Thursday, June 16, 2005

Out 17 June/Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

One Thing 008_rgb
"Teacher, what does life mean?": John Turturro in
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Films set in New York constitute a genre in their own right, one that was made popular and epitomised by that most famous of screen New Yorkers, Woody Allen. A more recent addition to this sub-genre is ‘indie New York’ which includes films like Walking and Talking (1997), Living in Oblivion (1995), Smoke (1996) and Blue in the Face (1996), to name but a few.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, which is being released in the UK after a four-year delay, belongs in this small, but influential genre. Director/writer Jill Sprecher, who co-wrote the film with her sister Karen, is in fact a veteran of the indie scene, having worked as production assistant in the 1982 cult movie Liquid Sky and previously directed Clockwatchers (1997).

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing uses the capital of the 20th century as a place which seems to contain all of life, full of people questioning the meaning of life. This more relaxed, flaneurish representation of the city is in a sharp contrast with the real place where much of what that life entails seems to go unnoticed of because people are just too busy with the hustle and jostle of the metropolis.

Sprecher's multi-layered narrative explores the question of the interconnectedness of those millions of lives and how the smallest actions, as similarly suggested by Chaos Theory, always have a consequence. This may sound like the type of conversation you could have in a late-night bar in downtown Manhattan under the glow of a neon light, but Sprecher goes well beyond cod-philosophising with her superbly written and executed film.

Funnily enough, the film does start in a bar where the lawyer played by Matthew McConaughey is celebrating his promotion with the firm where he works at. He has a brief exchange with the insurance manager played by Joseph Siravo. On his way back home, the lawyer hits someone with his car, but doesn't stop to help. That person turns out to be Beatrice (Clea DuVall), a relentlessly optimist cleaner who believes in the goodness of the human spirit. Then we get introduced to a physics professor (the always excellent John Turturro), who is having an existential crisis and is wondering about the possibility of happiness. And so the narrative ripples out into segments peopled by different characters who in some cases turn out to have a connection with other characters from a different strand of the film. We roam these different micro universes with the camera, like an omnipresent god observing humans meditate about the pursuit of happiness and the awkwardness of life.

This is not a film that tries to impress with plot twists and revelations that solve a puzzle at the end. Sprecher is not interested in exhibitionism – this is more akin to Paul Auster’s books than Usual Suspects-type resolution. The characters and their feelings are more important than narrative conundrums, even though Sprecher's attention to detail does impress. It's also a film with focus on atmosphere and mood. Even though the film is set in contemporary New York, it exudes something retro and timeless about it, maybe thanks to its autumnal hues and light. Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is a very charming, humane film that every self-respecting urbane film lover should be talking about at 3am in the glow of a neon-lit bar.

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