Tuesday, August 14, 2007


13 CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING (2001, USA, Jill Sprecher, screenplay with Karen Sprecher)
It only makes sense when you look at it backwards. Too bad we got to live it forwards.

I can't imagine a better choice for a movie discussion group. Watch it on one level, it’s an eminently approachable film about ordinary New York lives, built on strong performances and a smart script. Take the bait and dig in a little, it’s as intricately assembled – and perhaps as baffling, to many of us – as that city’s famed crossword puzzle.

The film juggles four workplace-centred short stories (among attorneys, academics, housekeepers and claims adjusters) that are related thematically, and by visual and dialogue motifs that recur in intricate patterns. They’re also related by intersecting events, but I won’t say just how: part of the pleasure lies in the way the writers carefully craft the flow of the various plots to play with our expectations about cause and effect and interconnectedness. One critic sniffed that “the character crossovers between narratives are too contrived to work,” but he hadn’t done his homework: sketch yourself a little diagram of how the characters cluster, and at what point their stories converge, and you’ll see that their inter-relation really just comes down to... Well, to one thing.

Alan Arkin’s Gene is an actuary (fascinating how often films about things like luck, fate and providence involve characters in the insurance biz) whose painful life – a broken marriage, a son in trouble with drugs and the law – makes him resent the breezy optimism and lucky breaks of his co-workers. Walker (John Turturro) teaches the immutable, irreversible laws of physics but yearns for change, which random events and his own choices bring upon him. Clea DuVall plays a winsomely optimistic house cleaner named Beatrice who puts her faith in providence, while Matthew McConaughey’s Troy is a high-flying lawyer who believes in hard work, law and consequence: both of their convictions are weighed in the balance and found... Well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it?

I’m shocked to see how widely reactions to this film vary. One critic finds it morbid, cruel and devoid of humanity (Scott Tobias, Onion) while the next says it “encircles the viewer in a comforting, open-hearted humanism” (Tim Merrill, Film Threat). On first viewing I picked up mostly Job, the darker Psalms, and especially Ecclesiastes: the wicked prosper, the righteous get what the wicked deserve, and if you expect God to provide you with due rewards for all your strivings, if you think the universe is tidily ordered to reward your good deeds and punish people’s (usually other people's) bad ones, you're just plain wrong. Which always needs saying – especially in the face of Hollywood’s happy ending, dare-to-dream false gospel – but may not be the whole picture.

Having caught a whiff of something kinder, I watched again, very closely, and came away convinced that, for the Sprecher sisters anyway, that’s not the whole story. Track carefully through each of the story lines, sort out the chronologies and figure out cause and effect, then ask yourself what’s the final state of each of the characters and what things actually led them to that point, and I’m convinced there’s something more than post-modern “shit happens” bleakness here.

But then, that’s not unexpected. I do tend to be a bit of a Beatrice.


Available at Videomatica

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