A couple words of introduction: Todd Restler has been commenting on my site for a while now, and he’s one of those people whose comments are so thoughtful, and so enthusiastic, that I always get excited when I get an alert that he has “said something” on my site. A while back, in a conversation on my site, he mentioned the movie “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing”, a movie he loves, and I said I hadn’t seen it. He was so passionate about it, that I ordered it from Netflix right away and watched it. I’m not sure why I didn’t see it back in 2001, when it came out. It’s certainly my kind of movie. Maybe the title turned me off? I can’t even remember, but I watched it, and fell in love with it. Todd had not overstated how good it is. We exchanged some private emails about it, and his analysis was thrilling to read. He saw much in it that I, having just seen it, didn’t pick up on. (I can be slow on the draw, anyway.) We had a couple of exchanges, and it occurred to me that his thoughts were too good to just sit in my mailbox, read only by me. I asked him if he wanted to write up a review for my site. He accepted. I am so happy to share this essay by Todd Restler, complete with eloquent screengrabs from the movie. It’s a thoughtful in-depth piece, and while, obviously, you should expect to encounter spoilers, I hope you check out this movie as soon as possible. And thanks, Todd, for your piece. It’s been really fun chatting back and forth with you about it, and it is my great pleasure to share your thoughts here.
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing: An Appreciation
The secret to life is……
By Todd Restler
It seems almost ludicrous to write this now, but there was once a time around 2002 when I thought Matthew McConaughey had a chance to be one of the all-time great actors. That’s hard to believe considering such roles as Tripp in Failure to Launch, or Connor Mead in Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, and when currently paired with Kate Hudson (another once promising career running amok), the resulting movies are so off-the-charts inane they practically create a new genre. Forgive me for accusing him of embracing the surfer dude image willfully, but starring in films such as Surfer, Dude (not my comma) can create that appearance. His best recent role was when he parodied himself in Tropic Thunder. (“Tug? It’s the Pecker.”)
But it wasn’t always this way. As proof the guy has chops, I offer up John Sayles moody and textured Lone Star (1996), Bill Paxton’s twisty and disturbing Frailty (2001), and the subject of this piece, Jill Sprecher’s Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001). Sprecher co-wrote the movie with her sister Karen. The pair had burst onto the scene, or more accurately, tip-toed towards the scene, with Clockwatchers (Toni Collette, Parker Posey, Lisa Kudrow, Alana Ubach, 1997), sort of a thinking man’s Office Space. The film was witty, subtle, well-acted, and had Bob Balaban, which automatically makes it good. (Lady in the Water being the exception that proves the Balaban rule). It also had an original, low-key way of illuminating human nature that was somehow funny, painful, and hopeful, all at once. This was a tone they would master with their next film.
I liked Clockwatchers, very much, but in the same way Reservoir Dogs did not prepare me for Pulp Fiction, or Sydney (aka Hard Eight) could not prepare me for Boogie Nights, I was similarly unprepared when I saw Thirteen Conversations About One Thing.
The response wasn’t as immediate or visceral as with the Tarantino or Anderson, but more of a slow burn. It was one of those films that stuck with me, gnawing at me for days, and weeks later, I still couldn’t get it out of my head. And the shot that stayed with me, and made such an impact, was so simple I almost couldn’t believe it.
Two strangers, a middle-aged man and woman, catch each other’s eye on the subway. As it pulls into a station, the man gets off. She’s still on the train; he’s waiting on the platform. They both look tired, world weary. The man looks at her and, sensing something is wrong, sensing that she hurts somehow, gives her a little wave and smile. She returns the gesture, and then her train pulls out.
That’s it. Not exactly “Rosebud”, I know, but something about the scene, the final one in the movie, moved me in a way that few things in film ever have.
But let’s start at the middle, or in the case of Thirteen Conversations, the opening scene. Yes, it’s one of THOSE movies, with a fractured timeline. Since the release of Pulp Fiction in 1994, countless films have employed this device, with varying degrees of success. While Tarantino didn’t invent the concept (too soon to reference Kane again?), he made it cool. Unfortunately, it seems to be most favored by those directors who are fascinated with cool shots, cool cuts, cool camera angles, and everything else that too often takes the place of interesting characters or storytelling.
Fortunately, in this case, the device enhances the picture. Which is odd, since the film is firmly grounded in the “real world” and jumping around in time can be a surefire way to call attention to yourself as a movie. This structure is a risk in a movie like this, but it works beautifully, and is absolutely required to tell this particular story.
There are thirteen segments, or “conversations”, in the movie. Some are long, some are short, some contain one scene, and some contain several. However, the opening scene is the only one that does not begin with a title card. Instead, over the score and the sound of rain, we cut to this opening shot.
Jim Emerson at Scanners has an“opening shots” series, and this would be a good one. We see Amy Irving, from behind, looking out the window. This sets up one of the major themes of the movie, as most of the characters are longing for something, and Irving’s character Patricia is no different. Her husband Walker, played by John Turturro, comes home, and they have dinner. The atmosphere is one of utter boredom and contempt. Look at how drab the apartment is, and the way Irving seems to meld into the background, visualizing how she is invisible to him.
This was a low budget production ($3 million), and the Sprecher sisters use the phrase “financial difficulties” about a dozen times on the commentary track. However, the production values on this film never show those constraints. Sets like this are how you maximize your dollars. All the sets in this movie function like characters, providing their own commentary on the story. Props to set decorator Carol Silverman and production designer Mark Ricker.
Over dinner, they discuss Walker’s recent mugging. If nothing else, he says, it broke him out of his routine. How bored must one be in life to welcome the excitement of a mugging? She encourages him to “see someone”. He says he’s fine. It’s clear these people don’t like each other. She asks him, “What is it that you want?” His response sets up the rest of the movie. “I want what everyone wants,” he says, “to experience life, to wake up enthused, to be happy.”
We then immediately cut to the title of the film. Most reviews read this pretty literally, and thus the “Thirteen Conversations” are about happiness, and the characters’ quest for it. While this is basically true, it’s somewhat limited, and doesn’t really do justice to the film that follows.
2. Show Me A Happy Man.
Immediately after the title of the movie, we get this title card. All of the title cards from here on out quote actual dialogue from the movie. This was a device used successfully in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. (I get the feeling the Sprechers watch a lot of Allen.) However, it feels fresh here, because most of the dialogue comes from a DIFFERENT scene then the one that is about to unfold. The titles were chosen very carefully to reflect what has just happened, and also what is about to happen. Thus, when we see a title, it’s both surprising and satisfying, and adds an important layer of texture to the proceedings, as we subconsciously looks for the meaning of the quote in the scene.
After the title card, we meet two new characters in a bar.
This is a film with multiple characters and multiple story threads. Roger Ebert has recently dubbed these “hyperlink” films, and it should be noted that I am generally a fan of this structure. Robert Altman (Nashville, Short Cuts) and John Sayles (City of Hope, Sunshine State) in particular helped shape these kinds of stories into workable films, where the characters are linked thematically if not geographically. P .T. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Amores Perros, Babel) are pushing the envelope.
The appeal of such films has to do with the fact that by creating multiple story threads, the filmmaker doesn’t have to choose between a conventional “happy” or “sad” ending, but rather can let the characters go where they may. Just like in life, some stories will end well, some won’t. These types of films can more accurately approximate “real life”, and as such, are in a unique position to comment on it. The editor of Thirteen Conversations was Stephen Mirrione, who won an Oscar for Traffic, was nominated for Babel, and also edited 21 Grams and Go, among others. He clearly knows how to handle these stories in the editing room, and was obviously a huge asset.
But getting back to the bar.
The two guys we meet are Troy, played by Matthew McConaughey , and Gene, played by Alan Arkin. Arkin was filming another project simultaneously, and was working seven day weeks. Like all great actors, he uses this, wearing his weariness like a shirt. The lighting in the scene is wonderful, and reminded me of the early bar scene in Goodfellas. To me the rosy glow reflects a sort of innocence, and it certainly applies, as Troy is about to lose his.
“It was a glorious time, the wise guys were everywhere….” – Goodfellas
Troy notes that it is still happy hour, though you can’t tell based on the clientele, but that he is happy because he has just won a conviction and “got another lowlife off the street.” Gene, who happens to be sitting next to him, comments that “I once knew a happy man, but the happiness was a curse.” Gene tells of a heretofore happy coworker who won the lottery, but ended up broke and miserable after shakedowns and handouts. Troy says the difference is that he worked hard and earned it. Gene says maybe he just got lucky, and Troy responds with the line “luck is a lazy man’s excuse”. Gene says that sounds like a man who has had nothing but luck. This is a key exchange in the film, as it starts to get more to the heart of the matter. Yes, we all want to be happy, but how much is what we might call “luck” involved in that?
Troy’s luck is about to run out.
He drops off a coworker and, directly following, he runs over a woman on the street. After a moment of shock, as he tries to realize what he has just done, he leaves her for dead. Look at his face after the accident, as he slowly drives away.
Quite a difference from the cocky guy at the bar. That’s great acting. He then goes home and pours himself a drink.
The Sprechers (and I apologize to Jill and Karen for not detailing who said what, but they were both brilliant in the commentary track, along with editor Mirrione) mention how this shot and several others in the film (the opening shot as well, for that matter) intentionally look like Edward Hopper paintings, the goal being to show how even in a big city, these characters are isolated.
Troy tries to deal with the shock of what he has done. He can’t concentrate at work, he pukes in the bathroom, he lashes out as his friend. “Fuck Guilt,” Troy had said at the bar, when his friend suggested Gene was trying to make him feel guilty for being happy. If only it were that easy for him.
The above shot of Troy with his boss was filmed in a real court office building in Manhattan, adding verisimilitude. However, all the scenes in the building were shot at night. The lighting in that scene above certainly looks like daylight coming through the window. The cinematography by Dick Pope is gorgeous throughout. I’ve read some criticism about the “drab” look of the film, but every scene in the movie looks as it should in order to serve the story. The fact is some of these characters inhabit drab surroundings. That’s much more accurate for living and working in New York than most movies, where paralegals live in $4 million lofts and work in corner offices.
3. You look so serious.
Note how this title card could reflect the change in Troy’s character in the prior sequence, as well as what is about to transpire. We are now back with Turturro’s character Walker, and learn that he is a physics teacher. Based on his behavior in the first scene, this doesn’t surprise us at all. The Sprechers raved about Turturro’s work, though it may be overlooked here because he’s ultimately the least sympathetic character in the movie. They mention how he had very specific ideas about how this guy would do everything from walking and talking to cutting his food and holding the chalk. Apparently Turturro had been a teacher, and he certainly seems to command the classroom.
In a “hyperlink” film, casting is critical, as all of the actors are essentially supporting each other, whether they share screen time or not. Each one has a limited amount of time to register and make an impact. One false performance can wreck the whole thing. Everyone in this movie, even in the smallest of roles, knocks it out of the park.
Walker embarrasses a student who is not paying attention, and the student embarrasses him back. While it seems like a minor incident, it sets the wheels in motion for devastation. He then discusses a scientific process that is irreversible, and writes the word on the board, underlined twice for emphasis. We’re adding another layer here. All of our actions, everything we do, are done permanently. Everything is irreversible. We are powerless against the past. That’s actually kind of terrifying. I’m sure Troy would have liked to have taken a cab that night. Walker will ultimately take some actions for which he would like a “do over” as well. Haven’t we all?
We then cut to a hotel room, where Walker meets up with his mistress, played by the lovely German actress, Barbara Sukowa. She’s a veteran of Fassbinder films who apparently was a friend of Turturro’s. What a coup for a bit part. The scene plays beautifully, and I was amazed to learn it was shot in just a few takes, as was much of the film. None of this Kubrick 270-takes stuff here. This proves the value of having such a talented cast when working within severe time constraints, who can nail all the scenes without excessive takes.
He asks if her husband knows. He doesn’t. Walker wonders if ignorance is indeed bliss. She comes back quoting Milton’s Paradise Lost, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven”.
Walker’s character can be seen to represent the “making a hell of heaven” point of view.
The next character we meet will represent the opposite.
4. Ignorance is bliss.
We’re now exactly 20 minutes into the film, and we are introduced to yet another major character. Her name is Beatrice, played by Clea Duvall. It’s risky introducing a new character this late, as the audience can be resistant. By now, we typically want to know who’s who, and don’t want to invest the energy in learning about someone else unless it’s through a character we already know. The key to making it work is in the writing and acting, which must draw us in quickly. No problem here.
After a few shots establishing “Bea” as a housekeeper, she ascends to a walk-up apartment with her friend and co-worker Dorrie, played by Tia Texada. This shot of Bea in her apartment helps the audience get comfortable with her right away. She is the character who can make a heaven of hell, and the story will test her faith.
Her character represents a sunny disposition, and I’d say this shot visualizes that. Duvall is an actress who has had a long, steady career, but usually in supporting roles. The Sprechers say she is supposed to look “Golden” here. She certainly does. Why isn’t she given more meaty roles? The same could be said of Texada, who is memorable as well in her more limited screen time.
The relationship is made clear through a series of shots in different apartments they are hired to clean. Bea does all the work, Dorrie sits around complaining about their rich employers, and they both seem happy this way. Bea has a crush on an architect client, and sniffs his shirt, only to discover a hole that she offers to have fixed. Nothing “drab” about these interiors. The Sprechers lucked into an actual architect’s apartment. Every set serves the story.
Bea and Dorrie have a key conversation. Dorrie complains about how her roommate wants to kick her out and she has nowhere to go. “These rich people have it made,” she says. Bea says that nobody knows what’s ahead, and that amazing things happen all the time. She tells Dorrie a personal story: When she was five years old, she almost drowned at the beach, but had a vision, like a billowing white sail, that brought her peace, and let her know that she was safe, and had been saved for a reason.
This is one of the few times in the movie we get any backstory, but it’s necessary to fully develop this character. The concept of “God” means many things to many people, but as science has explained away the needs for things like a God of the Oceans and a God of the Sun, “God” at this point in human evolution often functions as the answer to the big two: Where did we come from?, and Where are we going? We are less concerned about the first question, as we can only go forward, but we are terrified about the second. Bea isn’t terrified at all. She’s convinced it will all work out in the end. Look at her in Church. She’s a believer. She listens raptly to a sermon, and the priest ends with, “We count them happy who endure”.
We then get shots of Bea sewing the architect’s white shirt, and carrying it down the street at night, accompanied by the film’s score.
This might be a good time to mention that score, by Alex Wurman. It has a light, airy, jazzy feel, and reminds me a little bit of the music from True Romance or American Beauty, at least in tone. As in those films, the music creates a bit of comfort room between the audience and the sometimes grim proceedings, and suggests that while each scene, and in fact the film as a whole, may be grounded in reality, what we are really watching is a fantasy or fable. Along with the sturdy camerawork (this was B.G. – Before the Greengrasstardization of cinema) this adds to a sense of being a fly-on-the wall, or having a bird’s eye view of the proceedings. Or, as the Sprechers said, “A God’s perspective”.
Perhaps Bea is on her way to drop off the shirt with an “I was just in the neighborhood.” We’ll never know because the wind blows the shirt out of her hands, and as she watches it go, she is struck down by a car. The segment ends with her on the sidewalk, as we see Troy slowly drive away behind her.
Was this God’s will? Was it her destiny? A random tragedy? How much did she contribute to her own misfortune with this stupid shirt?
5. I once knew a happy man. His happiness was a curse.
We cut from this title card to a shot of Wade Bowman, played by William Wise, the aforementioned happy man. Remembering Arkin’s story from the bar, we presume he will be our lottery winner. Though he’s a minor character in the movie, his personality is the catalyst for much of the action. The Sprechers said this was the first character they conceived of, based on someone they know, who is so relentlessly happy that he drives everyone crazy. What does it say about human nature, they wondered, that we are so jealous of such people?
Wise is perfectly cast. The Sprechers said that when he auditioned, he literally was the guy. It’s one of those roles that required a relative unknown, who wouldn’t bring any “baggage” to the part, and it’s a tribute to Wise that I cannot imagine the movie working as well with any other actor in the role.
We pull back to meet a group of guys in an office. They make fun of Wade for sweet talking with the “ball and chain”. Wade confesses to being happily married for 23 years. We spend a minute with these guys, and then cut to a shot of Gene, the Arkin character. Even though we’ve only met Gene briefly early on in the film, and have never seen these other guys, it’s a sign of how in command the movie is of its material that by this point we don’t even question the structure any more.
The cut to Gene at his desk is interesting. The Sprechers discussed how they had conceived of one set up, where we would track from the group to an over-the-shoulder shot of Gene overseeing the action. This was more a result of trying to save time on each set up than any aesthetic choice.
However, Arkin pointed out that this would imply Gene had been standing there the whole time watching these guys bullshitting, which would go against his all-work, no-play boss’s attitude, and, more importantly, make him a part of the gang.
We instead get a shot of Gene working at his desk, and getting up to address his team with the line “What’s all the excitement, is there some holiday I don’t know about?” They are insurance adjusters, and Gene hands out assignments.
This is a subtle difference in the filming of the scene, and isn’t something that would consciously register with most viewers, but it’s impactful in the development of his character. This is how movies should be made, where the filmmakers put their egos aside, and aren’t afraid to use a good idea because it wasn’t part of the original plan or they didn’t think of it first. That’s the way it usually works, right?
Wade demonstrates his “glass is half full” disposition several times in just a few moments of dialogue during the sequence. For example, he’s happy when he hears there is traffic, because he’s in the middle of an audio book. He’s also always bringing in tomatoes from his garden or cookies his wife made. The above shot was an outtake of Wise cracking up the cast that made it into the film.
Gene discusses Wade with his co-worker Dick, played by Frankie Faison, another actor perfectly suited to his part. He’s a good friend to Gene, trying to provide a voice of reason and break through Gene’s cynicism. Dick says that Wade’s about the happiest guy he knows, but Gene isn’t buying it.
Gene says, “The Devil doesn’t have tails and a horn, you know. He’s the guy in the apartment next door who plays the music too loud and steals your paper every morning.”
Later in the segment we get shots of exactly those things happening to Gene. The daily grind of life can wear anyone down. We all face a multitude of battles every day. Gene is at the point where he’s convinced he’s got it all figured out, and the answer is, life sucks. Who the hell is Wade to be happy?
We learn that Gene has a son (played by Alex Burns) who has been busted for drugs. Gene bails him out, and tries to talk to him, saying, “Ronnie, I just laid out 1,500 hundred bucks for you; give me 5 minutes of your time.” But the son just runs away. I love that. “Give me 5 minutes of your time.”
The scene was improvised between Arkin and Burns. There was a scripted scene where Gene lays into his son, but this take made it into the film, and it’s heartbreaking. This is another example of the filmmakers sacrificing ego (they wrote the scene, after all) for the good of the film.
The subplot with Gene’s son helps explain his raging cynicism, and is another rare use of backstory. It is sort of the mirror image of Duvall’s sunniness. But whereas external forces are at play in Bea’s world, forcing her to re-evaluate her optimism, Gene’s transformation will be completely internal. But at this point, he’s not ready to transform.
Gene calls Dick into his office. It’s been made clear during some budget meetings with management that the company is having financial difficulties, and Gene has been told to do whatever he can to cut costs. However, we never see him being told directly to fire somebody. Yet that is just what he does. He bets Dick $10 he can wipe the grin off of “Smiley’s” face, and calls Wade into his office.
Gene decides to “play God” with Wade’s life. There are forces at play in all our lives. Every day, people do things that affect us, some of which we don’t understand, some of which we never know about.
The scene where Gene fires Wade is excruciating. Arkin claimed it was hard for him to do, but his character certainly seems to be having a good time. The same cannot be said for Wade. “This hurts me as much as it does you”, said Gene. It sure doesn’t look that way.
However, Wade says maybe it’s a blessing, and as he says goodnight to Dick and Gene, he musters a smile. Gene is ready to give Dick the $10. Gene says, “I thought I had him there for a minute, till he puts on his rose colored glasses. If he threw himself at my mercy, maybe I could take pity on him.”
Dick won’t take the money. It’s clear he’s about had it with Gene. If it is annoying to be around someone as happy as Wade all day, it is exhausting to be around someone as miserable as Gene. Fortunately, it isn’t too late for Gene to change his ways.
6. Fuck Guilt.
The next few segments of the movie are shorter than the others. We see that Troy (McConaughey) is selling his car to Walker (Turturro). When asked why, Troy responds that he doesn’t drive anymore. As they go for a drive, Walker relates the story of his mugging. Troy asks if they ever caught the guy. He’s clearly still worried. Walker says he doubts anyone is even looking. Even his eye (which was injured in the mugging) is healing, and “in time, it’ll be as though it never happened”. That may be true as far as Walker is concerned, but for Troy, he will have to live with his guilt forever, and he knows it. Whether or not he is caught for the hit and run, he cannot escape from his own mind. As a prosecutor, he believed in justice. Now what does he believe?
There is next a brief sequence showing Gene’s son committing a mugging and doing drugs. The Sprechers commented that many viewers assume that he was the person who mugged Walker. However, in the opening scene Walker described the man as being about his own age. Yet the parallels between the characters are so clear at this point, that the audience starts making connections on its own.
7. Ask yourself if you’re happy.
Irving’s character, Patricia, reveals to a neighbor that someone had dropped off Walker’s wallet after the mugging, and there was evidence inside of his affair. She hasn’t confronted him. She says she’s used to living alone.
While that may be the case, she decides to make that metaphor a reality. The next scene shows her moving out of the apartment. This is a hopeful action. While she doesn’t know what the future holds, she knows she needs to break free from this existence. She’s being proactive. She’s changing things. Was she destined to leave him? I don’t think so. I think she chose to do that. The last scene of her in the apartment is the only one where she doesn’t blend in.
8. Fortune smiles at some and laughs at others.
Back at the office, Gene argues with his wife. When he hangs up, he hears the guys talking about Wade. They hear he hasn’t told his wife yet, that he has a lot of one and two year stints on his resume, never good. What’s he going to do; he’s over 50, not exactly marketable. He’ll probably be lucky to get a job bagging groceries. The camera stays on Arkin for 25 seconds straight during this conversation, and the increasing expressions of guilt on his face are priceless. It can be a devastating thing when you realize that, in fact, you’re the asshole.
Troy is living with guilt, but at least the accident was an accident. Gene destroyed Wade’s life on purpose, he did it willfully, he wanted to cause Wade pain.
Gene runs into Wade at the diner. Wade is still out of work, but by the end of the conversation is telling Gene how the insurance company is lucky to have him. Gene can’t even look Wade in the eye.
Later on at the office, Gene has a big fight with Mickey Wheeler, played by Shawn Elliott. Mickey has been getting under Gene’s skin throughout the movie by gossiping. What’s worse, he always knows more about what is going on at the company than Gene, his boss. In this scene, he reveals that he knows who the new Vice President is going to be, which was the job Gene wanted. Gene takes all his rage out on Mickey, and calls him a pathetic loser.
Apparently the art department spent a good deal of time on Mickey’s wardrobe, to great effect. Everything about this character screams sad sack.
We get some more shots of Gene reflecting. Much of this movie’s action is internalized, and takes place in the expressions on the actor’s faces.
Gene swallows his pride and pays a visit to his ex-wife’s husband. The man agrees to call Wade anonymously and offer him a job. Gene has played God in Wade’s life again, only this time he’s setting things right.
Whereas the first half of the movie demonstrated that life is a random mess and we are just along for the ride, the second half of the film allows for the possibility that we just might have some say in this thing after all.
Back at the office, Gene and Dick discuss a former co-worker who cracked up. He seemed normal and happy until the meltdown, at which point it was discovered that he had another family across the river. Gene says he wanted it all and got it all times two. Dick says it’s like the old gypsy curse, “May you get what you want”.
Suddenly, right there, Mickey gets what he wants. He discovers that he has the winning lottery ticket. This comes as a surprise. The scene is somewhat poignant, as we know from the opening scene that his story will end badly. While the rest of the office huddles around Mickey, I love this shot of Dick, who is only curious about Gene’s reaction.
While Gene may be starting to evolve, he’s by no means ready to feel happy for Mickey Wheeler. As I’ve hopefully demonstrated by now, this movie is chock full of wonderful close-ups. Who was it that said the most interesting thing in cinema is the human face? Bergman? Apatow? This shot of Arkin is my favorite in the movie.
You can practically taste the bile. Go ahead and try to make that expression. Arkin is one of my favorite actors, and this is one of his best roles.
9. Wisdom comes suddenly.
We then see Dorrie (Texada) buying flowers, and she visits Bea (Duvall) in the hospital. We haven’t seen Bea in a while, and the first time one watches the movie, it’s a relief to find her alive. Dorrie complains about work, as Bea lies in the hospital bed, and asks Bea when she’ll be back. Nice friend. It’s hard when your support system needs support. Not everyone is capable of “stepping up” when needed.
Bea goes home to stay with her Mom. Some reviews misread her character and think that the accident changes her sunny disposition. It certainly didn’t help, and I suppose this next shot reinforces that notion.
However, Bea still has some hope. The shirt was never found after the accident, so she is forced to buy a new one. She brings the shirt to the architect, who is surprised to see her. In a way, perhaps it helped her healing process to be able to focus on this moment. She’s wearing a wig her mom got her.
The architect says that the last time she was there, he left his watch in the bathroom and couldn’t find it. “It was a gift.” She says she put it in a drawer so it wouldn’t get wet, and goes to get it for him.
He is visibly flustered by this, and says, “I just assumed, you know….”, leaving his thought unspoken but clear. When she realizes she has been accused of stealing, you can see something break inside of her. I love Duvall in this scene.
We all live inside our own minds. She had built up a relationship with this man in her head that simply wasn’t there. It’s easy to pick on her for this, but haven’t we all done that? What’s more, don’t we all do that every day to some degree or another with everyone we know? We can only see all of our relationships from our own point of view.
The structure of the film is unique in so many ways. Bea now faces her internal conflict, whereas Gene, for example, has past his, and we won’t arrive at Walker’s (Turtorro) until the very last time we see him. Editor Mirrione said that every time he tried to play around with the structure, the whole thing fell apart. The structure of this movie is like a Swiss watch, and is exactly as it was written.
Dorrie pays a visit on Bea, who tells her that she was right, life isn’t fair. Bea has been trying to figure out why she was hit by that car, and has concluded that there is no reason. Dorrie says that she should remember what she said about good things always being around the corner. Now she’s trying to be a friend but it’s too late. Bea says her eyes have been opened. When Dorrie says Bea is different, Bea says that no, she’s just like everyone else. Texada is great in the scene, and really seems thrown for a loop by the change in Bea.
10. I can never go back.
Troy (McConaughey) is no longer the same guy we met before the accident. He prosecutes a case where a man fell during a mugging and died. He wins a conviction, but takes no joy from it. His boss mentions that the judge is tough, and will probably give the maximum sentence. Troy says, “He took a human life, he has to be punished.” It’s clear that Troy feels he needs to pay for what he did. But how can he? It’s over. We can never go back. I remember a great line from David Mamet’s House of Games, “When you have done something unforgivable, I’ll tell you exactly what to do. You forgive yourself.” Much easier said than done.
Troy visits the man in prison whom he has just convicted, and asks him what he thinks about all day. He says he only thinks about the man he killed. He tells the story. He had a job interview lined up, but it was raining and the subways were crowded. Several trains went by and he knew he missed his chance. That’s when he tried to steal the camera on a whim. What he really says to himself all day long is, “What if it hadn’t rained.”
This brings the final piece of the puzzle into view. Timing and chance play such a crucial role in our lives, in ways both known and unknown. But this guy did decide to steal the camera. He didn’t have to do that. It’s an old cliché that life is 10% what happens, and 90% how you react. We all face stresses large and small. Yet we can choose how to deal with them. It’s easy to blame the rain, much harder to blame yourself.
Troy blames himself. Since nobody else is punishing him, he’s doing it on his own. The last shot of the segment shows Troy cutting open his wound from the crash with a razor blade.
Every time I hear about pampered Hollywood actors, I think of the story of Harrison Ford using a staple gun to get Indiana Jones’ hat to stay on his head when he rode a horse. I have no idea if that story is true, but I love it anyway. In this scene, McConaughey thought the prop razor looked too phony, so he used a real razor, drawing real blood. He really put himself out there, and this is tough to watch.
11. The mind is its own place.
Walker, Turturro’s character, sees his Doctor after an incident while jogging, and the Doctor suspects it was a panic attack. Walker confesses to some changes in his life, “all for the better”, but he’s still unfulfilled. He keeps wondering, “Is that all there is?”
It’s clear by now that Walker is one of those people for whom the grass will always be greener somewhere else. His wife couldn’t make him happy, nor could his mistress. May you get what you want.
The student with whom he has argued earlier in class shows up at his office, asking if he can retake a test. He’s having personal problems with his girlfriend, but really needs to pass the class to get into medical school. Walker ignores the request. Playing God.
Walker sees his Doctor again. “It’s not working.” He’s now trying prescription drugs. Ah, there’s the answer! He admits to the Doctor that he was content with his wife. “Then why did you leave?” He felt that contentment was a form of resignation. Tell that to Wade, the “happy man” from Gene’s office. Isn’t it all how you look at it?
In class Walker describes the formula for determining the range of a falling object. Foreshadow alert.
His lover shows up after class. Her husband knows about the affair, and he says he can’t live without her. Can Walker say the same?
He just stands there like a deer in the headlights, and she walks away. This was another case where there was a scripted scene, but the actors improvised, and said more with their faces then they ever could have said with words.
The student shows up immediately after this confrontations to try again to convince his teacher to let him retake the test. Bad timing. Walker asks him why he wants to be a Doctor, just so he can “keep them alive today, so that you can prolong their misery until tomorrow?” Inspiring stuff from a teacher. The student has no response for that one.
At class the following Monday, Walker remarks that, “Mr. Hammond is late again.” This is the student who had requested the retest. Someone says, “There was a party last night. He fell from the top of the math building onto the quad.” “No, he didn’t,” another student says, “The range was too great. If he had fallen, he would have landed by the bushes. He must have jumped.”
Did he kill himself because of the test, or what Walker had said? Maybe it was because of his girlfriend. Who knows? But the reality is that Walker will have to ask himself those questions forever.
Walker thought he was miserable with the status quo. Now he’ll have to see how he handles guilt. Can he forgive himself? There is no reason to be particularly optimistic about his fate. Had he been nicer to his wife, his mistress, the student, someone, maybe I’d feel differently.
12. I’m ready to surrender.
The last major segment opens on a shot of Troy’s friend from work. We hear the boss off camera saying that a neighbor found him, the door was wide open. He supposes Troy just couldn’t live with the secret anymore.
Apparently Troy left a note for this friend, wanting him to take care of something. The friend goes to pay a visit on someone, and on first viewing, one assumes Troy has killed himself, and this guy is going to see Bea, to make things right. However, he’s visiting Troy in the hospital, and it’s a relief to see Troy alive as well. He got lucky.
Troy says that he wants to do something for the victim’s family.
His friend says, “What if you could do something for the girl?”, and reveals to Troy that his hit-and-run victim is still alive.
The look of relief that washes over McConaughey’s face is stunning. In spite of the fact that he was a hit and run perpetrator, it’s hard not to be happy for his character here. I’m really amazed by his performance in this movie every time I see it.
His character’s arc is the inverse to Lily Tomlin’s in Short Cuts. Troy had been feeling guilt for something that he hadn’t done. In Short Cuts, Tomlin’s character hits a young boy with her car, and he eventually dies of internal bleeding after a long coma. But he walked away from the accident seemingly unharmed, and she went about her life blissfully unaware of the pain she caused. What we don’t know can’t hurt us. The only problem is we know so much.
We then cut to Bea, who approaches Dorrie on the street, wondering why she hasn’t called her. Dorrie admits she was hard to be around. “You were always the one who made things right.”
Bea says that she could no longer see anything good in the world, that she only could see people as selfish and miserable and predictable. One day, on a crowded street corner, she had had enough. She was prepared to step into traffic. She looked for a face in the crowd, someone who would give her a reason to do it. And the man she looked at looked right back at her and smiled. Just like that, “it broke the spell”.
This part of the story is semi-autobiographical. Jill Sprecher moved to New York from Wisconsin and was mugged twice, the second time resulting in a serious head injury. She was understandably down on human nature for a while, but the smile of a stranger broke her out of it. What an amazing thing. They discussed on the commentary track if this scene was too “on the nose”. No way.
Dorrie says she was glad she picked him to look at. “Me too,” Bea smiles. She may no longer go through life as an eternal optimist, but at least she’s ready to move forward. One wonders if Troy will look her up.
We cut from this scene to a shot of Wade walking down the street, smiling as usual. We assume that he was the guy who smiled at Bea, but the Sprechers say that wasn’t necessarily the case. Either way the point is made. Wade runs into Gene by the diner, and tells him things are great, that he got out-of-the-blue he got offered a sales job that he loves. I’m not sure it was intentional, but note that Gene is elevated on a step, which is appropriate given his God-like role in Wade’s life.
We then cut to Gene, who is meeting Dick at the bar. We are rejoining the second scene of the movie in progress, and the first time one watches the film, it creates quite an impact. It reinforces a feeling of circularity that has been present throughout; that what is past is prologue, that everything has already happened. Much of the second half of the movie shows the characters being proactive, trying to change their lives for the better. This is just a final reminder that there may be larger forces at play that will have some say. Gene’s story has already happened, Troy and Bea’s are about to happen. What a structure.
Gene’s son is in jail, and he has now been laid off himself. But something has changed in Gene. He’s no barrel of laughs, but he no longer seems so bitter. His actions with Wade have cleansed his soul. He tells Dick a story about when he was having problems with his wife. He was going out of town for an extended business trip. As he got in the cab, he looked up and saw her in the window. He felt she was looking for some kind of sign from him, just a wave or something. He never gave it to her, and she was gone when he returned. Would a wave have been enough to repair things? Who knows? But his regret is clear. The Gene in the beginning of the movie never felt regret over anything.
Dick paraphrases Kierkegaard. “Life only makes sense when you look at it backwards. Too bad we only get to live it forwards.” That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? We can’t control the past; however we can learn from it. Gene has learned.
13. Eighteen inches of personal space.
This brings us to the wave that I mentioned in my introduction. Gene is on the subway, and he sees Patricia, Amy Irving’s character. Note how she was in the opening scene, a scene in the middle of the film, and the closing scene. A group of guys runs by and knocks over her bag. She looks miserable. Gene sees this. He gets off and waits for another train line on the platform. The man at the beginning of the movie wouldn’t have acted here. But we have witnessed the transformation of his character. Gene decides to keep trying out this kindness thing, and gives her a little wave and sympathetic smile.
Irving’s character seems far too strong to be suicidal, but the parallels with Bea are clear. She’s lost a good deal of faith in humanity. She probably sees people as selfish and miserable and predictable. I think it’s fair to say that this small act of kindness from Gene may have saved her soul, in a spiritual sense. What a hopeful thing.
She returns the gesture and the train pulls out. We get a last shot of Irving smiling, a nice companion to the opening shot.
So, what’s it all mean? I’ve seen some reviews that consider this a depressing movie, but for me it’s completely the opposite. What a life-affirming finale. This closing scene, as I said, stuck with me for a long while. I think it is incredibly hopeful to suggest that by simply being nice to one another, we can all make life more tolerable for ourselves.
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is a masterpiece. It goes on a very short list for me, along with Short Cuts and Crimes and Misdemeanors and maybe one or two others, that not only reflect real life, but provide valuable lessons on how to live it. But whereas Short Cuts subscribes to the random chaos theory, and Crimes and Misdemeanors says that we indeed have free will and, more importantly, we live in a consequence-free universe where we only have to answer to ourselves, Thirteen Conversations seems to allow for the possibility that somehow both these things are true, but that also, “What goes around comes around”. Is there such a thing as Karma?
We certainly don’t control everything that happens, but can it all be manifest destiny? Was it preordained that I write this word, or this one? How can that be? Surely God has better things to do. I think of Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in Election, mocking Mr. McCallister: “He should have just accepted things as they are instead of trying to interfere with destiny. You see, you can’t interfere with destiny. That’s why it’s destiny.” Maybe, but at worse, if we are indeed at “his” mercy, we can at least choose our state of mind, can’t we? He can’t control that, can he?
To quote Roger Ebert from his initial review of this movie, talking about this film and Clockwatchers: “After these two movies, there aren’t many filmmakers whose next film I anticipate more eagerly.”
I felt the same way, but I guess after you’ve said it all, it’s hard to figure out what comes next. The sisters’ third film will finally come out this year. It’s called The Convincer, a crime drama starring Billy Crudup and Greg Kinnear with, yes, Alan Arkin and Bob Balaban. I can’t wait.
And to prove all is not lost and people can change, Mathew McConaughey is starring in a legal drama coming out this week, and has a movie in post-production directed by Richard Linklater, who cast him so memorably as Wooderson in Dazed and Confused all those years ago, long before he actually appeared to morph into that character.
As for me, I was never much of a believer in fate or Karma or any of that mumbo jumbo. I’ve always been far too practical. But as I gain “experience” in life (i.e. get older), I must admit, there is a lot of weird shit out going on out there.
I swear this is true. As I was waiting for this movie to arrive from Netflix, I was digging through my office, and came across a book I had made in 5th grade for an “Authors’ Day” at my school. Several authors came to the school and held discussion groups and autographed books. My class was each assigned an author to show around. It was really cool, and I remember the day.
That was 32 years ago, and I haven’t looked at this book in about 15 years. The first name I saw on the cover of this book I had made was Alan Arkin. Really, I thought? I read his bio. It’s him. I swear I had never put that together before. He wrote a children’s book called The Lemming Condition, about the perils of conformity, and was scheduled to come to my school.
It would be really cool to say he was there, and wrote “Fuck Guilt” in my autograph book. He actually didn’t make it that day, but his wife at the time, author Barbara Dana, was there, and I have her autograph to prove it. (Although she misspelled Todd as Tod).
What does it mean that I discovered I have Alan Arkin’s ex-wife’s autograph as I was preparing to write a piece on Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, my first legitimate stab at film analysis after years of chatting and blogging? I suppose it means nothing. A coincidence. A random occurrence. But I’m starting to see these kinds of things a bit too often. Remember the opening sequence of Magnolia. Strange things happen every day. What’s it all mean?
Maybe if I’m nicer to people, that it will come back to me? Maybe if I treat others well, I’ll feel better about myself? Maybe…..Ah, screw it. I’m getting tired. This is far too long already. Oh, cool. Fool’s Gold is coming on. Pass the popcorn.
Dedicated to Roger Ebert, Jim Emerson, Sheila O’Malley, and my family.