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Film review, Reverse Shot - Spring 2004
Dir. Alexander Payne, U.S., 20th Century Fox

Satire is the narrative of critique, but its critique is like Hulk Hogan telling us he could knock out Andre the Giant. All satire tells us that is one fake thing is better than another fake thing. A satire’s insights cheat because the author flauntingly exposes something that he himself has hidden, traps that the satirist points to and says “life.” Yet if we dislike satire because it’s too easy—the author points out the hypocrisy of characters he’s invented—then why shouldn’t we disapprove of any, necessarily fictive trait that an author attributes to her characters? If all emotions we attribute to fake people are also fake, then why should hypocrisy be any more problematic? One reason is that satire expects its consequences to snake out from the work itself. Satires are narrative fallacies of composition, a way of saying that because some persons are X, that all persons must be. No one would say that all captured French aviators intend to produce theater in WWI jails (Grand Illusion), but satire expects us to believe that if a person commits a few embarrassing acts, their entire self is unforgivable (Fahrenheit 9/11, a satire that used documentary footage). But, then why should we compliment someone like Mikio Naruse or Kenji Mitzoguchi for having “compassion” towards their female characters, when these same directors are also their torturers, the authors of their characters’ degradations? If the typical early Zhang Yimou movie suggests that Gong Li is every woman in feudal China, then is humanism only a compassionate satire? No, here satire reverses polarity. The “compassionate” filmmaker sets her subjects in the far off room of difference, a place we can reach not by sympathy or identification, but by empathy. Satire, however, is only superficially daring. It flatters the audience’s individuality by saying that everyone else is generic, but this flattery only works because well-received satires are inherently unsubversive. They coddle us for having the same prejudices as everyone else. If one agrees with the prejudices, the satire is irrelevant; if one disagrees, it is crude, unpersuasive.

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.

Yet I think this cross-breeding defangs his critique (Does Sideways have a critique?) and neuters his characters of independence. Regardless of what you make of Payne’s social perspectives, you cannot admit that he creates real people. Payne’s films are a Tom Wolfe clone factory; he makes portable cartoons, gargoyles that—like Dickens’s—can easily be pealed off and stuck onto the world like bumper stickers. I’ve heard lots of people say, “She’s just like Reese Witherspoon in Election”—an intrusion of character into modern vernacular probably unmatched by any other young director. But this just means that Payne’s characters are useful stereotypes. When Payne tries to create uninflected people, non-cartoons, they go slack. (This is not to say that the characters are not entertaining or moving, just that they are rarely real or surprising.) In Sideways, it’s hard to guess what it’d be like to have a conversation with Maya or Stephanie. We have no idea why Maya likes Miles. (Might there be a reason why she’s smitten before the film even starts, so Payne doesn’t have to explain?) Miles and Jack, on the other hand, are too easy to figure out, lovable cartoons, rascals who are losers by rote. Here’s a brief guide to Miles’s predictable twitches: if he says something, it will be pretentious, wrong, fearful, or hypocritical; if he has an emotion, it’ll be repressed, sullen neuroticism; if he describes something, like his novel or pinot noire, he’ll really be describing himself! You get the feeling that Payne pitched the film by saying, “Okay, I’ve got it. There’ll be two guys. One guy’ll be nerdy, the other guy a jock! One guy’ll fat, the other buff!” But this would be too subtle. Since the audience is clearly too dumb to get the joke, Payne goes on—“Yeah, let’s even give them matching stains! Red wine on Miles and blood on Jack!”

“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 is unkindness.



All content, unless otherwise noted, (c) Ken Chen, 1998-2006. Ken Chen can be reached by email.

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