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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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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