Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Terroirfying Cinema

After talking about Sideways with Kim this morning, I've come to think that my analysis of the film might not be redundant after all. And letting my experience roll around on my tongue for a while has changed my sense of its distinctive features.

I realize more clearly now that the picture inhabits the transitional landscape between comedy and drama. The scene in the Armenian bride-to-be's kitchen, when Paul Giamatti's character is talking about his book and explains that it is fiction infused with a heavy dose of non-fiction, prepares us to understand its genre ambiguity. To the extent that Sideways is a blend, it reminds me a lot of last year's Lost In Translation, though I was more impressed with the latter.

One of the things I liked best about Sideways was its geographic accuracy. I'm a stickler for that sort of thing and respect a director who knows how long it takes to get from one freeway exit to another. This quality is related to another favorite aspect of mine, the fact that the cinematography captures something about California coastal light, both in its pollution-dimmed and blue-sky manifestations, that is too rarely seen in cinema.

That specificity, a strong point of director Alexander Payne's About Schmidt as well, points me toward what I think Sideways is trying to do in relation to the film industry. I'm always interested in texts that are self-reflexive about their production and reception. Also, like my friend Eric, I enjoy reflecting on the way in which texts teach us how to "read" them. This film is a pretty good "think" in this regard. I do believe, however, that it is smarter in the first half, before the dramatic turn, than it is in the second, when both the comedy and drama are ratcheted up.

The key scene for me was when Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen's characters are telling each other what they love about wine. He launches into a reverie about the pleasures of the difficult pinot noir varietal. She responds with a meditation on the way in which wines are historical. But I interpret the whole conversation as an allegory about filmmaking, especially the "independent" sort that Alexander Payne is still considered to represent. We are obviously meant to perceive that Giamatti is talking about himself when he relates that it takes special talent to bring out the best in a pinot noir. At the same time, though, he is talking, not only about the novel he is trying to publish, but about the novel on which the film is based and about the film itself. The message is that films like Sideways are both harder to make and harder to like than the products of the Hollywood mainstream, yet capable for that very reason of eliciting a love that is more rare and pure than the wholly market-driven sort.

Reading Sideways allegorically in this manner brings out a sense of self-importance I discerned to be latent in the film, though, to be fair, that quality is also apparent in the Paul Giamatti character's book. Payne knows, I believe, that he's crossing over into dangerous territory. That may be why he pulls back from the allegory after the dramatic turn. Somehow, though, I would have preferred to have seen him develop it fully, love it or hate it, rather than fall back on the standard romantic comedy plot that closes the film. In other words, this is one area where I think the desire to have it both ways makes Sideways less compelling.

The real truth of the film comes in the restaurant scene prior to the conversation described above when the four characters drink a lot of wine and each bottle's label is shown to us long enough for the sight to qualify as niche product placement. I don't know whether the wineries whose wares are featured paid money for the privilege, but they should have, as should the wine industry more generally. In essence, Sideways is just as crass as I, Robot in its commercial machinations. I don't think that's a bad thing either. What troubles me is that the second half of the picture's turn away from allegory makes it too easy for the audience to forget that they have spent its first half watching a glorified marketing pitch.

That sounds too harsh. Maybe I should pick up on the film's other main theme, getting laid, in order to rearrange my critique. Sideways wants very badly to "get some." And in order to do that it goes out of its way to demonstrate how an introverted, slightly overweight man who is a little too self-important ends up getting some himself. The irony is that it takes Thomas Haden Church's man of coarse tastes to put Paul Giamatti's connoisseur in the position to end up with someone. Following the allegory to its logical conclusion, this mirrors the situation of Sideways as a Fox Searchlight picture buoyed on the capital of Rupert Murdoch's empire. The purity of the outsider may end up compromised as a result, but at least there's some copulation going on.

I wish Payne would have done more with the split-screen format. There was a very interesting moment about a third of the way into Sideways when we see the characters interacting at a wine tasting via this technique, then see it deployed to show the workers -- Latino workers, naturally -- who actually do the hard labor that makes the production of wine possible. For just a moment, I thought that the allegory might become a lot deeper, a la Frank Norris or John Steinbeck -- the male leads are watching the conclusion to The Grapes of Wrath at one point -- than it had initially seemed. Unfortunately, the retreat from allegory in the film's second half is doubled in the retreat from a more serious, socially aware sort in its first half.

In conclusion, I suppose you could say that Sideways is a film simultaneously aware of the particular terroir that makes it possible and one unwilling to think through the implications of that particularity. Personally, though, I like the picture better for failing to live up to its promise than if it had promised less to begin with. If nothing else, its success has made it more likely that "small" films like it will also end up getting some audience instead of none. I don't think it's an accident that a text that verges on didactic -- again, I'm thinking of its first half -- has taught industry insiders a lesson about the considerable potential in niche marketing. And even if the grapes of wrath never really get to leave a bad taste in the mouths of moviegoers, at least they get enough reminders of those grapes' existence to keep a hint of doubt rolling around on their tongues.

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