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.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle