special treatment to his fellow Jews. It read to many American Jews like a revival of common anti-Semitic tropes, showing Jews as clannish, disloyal, and dishonest. Yet Roth, Pierpont writes, claimed that the only secret he was giving away was the fact “that the perils of human nature afflict the members of our minority.”

Here again, the disingenuousness is something we must question. For it was not human nature that was flawed in “Defender of the Faith.” The story presents a specifically Jewish dilemma that cannot be translated into the terms of any other “minority.”…

In his early essay “Writing About Jews,” Roth quotes a letter from a rabbi accusing him of inciting anti-Semitism, of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” He rejected the premise: “I should agree to sacrifice the freedom essential to my vocation, and even to the general well-being of the culture, because—because of what? The ‘crowded theater’ has absolutely no relevance to the situation of the Jew in America today. It is a grandiose delusion.”

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