Here’s another attempt at film theory. 🙂 Spoilers ahead.
Many people have forgotten the film Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne. Admittedly, it hasn’t aged as well as it used to, but I do think there are things to like about it. One of these characteristics is the idea of scenery as its own character. Payne is not the first director to do this, but I would argue that he uses it better than most directors today. We also must give credit to his cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and if you look at it beyond the acting itself, Sideways is a much better film visually than people give it credit for. If you watch it, perhaps you’ll feel the same way. If not, this is just my interpretation of it.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen this film. I misplaced my original copy and only picked it up again tonight. It doesn’t hurt that I live behind a Barnes and Noble, but I digress. What Payne does magnificently in Sideways is that he uses California wine country as its own character. It tells its own story. In a way, it’s almost the hero of the story. Miles and Jack, played respectively by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, are not wicked, but Payne’s interpretation of “Americana” leaves a lot of anti-heroes in his films. Miles is the more likable of the two, and there’s a certain endearing quality to him that many of us identify with – he’s a down-on-his luck middle school teacher and would-be novelist who is also an expert on everything involving wine. His encyclopedic knowledge of it, more specifically Pinot Noir, serves as much of the ends of the story. There’s no “villain” in this story, except for inner psychology. Miles’ depression and issues with his self-confidence make rather compelling antagonists, if we want to use the term that way. Paul Giamatti is like many character actors – they’ll seek out the supporting roles, but can hold their own when given leading roles. And Giamatti isn’t your typical leading man in this film – despite his best efforts, there’s nothing really heroic about him; there are scenes where he’s willing to take money from his own mother for his passions. Admittedly, there is something a little professorial about him, by which I mean he can come across as a know-it-all, but I think Payne purposely chooses his scripts carefully to highlight the humanism in his characters. Most of the films Payne makes are adapted from novels (this one comes from a novel by Rex Pickett). Part of Miles’ problem as a writer is that he can’t figure out how to tell his story; by his own admission, it changes direction quickly, and then “devolves into a sort of Robbe-Grillet mystery.” But I think that adds to Miles’ character – he’s doing his best amidst all the confusion. Of all the things I like about this film, Giamatti shows that an effective film doesn’t always have to have a “suave” leading man – there’s a noticeable bald spot in the back of his head, and he’s a little stockier than he is in other films. George Clooney was considered for Miles by the studios, but Payne picked his actors deliberately to prove that the story is more important than who’s telling it. To me, Giamatti proves that it can be about the performance and not about the “look” of an actor.
In many ways, this sets up Church’s character Jack as a perfect foil. His character Jack is an actor in the middle of a dry spell, whose name still holds considerable swagger for him to be a ladies’ man. Whatever knowledge he lacks in wine, he makes up for in confidence, to the point of cockiness. Their characters were roommates at San Diego State University, and I love seeing the contrast between them. While Jack is described as an “incorrigible Lothario,” who is on the verge of marriage while wanting one last weekend, Miles’ self-deprecating style draws him in to other parts of the film. His eventual relationship with Maya (Virginia Madsen) helps him regain some of his confidence, as he displays later in the film, when he comes through and helps Jack out after two women call him out on his activities. When Jack’s sincere side shows up, resulting in him breaking down in tears and saying “I know I’m a bad person, but you have to help me, Miles!,” the fact that Miles decides to help him is a testament to the relationship that the two men share. The idea is that both men have a mid-life crisis, albeit for different reasons and in different ways. That’s a story that isn’t told all that often, because of the notion of looks and beauty driving our interests. That’s the driving factor to this film, which isn’t seen a lot of the time in the medium nowadays.
Much of the humor is dry, and admittedly, it does require you to think about it a little bit to get the joke. But I prefer that kind of humor. My favorite example of this is when Miles waxes eloquent about various wines and the wineries that make them. Later in the film, he makes an unfavorable review of a wine, comparing it, in the same paragraph, to tar, turpentine, mouthwash, and Raid. Jack’s retort, naturally, is “Tastes pretty good to me.” Additionally, Miles going off to Jack about how he refuses to drink any Merlot is one of the most iconic scenes of the film. Although they don’t go into detail about it in the film, it’s apparently not its quality as much as it brings back sad memories of his ex-wife. The scene that Miles and Maya share about their passion for wine is brilliantly written, paced, and acted. Each winery has a charm to it, even if Miles doesn’t like it too much. Miles is witty, while Jack is crass. It’s a study in humor contrasts.
Visually, in addition to the scenery being its own character, the DVD commentary gives another interesting take on characters. Most of the time when we see Miles, he’s wearing lighter-colored shirts, noticeably in varying shades of blue. There’s an interesting metaphor to the “gloomy” part of his personality. He even admits to Maya that he has to live “bottle to bottle.” But Maya gives him hope for himself, when she tells him about his prized 1961 Cheval Blanc. “The day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc, that’s the special occasion.” The sad part is that he ends up opening it after a depressing scene where he finds out his ex-wife is pregnant (he says earlier in the film that the only thing they saw eye-to-eye on was not having children), and he opens it in a McDonalds. At the same time, I think that shows his human side. I’ve always liked more vulnerable, “human” characters in film. Related to this, Maya’s monologue about the life of wine is laid out beautifully by fiery, reddish-orange colors surrounding her – lighting, clothing, and furniture. Maya eventually helps him show his funnier and calmer side, even if things don’t quite go his way. You hope that he lands on his feet. Ironically, for all of his antics, Jack does land on his – they concoct a story that gets him off the hook (even with a broken nose) with his fiancee. But I think by this point, it’s hard to resist Jack’s charm.
Not only do I love this film, but most of Payne’s works are among my favorite films. His other films also use the scenery as its own character – The Descendants in Hawaii, Nebraska in the Heartland. But this film’s scenery is probably my favorite – there’s something about the area that is not often seen in his film.
Anyway, I’m getting pedantic. But this is my attempt at explaining many of the subtleties I saw, and hopefully some of you can now watch the film for the first time, or view it from a different lens.