Six Degrees of Separation

(Fred Schepisi, USA, 1993)


Six Degrees of Separation is certainly the oddest film that Schepisi has ever been involved with. It's one of those ambitious movies that captivates you strangely as long as you're watching it, and then starts rapidly disintegrating once you step out into the open air, and try to make some coherent sense of it.

Adapted by John Guare from his play, it weaves an unusual and undeniably intriguing story. It begins in a chaotic, confusing flurry, as a wealthy, upper middle-class couple – Ouisa (Stockard Channing) and Flan (Donald Sutherland) – run around their apartment, checking that they still have their most valued art treasures and various other luxury commodities. They then race off to a wedding they scarcely care about, and start telling their marvellous new real-life anecdote to an assembled throng.

We begin to piece together the story of Paul (Will Smith), a young black man who talks his way into Flan and Ouisa's apartment by pretending he's the son of Sidney Poitier. This young man wraps all his interlocutors up in an amazing fantasy of culture, learning, art, celebrity, even promising to make his impromptu hosts extras in his father's forthcoming film production of Cats – which is used here as a token of utter kitsch, but Paul can make it sound like a project of the highest art and ennobling imagination. Imagination, as we learn, is one of Paul's favourite subjects.

The bubble of this splendid evening bursts when, next morning, Ouisa finds Paul in bed with a man, a "street hustler" as we are told. Suddenly, this dazzling young black, gay stranger is something utterly abject, and he is evicted immediately. It turns out, as Flan and Ouisa swap stories with their acquaintances, that Paul has been pulling a similar trick all over town on various wealthy people. More importantly, it turns out that Paul is an extraordinary fantasist.

Not only is he not Sidney Poitier's son, he is not even a member of the cultured middle classes. We learn that he is in fact he is a former street hustler. Schepisi's film pieces together, like a puzzle, the trail of this mysterious and disruptive stranger in a jazzy way, with many flashes back and forward in the editing. The film also uses an extremely heightened and theatrical style of performance: these millionaires dither around in a kind of art-theatre chorus, swapping bon mots like "my wife is a walking Dada manifesto". At its worst, this style becomes as grating as it was in Alan Rudolph's Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994).

Six Degrees of Separation is a brave attempt to come up with a unique melding of genres and story types. Its problem, and the reason why it disintegrated for me so quickly after it was over, is that its diverse elements never mesh in a satisfying way. It's a film that uses its own diversity, its own odd uniqueness, to avoid what is potentially most interesting in its subject, rather than to explore it.

I had an experience of total movie recall as I watched this film. First, I recalled Woody Allen. In a way, this is the film that people keep telling Allen that he should dare to make – set in the same old affluent, cultured New York world, but with blacks and the homeless and gays in it. At first Schepisi squeezes a real thrill out of this gesture which seems so subversive. But whenever the scenario gets too threatening, discomforting or too close to the bone, Six Degrees becomes just like a Woody Allen film. It stops probing, and tries to convince us that these characters are not monsters after all, not really evil or exploitative in any way, but more like lovable neurotics.

It won't spoil the plot for me to say that, in its last movement, Six Degrees of Separation turns around to focus almost entirely on Stockard Channing's character, Ouisa. She's like the heroine of Allen's Another Woman (1988): she glimpses something of the emptiness of her own over-cultivated, over-protected life, and does something bold about it. This part of the film had me bemused, rather than moved and ennobled as I sense I ought to have been. What the hell happened to our young, black, gay street kid Paul, and his story? This, finally, is the very story that Six Degrees of Separation really does not want to tell.

At its most engaging, the film is more of a black comedy, like Paul Bartel's gem Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). There are excruciating, hysteria-driven scenes of the teenage children of the rich: always screaming hatred at their parents, expressing pent-up feelings of rejection, incomprehension and loathing for their social milieu. There is much play with modern, alienated forms of communication – phones, mobiles, beepers, commander systems – and when these kids tangle with their parents over the telephone lines, the movie really sparkles. In this part of the film, it does seem that the characters are really monstrous, or mad, or simply pathetic.

But there is something else going on in this middle section of the film, which is more deeply resonant and unsettling. At its most profound level, it is a story about seduction. It's about people who are tightly bound into their given identities – of sex, class, race, culture, lifestyle. These people are superficially happy, and yet they yearn for what they call a 'doorway' into some other life or identity, which is not their own. It is a theoretical truism these days that narratives are powered by the desires of the characters; it is less often admitted that narrative is also powered by a murkier and less elevated emotional drive, namely envy. Envy is much more susceptible to being preyed upon, because it is an admission of something base, not something splendid, as desire can be. People who envy can be 'led astray' – seduced (in the 'fatal' sense that seduction carries in the writing of Jean Baudrillard). Envy, too, is a more a socially determined or inflected condition than brute desire – and what it triggers is a virtually a contagion of social mobility.

Paul, in this scenario of pervasive, compulsive social mobility, is the agent of seduction. He can make a high art lover want to be in Cats; he can draw anyone into his own fantasy of himself; in the most remarkable interlude of the film, he can even make a straight guy submit to his gay sexuality – and like it. One senses a cruel element this game of Paul's. He's a dark angel who degrades everyone, who shatters their solitude and their innocence, like the angel in Pasolini's Teorema (1968), or the violent, sullen strangers in André Téchiné's arthouse melodramas. He's certainly canny in pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son, since everyone in the film, WASPs and Jews alike, intensely admires Poitier for being, as they say, "a barrier-breaker". Paul's story is indeed a story about breaking barriers, but not in a nice, easy, comforting, liberal way.

Thinking about Paul as some kind of subversive dark angel can reminds us of a completely different kind of movie genre, far from light neurotic comedy or even black, satirical comedy. Six Degrees of Separation is, in its own transformed way, something of a mystery film, and even more pointedly, a thriller. It's particularly like the contemporary cycle of intimacy thrillers including Poison Ivy (Katt Shea Rubin, 1992), Unlawful Entry (Jonathan Kaplan, 1992) and Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991) which are also based around mysterious intruders who enter a home, a marriage or a family, and somehow shake it up, for good or ill (or both), therapeutically or destructively. It's a formula in popular cinema, but it belongs to art cinema too, from Pasolini and Polanksi to Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers (1991).

But trying to imagine Six Degrees of Separation as a thriller exposes the limits of this film. Schepisi's film refuses, finally, to imagine Paul as a sublime agent of destruction, as a subversive or revolutionary figure, even in an ambiguous or qualified way. Paul's behaviour near the end of the film, in his intense exchanges with Ouisa, is particularly opaque and unfathomable. We no longer have a clue about what he wants or what's driving him, whether he is still stringing everyone along on a ruse, or is now genuinely pouring his heart out. At that moment I realised that this film and its makers are more than happy to keep Paul shrouded in mystery and ambiguity, to keep him away from the centre of our attention. To really ask who this kid is, where he came from, how he achieved the scam that he did and why, would really open this story up to some fascinating, urgent questions.

Instead, he is shoved off-screen for the finale, which instead basks in Woody Allenesque views of the New York skyline, while celebrating the coming-to-consciousness of its Grand Madame Ouisa. I don't necessarily mind stories of middle-class emotional therapy – I was a thirtysomething fan to the end – but in Six Degrees of Separation, it all just seems a bit beside the point.

MORE Schepisi: Last Orders

© Adrian Martin September 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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