Friday, August 26, 2011

Growing in New York

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

Chris Terrio’s Heights is a minor film – nothing about it could ever have merited any particular attention. But it’s surprising how much pleasure one can sometimes extract from such quarters. The film focuses on a group of mostly privileged New Yorkers through a single day, during which (of course) some of their lives radically change. Elizabeth Banks is a struggling photographer a month away from getting married to her lawyer boyfriend (James Marsden). Her mother is a famous actor-director (Glenn Close) with major diva tendencies and problems in her own marriage. Meanwhile, a Vanity Fair writer works on a profile of a famous, and famously unpleasant, photographer, and a young actor auditions for Close while seeming to have something on his mind.

Lack Of Definition

The general theme is the difficulty of finding contentment and meaningful self-definition in contemporary society, which is the theme of many middlebrow movies, and not handled here with any great panache. The film has a generally cool, sculptured quality that sometimes seems to indicate a lack of intuition on Terrio’s part. For example, it becomes clear that Banks is meant to embody a particularly self-interested, closed-off kind of New York woman, someone so self-absorbed that she habitually can’t be bothered to ask for people’s names, but this has to be gleaned merely from what other people say about her, since Banks comes over simply as a nice if understandably preoccupied woman. The plotting is odd too. Of course, it’s contrived and coincidence-laden in the way these things often are, but even allowing for that, it’s peculiar how the secret life of Banks’ fiancée is exposed almost simultaneously from two different directions. And then the very nature of that secret life, which I won’t reveal here, may strike people as hokey, old-fashioned stuff.

The film expresses its theme through such devices as Close’s frequent recourse to Shakespearean and other quotation, expressing her basic emotional inadequacy and lack of empathy, and through Banks’ photography, viewed here as a means of putting up a barrier between herself and real life. This finds an echo in the unseen but much mentioned megastar photographer who sleeps with all his models and seems to use the lens as a means of control and wanton self-gratification (but then the portrayal of two problematic photographers seems like another odd duplication). The movie has an amusing sideline in somewhat bemused supporting characters quirkily grappling with their circumstances. Prime among these is George Segal as a rabbi who meets with the engaged couple, using a series of banal props and questions to steer through the issue of inter-faith marriage.

An aside - at a party at her mother’s house, Banks meets a man with a bizarre accent that he eventually identifies as being Welsh. I know something about Welsh accents and this came as a big surprise to me – I thought he was Scandinavian. It appears though that the actor Andrew Howard may indeed be Welsh, so I’m not sure what says about my own radar. Anyway, this man comes to embody all the spirit and daring and creativity that’s missing from Banks’ life. I guess it’s a Dylan Thomas allusion, although it’s true – just about any Welsh guy will do that for you.

Merchant Ivory

Heights is a Merchant Ivory production, and there’s some poignancy in the fact that Ismail Merchant died a few weeks ago. The partnership lost a bit of its luster since the heyday of A Room With A View and Howards End, but continued to be a byword for refinement and taste. I have seen just about all the films, but I’m not sure there’s a single one I’ve seen twice; the films are easy pleasures, never suggesting mysteries or complexities demanding further investigation. Consequently, I prefer the relative failures like A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, in which structural and thematic oddities allow a somewhat more interactive (albeit rather perplexed) viewing experience.

In a recent appreciation of Merchant, actor Simon Callow referred to the early Merchant Ivory film Shakespeare Wallah as “perfectly (exemplifying) the territory they made their own: the negotiation between cultures. It would be only a small overstatement to say that every film they have ever made could have as its epigraph E. M. Forster’s great phrase ‘Only Connect’.” But this connection all too often seemed like a matter of basic juxtaposition rather than meaningful investigation. Their last film Le Divorce, was certainly pleasant, but took its cultural analysis no further than swooning over French women’s love of scarves.

Merchant Ivory tried to delve into New York before, with the failed adaptation of Tama Janowicz’s Slaves Of New York. It’s probably useful that they contracted out the job to Terrio this time, but it’s also rather odd that they returned to the same territory. Except that New York, of course, continues to exert a magical pull. Close posits at one point that whereas it’s six degrees of separation everywhere else, it’s only two degrees in New York. This is a bit rich in a movie confined to such a narrow social spectrum, not to mention that the two degrees reflect narrative contrivance rather than any inherent miracle of accessibility. But still, the myth persists, and Heights plunges head first into it, depicting art galleries, the Vanity Fair offices, swanky parties, spectacular views from apartment roofs, and so on.

Still, this all seems rooted in a genuine sense of human curiosity. And the movie has no shortage of amusing small touches and lines. Not the least of these is the appearance by Segal, who I think might be the least appreciated of veteran actors. His work in Blume And Love, California Split, Loving and other 70’s films remains a marvel of regular-guy complexity, and even though he’s long slipped into minor roles, he pulls them off with a uniquely quirky, shambling kind of timing. His appearance in Heights struck me as a considerable treat.

Saving Face

Alice Wu’s Saving Face is another small film centered on contemporary New York relationships. Set in the Asian American community, it shows a successful young doctor beset by marriage pressure from her widowed mother, who doesn’t realize the daughter is gay. And then the mother gets pregnant by a man she refuses to name. Scandal and complication ensue. This is a much more vibrant, zippy creation than Heights, in a more consistently comic vein, and the characters jump warmly off the screen. It reaches an inevitably liberal, inclusive outcome, but only at the cost (again) of huge contrivance, and huge changes of attitude by numerous characters. Unlike Heights, this doesn’t seem to evidence any serious investigative intent – it’s just bulldozing to a happy ending. The film earns much goodwill just through its existence, and the actors are most beguiling, but it’s just too darn small to really care.

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