In these benighted days of the early 21st century, we have crises galore to haunt our dreams. Another form of dreaming comes from art, which can shape our consciousness and heal our psyches. Works of art that do that are precious and worth experiencing. I search them out and will from time to time recommend them to family and friends. Most of the works themselves will necessarily have to be viewed online. If you can, you might want to visit them up close and personal.
I want to recommend these two strong films (both on Netflix) for a number of reasons. First, the actors and conflicts and insights about human love, life and loss are first rate. They both straddle emotional realism and psychological collapse in a unique form that slides between comedy and tragedy quite easily. The quality of writing, plot design, emotional realism and cinematography in them makes them stand out. It is hard to find all these elements in many films these days.
Blue Jasmine (2013), written and directed by Woody Allen, is a slightly older film and has received much acclaim, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor for its star and protagonist Cate Blanchet. We watch her every move and facial inflection. Alec Baldwin is her husband antagonist. The lush world of the super-rich and sophisticated dazzles Jasmine and us, as long as Jasmine stays in New York City. Escaping to San Francisco, she’s thrown into the world of low-class banality and grunge. It doesn’t hurt too much to divulge that the film echoes A Street Car Named Desire, by modern playwright Tennessee Williams committed to high design despite its low-life characters and setting.
Night Owls (2015) has not received much attention at all, but its director Charles Hood and writers Hood and Seth Goldsmith know how to make a well-wrought and troubling sex-comedy, something Woody Allen has excelled at over the years. This intimate look at two incomplete young people blends disturbing drug and suicide desperation on the part of the female protagonist. Played by the deeply sexy Rosa Salazar, Madeline is a misguided gold digger, and her somewhat nerdy seducer and rescuer Kevin is played by Adam Pally. But this relationship is not anyway stereotypical, nor depressing. For most of the film these two characters are trying to rescue each other and themselves in exchanges and emotional ups and downs that hold your heart as much as they antagonize you. One might say, it’s all talk; but what talk it is. And Salazar mesmerizes with her shifts of emotions and tone as she parades around her body as a power source and deploys her voice as a shrill weapon. Her gestures are hypnotic. Lots of the dirty talk of Madeine and Kevin forms the core of later revelations.
But what impresses me most is that both films are so well designed. In fact, they have a classical structure we need to notice so we see where each drama is heading. We learn that the well-made drama (either a staged play or narrative story) follows a five-part structure: 1. the introduction of the conflict, 2. the rising complication of the conflicts, 3. the crisis or climax of the conflicts where things get so tense and entangled they can’t go any further so they explode in tragedy or dissipate in comedy, 4. followed by the falling action or the consequences of the crisis and then 5. the resolution at the end, how it all shakes out, winners or losers. (You would study this in almost any traditional course on literature or theater.)
There is a key moment in this form of drama at the crisis point known as the recognition and reversal, or peripetia, where the protagonist comes to the realization of what he or she missed or was blind to that allowed the crisis to peak or explode. This can be called the turning point, and it typically comes toward the end and not in the middle of the drama. Both films are magnificent in the dramatization of the peripetia so that we are shaken to the core when we understand what each protagonist finally sees or doesn’t see.
I’m not going to spell this out and you will need to see each film and feel their magic and powerful presentation of the effects of ultimate awareness or blindness. What I want to sketch is the unsettling true-life political drama we are stuck in as a frustrated, threatened, seemingly powerless chorus with Trump as the raging protagonist. Most of us in our society can’t see Trump or his millions of supporters coming to the realization that, as Huck says, you can’t live a lie, but that is what they persist in doing.
What do those who reach a peripetia about this mass deception come to see and say? They have testified about it in the Jan 6 committed hearings. One witness lost too much to hold on to the “Big Lie,” and another heard an insane expansion of that lie he could not stomach, and turned in a different direction. Will others reach a similar insight without being destroyed by it? A painful fall from belief after long dependence on it is not easy to face nor endure. Living a lie in my view ultimately results in an explosion, whether inwards or outwards. We should be ready for it–duck or face it or counter it as best we can.
The two films as different as they are and far removed from the Trumpian world (except for a key part of Blue Jasmine) offer potential models and outcomes of how we might gain awareness to our self-deceptions. Very American, they might allow us to see what coming to awareness might mean for the country. That, we can say, is what art can provide. Picasso says, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” We should recommend right wingers see these movies—it could be an opening for discussing awakening from the ‘big lie.’