Is Alexander Payne a compassionate or satirical filmmaker? Those who believe the former imagine him as the humanist docent of Olive Gardens, hummel figurine collections, and Middle American subtext. But because Payne—funnily enough—exotifies American life, some find his work merely glib. They say it smacks of a smug and nerdy condescension, the way guys in junior high hate everyone just because. As Jason Anderson wrote in the Village Voice, “What I learned from watching About Schmidt: that anyone who ever ate at a Tony Roma’s restaurant is a fucking idiot.” Yet if Payne really is a satirist (albeit one who occasionally has flings with characterization), it may be useful to distinguish his social from his psychological satire. Payne is usually critiqued for the former—for being a kind of Jerry Springer of the red states. Yet defenders of Payne’s films suggest that this is just projection—a New York liberal snottiness that’s read into Payne’s work. “I’m from Omaha,” such a person might say. “That’s what it’s like!” Okay, you win, Imaginary Proxy for Payne Defenders. But what if we want to look at the latter category? What if we tear away the robust, grubby backdrop of Nebraska—what does Payne think about people?
Sideways is Alexander Payne’s very good movie—prissy, jolly, critically acclaimed, perfectly adequate amusement. (It swept the voting at Film Comment, the Golden Globes, and the film societies of Boston, Chicago, L.A., New York, and San Francisco.) It’s a fun if dowdy film and gives the teen sex comedy a midlife crisis. Neurotic, risk-averse Miles (Paul Giamatti), a wine snob and failed novelist, and extroverted, possibilities-junkie Jack (Thomas Haden Church), a has-been former actor who’s just about to get married, head through wine country, ruminate on the ephemeral nature of life, and meet two hot chicks: Maya (Virginia Madsen), a graceful waitress with gritty wisdom, wine smarts, and affection for Miles; and Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine server who, being an Asian woman in an American movie, plays de facto sex magnet to horny Jack.
Payne’s least tricked up, most obviously humanist
film, Sideways has generally been praised for its compassion. Yet the
question of whether Payne is a compassionate or a satirical filmmaker
suggests that these are mutually exclusive terms. More useful to say that
Payne is trying to meld the formal resources of satire and humanism into
a new genre. Sideways is a rowdy, picaresque “guys being guys”
movie; the scene with Miles grabbing Jack’s keys is one of the best
scenes of the year. Yet to disinfect satire of its nastiness and humanism
of its sentimentality, Sideways is filled with aesthetic antibodies, ways
for Payne to activate grace around his cumbersome toys of story; hence,
scenes like Maya’s initial rejection of Miles, her soliloquy on
wine, or the pan outside her house after she and Miles sleep together—a
tender time-lapse pan that recalls the famous pan of Genjuro and his lover
(first bathing, then picnicking) in Ugetsu.
“How clever,” we say to ourselves. This is a back-patting cinema and would be more fun if Payne didn’t expect us to congratulate ourselves for being better than fictional characters. That is, Payne swings his satire-hammer not just at, say, the norms and mores of the American Midwest. He wants to use satire to bully the individual into ugliness. Likability emits from Payne protagonists like sound waves: if you’re too far away from them (like the senior citizens at the bourgeois wine trap), then compassion sets itself on mute. Yet one of Sideways’s least compassionate shots is its last close-up on Thomas Haden Church. (Payne is one of the few directors who can make the close-up comedic rather than tragic.) In this shot, Jack finally realizes that he has to give up his boyish exploits and go home to get hitched. He falls on his knees, starts crying hysterically, and pleads with Miles to save his wedding. This is a very complex moment. At first, Jack really does seem sad. This is, we say to ourselves, the genuine regret of Hollywood morality. Then, Jack’s sudden desire to get married just seems like a firm and shallow conviction—typical of Jack, who, like an actor, is eager to believe whatever comes along next. The shot continues and we think not only is Jack an actor but this whole scene is not really about him—it’s about Miles and how Jack can use acting to manipulate him.
But the shot still keeps going. Jack doesn’t
have any new material to work with and just keeps crying. Here, in the
theater I was in, a third of the audience busted out laughing, as if an
adequate response to crying was derision—as if to say, “Look
at this transparent, crying idiot.” Compare this shot to Yang Kuei-Mei’s
crying at the close of Tsai Ming Liang’s Vive L’Amour; there,
the infinitely long close-up asks us to be uncomfortable, distant, and
empathetic. But in Sideways, we end up leaving with the self-satisfied
knowledge that Jack is totally comprehensible. This is not critique. It