Reflecting on Allen’s Technique in BLUE JASMINE
9 February 2014
A part of Woody Allen’s cinematic technique is his carefully choreographed camera movement and, connected to that, his resistance to interrupt a scene’s action by cutting from shot to shot; instead, Allen often films scenes in long takes, often experimenting with distance and negative and empty space. Allen employs this technique in his latest film, Blue Jasmine (2013), for a number of reasons, but most recognizably to: establish realism, balance the complex, nonlinear narrative structure, and build up to climaxes, which are distinguished from much of the films rising action because climactic scene in Blue Jasmine often contain many cuts.
Some of the best examples of Allen’s long takes in Blue Jasmine come in intimate moments and/or confined spaces. For example, when Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) return to their Marriott hotel room after Jasmine’s birthday party, drunk, Ginger tells Augie she witnessed Hal’s infidelity earlier that day. In a standard guest room, their conversation begins by the beds, moves into the bathroom, and eventually returns to the bed area. This is one of the most honest scenes in the film, made so with some of Allen’s smart and witty dialogue. Also, his entire scene is one long take, with the camera dancing around the action, following the two into the room, to the beds, into the bathroom, and back by the room’s twin double beds, but never cutting.
Immediately following this scene, when Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) and Hal (Alec Baldwin) talk in their kitchen after Jasmine’s party, Allen, again, captures the entire scene in a long take. As Jasmine passively pushes Hal about his relationship with her friend, Raylene (Kathy Tong), and Hal tries to avoid the topic, the camera subtly moves about the kitchen during this late night conversation so Allen never needs to cut from shot to shot in the scene.
The aforementioned scenes, and other long takes which fill Blue Jasmine, help Allen establish realism in the film, which pulls his audience in. Without the interruption of cuts, suspension of disbelief is made easier. Scenes captured in one long take allow the audience to experience the action as though they are actually standing in front of the characters, moving their heads side to side or stepping back in observation.
Moreover, the narrative structure of the film is nonlinear (to say the least). Starting in the present, the film is full of a mentally unstable woman’s flashback into her past, as memories are unexpectedly triggered in the present. To complicate the narrative structure further, the future is strongly foreshadowed. To be specific, the film opens with Jasmine on a plane, babbling at a stranger. Within the first thirty minutes, the film also discloses that Jasmine just had a mental breakdown and was picked up in the street talking to herself. This breakdown is mentioned again as the film continues. Ultimately, the film ends almost exactly where it began. Jasmine takes to the streets, seated beside a stranger on a bench, having another nervous breakdown. The recursive suggestion is, inevitably, Jasmine will be treated, released, and return to babbling with strangers on planes, just like she first did in the film.
Therefore, with all the jumps from present to past (and back to present again), and all the suggestions of the future, repeated uses of long takes help the film’s cohesion. If the narrative constantly jumped around and the scenes were full of cuts, the film may feel too jarring, too choppy, and too disjointed. The narrative jumps help establish how fragmented Jasmine’s mental state is, but Allen’s signature long takes allow the audience to accurately observe a woman’s mental unraveling without feeling as though they are mentally unraveling themselves right along with her.
Additionally, a few of the film’s climactic scenes are full of cuts, a glaring and purposeful juxtaposition with Allen’s many long takes. For example, when Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jasmine break up, in his gold BMW, the scene is a series of cuts from driver to passenger seat. With the camera positioned at the car’s hood, Allen jumps back and forth between an upset Jasmine and an angry Dwight. This would have been one of the easiest scenes for Allen to film in a long take because a car is, perhaps, his most confined set in Blue Jasmine; however, the space is so small, and in consideration of the car’s movement, Allen would not have been able to use any steadicam, tracking, or much panning; the camera would have remained stationary in the scene if Allen used a long take. While a stationary camera is not foreign territory for Allen, it is not his technique in Blue Jasmine. Therefore, Allen breaks from long takes and from his camera movement to cut back and forth. The result is tension. With the shots flashing quickly from Jasmine to Dwight, the pace of the scene increases, and thus anxiety is created. Of course, this anxiety is complimented by how upset and anxious both characters are in the scene.
They same is true of a scene following Jasmine and Dwight’s breakup, the flashback of Jasmine and Hal’s breakup. In this scene the set is less confining, and Allen is able to move his camera around the action; however, he does not film this in a long take; the scene is stitched together with at least 12 cuts. As Jasmine confronts Hal when he enters their apartment, and then follows him into the living room, eventually throwing a tantrum in front of their couch, Allen cuts between the characters, often isolating them in their own frames. Like the prior fight (and an earlier fight between Jasmine and Hal), this second climax is also full of tension, and makes for a more tense cinematic experience because of the cuts Allen uses between Jasmine and Hal.
In most, but not all, of the long takes, Allen allows both characters in the frame at some point; however, in these two examples of climactic fights at the end of Blue Jasmine, part of what is captured in the cuts is the separation of characters. Jasmine and Dwight are broken up, and therefore they do not share a frame; Jasmine and Hal divorced, and therefore they do not always share a frame.
It is as though the long takes led up to these climaxes because the unity and cohesion built by the long takes falls apart in this tragedy’s climaxes. Symbolically, the technique purposefully falls apart, isolating Jasmine in a separate frame, in these climaxes just as Jasmine French falls apart and becomes isolated in the film’s narrative. Clever, Mr. Allen.
Woody Allen was never formally trained as a filmmaker, and the avoidance of that indoctrination is, probably, what made him into the auteur he is today. Long takes are signature Allen, and Blue Jasmine is just another example of his skilled camera movement and technique.