Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:21 pm 
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Thirteen (or more reasons) for watching another movie

Are the conversations in 'Thirteen Conversations About One Thing' really about one thing? They seem to be about a great many different things to me. And I hate to be picky but they're not so much conversations, in the sense of discussions, or witty talk, but just scenes, in which, needless to say, people do talk.

The Sprecher sisters (Jil and Karen) who together wrote and directed this movie are clever and original women. It's a pity that their first effort turned out to be so disjointed and rambling. It's even more unfortunate that it's a sententious and highfalutin downer that, despite the presence of excellent film actors, somehow isn't very cinematic - I couldn't help feeling it would work much better and seem much wittier as a play. Witty it is not.

The Sprechers unfortunately interpret 'conversations' to mean talk that touches on the meaning of life, and particularly on issues such as happiness, free will, and luck. There is plot - it's the car accidents, firings, divorces, abandonments, minor natural disasters and personal cruelties that, despite the occasional hiring, good deed, or moment of enlightenment, make the whole thing such a gloomy way to spend an hour and forty-three minutes. But despite these events, there is a great deal more telling than showing, and since the conversation is neither witty nor unified one can't help wishing there would be less of it - Six Conversations About Four Things, say, and Seven Events Involving Twelve people. What is it about such a system of organization that so much annoys me? It's because it's so intrusive, so redolent of cutting and pasting and authorial intention. I don't like being told what all the scenes are about and it doesn't make it any better that they're really about something else.

Did I say the actors were excellent? Somehow Alan Arkin dominates the movie. I guess his Conversation is allowed to go on the longest. Arkin as always is incisive; his very face is razor-like, somehow, even more so as he gets older: he sharpens, rather than mellows, with age. He is absorbing, if rather grim, as a minor insurance claims executive who objects to a new colleague who's always happy. Happiness is a snare and a delusion, he tells us, and he fires the colleague just to show he's right. But -paradox!-the colleague remains happy even when fired. And then Arkin's character is so guilty he gets the colleague another job elsewhere, through pulling strings. Another colleague whom he brands as a loser ups and wins the lottery. Bam! These kinds of twists are much better when O.Henry puts them in a short story. Instead of a chapter heading there ought to be a sign saying: Message Coming. John Turturro, who's good at being stiff, plays a prissy college physics teacher who (oh God!) believes that the Laws of Science are Absolute. We're hardly surprised when he gets jilted by the woman he leaves his wife for, especially when we see him being nasty to an eager student with personal problems. The physicist gets his comeuppance, and so does the insurance executive. If Turturro's character represents false determinism, Alan Arkin's represents the refusal to accept luck or happiness, and he duly gets permanently laid off, and then regrets a moment when he might have saved his marriage and his son's future simply by waving at his wife when she appeared. God is in the details - yes, that saw gets trotted out. Mathew McConnaughey (who takes a razor to his chiseled cheek) adopts a grim fatalism after fleeing from an accident, but nonetheless gets rewarded with a surprise promotion and a plum assignment. Life's just hard to predict sometimes-but some movies aren't. A couple of young women who clean houses cease to be friends when one, who considers herself blessed because she was saved from drowning as a child, loses hope after being hit by a car.

All of these characters, despite the good acting, are forced to discuss their fates in tiresome and repetitious detail. There is not a lighthearted moment in this tendentious round of expositions of life with a capital L. I left the theater thoroughly demoralized, oppressed by the Sprecher's heavy-handed expression of their grim and dubious worldview, which is relieved only by the occasional equally heavy-handed paradox. The acting is good but the cinematography is generic. Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose images are never anything less than beautiful, handles similar kinds of material infinitely more subtly and powerfully in his 'Decalogue' series. 'Thirteen Conversations About One thing' is Krzysztof Kieslowski for Dummies. Kieslowski's masterpiece lasts many hours. You just can't cram this kind of thing into an hour and forty-three minutes, even if you chop it all up into fragments and call them 'Conversations.'

June 21, 2002

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