Gilbey on Film: is Six Degrees of Separation the perfect movie?

Our film critic certainly thinks so

John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is about a wealthy Manhattan couple, the Kittredges, who take in for one night a conman posing as the son of Sidney Poitier. He promises them parts in the film version of Cats that his "father" is preparing, and they're dazzled; these pampered socialites roll over like dopey puppies. After the fellow's ruse is exposed, they discover that a couple they know were similarly fooled. This leads them to another man in the same boat. They take their collective complaint to the police, who want to know what was stolen. Only he didn't steal anything.

The play is enjoying a revival at the Old Vic in London, and it was thrilling to hear the 71-year-old playwright hungrily picking the text apart with Tom Sutcliffe on Radio 4's Start the Week. Tempting though it is to read the work as uniquely pertinent to our tweeting, Heat-reading, Brangelina-fixated age, that idea was swiftly rubbished by Guare ("[Celebrity culture] started in the Garden of Eden, I think . . . Cain thought Abel was more famous than he was"). He insisted that it's a play about how our insulated, upholstered cocoons are as fragile as doll's houses. "This young man comes in," he explained, "and brings with him everything [the Kittredges] are trying to keep out of their lives: race, sex, poverty . . ."

I would say that this got me thinking about the 1993 film version, except that I never go very long without thinking about it. I own comparatively few DVDs. My purchasing muscle wasted away a few years ago, around the time I realised that I usually only watch films again when I'm ill; buying them, therefore, became deeply unnecessary, like stockpiling Lemsip. But Six Degrees of Separation is one to which I regularly return. When I tell you it's a perfect movie, I do so in the knowledge that this is a ridiculous assertion, and that there is no such thing as perfection. I also do so knowing I am right. There's nothing about the film that I would change. Who among us can say that even of our own families?

Guare wrote the screenplay. He had made only two previous forays into film, both with foreign directors looking askance at America, and both exceptional -- Milos Forman's first US film, Taking Off, and Louis Malle's Atlantic City. The Australian director of Six Degrees of Separation, Fred Schepisi (it rhymes with "Pepsi"), fell into the same category. Schepisi brought with him his regular cinematographer, Ian Baker, an expert at finding visual correlatives for that little-people-adrift-in-unfriendly-landscapes theme that had haunted the director since he made his other masterpiece, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, in 1978.

The cast is like an ideal dinner party guest-list. Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland, as the Kittredges, perform a pas de deux that is also a balancing act between vulnerability and monstrousness. (A pas de deux and a balancing act: can you imagine the flexibility involved? Not to mention the risk of sprained ankles.) As the bogus Poitier Jr, Will Smith is enigmatic, seductive, complex -- all the things that superstardom has ironed out of him. And there are gorgeous miniature character studies from Ian McKellen as a South African millionaire (there's a whole complicated lifetime behind the way he says "the blecks"), Bruce Davison, Anthony Michael Hall, Heather Graham and others. Some of these actors get only a handful of scenes, but there's the suspicion, through the harmonious confluence of writing, acting and directing, that every character could easily have merited his or her own movie.

What clinches it all is the narrative structure, the nimble editing (by Peter Honess). I want to liken it to a mosaic because of the accumulation of mysteries and profundities. In fact, it's more fluid than that suggests; it's closer to a word-association game, or a string of sense-memories. This is a kind of film-making that aspires to reproduce consciousness, where our divisions between past, present and future are elided. It's linked closely with Alain Resnais and Nicolas Roeg (you can see it in Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi, too), and has come into vogue in the rather academic jigsaw-puzzle structures favoured by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Arriaga (21 Grams, Babel). Schepisi attempted milder versions in his films The Russia House and Last Orders. But I don't think another film has integrated this storytelling pattern into mainstream cinema as ambitiously and accessibly as Six Degrees of Separation.

Here's Schepisi discussing the method with regard to The Russia House:

[T]here's a point where Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer meet in the tower, and all those beautiful Russian churches are outside. And you think you're just watching them, but actually you're watching five different time zones in the story: you're watching them and the tensions they're going through; you're watching a spy watching them; you're watching the spy's report back to his bosses in the form of a tape, a number of days after the event; and then you're watching two sections of the past, as Michelle Pfeiffer tells a story.

I think that's how we tell stories. It's how memory operates, how our thoughts operate, because we go on memory, we go on apprehension of the present, and we go on hopes or expectations for the future. When you tell a story, you're throwing other lights on it, which makes the story richer and more interesting. We can't stop saying, "Yeah, but don't forget the time you did such and such . . ."

He's a brilliant director, sorely underrated and rarely discussed. If you can find copies, check out The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The Devil's Playground (his 1976 debut), A Cry in the Dark and Iceman. But see Six Degrees of Separation first. If it doesn't blow you away, then I'm Sidney Poitier's pride and joy.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit