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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.