There is a story I tell, as much to myself as to others. Before I was 18, I was not into films. I mean, I liked them – I wasn’t insane – but I wasn’t into them. My passion was books, but enthusiasm for sci fi and fantasy is far from common, and there is no future in being a geek without anyone to geek out with. I had been getting more into film anyway, through the reviews of Bob Chipman and Mark Kermode, and while I never made a decision to switch media, in the months leading up to my first year at uni there was a definite transition of interest. Supported by my parents’ extreme generosity I watched movie after movie after movie, and read more and more about film, until finally I got where I am now: regularly, loudly and drunkenly arguing the finer points of visual narrative construction with a group of wonderful friends. My efforts had been well-spent. I had made myself a film buff. That’s far from the whole of me, but it’s the most public part of my persona, and I relished how it defined me.
Until I watched Blue Jasmine.
Blue Jasmine was made to get you inside a broken mind. Founded on an incredible performance by Cate Blanchett, the film tells the story of the titular Jasmine (not her birth name), once a professional high society wife, stripped of husband and money following his arrest. Her only option is to stay with her poor foster-sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) whom she has spent a lifetime looking down on. Jasmine, so privileged she flies 1st class and can still claim she has no money, hates her new life. Surprisingly she tries to do something about it, finding work, trying education, and generally labouring to get out of her predicament. Jasmine it turns out is not some easily hated example of the idle rich. She may never have worked for a living, but as the film progressed I began to see how being the ‘professional’ wife could take a lot of effort. I mean, to make the grade Jasmine had to cultivate a broad knowledge of art, an elegant, aesthetic sensibility, and a mind refashioned to fit the narrative she needed to believe.
Indeed, most of the work Jasmine put into her life was mental. Diligently, unconsciously, she constructed a warped reality from a Blue Moon romance, in which she could be unaware of her husband’s philandering and criminal financial dealings. In reality of course she knew about both, but shielded by her stories, she was able to pretend otherwise until the truth was too obvious. Still, even then, the narrative remained powerful. A lie cannot convince after being challenged by reality, but Jasmine lived inside a lie for so long (and said lie remained so attractive), that in moments of stress and despair she retreats back into the story. The film ends on just such a scene: a shot of Jasmine, staring blank-eyed and repeating the old story, ignoring reality to see the lie.
That image has remained in my head since I first saw Blue Jasmine. Even now it gives me the chills, and in the wake of the film the experience left my mind reeling. Just days before on Reel Talk (a podcast thing I do), I had told the story related above, with all the usual pride in my ‘achievement’. Now that pride is muted. When I walked home that evening my conscious self stood apart from my narratives and recognised them for what they were: warped reality. They were not lies, not yet, but nor were they true. My eyes had begun to cloud over.
There is a song called Float, by the band Flogging Molly. It is a song about clinging to stability through life’s hardships, and the sound of the verses is as resigned and depressed as the toiling life can be. The choruses however are very different. In comparison to the verses’ lacklustre tone, the chorus is sung with force and purpose. Half warning, half encouragement, the singer tells himself, repeatedly, ‘Ah but don’t, don’t sink the boat/That you Built, you built to keep afloat’, as the sound of the fiddle rises, singing out his conviction to keep on going. But the rise never lasts. The verses always return, ever more hopeless until, at the very end, the chorus is a desperate thing, a yell into the darkness from a singer demanding that he believe he is ‘doing the best I can.’ Like Jasmine he wants to tell himself a happy story about his life. Like Jasmine, reality is tearing his narrative apart, and beneath him the sea is deep and dark. The singer clung to his boat too long, and from the shallows I listened to him drowning.
Storytelling is a very human compulsion. We take the world and make it neater because the results are so much more satisfying than reality, with all its awkward contradictions and uncertainties. Yet satisfaction without question costs too much. Jasmine was certain. The singer is certain. Kevin O’Leary is certain. They believe their narratives uncritically, and wind up misled. So, be aware. A story is neither all truth, nor all lie, but a mixture of the two. Study them, learn from them, use them certainly, for they are the best tool humans have for expressing their selves and their experiences, but never put your faith in them. Keep doubting, lest the narrative cloud your eyes, and leave you gibbering nonsense. Do not trust stories.
Not even this one.