(Ulu Grosbard, USA, 1995)


Georgia is like a blast from the past – specifically, from the great, free days of American cinema in the 1970s before Star Wars (1977) ushered in the era of strictly formularised blockbusters. It is a long, off-centre character piece that ‘goes nowhere’ in narrative terms, but digs deep into the mysteries of human behaviour.

It is not surprising to learn that this project – written by Barbara Turner and co-produced with her daughter, Jennifer Jason Leigh – was initially developed for Robert Altman as director. Its subject – the fraught, almost symbiotic relation between two sisters, Sadie (Leigh) and Georgia (Mare Winningham) – echoes that of Altman classics such as Three Women (1977).

Indeed the early scenes of this film, elliptically sketching Sadie’s rather masochistic time with Trucker, a black blues musician (Jimmy Witherspoon), recall Altman’s distinctive shooting style down to the last detail. But Georgia is the work of Ulu Grosbard (True Confessions [1981], Falling In Love [1984]) – a filmmaker less recognised than Altman, but no less blessed with the ability to capture what is most odd and surprising about people.

This is a story about music – about the desire to sing, and what this desire can fulfil, or destroy, in a person’s life. Georgia is a naturally gifted, very popular folk-rock artist. Her style is mellow, and so is her life – perhaps too much so. Her seemingly perfect set-up (supportive husband, great kids) seems edged by a certain emptiness. Like so much in the film, this emotional abyss is intimated rather than openly dramatised.

Sadie is a more extroverted figure – so naked in her wants and needs that she weighs like a stone on everyone around her, especially Georgia. Sadie is an excessive, out-of-control, grasping character, forever falling prey to booze, drugs and crippling neuroses. Headstrong yet utterly dependent, she draws people into her messed-up life without any sense of personal ‘borders’. Leigh inhabits this part body and soul.

The most remarkable aspect of this film – and what makes it so different from the average, current American movie – is its relentless insistence on a particular range of painful experiences and unresolved emotions. Shame, embarrassment, misunderstanding, envy, a slow-burning despair: as in Altman’s masterpiece Short Cuts (1993), this is the behavioural grey zone which defines the mood of the drama.

It has to be said that, for many viewers, Leigh’s singing will top the list of the film’s painful experiences. The raw, grating, confronting quality of her punk snarl is exaggerated by the film’s admirably strict use of live sound recording – especially in the extraordinary 8 minute set-piece where Sadie belts out Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” to a vast, underwhelmed crowd.

I am puzzled by people’s resistance to the film on this point. Almost thirty years after The Velvet Underground, I would have thought that so-called bad singing – slurred, screamed, tuneless, whatever – had been well and truly accepted into the world’s musical repertoire. Personally, I find Sadie’s performances in the film moving and expressive by virtue of their very imperfection – an effect that Grosbard clinches when, in the final scene, he intercuts the two sisters singing the same song.

This is a film full of fascinating minor characters, such as Sadie’s doting groupie-husband Axel (Max Perlich), each of whom has a complexity and mystery equal to that of the leading players. The actions and motivations of all the characters are inscrutably fuzzy: another echo of Altman, in whose films behaviour is always driven by murky, barely conscious, casually amoral impulses.

These days we hear ad nauseam that film scripts must have a clearly defined character arc, that narratives must take us on a mythic journey, that stories must be powered by will, desire and conflict. A film such as Georgia laughs in the face of this ersatz, fashionable wisdom. In a beautiful scene, Sadie thanks her ex-boyfriend Bobby (John Doe) for teaching her how to “listen to the bottom” of a song. Her words have a prosaic, musical meaning but a poetic, emotional one too. Georgia is a movie that knows how to listen to the bottom of our difficult, never fully resolved encounters with others.

MORE Grosbard: The Deep End of the Ocean

MORE Turner: Pollock, The Company

© Adrian Martin November 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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