The International Writers Magazine: DVD Review

Nine Lives
written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Dan Schnieder review

eed the sins of the father be visited upon the son? Not if the terrific, nay, great, little 2005 film, Nine Lives, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia is Exhibit A.

Garcia is the son of famed Nobel Prize winning magical realist fictionist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of Love In A Time Of Cholera and One Hundred Years Of Solitude fame. Yet, despite that fame, the father’s work, in novels and short fictions, is usually baroque and anomic in narrative, and hollow and superficial in characterization. In this film, his son, however, shows how quickly and deftly a whole life can be sketched and distilled - if not contained, in just ten to twelve real time minutes, doing something his father never did- create complex and compelling characters and situations. He has a human touch in his art that his father has always lacked with his magical realism.

This hour and fifty-two minute film is, in short, antithetical to everything Garcia’s father’s art stands for. And, as a filmgoer, you should be very thankful for that! I’d never heard of this director, but heard good things about this film. However, I never take such recommendations too seriously, because for every great film like this I am told I need to see pretentious trash, like Crash, this past year’s Oscar winner, an ensemble film that only wishes it could have a fraction of the hyper-realism this film does. Prior to this film, Garcia had directed commercials, some television episodes, including The Sopranos, and two prior low budget films- 2001 Ten Tiny Love StoriesT, and 2000’s Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her.

The film that this most reminded me of was Jill Sprecher’s great 2001 film, 13 Conversations About One Thing, save that that film wove all its character’s plights into a single loose thread, while this film is simply nine short films with a few crossover characters. Jim Jarmusch’s recent compilation film of related short subjects, Coffee And Cigarettes, also mines this territory and style, but with nowhere near the success of Nine Lives. Of the nine segments, all named after the lead female character within, for Garcia seems to have a reputation as a woman’s filmmaker, seven are brilliant or great, and the two weaker pieces are still good, solid films that experiment with the medium. However, any short story collection that was published, with seven of its nine tales being great would become a classic.

Let me tackle each film as they come, individually, and then connect up the whole. The first scene, Sandra, is one of the weaker ones, but it sets up the theme that people (and the whole really is about people- they just happen to be female; the film is no Feminazi screed) are their own jailers, for this film’s lead is Sandra (Elpidia Carrillo), a Chicana LA County jailmate who freaks out when the phone to speak to her daughter on visiting day does not work. There are some scenes of the ritual abuses by fellow inmates and guards, but it does not take us long to see Sandra’s a nasty headcase. Some film critics have inferred that Sandra is in for prostitution, but this is never made clear in this film, nor in Sandra’s brief appearance in a later film.

The next film is Diana, wherein the lead character, played by Robin Wright Penn, meets up with an old flame, Damian (Jason Isaacs), at a supermarket. Garcia’s writing here is superb, for the whole setup is so trite. He subverts expectations by having Diana be pregnant, meeting her old lover after a decade apart. They make small talk, he reveals he still has a thing for her- for they were Damian and Diana to all who knew them, even though both are now married, and if you’re saying, this is trite, well, no- for triteness depends not just upon a familiar setup, but a familiar execution of that setup, and it is in the words the characters say, and more importantly, what they do not say, and how they act with their faces and bodies, that make this scene ‘real’, and work. Penn conveys her indecision, irresolution, in very subtle ways, and after they part, after a tender moment, she rushes out into the parking lot, but Damian is gone. Yes, on paper this is a dramatic cliché, but such clichés get to be clichés because they occur so often in reality. How to subvert it, and make it fresh and believable is key. Garcia sparkles in this film.

This segment follows its titular character, Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton), a weird young black woman with manifest psycho-emotional problems, as she returns home to confront her stepfather. Instead, she finds her sexy younger sister Vanessa (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) waiting for her. She has her sister call her stepdad to come home, for they have things to discuss. He eventually says he’ll come right over. Some critics have taken this scene as a stepdaughter (because the two sisters are black, and the ‘father’ white Hispanic) confronting her sexual abuser, but no evidence supports this. That there is a schism is no doubt, as when the stepdad, Ron (Miguel Sandoval), who was one of the guards in the prison episode with Sandra, comes home, Holly threatens to shoot him, then herself, and then the episode ends, but to assume there was incest is too easy an assumption. Clearly, Holly is not all there, and often false claims of abuse are the mentally ill’s way of justifying their actions. Since we hear nothing from the stepdad, we have no way of determining what the correct interpretation is. This is a good choice, dramatically, to leave us hanging, for it saves the only episode that could have been bad, and makes it worthwhile.

The fourth film is Sonia, which follows Holly Hunter’s character, as she nags the shit out of her haggard beau, Martin (Stephen Dillane), as they go over to visit their married friends, Lisa (Molly Parker) and Damian (Jason Isaacs) - the erst-lover of the second film’s Diana. The couple bickers the bulk of this film over small things like her elevator phobia until, as they settle down with their friends, she gets all passive-aggressive on him, embarrasses him, and he responds by revealing a schism they had over an abortion she had several years before. The film ends with the couple pouting and sulking. There is no grand revelation here, even over the abortion. What the film shows, though, is how couples truly react to each other. Will this one make it? Could be, or not. Therein the real drama, realistically conveyed.

The central film, number five, is Samantha, which is about a teenaged girl, played by Amanda Seyfried, who is torn between wanting to be her own person, and dealing with her invalid father Larry (Ian McShane) and her doting mother, Ruth (Sissy Spacek), who seem to love each other, but are rarely in the same frame together. Seyfried really conveys the angst of a teeneager realizing that there is more to life than her woes, and the film works well, especially its subtle but symbolic ending.

The sixth film, Lorna, is the most daring of the films, thematically, visually, and narratively. The lead character (Amy Brenneman) is attending her deaf ex-husband’s second wife’s funeral with her mother and father. The ex, Andrew (William Fichtner), still has a thing for her, and after escorting her to a private room, before the funeral is done, he bears his soul via sign language, including the fact that his second wife was just a replacement for Lorna, and that he still masturbates over her. They have a very quick sex scene (Andrew must be one of those incontinent ejaculators), and the film ends with someone knocking on the door, looking for Andrew. Lisa, from Sonia, is also at the funeral.

The seventh film is Ruth, wherein the mother (Sisy Spacek) from Samantha is at a motel with a man she plans to consummate an affair of the heart with, Henry (Aidan Quinn). He seems a nice guy, and as they make their way to their room, his comments on life and guilt make her rethink her position. They see cops bust into another motel room and arrest a woman, who turns out to be Sandra (Elpidia Carrillo) from the first film. Whether this is what landed her in jail, or takes place later, we do not know, for the films are never given a chronological context vis-à-vis the others. The scene of Ruth watching Sandra taken away is what leads others to believe her arrest was for prostitution, but when Ruth wanders over to room, where a female cop is looking over things, there is no john, and it is more likely a drug bust, as evidence is being gathered and bagged. Nonetheless, Ruth returns to he room, and cannot cheat on her husband, especially after returning a call from Samantha.

The penultimate film is Camille, which follows Kathy Baker’s character for a double mastectomy in a hospital room. One of her nurses is Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton), from the third film. Camille’s husband Richard (Joe Mantegna) is there to comfort her, and really steals the scene, by his reactions, and what he does not say, as Camille babbles on and on until she is sedated, and falls asleep. This film deals with the indignity of a person being treated like meat by impersonal health care workers and bureaucracies. Of all the scenes it is the most understated, dramatically, and in terms of where the overall film is going, but it is the best acted. Baker proves she can be bitchy, albeit understandably, after years of playing perfect tv moms, and Mantegna is superb- so believable because you never doubt he’s ‘real’. He never ‘acts’. This is important, because in a DVD Q&A session, in the special features. he explains his disdain for Hollywood’s penchant for honoring over the top acting of actors who play blind people, gays, retards, freaks, dying people, or the blind- think Rain Man, Philadelphia, The Scent Of A Woman, The Hours, Monster, Boys Don’t Cry, Forrest Gump, etc.

The final film, Maggie, follows a mother (Glenn Close) and daughter, Maria (Dakota Fanning), on a trip to a cemetery to visit someone. They frolic and then the mother breaks down, as her daughter holds her. The camera does a 360° turn in the final moments, and we end seeing Maggie folding up her picnic blanket alone, in front of a headstone we never see the name of. Some critics believe that this is proof that Maggie’s daughter is dead, and this was all in her mind. They also state that Close is too old and Fanning too young to be a believable mother and daughter. Not really. Close is in her mid fifties, and Fanning a pre-teen, so a pregnancy in her early forties is not out of the question. But, the dead daughter theory fails on two scores. First, is that, unlike his father, there is no other moment in the overall film that hyper-realism is not the rule, and where magical realism invades. To think that the last film, and its last moments would break that rule needs more evidence, and none exists. The rule that Garcia actually does break, albeit very subtly, is the ‘one continuous take’ rule, for in the last moments we see Close fall asleep on her daughters lap, then we get the rotation, and midway through it, the camera passes a big tree, which serves as a cutting point, but this is a minor rule break, much the way Hitchcock used such screening devices to pretend there were no cuts in Rope. For, as the pan continues, and we arrive back at Close, we see that some time must have passed, for the shadows, in the exact same position she was in when she fell asleep, were at two o’clock. When we arrive full circle, the shadows are at ten o’clock, and Maggie leaves grapes on the grave. It is not difficult to assume that Maria is merely off gallivanting in the cemetery that fascinates her, or chasing the cat they saw.

This is not to say that the dead daughter interpretation is not possible, but the more likely explanation is the theory I advance, for the shadows are definitely in a different position, while we have no evidence Maria is dead. Whether Garcia intended my interpretation I do not know, but in the DVD special features, a featurette on the making of that segment states that a dozen or more takes were done, and the tree would be a good spot to splice together differing takes, as were a few other, earlier moments in this last film, and in the other segments. In short, the one continuous take claim is demonstrably false. Whether this led to an early morning scene being spliced with a later shot ending was an intended thing, or not, is up in the air, but intent is meaningless. The net result is that, via Occam’s Razor, makes the dead daughter surmise, less tenable and justifiable.

  The DVD comes with no commentary, but with about seventy minites of a Q&A session with Garcia, and four of the film’s actors, as well as four small featurettes and a bevy of trailers; although not its own. In the Q&A, Lisa Gay Hamilton makes some good points on the philosophy an actor should take when auditioning.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the overall film comes in the Ruth film, where the Aidan Quinn character, Henry, while watching a nature documentary, tells Ruth that the documentary is spliced together from moments separated by years and miles to force a narrative and connections where none actually exist. This technique, though, sometimes makes people overconnect- such as with Holly’s supposed molestation, Sandra’s supposed prostitution, and the dead daughter trope in the final film. It’s also telling that some of the overlapping characters are so subtly interposed that it’s only by reading the end credits that we are sure that they are who they are.

Other films, like Magnolia and Grand Canyon, try this overlapping technique, but they all tie things up at the end, often with all the characters meeting. These films are merely moments that will be big memories in the minds of each of the protagonists, in years to come. The backstories are implied so well, subtly and quickly, that it’s not at all difficult to get into each scene within minutes of their starting. Yet, to know everything in those backstories would beg triteness and lengthen the film so that only two, perhaps three, of the stories, could still fit within.

Garcia shows great command of his medium with his objective Chekhovian writing and zero endings, for what could have easily become a New Agey or Chick Flick piece of schlock. Unlike such films as Time Code, this experiment in filmic narrative works, and is a worthy descendant of the filmic experiments that Ingmar Bergman pioneered in the 1960s. It should have been one of the films nominated for an Oscar, along with other underappreciated films like The New World, Match Point, and Shopgirl. But, Hollywood keeps on churning out schlock like Brokeback Mountain instead, while films like this are shunted aside. Fight back, watch this film, talk about it with others, and make sure that the powerbrokers know that there is a market for such films. It’s the only way there will be more of them.

© Dan Schneider, June 2006

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