How Bad is “Blue Jasmine?”

I was very disappointed by “Blue Jasmine.” But, when I turned to the reviews and comments, I found (much to my surprise) that most of them were quite positive. This flung me into an even deeper pit of despair. How could it be, I thought, that so many perceptive writers and film critics had not been able to see the very obvious faults of the film, the direction, the script and the cinematography? It was either that, or they were reluctant to criticize the work of director who had a good reputation and a respected name.

Let me begin with the script. The fact that the story is based on (or stolen) from Eugene O’Neill’s brilliant “A Street Car Named Desire” is distressing enough. The parallels are obvious and embarrassing. One longs for the originality of “Annie Hall.” But to make matters worse, the dialogue in “Blue Jasmine” is banal, flat and maddeningly repetitive. Instead of presenting fully-formed characters, the script presents cartoons or caricatures — one-dimensional stick-figures that can be described by brief tag-lines. There is the working-class, illiterate with a good heart, the rich-but-corrupt, husband of Jasmine and finally, Jasmine herself, far fallen from her upscale lifestyle that had featured Hermes bags and Dior gowns.

How many times do we have to hear that Jasmine wants to learn some skill so she can get a good job? How many times do we have to hear that Ginger’s uneducated boy-friend is a “loser?” How many times do we have to hear that Jasmine’s rich, crook of an ex-husband was an insatiate womanizer? For some reason, the script-writer forgets that he has already provided us the same bit of information and keeps clothing it in different words and presenting it again and again.

One waited in vain for the famous Woody wit to come in and save the day. But it never arrived. Instead all we got were screaming matches every ten minutes or right when Hollywood script-writing protocols decree that a “whammy” is needed to wake up the audience.

Poor Cate Blanchette. The cameraman has done her grievous disservice. Photographed mercilessly in poor light, with terrible make-up, Cate lurches from scene to scene mumbling the same words over and over again. (“I want to go to college. I want to learn computer skills. I want to become an interior designer.”) Her dark roots showing and all the other signs of aging horrifically emphasized, she is crucified by the camera against cluttered back-drops, in meaningless long shots and badly-lit close-ups. I have seen her in other films in which her fresh, unusual beauty is riveting. In “Blue Jasmine” she has simply been done wrong!

The plot is simple enough: Jasmine is married to a wealthy New York businessman (played by a stone-faced Alec Baldwin) who is sent to prison for financial irregularities. (Shades of Bernie Madoff who literally “made off” with millions of dollars!) Jasmine arrives at her sister, Ginger’s apartment in San Francisco, broken-hearted and broke, only to see that Ginger is living a rather lower-class life. Ginger works as a cashier in a grocery store. Jasmine’s problems are further compounded by the fact that she has no skills, talents or training that could enable her to earn a living. But even this simple plot is presented in halting, staccato scenes that move with irritating slowness at times or jump forward at unrealistic speeds. The segment in which Jasmine meets Dwight is an example of how Woody Allen pushes the plot-line forward hurriedly. As soon as he meets Jasmine, Dwight does a quick data dump on his background and Jasmine is instantly smitten. Another such scene takes place towards the end of the film when Jasmine and Dwight are outside a jewelry store. Dwight is about to buy Jasmine an engagement ring. But he throws her over unceremoniously upon learning that she has lied about her background. All this happens with bewildering speed. A more perceptive director-cameraman team would have handled this part of the film in a slower, more nuanced, more sensitive way.

Now a few words about the music in “Blue Jasmine.” Woody Allen uses New Orleans Jazz to give the film a feeling of the Deep South – “Street Car Named Desire” country. But the whole effect is incongruous because the movie is set in San Francisco. Ultimately, the movie cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be an evocation of New Orleans, or San Francisco or New York. To put it bluntly, the sound-track is decidedly ineffectual and inappropriate. It merely manages to confuse the viewer. It makes no positive contributions. Nor does it help in creating atmosphere, mood, or ambience. To clarify, my objection is not that Jazz is used in a movie set in San Francisco, but that Jazz is used ineffectually. To see Jazz used well, I can direct viewers to Louis Malle’s first full-length feature film “Elevator to the Gallows” in which Miles Davis’ trumpet solos capture and express Jeanne Moreau’s melancholic mood with heart-breaking effectiveness.

Of all the films of Woody Allen that I have seen, this one was the most disappointing. I would rank “Annie Hall” as his most inspired effort. “Midnight in Paris” passed muster and was mildly entertaining, at least for those of us who know who know something about Gertrude Stein and Paris in the 20s. Woody Allen has given us many wonderful films. I hope he will give us more. But “Blue Jasmine” is a film that he should disown and we should forget.

I did find an intelligent analysis of “Blue Jasmine” on a website by Paul Joseph Gulino. (http://www.scriptmag.com/features/storytelling-strategies-blue-jasmine-blues)

I think it summarizes the problems of the film very succinctly. Gulino points out that Woody Allen’s script fails to establish a cause-and-effect pattern, and this fault undermines the credibility of the narrative. The story’s characters, says Gulino, “seem driven by impulses, and the story lurches around, with lines of action beginning and then petering out. The cause-and-effect sequencing is thus unsturdy even without the flashback interruptions.” Gulino further asserts that the screenplay resorts to the use of two coincidences, a tactic that further erodes the viewer’s faith in the story’s credibility. Gulino writes: “The story is helped along by two coincidences (which also tend to undermine cause-and-effect sequencing) — a chance sighting by Ginger of Jasmine’s husband Hal (Alec Baldwin) kissing a woman, and a chance encounter Jasmine with Ginger’s ex-husband Augie, which both unravels her hopes for a new marriage, and seems to lend the impression that San Francisco is a very small town.”

Relying on the use of coincidences in a screenplay is a very dangerous move. Coincidences are the weak points of a story and show-up the fact that the story is poorly-constructed. Of course, writers have to use them at times, but they must be used sparingly and with great skill and care to maintain the story’s plausibility. The story writer can ask the audience to “suspend disbelief “ but no one has the right to ask the audience to suspend sanity.

Because of the lack of plausibility, “Blue Jasmine” resembles a badly-formed magic act. We can plainly see the magician hiding the rabbit in the top-hat and then taking it out. The trick fails to impress or please. Allen’s screenplay, says Gulino is a: “classic ‘shaggy dog’ story — a story that meanders and ultimately comes to nothing — but what seems to lend it some ballast are the flashbacks to Jasmine’s former life. However, these are simply a dramatization of moments that could easily be delivered through traditional exposition. They amount to: a woman lived the high life in the Hamptons with her rich husband Hal, who she later learned was cheating serially on her, and who was also making money fraudulently. She turns him in, and finds herself ruined financially as he goes down.”

            Gulino’s analysis is worth reading in its entirety.

            To sum up, “Blue Jasmine” fails because it never sets out to be sincere or logical. Because the story lacks a plausible plot, Allen has to fall back on redundant verbiage and exaggerated acting to move the film forward. In the end, it fails to impress or please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Book Review — Well Met in Cyprus – Kirkus Reviews (6/11/14)

BOOK REVIEW (6/11/14): “This deceptive novel begins as an idyllic romance, then gears down and races to a gripping conclusion. With a title that alludes to Othello and Desdemona, Qazi’s (Berlin Danse Macabre, 2013, etc.) novel tells the story of Robert, an American professor whose best years (and two marriages) are behind him, and Anara, a Kazakh woman half his age. They fall in love, and soon after, Robert gets yet another one-year teaching job, this time at a university in Kyrenia, a Turkish-controlled part of Cyprus. Anara comes to join him, and they make a home, almost a bower, in Karmi, a village halfway up the mountain overlooking Kyrenia. This is the idyllic part: Readers are introduced to secondary characters, among them Cardiff, the alcoholic but wise British colleague; Yulie, a young Greek woman who has strong hidden feelings for Robert; Erkan Bey, who is more than just a plumber; and other well-rounded background characters.

 But then there are the shady characters, principally Vitaly, a porcine, oily Russian casino owner. The plot turns on a simple fact: Anara’s visa is only for 60 days. Vitaly hires Anara to work in his casino and promises that the visa issue will no longer be a problem. All of a sudden, Vitaly has tricked Anara into working—for just one night, or so he says—at his other casino in the Greek sector. The rest of the book, where Qazi ramps up the story, concerns Robert’s desperate attempt to get Anara back. The story is told from Robert’s point of view, so readers get to know this man who just might have a second chance at life.The other characters are well-drawn, too, and Cyprus—beautiful, laid-back, exotic—is a character in its own right. The narrative makes no major missteps, though in places, the prose, if not purple, may be a bit mauve. Qazi, an experienced writer, is very good at his craft, and the pacing is really a wonder. Readers might find themselves putting off the last three chapters to savor them as a special treat. A gripping, well-written story worth diving into.” – Kirkus Reviews.

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“Picnic” (1955) Director: Joshua Logan. Screenplay: Daniel Taradash – Comments

Comments on “Picnic” (1955). Director Joshua Logan. Based on a play by William Inge.

“Picnic,” released in 1955, was directed by Joshua Logan and was based on a play written by William Inge that premiered on Broadway in 1953. Logan had also directed the Broadway production and the play had met with critical and popular success. It was performed 477 times and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the New York Critics’ Circle Award for the Best Play of the season. I mention these facts to stress the point that by the time Joshua Logan undertook to turn the play into a film, the characters, the dialogue and the structure had been refined, honed and perfected. He knows what he wants. He knows what the audience wants. He knows what to show and he knows where the key moments are.  He also knows what to leave out. He doesn’t film the play. He created a film from material he knew intimately, but material that had been transformed into a well-crafted screenplay by Daniel Taradash.

The stage play only used one set: the yard between two nondescript houses.  In the movie, Josh Logan uses several small towns in Kansas and several outdoor locations. Logan makes cleaver use of the towering grain silos, the grandeur of the rich boy’s house, the waterfall, the thundering freight trains to accentuate the drama and the danger. The result is stunning.  I always thought “Picnic” was a great movie, but having compared the film with the play, I can clearly see why. “Picnic” is one of the finest films to come out Hollywood in the first half of the 20th century.

            The action focuses on the activities of a group of ordinary men and women in a small mid-Western town in the early 50s. We follow them through a twenty-four hour period on Labor Day when the town’s folk gather at an outdoor picnic to rest from their labors and enjoy some hours of innocent fun and games. Logan uses the camera in a documentary style. His “Seeing Eye” notices everything from bawling babies to under-rehearsed Barber Shop quartets with kindly irony.

Subtly and slowly, the audience becomes the Seeing Eye. Imperceptibly, we enter the film and become involved with the lives of the characters. The indoor scenes are bathed in an even gentle light. There are shadows here, but they are soft. This is an ideal world where passions are held under firm restraint and animal urges don’t exist. This a world peopled mostly by women: young girls, widows, spinsters, old maids.

           The outdoor scenes are seen in natural light to emphasize the fact that the setting is real. Logan uses visual references with an imaginative cleverness. Consider the scene in which Hal Carter (played by William Holden) burns the trash of old Miss Potts. The heat coming off his naked torso is a match for the heat generated by the trash fire. No wonder when Madge, the beautiful daughter of the neighbor lady sees him, she melts. Another scene worth remembering is the scene in which Hal Carter kisses Madge near the waterfall and we see a freight train approaching in the background and hear its ominous rumble. Words are no longer necessary. All we hear is the heart-beat of the two lovers and the roar of the train. We see the danger inherent in this kiss and also the undeniable passion. And as if to further emphasize the danger, we also see a pulsing red light that keeps on morsing its warning all through the scene.

            Kim Novak plays the role of the beautiful 19-year old Madge as a vision of youth and beauty and innocence. On the threshold of life, she is discovering her body and her soul. Logan’s camera worships Miss Novak and captures her face in a lyrical light. The shot of her face as she dances lit by the magical glow of Japanese lanterns is one that no man with a beating heart can ever forget.

            Hal Carter, is the son of an alcoholic father and self-centered mother. He got into college on an athletic scholarship but failed to get a degree because of a poor scholastic record. Since then, he has drifted from one poorly-paid and futureless job to another. William Holden was 37 when he played the part of Hal Carter, a bit too old for the character as Inge had conceived him. But in choosing William Holden for the role, Logan’s instincts were correct. Logan wanted to show a man who has weathered a few storms in his life. Hal is all too aware himself that age is catching up with him. Logan uses a clever tactic. In the early scenes of the film, he shows us a vigorous and youthful Hal Carter, with a flat belly and rippling muscles. But in the later scenes he want us to see Hal Carter as a man approaching middle-age. He shows us the seams and wrinkles in Holden’s forehead. When Hal Carter speaks of his fears and hopes on the top of the grain silo, Logan makes a point of showing the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes and the worry lines on his forehead. This is what makes the character of Hal Carter so believable, so endearingly vulnerable and so real. Is there a man alive who hasn’t seen Hal Carter in himself?

            Rosalind Russell’s plays the part of Rosemary Sidney, the spinster school-marm terrified of growing old alone, with convincing and chilling intensity. When she delivers her devastating verbal assault on Hal Carter and denounces him as a fake and a bum-in-the-making, she is not far off the mark. Hal does not contradict her. Clearly, he himself is very aware that she is touching on the truth.

“Picnic” is essentially a meditation on the essential nature of love. Is love a lie invented to serve of societal needs and conventions? Or is it an elemental, transcendental force?

Madge’s mother gives no importance to love. She wants Madge use her beauty as bait to “catch” and marry the richest boy in town for very practical and down to earth reasons. You are pretty (she tells her daughter) and you have the chance to marry a man who can take you out of this shack of house and into a mansion. Use your beauty while you have it to hook a rich husband who will give you a comfortable, prosperous life; if you miss this chance, you will be condemned to a lifetime of impoverished spinsterhood.

But Madge rejects the idea of a loveless marriage, a marriage based purely on economic considerations. She opts to follow the dictates of her heart even though she knows that her relationship with a rootless, jobless, drifter with a dodgy past and an uncertain future could end badly. She chooses to take the risk. Because what she feels for Hal is something bigger, deeper, and more profound than conventional emotions.

I saw “Picnic” the first time in Pakistan in the late Fifties when I was twelve or thirteen years old and it permanently altered the landscape of my brain.  It was an unbelievably moving experience and for several days after having seen the movie, I had trouble returning to the world of Lahore and schoolwork and ordinary reality.

Now, as I write these comments, more than half a century later, our tastes, values, concerns have changed and the world of a small Kansas town and its people seems remote and insignificant.  Millennials might even jeer and mock their prudery. But if we are unable to see parallels between the lives of these characters and our own human frailties, the loss is ours.

The message of the movie is eternal. The film tries to delve deep beneath the surface of social conventions to give us a glimpse of very primal and dangerous dynamics of male-female relationships. The dance that Madge and Hal dance is the dance of life itself. It has nothing to do with middle-class mores or a picnic in a small mid-Western town, or rich boy competing with poor boy over a beautiful girl. The dance represents the raw, natural, magnetic energy of the Life Force seeking to express and fulfill its manifest destiny and plant its flag on the battlements of despair, decay and death.

 

 

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“The Jeweled Web” a new collection of Short Stories by Javaid Qazi

http://www.amazon.it/The-Jeweled-Web-Delusions-ebook/dp/B00B4LCC5A

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My Novel — Javaid Qazi

Well Met in Cyprus

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“The King of Patio World” e-book short story by Javaid Qazi

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My Short Stories – Why Are They Like That?

My Short Stories – Why Are They Like That?

For me, the stories in this collection represent my struggle to find a language and form that can help me best encompass my experiences.  Readers will immediately see that both the language and the form of these stories is varied.  I do not stick to one style nor do I stick to one formal way of constructing a story.  By this I mean, I am not like some short story writers who develop a style or a way of structuring a story and then deploy it in story after story through much of their careers. One example of this approach that comes to mind  is O. Henry.  He found one structure that worked well for him  (the story with the surprise twist at the end) and he stuck to this model.  I do not do that.  Nor do my stories have a common thread or theme that can be seen to unite them. Here I am thinking of the Joycean paradigm in “Dubliners.” All the stories in “Dubliners” are about people who live in Dublin at the turn of the century and all are written in a dry, rational (objective) prose that abjures ornamentation and excessive stylistic flourishes.   Another example could be Donald Barthelme, who discovered a surrealistic concept that pleased him and also happened to please his readers. So he used it in story after story.

My stories do not have a connecting theme or thread because my life did not have a connecting theme or thread.  As I a deracinated Pakistani,  divorced from my mother culture and my mother tongue, I confronted the world as an alien, a citizen of not one country but the world.  In  olden days writers lived and died in their mother cultures.  There is our Hardy, doggedly cultivating his few acres in “Wessex;” there is Dickens, painting the scene he knew so well: London in the latter half of the 19th century.

I was never rooted in one place or culture or society in this way.  So my stories bounce from country to country, culture to culture, scene to scene.  In a limited way, my experience is like that of Hemingway.  After having done the Nick Adams stories, he never felt the need to restrict himself to depicting the society, the manners and the problems of the United States.  I would love to know why this was the case.  If he were alive today and I could pose this question to him, I would certainly ask him.  Why is there no story about the segregation problem that lay festering in the gut of the country? Why is there no story about the economic collapse of 1929 which had a profound effect on his motherland?  Why isn’t there any story about suburbia and suburbanites, the mother lode that Cheever and Updike mined so successfully?  Hemingway is silent on those topics.  His best wrote stories are about people and places that sparked his imagination.  And this could happen anywhere that he happened to be at any given time.  His is the art of the uprooted writer who writes in hotel rooms as he travels from country to country, in tents pitched on the African plain, on boats between bouts with Marlin.

Similarly, my stories also reflect my journeys, my experiences, my sense that the whole world is my subject and I need not limit myself to one town, one suburb or one society.

So, dear reader, you are forewarned! You will find yourself yanked hither and yon. Better strap on that seat-belt. Turbulence ahead!

Now let us consider the matter of style and the use of language.  Once again the reader will not find a single syntactic or linguistic structure or consistent pattern of language use that could be characterized as the Qazi style.  Many writers do have a trademark style. In fact, some writers try very hard to create it and then use it over and over again in work after work.  And readers can easily recognize this style.  Take Henry James, for example.  You could take a sentence from any one of his novels and the reader, (who is familiar with Henry James’ work) will be able to recognize it as a Henry James sentence. One could do this with Hardy and also Dickens.  You could do this with a Jane Austen paragraph.  Now that I think about all this, another example comes to mind.  Recently, I started reading a collection of stories by John Cheever.  After you’ve read a few, you start to see certain similarities among them.  We start to see a certain sameness in the choice of words, in the pattern of the sentences, in the sentiments and attitudes expressed.  The reader begins to recognize the geography, the flora and fauna, the landscape of Cheever Country.  The inhabitants of Cheever Country are easily recognizable.  There names change, but they could never be mistake for the inhabitants of Hemingway country.

But in the eleven stories included in the “Unlikely Stories” collection there is no consistent or prevailing style.  This is not an accident.  This is by design.  I don’t have a pre-fabricated style that I can use for every story I write.  Each story creates and demands its own style.  If you took two paragraphs from two different stories and set them side by side ,you would not recognize any similarities; you might even think the stories are by two different writers.  That is fine by me.  I find that writers who write all their stories in one style soon start to sound repetitive and dull.  Moreover, readers begin to see the “hand” of the writer, the “hand” inside the sock-puppet.  The writer is unable to create and sustain the illusion that fiction must create in the mind of the reader.

I feel I inherited a rich tradition of story telling that goes across continents and countries and cultures.  The whole gamut of techniques that fiction writers have used over the ages, (starting with Homer) and ranging from Aesop’s fables to Thurber’s fables, going from realism to surrealism, from 19th century modes to Modernism and Post-Modernism. from parables, to parodies, to allegories (religious, moral, political), from magical-realism to hysterical realism, — in short, all formal modes are grist for my mill.  I have always felt free to utilize one or a combination of several, to create my fictional worlds.  I do not feel any need to limit myself or imprison myself in one particular structural or linguistic straight-jacket.

Each story is a new adventure, a new experience, a new beginning, another attempt to pin down the complex realities that surround us, befuddle us, overwhelm us, confuse us, distress us.  Each story is like a wrestling match between me (the writer) and a wily and slippery opponent (the story).  I feel no hesitation in marshaling all the tactics, maneuvers, hand-holds, and weaponry I can bring into the fray to at least attain a temporary victory.  With the next story, I know, the battle will start again.

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