I modified this blog post a year ago. Now it's time to get it out there, perfect or not, or whatever.
Sometimes a film comes along that seems made just for you. Or in this case, offered like an unreckoned jewel for my subconscious etc. For me this film is Sideways. My subconscious says thanks.
It is the story of a frustrated single writer in his mid-thirties and his friend of a similar age, Jack (played by Thomas Haden Church). Despite their different priorities in life, they come together to drink wine and celebrate Jack’s last week of freedom before he gets married.
After 35 or so viewings, I still find myself re-watching this film, thinking maybe I should enrol on a rehabilitation weekend or a mind flush where people are strapped into chairs and forced to watch the entire Rambo collection, or even worse, the Transformers movies on constant replay. There is no help, because in my head Miles Raymond outstrips every character that Paul Giammati has ever depicted since.
I first saw Sideways at the Gulbenkian Theatre, University of Kent, Canterbury. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s a theatre and cinema near the back of the Kent Uni campus. By the end of my third year at Kent, I’d lost count of the properly made films I’d seen there. I can’t pinpoint the exact season when I first saw Sideways, it may have been late summer. It was definitely my second year studying English Lit. I recall I’d started a love affair with real ale - I’d recently become enamoured by a locally brewed Emerald One Hop that I’ve never seen since – and the mood of the evening seemed to slot together with this small and personal tale. I remember sitting towards the back of the theatre with a group of friends, only one of whom has remained close.
The start of the film is shot in darkness with the sound of urgent knocking on a cheap apartment door as a man struggles to wake up. “Oh fuck” says the man, who seems irritated at his own existence, let alone that the building manager has broken his slumber to get him to move his inconveniently parked car. That car. The ultimate English teacher in a life crisis vehicle. There is a sense that Miles is being asked to move all his worldly possessions and not just a quirky 1987 SAAB 900 Cabrio – a car that looks like a bath toy on wheels. Without even seeing Miles in the flesh, I already knew who he was. The character was so well-developed that only a short burst of the man was enough to know he would under no circumstances blend quietly into normality.
As is perfectly in character, Miles lives in a sorry little block of polystyrene-looking apartments in Goleta, Santa Barbara County, where most of the cars lining his street were probably cast-offs from an eighties cop drama. The whole setup is perfectly mediocre: a long shot of some dreary overhead cables and a discarded shopping trolley with broken down grocery boxes inside. They're waiting for the damp to set in and finish them off.
Then we're inside his building. Raymond’s house consists of books everywhere in piles. Books seem to glue each room and his life together. On his microwave there are antidepressants, an unwashed coffee mug and more leaning books. Despite the fact he’s late for the last hoorah before his close friend gets married, he still finds time to have an engrossing read on the can and violently floss his teeth. I'm not sure whether this behaviour is supposed to be common among writers, but let’s say for argument's sake it is. We already know Raymond is the flawed kind. Miles is not a man to be rushed, and so he stops off at the best little cafe in the world, the kind of place that was made for writers. It’s a liberal kind of place where one member of staff has dreadlocks and the other one knows Miles by name.
So with a bit of a hangover Raymond orders a triple espresso, a New York Times and a spinach croissant while another customer is not even wearing shoes. I remember immediately wanting to go to this uber-relaxed place, and in a completely impressionable way order the Miles Raymond wine tasting hangover special. That's my kind of tasting. Tasted all of them.
Any man who completes a crossword while cruising down a freeway gets my vote. Then having seen a few parts of the commuter belt towards Los Angeles, we’re then on to a large goose grey home that looks like a cake decoration. But behind the façade, Mile’s college buddy Jack is waiting eagerly to get started with his week-long pre-marriage send off. I think the floor inside the wedding cake home is a false granite or some kind of white / grey marble, but it’s laid in large squares. This scene contains one of the best pieces of dialogue in the film, which once again sets Miles apart from his surroundings (if parking the red bath toy next to three highly polished saloons and a four by four wasn’t enough). Jack’s father in law offers his philistine opinion on fiction, and although I would personally have slammed him with something about the lines between fiction and non-fiction and gone off on a diatribe, Miles offers an exquisite slice of passive aggression.
"Mike Erganian: What is the subject of your book? Non-fiction?Miles Raymond: Uh, no. It's... it's a novel. Fiction. Yes. Although there is quite a bit from my own life... so I suppose that, technically some of it is non-fiction.Mike Erganian: Good I like non-fiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time.Miles Raymond: That's an interesting perspective."
As Miles drives away from the Erganian household with Jack as his passenger and friend, the characters are juxtaposed, with Jack ready to run from the knowledge of lifelong commitment while Miles goes to town on the significance of grape skin colour as related to wine. Just as there doesn’t seem to be anything that can stop the trip from happening, it then turns out that Miles has to stop off to see his mother for her, as he says, “seventy, something” birthday. During a meal that is clearly delaying the wine tasting schedule, Miles excuses himself to go and steal somewhere in the region of 1000 dollars from his mother’s underwear draw while she occupies herself with his used-to-be-semi-famous-actor friend Jack.
Both Jack and Miles leave without saying goodbye while Mile’s mother sleeps in her clothes from the night before. Then they’re off to the cafe, where we find out that Miles is on two forms of antidepressant / anti-anxiety medication. The positive aspects of his personality are mostly teased out when wine is involved. I celebrated these small corners of light in his character.
Lastly, one particular scene stood out for me. Almost half way through the film, Maya and Miles are discussing their love for wine while simultaneously creating a subtext by which they can show the fundamentals of who they are. This is where Miles tells Maya that his passion for Pinot wine goes beyond its taste and deep into the character of the Pinot grape which he describes as thin-skinned, temperamental, thus describing the depths of his own personality.
Part of my love for this film comes from the fact that so many things about Miles ring true with my own personality. Like Miles I am an over-thinker and often negative, and I suppose that’s why watching Sideways feels like the closest I’ll ever come to seeing a large chunk of my real self portrayed by a fictional character.