Blue Jasmine, this year’s Woody Allen movie, is a pretty blatant reworking of A Streetcar Named Desire, but with a vital difference: the Blanche character doesn’t represent Tennessee Williams and his artistic sensitivity — she’s the personification of America, before and after the financial collapse.
Here’s her story, in bullet points — full of spoilers, by the way:
– married rich
– lived the high life in Manhattan, like few ever do
– kept herself blind to her husband’s shady financial dealings and infidelities
– knocked insensible when her world collapses, and calls the police on her husband
– husband hangs himself in prison
– son refuses to associate with her in any way
– goes to San Francisco to stay with her sister (whose marriage failed, thanks to Jasmine’s husband losing their lottery winnings in a shady investment)
– has great difficulty adjusting to more modest circumstances, and hates the working class world of her sister
– has never really worked before, and shows extreme distaste for her job as a receptionist
– harbours unrealistic expectations of becoming a high paid interior decorator
– meets a wealthy, attractive, available man and lies to him about her past
– loses him when her lies are exposed
– her feeble grip on sanity loosens further and the movie ends with her sitting alone on a park bench, muttering to no one
Compare this with an example taken from Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2009 book Brightsided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America. Mike Gelband worked as Global Head of Fixed Income for Lehman Brothers. In 2006 he warned CEO Richard Fuld that the real estate bubble would soon pop and they’d need to rethink their business model. Fuld promptly fired him. Two years later, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. As of late 2008, Fuld, according to New York Magazine, spent his nights wandering through the many rooms of one of his five houses, replaying his former company’s demise, wondering what went wrong.
Delusion and willful blindness brought about the real estate bubble and it’s bursting. Many are still reeling, readjusting, trying to put the pieces of their lives back together. Jasmine clings to the belief that she can regain what she had. She’s loathe to demean herself by joining the regular workaday world where most people spend their lives. And who, faced with trauma and tragedy, wouldn’t seek comfort in their optimistic delusions?
But persistently clinging to delusions leads us to the unsavory fate of muttering on a park bench to no one. If we want a happier ending for our civilization, it’ll take some hard reckoning, not to mention hard work. Or perhaps we’ll keep clinging. Other nations will eventually marvel at the grotesque spectacle of our faded beauty, wealth and power, as they very carefully avoid sitting next to us at the park.