Playing by Heart
directed by Willard Carroll
Movies that weave together three, four, five or more separate stories: We now see a sprinkling of these oddities every year. They’re generally independent productions, and usually melodramas, a form that allows for enough tonal variation that the films are seldom mistaken for each other. Altman’s Short Cuts is perhaps the best-known of the last half-decade, and whether or not you count that film an artistic success (I don’t), you have to allow that it’s mainly the distinctiveness of Altman’s authorial voice that weighs against the chief downside of what I hereby dub the loose-leaf drama–by and large, they simply don’t work.
The latest one of these capacious gambles, Willard Carroll’s Playing by Heart–a title that might at least have been reserved for a mediocre film that involves music–testifies yet to the built-in lack of focus that is this form’s main frustration. Yet it also reminds us of one reason the form refuses to go away: Melodrama has an unquenchable appeal, but American movies no longer know how to deal comfortably with ordinary characters in melodramatic stories, partly, perhaps, because a single, standard-issue melodrama seems too thin, too common, too old hat to grab anyone’s attention. Trying to overcome that by converting one run-of-the-mill story into many–presto! voila!–may be a dumb solution, but at least you see where the impulse comes from. And if you’re basically on the side of melodrama, always hoping to see it persuasively resuscitated, as I am, you can forgive a large measure of that dumbness.
In the case of Playing by Heart, you’re also tempted to forgive a degree of softheadedness since the setting–nay, the omnipresent, enveloping weltschmerz–is L.A. Intersplicing six tales that for much of the movie appear to have no connection, Carroll’s script puts an unsurprising emphasis on relationships and the conundrums that they involve. In story one (the ordering is mine), a stiff, emotionally straitjacketed theater director named Meredith (Gillian Anderson) meets a cool, laidback Mr. Right (Jon Stewart) but can’t relax her defenses enough to let him tickle her fancy. Will he persist against her stony rejections, or allow her to perish within her fortress of solitude? (Whatever the outcome, give the script credit for a few felicities. These characters meet-cute when she turns over a library bookcase full of periodicals. He notes that she should be okay since she landed on a copy of George–”lots of padding.”)
Story two also involves someone who’s romantically ready pursuing someone who’s definitely not, but here the characters are in their 20s and the sexes are reversed. Joan (Angelina Jolie) meets Keenan (Ryan Phillippe), a sullen, blue-haired punkoid, in a dance club; she’s ready to tango, but he’s hostage to a deep, dark secret that she’ll not only have to discover but exorcise to make him boyfriend material. Secrets figure into other tales, too. In story three, Sean Connery and Gena Rowlands are a long-married couple, creators of a successful
cooking show, whose picture-book life gets torpedoed by an undisclosed illness. In story four, Madeleine Stowe and Anthony Edwards are carrying on a supposedly just-for-sex affair that has to be hidden from the world, but that’s mostly threatened by the fact that one of them has more invested in it emotionally than the other.
Story five, the movie’s cryptic wild card, has Dennis Quaid as a tv-executive type who keeps showing up sloshed in bars and restaurants, giving strangers fervent sob stories about his past, but altering these accounts radically every time we see him. And story six features Ellen Burstyn as an uptight mom whose son (Jay Mohr), dying of AIDS in a hospital, proposes that they play a game and tell each other the truth about their lives, for once. She surprises him by instantly admitting that she never loved his dad, which spurs both mom and son toward other revelations and the onset of an understanding that’s sad only in that it comes so late.
Like almost every playlet it contains, Playing by Heart itself has a secret, a last-reel trump card that “explains” what connects the six tales. No, it’s not that “all the characters belong to Alcoholics Anonymous,” or “all the actors have had dinner with Harvey Weinstein.” Miramax has asked that we reviewers not give away this narrative twist, and I’ll respect that request even if doing so tends to suggest that the secret is really juicy, which it isn’t, or that its revelation totally compensates for the fact that we’ve spent the whole movie wondering, “Why are we watching these six sets of people and not six, five or eight others?” It doesn’t.
The secret that Miramax was previously famous for urging critics to keep, that of The Crying Game, actually explains lots that happens prior to its appearance in Neil Jordan’s astute psychological drama. The one in Playing by Heart explains nothing; it’s merely a gimmick to tie up the narrative threads while providing a bit of last-minute uplift and a glancing impression of thematic coherence. In fact, though, it mainly serves to reveal the random, overstuffed, uneven nature of the film that precedes it. Walking out, you realize how useless the Ellen Burstyn AIDS episode is to the whole, followed closely by the Madeleine Stowe-Anthony Edwards segment. So you start to think: Take those two stories out and there might’ve been room to do something really interesting with the other four, although the Gillian Anderson and the Dennis Quaid sections already seem like one-idea conceits stretched as far as they can be…etc.
But you can’t muse this way for long, because it simply leads you into a frenzy of close inspection that Playing by Heart can’t withstand. It is a melodrama, after all, one saddled with a concept and structure that won’t allow it to be satisfying except intermittently, in flashes and fragments. There are some of those, supplied more by the actors and the dramatic premises than by any brilliance in the mounting: Connery and Rowlands bring the grace of old pros to a bittersweet account of age’s encroachment; Quaid manages a convincing meshing of devilry and desperation; and although Jolie overacts, she and Phillippe evoke the neediness and confusion of young lovers battling formidable odds, in the tale that’s the most charged and fully developed of the six.
Still, six. Why that many? The main angle from which most loose-leaf dramas make sense, if you think of it, is what can be called the video-box rationale. This is what the producer sees: Even if the movie tanks at the box office, if it doesn’t cost too
much it can turn a tidy profit on video because of all the star names on the box. “Look, dear–Sean Connery, Gillian Anderson, Dennis Quaid, all these others, and we’ve never even heard of this one,” marvels the happy video renter, not stopping to wonder why they’ve never heard of it.
directed by Braden King and Laura Moya
Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, a nonfiction feature that will play Tonic’s Monday Night Film Series on Feb. 1, is a wonderfully spare and evocative portrait of a fishing town perched on the frigid northern edge of the U.S., on an island called Unalaska halfway down the Aleutian archipelago in the Bering Strait. Shot in sharp, contrasty 16-mm black and white,
the film casts a potent spell by adroitly spanning two sorts of objectives: It’s half meditative tone poem about a place of wild and fearsome beauty, half matter-of-fact document about the lives and feelings of the people who inhabit this wintry American outpost.
The film originated in Chicago, where King is a partner in a recording studio and record label called Truckstop Media, and its approach seems much influenced by a minimalist musical esthetic. In fact, though next Monday’s showing will mark its first New York appearance, Dutch Harbor toured Europe last year with live, mostly improvised accompaniment by the Boxhead Ensemble, which performs the soundtrack in the film, composed by Michael Krassner. A CD derived from the European live performances, The Last Place to Go, has been released.
What makes the film so pleasing is that it sticks to a modest but very astute and particular vision without trying to impress the viewer or wedge its subject into a prefab agenda. At first, it tosses out a minimum of orienting facts but mainly stands back and gazes fixedly at Unalaska’s wide and daunting vistas, its slashing seas and enormous swaths of ice and sky. You look at all this and wonder why independent, low-budget filmmakers don’t make more of the countless epics provided by the American
landscape. Certainly, this corner of Alaska–when have you ever seen a film about Alaska, how it looks and feels?–is strange and wondrous enough to be worth staring at for hours on end. Who needs a story?
The communal story that Dutch Harbor eventually tells, though, neatly fits its lyrically observant, non-rhetorical outlook. As the film shifts to views of the town of Dutch Harbor, its fishing vessels and the insides of its enormous seafood processing plants,
we hear the voices of townspeople whose faces we never see (this separation of image and sound deftly reinforces the reflective mood): In flat, very contemporary-American tones, they relate little details of their lives and muse on the up-and-down
fortunes of a community that was a boomtown a few years back but has now subsided toward a kind of muted normalcy, with an aftermath of shuttered businesses and a slowly declining population.
In a place defined by stark natural contrasts, one human contrast stands out: People wryly describe the numbing, factory-like monotony of working in the seafood plants, yet they talk of Unalaska itself as the last remnant of America’s untamed frontier, the only remaining shred of the Wild West. Alas, some also lament, it, too, is going, falling victim to America’s penchant for civilizing and homogenizing all its possessions. Perhaps it is, you think, but this landscape has something about it that looks forever alien and untamable, an obduracy that belongs to the most elemental of wildernesses. With its W.P.A.-meets-alt.rock sensibility, Dutch Harbor provides that lingering frontier with an elegy that’s hard-bitten and haunting.
Dutch Harbor, Mon., Feb. 1, 9 p.m., at Tonic, 107 Norfolk St., (betw. Delancey & Rivington Sts.), 358-7503.