Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Sideways and Arsenic and Old Lace

Two very different films . . .

Before the moment gets further away (hmm--how apropos of the film itself), I want to mention that Mrs. Meridian and I went to see Sideways (dir. Alexander Payne; starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Virgina Madsen, Sandra Oh) this past Saturday. We liked it, though I more than she.
As she put it when describing the plot to her mother the next day, it's the sort of film that doesn't necessarily sound appealing on its surface, and she's right about that. As for me, I don't know if it's a result of my growing older or just that my tastes are changing as I see films that are, relatively speaking, out of the mainstream, but find myself drawn more and more toward character-driven films of late. Mrs. Meridian and I had a lengthy discussion about it, with each other and then, the next night, with some colleagues of mine over a couple of glasses of (very nice) pinot noir. What's intriguing about such films is their multi-dimensionality, assuming the characters are complex enough. The film's plot is direct enough that we don't have to worry about that. That leaves us free to examine the characters as characters, as people independent of the situation in which we meet them.
Example: when Jack (Church) realizes he's left his and his fiancee's wedding rings at another place (I'm trying to avoid spoilers) and is desperate to recover them, it's easy to see that either he or Miles (Giametti) will try to get them back. That is a matter of the plot. But what got discussed on both Saturday and Sunday night was Jack's sincerity as regards his professed love for his fiancee (if you know where and under what circumstances Jack has left the rings behind, you'd see that there's some question as to that sincerity). That issue inevitably leads to who Jack is as a person: a pleasure-seeker, yes, who nevertheless yearns for an emotional base, a safe, protected space but may also be realizing he loves the woman he's engaged to. I say "may be" because I tried to argue that it's in that moment, when Jack says he would be devastated if he were to lose his fiancee, that we see deeply into him for the first time in the film. Well, yes, some of the others said, but does he speak out of genuine love for her, or out of neediness? Well, hard to say, given what we are shown. But in any event, such moments are ones that we can revisit and ponder--and I like films that give us moments like that.
There is (much) more to say about this wonderful film, but it's in the nature of character-driven films to ensnare those who want to comment on them, and I DO have stuff to do today.

Like talk about Arsenic and Old Lace (dir. Frank Capra; starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Peter Lorre). Um, this film is not character-driven. It's farce. But what a hoot it is. My relative ignorance of Grant's work causes me to say that I don't think of him as an especially physical actor (my favorites of the films I've seen him star in are North by Northwest and Notorious, though I've also seen a couple of comedies of his), but the rather lengthy scene toward the end where a bound and gagged Grant, eyes popping and rolling, hopping about as he tries to convey to the police who their suspect SHOULD be, is an amazing and very funny performance. Grant is so usually under control, even when in a fair amount of duress, that to see him in this role, is a revelation. Maybe he really COULD do anything as an actor.

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