I caught Forty Shades of Blue twice in late November, and had my schedule or the exiguous booking practices of Landmark Theatres permitted, I would most certainly have gone to the movie a third time, maybe even a fourth. Demonstrating little faith in this film, despite its winning the Grand Jury Prize last winter at Sundance, Landmark dumped Forty Shades of Blue into the Varsity the day after Thanksgiving, then gave it one or at most two screenings a day for the week-long run, thereby insuring that this flawed yet unforgettable piece of moviemaking had slim chance of reaching an audience. Forty Shades was gone by the following Friday, of course, predetermined to failure at the local box office, so that the misogynist hipster trash The Squid and the Whale could prolong its undeserved, already worn-out welcome and that Seattle liberals could still don their hairshirts in the malodorous sanctity of the wretched Paradise Now.
But enough about how Seattle is one of the worst cities ever (considering its size) for good movies. I shall now attempt to perform the ludicrous act of writing film criticism; I pray that some of you out there say, “Yes!”
Actually, I believe I’ll jettison the cumbersome process of penning a review, for it’s only posterity that impels me to stitch these notes together. Here, in random order, are 14 moments that spoke to me in Forty Shades of Blue.
1. The fecund sparseness of Michael Rohatyn’s lyrics for the title song, sung a cappella in Dina Korzun’s delicately Russian-accented English, after she’s become painfully aware of her suppressed dissatisfaction in living the good life.
“I’ve seen forty shades of blue
I’ve seen forty days go by
I’ve been waiting here for you
I’ve been trying not to cry
Now I’m the rain that’s falling down, down
Falling forty shades of gray
And I wonder where I’m bound
Where I am, I cannot stay.”
2. That the director Ira Sachs, who is clearly a major talent, saves this poetry for late in the film, and that he edits the lyrics unfolding into a lovely montage that begins with Laura (Miss Korzun) sitting at a table writing them and culminates in a glass elevator ride (going up) between Laura and her new love, Michael, the adult son of her much older “husband.”
3. A brief clip of Laura’s toddler son Sam (aged about three and a half) playing at the drums, crashing cymbals, in his father’s Memphis recording studio, as she stands patiently, selflessly next to him. Sachs, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rohatyn, depicts the tenderness of mother-child interactions with cooing authenticity, as in the bilingual baby talk we hear between the Russian émigré mom and her American-born bundle of joy.
4. The stark beauty of sunrise in a Southern winter, tints of rose in the sky viewed through bare branches, a testament to Julian Whatley’s unostentatiously impressive cinematography.
5. Laughing out loud with the few other patrons at a less-than-capacity matinee when, late in the movie, Rip Torn tells a woman in bed that he isn’t “a mind reader.”
6. The marvelous scene of Torn, as Alan James, a “legendary” producer of blues and soul, blustery at a recording session, excoriating his engineer in front of the entire entourage for having built an isolation booth for the drummer. Only moments before, this same hippie-ish engineer had spoken with immense pride to Alan’s visiting (and estranged) son Michael of all the things he learned from Michael’s father, “…on a lot of different levels, philosophically, psychologically.” Is Alan’s tirade, I wondered, part of the instruction? The comic bite of this scene and the economical means by which it’s shot and cut in slight overlaps may have prompted the misleading comparisons to Robert Altman. Sachs’s core of humanity couldn’t be further from Altman’s trademark misanthropy.
7. Sometime after this, there’s a patio scene at the home of Laura and Alan. The way Sachs and Whatley compose the shots, and cut from indoor/outdoor perspectives of a conversation between Laura and her houseguest, frames Michael in an isolation booth of his own, boxing him in between a thin column and the edge of a sliding glass door. It’s a neat little visual commentary that perfectly accompanies the understatement of Darren Burrows’s performance. Burrows’s fading yet not quite gone handsomeness suggests a ruined Tom Cruise, waylaid by life disappointment and oncoming paunch. You can tell that a decade ago Michael/Darren was probably a knockout, and this adds to the character’s sense of malaise. Observe, too, the indelible beauty of how Michael bonds with his much younger half-brother.
8. The stark brilliance of the film’s final sequence, in which Laura’s grief overwhelms her. She gets out of the parked car, thus ending (for the time being) her argument with Alan and just walks. Where’s she going to go? Nowhere, perhaps. It isn’t the destination that matters; it’s the walking away – the expenditure of frustration. As she strides, we hear the whistle of a distant train begin, and here Sachs makes the second of his two mistakes: he freezes the frame. I wish he had kept the camera stationary and let Laura walk out of the frame. And let our eyes linger on the bridge she’s just crossed.
9. At an awards ceremony for Alan, his acceptance speech recounts his early passions for race music, hillbilly music, and how his dad had returned from WWII saying that the Europeans highly esteemed all that, thus earning the father’s approval of his interests in guitar and piano. Torn’s effortless greatness, his seemingly improvisatory manner, makes this remembrance one of the year’s cinematic highlights. Earlier, the scene has Sachs’s first mistake. When a soul singer at the reception launches into lyrics about the “dark end of the street” where someone’s “hiding in shadows,” and the camera pulls in on Laura and Alan seated side by side, it’s too obvious a framing/foreshadowing, a clumsily literary gesture. This does not, however, seriously hurt the film, because everything that comes after (until the second mistake) is so superbly, exquisitely handled that you won’t even remember this, unless, like a critic, you took notes.
10. When Alan describes his “wife” (they are not, in fact, married) to someone with the words, “She’s a nice lady,” you can tell how much passion is in the relationship.
11. How accurately the movie captures the frightening urban vacuity of mid-sized Southern cities where there’s nothing to do, except shop, loiter at private parties, or – worst case scenario – end up under strobe lights.
12. A shot of Michael and his snobbishly one-dimensional witch-wife, April, alone together. She’s positioned behind him, as he sits expressionless on the bed. He: “Who’s a baby?” She: “You’re my baby.” And there you have the man: infantilized by his wife, stunted by his father. As April, Emily McKenna embodies this mortifyingly smug archetype (an NPR-liberal in academe) so well she could almost hold a staff position at Seattle Weakly.
13. By way of praising Laura’s culinary abilities, Alan announces in front of Michael and April, “Not one of my wives could make gravy, not even out of a can!”
14. The song that plays over the end credits, “It’s Gonna Be Morning,” fetchingly sung by the late Hoagy Lands in a style reminiscent of Sam Cooke, a coffee-colored voice as mellow as it is slightly grainy, in which happiness and melancholia are so thoroughly entwined as to be symbiotic.
December 14, 2005