2005Director: Rodrigo Garcia
Cast: Kathy Baker, Amy Brenneman, Elpidia Carrillo
ot every director is an auteur. Proof of this axiom floats on every word Rodrigo Garcia puts into his characters’ mouths. Nine Lives makes a watertight case; I think I even saw “QED” in the credits. Not everyone waited for that. One critic who missed it exalts the film’s dialogue as homage to some bygone epoch of poetic screenwriting. (The South has its nostalgia, too, I suppose.) Only his example—“We're nothing. We're dreams and bones.”—was borderline literary, cut-rate existentialism. In other words: kindergarten Sartre.
Garcia’s flashes of profundity are simply unearned. And when his characters wax quotidian—that is, when he’s trying to have it both ways—the results are maudlin. This is no surprise, given they are imprisoned in work-shopped knockoffs of New Yorker stories, minus the hushed epiphanies and shifts in consciousness. While the film inherits its secondhand metaphysics from “Short Cuts,” it lacks its Carverian timbre. Chekhov on celluloid, this is not.
Nine Lives is a scam on wheels, hawking gimmicky high-art like snake oil: an ounce or two of recycled murk delivered through a senseless, masturbatory technical conceit. Despite its fuzzy hide, the film’s limp lesson—that we’re linked to each other, or that we are joined in our small anxieties—falls flat. It’s too naïve, too New Age, too late. Making it seem otherwise poses a real problem. Enter Garcia’s slickly formal solution: Carving the film into jagged slices of life, each captured in one continuous long take.
Descrying Garcia’s motive isn’t hard. He is chasing easy prestige, after festival plaudits and women weary of the mainstream. Accordingly, his methods aren’t just arbitrary—they’re downright devious. Even Garcia’s choice to focus on women feels like another ploy. (His entire oeuvre follows suit.) A touch of skepticism feels necessary going on. Nine Lives fishes for seriousness only to net an amateur’s paradoxes: a calculating earnestness, stage-managed coincidences, and thrusts at solemnity that are all but comical. Its jumbled art-house physics involves a crust of gravity hiding a weightless core. Parsing it all for a point is a parlor game.
Then cake a layer of histrionics on top of the general pointlessness. The shadow of Lifetime, in all its gauzy, soap-operatic grandeur, unfolds across every scene. Gesture after stagy gesture drips with undergraduate acting-class mannerisms. Not even the capable A-list ensemble could rescue Garcia’s writing; they overcompensate at their peril. And somehow, the lazier press mistakes all this orchestrated melodrama as a window into a woman’s moment of crisis. They’ve been swindled.
Over the course of his nine Steadicam ambles, Garcia exploits a litany of delicate subjects. In the first vignette, featuring Elpidia Carrillo, one of Mexico’s grandes dames, he milks two: imprisonment and the loss of a parent, the justice system’s damage to family. The film’s closing vignette centers on an unlikely graveyard picnic—a botched attempt to probe mortality. In between, Nine Lives runs the gamut, from abortion and suicide to adultery and incest, reducing them all to props, to mere decoration, and in the process tainting its own high-minded ambitions.
Even the gimmick on which the whole publicity stunt hinges is impure: the long takes, not to mention the credits, betray an editor’s hand. But purity for Garcia, like the aped trappings of cinéma vérité, with its noble rejection of artful editing in the name of unmediated truth, is just another aesthetic pose. For Garcia, the medium is no instrument of enlightenment.
Call this the cinema of nihilism: Nine Lives swims neither inside nor outside history’s currents. On one hand, it’s sheltered from the zeitgeist, silent on the matters of the day. On the other, it’s not sincerely interested in the deathless ideas it ostensibly tackles. It is a feat to have no true subject, no theme, while still filling out its running time. To be sure, it makes for a tepid and tedious viewing. Garcia’s film is a vacuous, enervated exercise. It gives no testimony, offers no confession. It has nothing to say about anything, and takes its time saying it.
By: Roque Strew
Published on: 2006-01-13