VENICE 2001 REVIEW: Harsh Questions in "13 Conversations"; Sprecher Advances with Second Film
by Patrick Z. McGavin
(indieWIRE/09.04.01) -- Jill Sprecher's "13 Conversations about One Thing" marks such a technical and formal advance over her first feature, the 1997 "Clockwatchers," it compensates for the new movie's deficiencies and brings into sharper focus the weight and ambition of her own ability. Bleak and excessively mannered at times, "13 Conversations" is a philosophical inquiry about the inequalities, cruel coincidences and blind chance of contemporary life.
If "Clockwatchers" was a buoyant comedy of manners about class and the dehumanization of work, this film attempts a harsher, unrelenting dissection of existence and consciousness. A meditation on loneliness and grief, guilt and redemption, this is a difficult, even somewhat unlikable film, though it is the rare American independent movie of late that registers and holds together; even more than that it forces you to really consider the questions the movie is posing. The tone is heavy, even oppressive and morose, but the work has an exhilarating authority and uncanny confidence. At its best moments, it exhibits a novelistic density (the conversations are introduced as if they were chapter headings) and an acute, troubling insight into the separations and divisions of modern American culture. The portrait it builds toward is both cogent and despairing.
Written by Sprecher and her sister, Karen, the gifted young filmmakers are trying to articulate something much more knotty and intransigent with their second feature. If their reach exceeds their grasp, they convincingly animate and make distressingly palpable the collective sorrow and anguish of their characters. Beautifully experimenting with time and space in a collage of loosely threaded stories, the Sprecher sisters lace their work with insight and detail, mood and inflection. From the opening moments of John Turturro playing a university math professor, opposite his wife, Amy Irving, there is a vivid feeling of disruption and loss. He is traumatized by a sense of failure and weakness in light of his assault at gunpoint a week earlier. Matthew McConaughay is a cocky, privileged assistant district attorney convinced of his superiority that slowly disintegrates following his involvement in a hit-and-run accident. Clea DuVall is the victim in the most ironic and pungent of the stories, a woman whose origins and class restriction have rendered her virtually invisible.
In a commanding performance, one of the finest of his career, Alan Arkin dominates the film's most problematic and fascinating story. He plays a mid-level insurance claims adjuster whose coveting of a colleague's life becomes so extreme he engineers the man's removal from the company. Overcome with guilt, he seeks to compensate for his recklessness, atoning for his actions, though he becomes unable in a parallel story to resurrect his own declining status, and more urgently, reverse the collapse of his family (the failure of his marriage, the criminal activity and drug addiction of his son). Arkin has always possessed that remarkable face and its ambiguous range of statement, though here he pushes himself and gets deep inside that which is most alienating and uncomfortable.
For all of her fluent handling of space, movement and physical shapes, Sprecher is most impressive with her actors. In a work deprived of virtually all emotional release, "13 Conversations" desperately requires the solidity, statement, and depth of feeling these talented actors provide for balance, scope and grace. The astonishing collection of faces, the anguished state of the body, the painful recognition of defeat and limitation -- it does not congeal or have conviction without these actors. Significantly, the movie was photographed by Dick Pope, one of British master Mike Leigh's most critical collaborators, and this movie has some of the same urgency and nakedness of those films. At times the sisters go too far, however, especially the unnecessarily cruel end of the Turturro story.
"13 Conversations about One Thing" is studded with doubles and reversals, and the only certainty appears in the sorrow and defeat of its characters. Sprecher has proven herself a skilled and rigorous filmmaker, but there is now an even greater push for feeling and statement. The movie ends on a note of optimism, a brief reminder that humanity is capable of forgiveness and possibility. Given the dark view the movie holds for existence, it is only fragmentary -- and yet a necessary reminder of the light burning through the shadows.