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.