“Adventures of Merlot and Barefoot”
Since the Golden Globe Awards (January 2005) showed appropriate attention to Alexander Payne’s comedic, dramatic film Sideways, my intuition told me (Oops!) it was unlikely the Academy Awards (February 27, 2005) will double the awards for screenplay adaptation and best-anything-else, primarily because of the heavy films, celebrity stars and seasoned directors that Hollywood prefers to fawn over. Kudos to the judges who must have read the book on which it was based, for it is a fine reworking of a literary novel. If the mega-million-buck blockbusters don’t get Oscar’s attention from the Hollywood elite, it will cast a deep depression over the affluent megalomania of producers and directors who traditionally plan movie-making on the scale of debt-defying madmen like Howard Hughes. And there were several Indies represented in the nominations this year, but, really, how can one match up for evaluation two movies as different as the literary Sideways and old studio-style sagas like Aviator and Million Dollar Baby? Even if Sideways’ lead Paul Giamatti, as neurotic Miles Raymond, awash in California wine country, were matched up for the Best Actor award against Leonardo di Caprio’s cocksure billionaire Hughes, what chance does a dweeby, humanist antihero have against a dashing, capitalist airplane hero, whose paranoid phobias merely helped to make the dashing character quirkily interesting? There’s always an imbalance when comic and the serious are matched. Hollywood still feels a need to worship the grand, the great-big, and the over-inflated; the small, decent and intricately artistic films and expert casts may get nominations and an award or two from time to time, but rarely will they reap the old “Rauw-Rauw” lion’s share of golden icons.
That said, taking it for the indie film it is, I heartily praise the craftsmanship and artistry of the constructive elements that shaped Sideways into the hilarious humanistic comedy at the end of 2004. Based on a literary novel by Rex Pickett, with its double-dating ensemble cast, it may have had its match in Mike Nichols’ Closer, a tragic drama based on a stage play, with its quartet of significant roles (Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Julia Roberts, Clive Owen). However, the cold-hearted cunning and pathos of sexual betrayals by mirthless characters one really cannot get close to put Closer at a distant remove from Sideways and the realistic, warm passions fermenting in the hearts and minds of its identifiable American personality types. The inconsistencies of human nature represented in the psychological dispositions of Miles, Jack (Thomas Hayden Church), Maya (Virginia Madsen), and Stephanie (Sandra Oh) are so naturally human, believable with just threads of past history revealed through telling behaviors and verbal confessions, that most viewers will not fail to find sympathy with the characters and their life’s problems.
Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor truly deserve praise for their screenplay adaptation, having pruned Pickett’s novel’s excesses with discretion. One has to read the original work to realize the cleverness of their editing and revising. Their rebottled version still offers all the fine taste of satire with a heady bouquet, samples of Bacchanalian must straight from the crude vats, and hints of true vintner’s reserve, the lyrically soulful moments, in their perfectly balanced Sideways. In their previous collaborative work, always dramatically daring, they handed audiences hits of tasty medicinals and strange brews: e.g. in Citizen Ruth (Laura Dern, 1996) it was an absinthian satire bound to menace anyone’s personal politics regarding abortion. That was chased with a jumbo fizzy pop of satirical comedy in Election (Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, 1999). In About Schmidt (Jack Nicholson, 2002), called erroneously by some a bitter-sweet comedy, Payne and Taylor were sliding pints of dark bitters down the bar of a dimly-lit pub. One thing can be said for Payne-Taylor films, the works mentioned are not without a gingery bite. Such films are not pandering to common tastes; they ask something of their audience.
A road-movie about an odd-couple, friends since college and still bonded in a no-man’s-land of their dawning forties, may seem like a generic scheme for a set of escapades--a picaresque adventure. The differences between the friends are significant enough that one wonders how they stayed such close friends during the decades of maturing. Of course, one might say, “What maturing?” The middle-school teacher and cynical wit, Miles, considers himself an expert in matters of sense and taste; his friend, Jack, a play-it-as-it-lays failed actor and ladies’ man, the bloom of youth fading in his handsome face, is a person of arrested emotional development and satisfied with the commonest taste. He will soon be strait-jacketed into wedded, domestic bliss with a lovely, delicately-mannered woman, the daughter of very well-to-do Armenian parents who have cultivated the designer style of fine furnishings and high-priced materialist tastes. Because of this change to come, the trip to Santa Ynez wine country is a week-long bachelor vacation planned by Miles as a festival of wine-tasting, gourmandizing, and rounds of golf for exercise. Miles intends to journey towards a cultural event, himself mentor to the uncouth Jack. Jack, on the other hand, is on vacation of liberation; namely, to get his rocks off. Wine’s involved for sure, but it is mostly the inebriated pagan Dionysian Bacchanal Jack envisions, a journey toward primal, erotic nature before he must leave singlehood’s freedom behind. This is the culture/nature dichotomy at its funniest when the cross-purposes of their behaviors complicate the men in existential adventures, with new, difficult moral choices and painful consequences.
I know people enjoyed the movie Sideways when I saw it at Tacoma’s art-house Grand Cinema in November 2004; the laughter was unanimously uproarious. Still, the dozen or so viewers on a late Sunday showing were aware, besides, of a sensitive experience. “What honest humor!” a companion of ours said on leaving. The characters were certainly like people I’ve known (and still know) and I could see myself in some of the self-effacing, escapist habits of Miles. Trouble is, when a movie is so well crafted, the dialogue and performances so engaging and enjoyable that one laughs heartily and feels deep sympathies for the characters portrayed, I could not really remember how well made the film was in other levels of technique. I was sucked into the illusion first time around.
On seeing it again in January 2005 with a packed house, since word had spread about this comedic gem, I realized how I had forgotten the economy of the split-screen scenes to give the road trip its travelogue feel: fields of radiating vines, straw-hat harvesters pruning grapes, ochre hills of fawn hide with grazing cattle and that one lingering shot of a lonely bull, shambling on a barren hillside--foreshadowing of Jack the Bull, or perhaps Miles the Lonely. No pastiche of pop songs, the soundtrack, too, was more noticeable at my second viewing. The racy rhythms expressed the mood of being at the wheel, getting away from the grind of the city as one would expect in a road-film. On my first viewing, the affective, active narrative rhythm had somehow obliterated or muted the sound track. Who remembers the music anyway, unless one gets the CD soundtrack and comes to know it through repetition? Music is after all an unnatural accompaniment in life and yet we have come to expect it as a necessary contamination of realistic events in film.
In the way music can suggest, I would say that the soundtrack assisted in the secondary, sometimes subliminal, way, to inform about mood or to represent another element of mood. One or two scenes presented a romantic montage, the camera following at a distance the happy pairing of the foursome as they toured the Pinot wineries and picnicked under a shade tree in a field. They conversed animatedly, laughing into their palms, strolling through crowds, moving their faces together or tossing their heads back in joy, while the music washed over, suggesting and enhancing their easy moods; the hair-shirt reality of their inner lives had been forgotten. The musical composition smoothly covered the inner realities which showed themselves later in the discourse between characters, most acutely in antagonistic differences between Miles and Jack. Still, this movie is not about covering up as much as it is about revealing, and the layers are peeled away in a series of subtle scenes and well-developed acts.
In one respect, Sideways has introduced many viewers to the intricacies of alcoholic social relationships and the power of winespeak to win friends and influence bibbers. It may have come as a surprise to generic wine drinkers or tee-totallers what amazing taste mixtures swim in wine bottles and glasses. Can one really go for those comparisons? To hints of pralines and blackberry in red wines?--”Come on!” some might say Au contraire, it’s quite possible, if you’re in the right company. To cashews and loganberry?--”You’ve got to be kidding!” one might exclaim. Non, it would be special, but not unusual. To smoky Edam cheese and lingonberry?--”Hardly!” another might protest. But the odd Norwegian or Dane might be able to pick that out, especially if he had enjoyed a Marlboro a short while before tasting the wine. Nevertheless, joking aside, the manners of sticking one’s snout into the glass, swilling the dram around the glass to inspect color, or swishing a swig violently like a mouthwash rinse, customary as they are in tasting, were very funny to watch. Those manners and Miles’ serious practice of them in his gustatory analysis, his exegetic pronouncements of flavors, were surely meant to be taken satirically, even though the vinomaniacs might appreciate such peculiar evaluations. I’d hope many viewers, inexperienced in wine tasting, intuitively recognized the blarney of self-deceivers who are more interested in going sideways rather than being direct. Jack’s tastes were beyond correction; therefore, Miles instruction came off as ridiculous pedantry because he had overlooked his friend’s almost total disinterest in manners and culture.
Miles was deep into esoteric tastes and he found escape through sophisticated drinking. In the Wine and Roses genre films about addictions, how often does one really get to know the booze? Never! But when the subject of our alcoholic culture turns to wine-tasting rooms?-- well, that’s different. In Sideways alcoholic behaviors and sophisticated tastes were vital characteristics of the way oenophilia can anesthetize the sting of front-on reality. Love of wine is the one major detour in Miles’ escape from the agony of self-acceptance and the rigors of accepting life as it is. Jack takes detours, too, from his forthcoming duties in the land of responsibility; Jack chooses wines of any kind, beers, ad hoc role playing, sexual adventures--anything rather than facing facts. Both of these characters are escapists because they do not want to face the life confronting them.
If I were to find fault with the transmogrified literature-to-film characterization, I would have to say Miles’ theft of several notes from his mother’s stash in the bedroom clothes cupboard was hard to fathom. The unethical act dismayed some of my friends that they could not reconcile the dirty deed with Miles’ later reform. Miles has a lot to make up for there. In one way of following a motif as significant as the money theft from the cupboard, it does have its imitation in the latter part of the story when Miles shows his expertise as burglar in the home of the woman Jack last wooed. To help out Jack, Miles commits himself to return to the house and finds Jack’s wallet on the bedroom cupboard; he sneaks in and steals it back. However, the filching from his mother is actually an overlooked scene from Pickett’s work that ought to have been edited out. In Pickett’s story, Miles will be evacuated from his apartment if he does not pay his back rent. Also he has no job of any sort to fall back on in the novel; therefore he is truly desperate and needs the money for his back rent and for the trip. Perhaps it implies that Miles used to filch from his mother (and his father) when he was young. This is not so condemnatory when one is an adolescent, but in his mature years--yipes!--Miles comes off pretty badly. Would it have hurt to show us Miles’ mother and home as background data for his character? We would have learned what a good-natured old gal his mom was and how she loved to tipple. That, in my opinion, would have been sufficient. The theft remains a black spot of going sideways and downward
The beauty of this film, like other dramas that focus on the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, is that it teaches us to question the ways of healing and how strangely revelation and transformation transpire in time through ordinary life experiences. And yet Payne and Taylor’s Sideways teaches while entertaining us, so well mingled are the fantasy and reality of the characters and situations. Just as literature can be divided into escapist and interpretive fiction, films can be classified in the same way. Many moviegoers have perhaps given up looking for morals and themes of lasting meaning in films because the wide-released movies have in recent decades aimed their product at the younger generation who have little or no experience in literary or film criticism. An acquaintance of mine, a professional from an institution of higher learning, admitted he enjoyed Sideways tremendously, but he was sorry that it lacked a significant moral. It occurred to me that he was either not used to analyzing or contemplating the subtle levels of films, relying on the overt explication revealed sensationally within the film, or else he had no discussion with family or friends to discover a theme of importance about living a troubled life. Miles, the heart of the story, is a very complex character whose crises should invoke a sense of pity and compassion, and for him, because he is a decent soul, we surely long for success, recovery, sanity--whatever it may be.
Take for instance the fact that Miles is an unpublished writer. This is a lonely pursuit, a private agony that one suffers to perform. He’s had some success: he has an agent. But after years of sweating over his work, a book of extreme length, seven hundred pages or so, he’s dancing on the last thread of his nerves awaiting news of Conundrum’s acceptance or denial of his manuscript. He had trouble with its conclusion, rewriting the ending. Miles is so self-critical, self-deprecating, so cynical, it’s a wonder he can write anything definitively that would please himself. Talk about suffering. When he discusses the book with Jack, who obviously has not taken time to read it, this pisses Miles off. Maya inquires about the title, The Day after Yesterday, and wonders about the sideways expression for “today.” Miles is flustered, peeved to explain it. When Jack informs his fiancee’s family that Miles is soon to be published, Jack’s future father-in-law hopes Miles is not one of those fiction writers who make things up; such novels are in his thinking obviously crap. Of course Miles feels compelled to explain since it’s based in part on his own life, it’s not exactly fictional. All this focus on fiction writing, building up Miles’ confidence unrealistically with premature praise and admiration, exposing the writer’s tender psyche, his anxiety over publication, and so forth, this thematic strain is carefully developed and reaches its climax, the moment of crushing disappointment, when Miles learns from his agent that his novel has been nixed. Even his agent cannot be direct: the publishers really liked it but just couldn’t figure out how to market it. A bullshit explanation. I asked myself: “Where in Miles’ world is there a straightforward, unequivocal response to help him see the truth?” Later on, Maya has read the manuscript and genuinely compliments Miles’ talent with diction and style, but she’s honest about some confusion in the story’s ending. Maya, though her name means “illusion,” is the one true soul who confronts Miles, unintentionally urging him to face up to the facts, to see life for what it is, to accept himself and the hand he’s been dealt.
Another literary motif that ought not be overlooked among the significant details is the reference to a famous work of fiction, which was not drawn from Pickett’s novel and was therefore a deliberate invention of Payne’s or Taylor’s. Deliberate insertion of a literary symbol in a film about a writer and a teacher was meant to be noticed. After the week’s vacation, following the wedding, one scene is shot in Miles’ classroom: a student reads aloud a passage just before class ends. This is a passage near the conclusion of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, a novella of the early 60’s which has been used for decades in middle- and high-school literature classes. It’s a story about two school friends, their different natures, their antagonisms, their guilt for bad behavior, etc., but essentially it’s a story about change, about maturation, about accepting loss, about the struggle within a troubled soul, about a person in conflict with himself because of unending remorse, unshedable guilt. Though it is the story about a young man and his companion, the conflict of friendship and search for inner peace is a theme of traditional literature since the epic of Gilgamesh (2000 BC) and Achilles’ trials and tribulations in Homer’s Iliad (first written down in the 8th. century BC). That same universal theme is at work regarding the oddball characters in Rex Pickett’s picaresque romance Sideways and the film derived from it. The film’s allusion to Knowles’ theme is subtle but artistically apt and shows how very much the screenwriters expected their audience to be attuned to significant details.
So my academic colleague could not find a theme or a moral of some importance. Miles is a human being of considerable emotional depth, in contrast with Jack, his foil, who is superficial and callow. Another current of passion is Miles’ grief over his divorce from Victoria. A minor climax is Jack’s revelation that Vicki has remarried and will be attending the wedding where Miles will be best man. This news knocks the sensitive soul sideways such that he can hardly contain himself. It occurs during an evening of drink and food Miles shows his compulsion to dial Vicki and wallow in his misery. This is Miles’ D&D habit that Jack calls him on: “Miles, you haven’t been drinking-and-dialing?” In this thematic strain, Victoria’s name lacks irony: she has overcome her hang-ups from the past and has ventured forward with her life. In fact, when we meet the dear woman, she is obviously a sweet person and has given up drinking--not because she’s kicked the habit, but because she’s pregnant. These revelations come as massive body-slams to Miles’ already bruised psyche. Surely, after all this suffering, most viewers were hoping Miles would find a way out of his neurosis or pathology.
In Sideways Miles’ and Jack’s friendship is constantly being tested since their differences often set them against one another as personal tormentors. Begun as freshmen college room-mates, a time of bonding experience from being thrown together when a person needed a friend or companion after the separation from home, the friendship has taken on a George-and-Lennie co-dependency as in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Strained as the bond is, there is no evidence in the book or film that Miles or Jack have other trusting friends to fall back on. The “brother’s keeper” motif is noticeably illustrated. Miles is, after all, the guide to his companion and has been generous to put up with a week of escapades. This is going out of one’s way to help a friend, though Miles probably didn’t know it also meant going sideways. Miles sacrifices much to accompany his ward and solve problems, for no matter how weird and uncalled for an action might be, Miles is willing to put himself out for his foolish friend, even if it could mean bodily injury. Such loyalty and self-sacrifice, especially in a person so desperate and depressed, shows Miles to be an exemplary friend. Again, who, seeing this, would not wish some fortune to shine on Miles?
Does Miles find success? Will he succeed in healing himself? Has Jack made the right decision to marry his delicate Armenian wife? Sure, Stephanie will get over Jack’s stupid affair, but will she be more discriminating in future choices of hunk? Will Maya accept Miles as a loyal friend and lover after the courtship between the foursome? The beauty of such realistic films is that we do not know. We can discuss our opinions, but, in the end, life goes on at a variable pace and in variable patterns that one cannot follow the characters’ careers beyond the point of our satisfaction with edifying entertainments. We have to extend the experience of enjoyment in our own imaginations and thoughts after the credits roll and the lights come up.
This brings me to consider what I have meant by the terms art, artistic or artistry in my commentary, claiming that Pickett, Payne and Taylor have expressed profound artistry in their different media. On the one hand Sideways is literary art and on the other film art. The same term, artistry, can be used for Mike Nichols’ Closer (mentioned earlier), for The Woodsman (2004, directed by Nicole Kassel), for The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenàbar’s Mar Adentro, 2004) and many other dramatic films that arouse debates about the universal verities of love, betrayal, pity, sacrifice, honor, etc. I won’t belabor the theoretical subject “What is Art?” except to say that such films need to be discussed seriously; they present realistically scarred human beings whose crises are never wholly solved and so they stir us to question the human emotional dimensions, life choices, quests for pleasure, peace, or beauty, ways of encountering shattering truths, the necessity of self-acceptance, etc. Furthermore, these works urge us to reconsider the criteria for excellence and teach us what riches are to be discovered in art. Acknowledging such effect on ourselves and the value-assessment that arise from thinking about the film viewing experience, we then may learn to search for more of it in other films.