Tuesday, December 07, 2004
So while I've been down for the count mostly, I have managed to take in a little bit of culture. The wife and I, along with a stable-full of my in-laws, actually managed to get out to see a movie: Sideways, the new film from Alexander Payne.
I've liked Payne since I saw his first film, Citizen Ruth, a wicked satire of the abortion wars. (The satire of the anti-abortion side is both more cutting and, I think, more affectionate; Payne didn't seem to find the pro-abortion folks nearly as interesting.) His next film, Election, is one of the funniest movies of the 1990s. I skipped About Schmidt, basically because I didn't think I'd like it and I didn't want to break Payne's streak. But I went to see Sideways, and I'm happy to say that, with me, his streak is unbroken.
Sideways isn't satiric in the manner of Payne's first two films; only one scene - when Miles, the depressed wine-nerd who is the focus of the film, has to sneak into a house to retrieve a wallet his buddy, Jack, has left behind - reminded me of the over-the-top zaniness of Election. Instead, it reaches for more emotional depth. And it achieves it, along with an enormous sympathy for these characters, in spite of two characteristics retained from earlier Payne films: Payne's stories center on basically unattractive and failed characters and exhibit an unflinching realism about them.
I'll give you an idea of what I mean by unattractive and failed characters. The two men at the center of Sideways are Miles and Jack. Miles is an unpublished novelist, mired in depression since his divorce. Jack is a washed-up former soap opera star about to be married (Miles' first meeting with Jack's in-laws-to-be is a masterpiece of terse satire). Miles is a wine nerd and is going to take Jack on a tour of Santa Barbara wine country as sort of bachelor's weekend. But Jack is quickly bored by wine-nerdity; what he wants is a last casual fling, a last week of freedom, as he puts it. And he's determined to drag Miles along with him - or at least not have Miles drag him down.
Like I said, these are pretty unappealing characters. Miles really is a hopeless depressive. But he's also spineless. When Jack does put the moves on Stephanie, a pourer at one of the wineries (neglecting to mention, of course, his impending marriage), Miles does nothing to warn the woman of the real situation. Nor does he tell her waitress friend, Maya, who is clearly interested in Miles. In another movie, that moral lapse wouldn't matter much, wouldn't even be noticed; or the film would use it as a metaphor for some larger purported cultural failure (that, it seems, is the point of Mike Nichols' new film, Closer, which I don't intend to see). Sideways is too smart, and too honest for that. So we see Jack trying to convince himself that maybe he doesn't want to get married, the better to convince Stephanie that he really loves her, and that she should therefore surrender herself to him the more fully. And we see Miles watching this deception, disgusted with Jack but somehow blind to his own complicity. Until he accidentally lets slip the truth to Maya, and she reacts with fury.
Like I said, these are not appealing characters. Their flaws are large, and Payne is brutally honest about those flaws - and about their own lack of awareness of their depth. It does not, for example, occur to Stephanie that it's odd for a man to profess such love after only hours of acquaintance and a couple of turns in bed. But then, she seems equally oblivious to the needs of her young daughter, who we see shunted off to grandma at one point and, at another, awakened at night by her mother's partying with Jack and Miles. Nor does even Maya react in any profound way to Stephanie's daughter's appearance in the night. But the director knows what he's doing. These people may be blind, but he can see, and can show us - without telling us what to think about it, letting us either get ahead of the characters morally or, as likely, fall behind them. I wonder how many members of the audience were disgusted by Miles' moral cowardice, or even by Jack's thoughtless lechery, until Maya points out just how awful it is.
And yet, somehow, Payne never loses our sympathy for these pathetic people. The one false note in the movie is the ending which, while not redemptive, offers hope for poor, hopeless Miles. And, frankly, he's done nothing to deserve that hope, nor is it "realistic" that he would get another chance after screwing up as badly as he did. (Nor is it likely that his novel, as described, is remotely readable. But that's another story.) But I'm glad Payne gave us that undeserved ray of hope to light our way out of the theater, because by that point I'd come to care about Miles, and, for that matter, about Jack. How, precisely, he achieved that sympathy I'm not sure. But it's what convinces me that Payne is a major artist, and Sideways a serious and worthwhile movie.
Finally, a small aside, also and entirely positive. There's a danger with a movie like Sideways that trades in nerdishness about some particular field of knowledge (in this case, wine) that the movie (or play, or novel, or what-have-you) will over-extend the metaphor. That, in this case, wine, will come to stand for all of life. Melville, perhaps, gave all nerds license to treat their obsession as art-worthy, but usually it isn't, and even serious intellectual digressions, to say nothing of nerdy obsessions, can badly clutter and even hobble a work of art. (See, for example, many of the plays of Tom Stoppard, or Michael Frayn.) Payne, thankfully, steers clear of this danger. Wine is just something that Miles, and Maya, and to a lesser degree Stephanie, are nerdy about. Only in one scene does Payne make wine into an explicit and extended metaphor - but this is a scene between Miles and Maya when he, an almost pathologic introvert and a wine nerd, understandably uses wine to describe himself since that is less painful than being direct, and she responds in kind. It's a lovely and painful scene, and (granting a bit of artistic license for the actual language) entirely realistic on an emotional level.
I was very close friends for a while with a man rather like Miles - more successful, and not a moral coward, but no less pathologically introverted, no less depressed, no less a nerd, no less given to bizarre emotional outbursts when his limited mechanisms for coping with reality were overwhelmed. He "dumped" me after several years of friendship, declaring that I had not been a good enough friend to him for years. I understand, through the grape vine, that since our "breakup" he moved out of his rathole apartment (finally), met a woman (finally), and actually married her, and is, to all appearances, finally happy. I surely hope so. And perhaps that's another reason I was glad of that (undeserved) ray of hope at the end of Sideways.