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Terroirfying Cinema - De File — LiveJournal
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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.

Mode: nose to glass
Muse: Albatross - Public Image Ltd. - Second Edition

6 comments or Leave a comment
masoo From: masoo Date: February 27th, 2005 07:17 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I love reading your comments on this movie. And we've had a few "discussions via comments" lately about what appeals to each of us about movies in general. So I suppose it's no surprise that my favorite part of Sideways is the acting, and that for me, the scene where Giamatti and Madsen talk about wine/themselves is key, not for the writing (because I think it's good but obvious) but for the acting ... the two are really giving us the reality of two people working their way towards a new element in their relationship, and it's not in the dialogue but in the acting. Madsen deserves her Oscar for that scene alone, IMO.

In retrospect, I think I like Sideways a little less than I did when I saw it, although compared to the other Best Picture nominees I still think it's at or near the top. On the other hand, I haven't had a kind thought towards About Schmidt since I saw it back in the day.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: February 27th, 2005 07:30 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I liked that acting too, in that scene and many others. But it seems less important to me in evaluating a picture's worth. Maybe I'm too caught up in auteur theory still. I privilege the director over the actors. On the other hand, I've seen many movies where good acting is present in spite of the overall picture being bad.

For what it's worth, one of my favorite scenes in recent films is the one between Kevin Bacon and Mos Def in The Woodsmen, which Kim and I loved even though the reviews were mixed.
masoo From: masoo Date: February 27th, 2005 07:40 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yes, good acting can make a bad film watchable, even if it doesn't fully redeem junk.

Specific to Sideways, my feeling is it won't be remembered as a classic, although it's very good, but that Virginia Madsen's performance WILL be remembered as classic, especially if she wins the Oscar. It's not that she's more important than Payne ... it's his movie, I agree ... she's just better than Payne in this case. And while Sideways is probably Payne's best movie, it's a beacon of light in the context of Madsen's career ... this is a woman whose resume includes such classics as Zombie High, the Bob Goldthwait talking-horse "comedy" Hot to Trot, and Highlander II.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: February 27th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Good point. I liked her a lot. She sure got under Kim's skin though. That's good acting, I suppose.
kdotdammit From: kdotdammit Date: February 28th, 2005 05:20 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks for bringing up the split-scene "this is where wine comes from" scene. As you know, I was relatively underwhelmed by the movie. And now that you mention that particular segment, I realize that it played an important role in my sense of irritation about the film. I already told you that I don't like the people in it, not the actors, but the people they represent. Now I think of that scene, and I'm thinking about how it too is a representation of what it is that I don't like about the people. The scene attempts (failingly in my opinion)to acknowledge that products like wine are made off the sweat and blood and broken backs of the disenfranchised. It's a token-moment delivered to us in a savvy and inventive split screen format. So we catch just a glimpse of the origins of those "products" before the idea is tossed aside, so the film can play out the wholehearted consumption of those very products as a symbol of the consumers' refined "tastes" and individuality. Somehow, it's inside this idea, that these people just really bother me. Maybe that's one of the points of the movie. But it didn't carry it through.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: February 28th, 2005 05:24 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Yes, I agree. That was nicely put. If you're going to have one scene like that, you damned well better have more than one. Otherwise, it definitely does smack of tokenism.
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