International Writers Magazine: DVD Review
written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Dan Schnieder review
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 fathers 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
Garcias fathers art stands for. And, as a filmgoer, you
should be very thankful for that! Id 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 years 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 2000s Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her.
The film that this most reminded me of was Jill Sprechers great
2001 film, 13 Conversations About One Thing, save that that film
wove all its characters plights into a single loose thread, while
this film is simply nine short films with a few crossover characters.
Jim Jarmuschs 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 womans 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 films 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 Sandras 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 Sandras brief appearance in a later
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. Garcias 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 youre
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 hell 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 ills 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 Hunters 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 films
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-husbands second wifes 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 Bakers character
for a double mastectomy in a hospital room. One of her nurses is Holly
(Lisa Gay Hamilton), from the third film. Camilles 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 hes real. He never acts.
This is important, because in a DVD Q&A session, in the special
features. he explains his disdain for Hollywoods 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 Dont Cry, Forrest
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
Maggies 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 oclock.
When we arrive full circle, the shadows are at ten oclock, 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 Occams 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 films 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 Hollys supposed molestation, Sandras
supposed prostitution, and the dead daughter trope in the final film.
Its also telling that some of the overlapping characters are so
subtly interposed that its 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
its 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. Its
the only way there will be more of them.
© Dan Schneider, June 2006
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