Contingency and Grace
Jill and Karen Sprecher create characters worth believing in
Alan A. Stone
8 Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is the second film by the Sprecher sisters (their first was Clockwatchers), who are a refreshing presence in the egomaniacal world of moviemaking. Jill Sprecher is a shy and self-effacing director who hands out credit to everyone else. Now in her forties, she continues to be animated by philosophical questions about transience, contingency, and the meaning of life that puzzled her in college. Karen Sprecher, who coauthored the screenplays with her older sister, trained as a psychiatric social worker and gives the characters who ponder these questions in Thirteen Conversations psychological depth.
Perhaps because the sisters and Thirteen Conversations break the Hollywood mold, critics have tried to locate their work in relation to other filmmakers. Those who like it find echoes of Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Robert Altman. Those who dont see outtakes from Stanley Kubricks Eyes Wide Shut and a ripoff of Paul Thomas Andersons Magnolia. What runs through the work of this disparate collection of filmmakers is an interest in the dark side of the psychewhere people (all of us) question lifes meaning and worry that it has none. How you find happiness after you ask yourself that question is one of the subjects of this unusual film.
Neither the plot nor timeline of Thirteen Conversations is linear. Several stories are told, linked by coincidence, and the sequence of thirteen segments that make up the film circle like a M<0x00F6>bius strip. Pulp Fiction was put together in a similar way, as were Altmans Short Cuts and the recent British film The Lawless Heart. But in none of them does the postmodern structure suit the substance as well as in Thirteen Conversations penetrating psychological reflection. The film is punctuated with fortune-cookie lines: wisdom comes swiftly, show me a happy man and Ill show you a disaster waiting to happen, we understand life looking backwards but we have to live it going forwards (I am paraphrasing). Still, the sisters use the aphorisms artfully and with their own special style of irony, which does not distance them or us from the characters or their thoughts.
Success has not come easily to the Sprecher sisters: they worked as temps (the subject of Clockwatchers) and maxed out their credit cards to finish Thirteen Conversations. But despite (or perhaps because of) their unassuming ways they were able to enlist an extraordinary cast and talented technical people who cut and polished their screenplay.
John Turturro plays a college physics professor, whose rule-ridden rigidity keeps life at a distance. He seems to know this in the way a patient can correctly describe his problem to his psychoanalyst without ever really getting it. Every attempt to break out of his prison simply narrows the space between the bars.
When we first meet him he is having dinner with his wife (Amy Irving). Although they still go through the motions of marriage, neither has anything left for the other except veiled resentment. Only later do we understand that he is having an affair and that she, unbeknownst to him, has found out. He was recently mugged and pistol-whipped, and when his discarded wallet was returned she found evidence of the affair. Instead of confronting him, she asks him why he is not angry or upset about the mugging. He, with a physicists objectivity, allows that the incident shook him from his routine. But it is obvious from every bite of asparagus that he is unshakable. His wife despairingly asks, What is it that you want? and he answers, What everyone wants: to experience life, to wake up enthused, to be happy. No real person, not even a physicist, talks this way. But if the lines are not realistic in any sociocultural sense they are certainly true to Turturros narcissistic character and to the part of us that identifies with him. And the Sprechers are interested in that truth: their film is an examination of how the self suffers and survives.
Jill Sprecher has told her own personal story of trauma and survival in several interviews. While walking near the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York, she was clubbed over the head in an apparently random attack. She needed emergency brain surgery and took months to recover from her injuries. This counts as psychic trauma in anyones book, but she was able to forgive her mentally ill attacker and she got over it. A few weeks later someone close to her did something really small that just cut me like a knife, and she has carried the scar of that painful moment for years. Sprecher realizes that psychic trauma is not objectively quantifiable but can only be understood in terms of its subjective meaning as a personal crisis. You will not find this insight in modern textbooks of psychiatry. But surely Sprecher is right and she has played out that idea in several of the characters in her film.
The Sprechers are also interested in what may be the most fundamental question in human psychology: What is it that actually changes a person? One can ask that question in the consulting room or in daily life. And it is not just a question for the psychotherapist. It is this spiritual question William James tried to answer in his classic Varieties of Religious Experience. Jamess book is less a philosophical analysis of religious experience than a collection of personal accounts of life-changing encounters with faith. So Thirteen Conversations, in its understated way, offers a fundamental psychological and spiritual inquiry into the human condition.
The physics professor, like Jill Sprecher, has been mugged but has suffered no psychic injury; his trauma, like hers, will come in a more intimate way. The brief dinner scene is the first of the vignettes, all set in New York City. The next scene features Matthew McConaughey as a young assistant district attorney, Troy, who is in a Manhattan saloon celebrating a successful prosecution with some of his colleagues. Troy is on top of his world, professionally successful and at the same time doing something right and useful for societypunishing the guilty. At the bar he encounters a seeming misanthrope (Alan Arkin) who begrudges the young lawyer his happiness and sense of accomplishment. Driving home, Troy accidentally (perhaps he had too much to drink) hits a young woman on a deserted street in the Village. He gets out of his BMW, looks at what he thinks is her dead body, and leaves the scene of the crime. Secret guilt begins to torment the triumphant prosecutor. A small cut on his forehead, sustained in the accident, mysteriously does not heal. Later we will see that he is using a razor blade to keep his wound from healing. His black-and-white world collapses into shades of gray when he interviews a murderer. As the young criminal describes the radically contingent circumstances that led up to the killing, Troy realizes that there but for the grace of God go I. Troy will eventually be driven to attempt suicide; indeed the possibility of suicidethe death of the selfhaunts the film.
In subsequent vignettes we learn that Troys hit-and-run victim is the angelic, unassuming, generous Beatrice (Clea DuVall), who is the Sprecher self in the film. She and her jaded girlfriend work for a cleaning service; Beatrice cheerfully does all the work while her friend slacks off. Beatrice, who sings Bach in a church choir, has faith that good things happen, while her lazy friend tells her that the world isnt fair. Like Jill Sprecher, Beatrice requires emergency brain surgery, yet she maintains her faith in benevolent providence. Then comes a small cutting remark that causes her personal crisis. One of Beatrices jobs is cleaning the apartment of an architect, and she has a crush on him that she wishfully thinks he reciprocates. On the night o
f her accident she had offered to sew his torn shirt for him. That white shirt blew out of her hand, and reaching for it she unexpectedly stepped in front of Troys car. When she goes to the architects apartment after her recovery to return the shirt, he inadvertently reveals that he had thought she had stolen his watch. That he would have such a thought destroys her dream and her faith in the goodness of life. Like Troy she is on the edge of suicide; their lives and their happy outlooks have been changed in an instant. Both will get a second chance.
Unlike them, a middle-management insurance claims adjuster named Gene (Alan Arkin) has already learned to expect the worst from life. When he first appears at the saloon, he announces his distrust of happiness: Show me a happy man, he says, and Ill show you an accident waiting to happen. Arkin gives a virtuoso performance as the bitter, hardworking New Yorker, tormented by an employee who is relentlessly cheerful, proud of his children (Genes son is a drug addict), and always smiling. Gene treats him cruelly, but in the end it is he who surprises us with his heart of gold, or at least his conscience. Like William James and the Sprechers, Gene wonders if it is possible to change ones life for the better. He remembers leaving home to attend a career-training program near the end of his marriage. He and his wife were not getting along and he happened to see her standing at the window watching him leave. What, he wonders, would have happened if he had waved at her instead of walking away? Might his entire life have been different?
Thirteen Conversations is partly about the loneliness and alienation of its characters. For some, there is no hope: Turturros professor is eventually forced to confront himself. His lover delivers the ultimate indictment as she ends their affair. Her husband has found out about them and has told her he cannot live without her. What, compared to that, can you say? she asks Turturro. The stricken look on his face tells us that the narcissist has no answer and never will. Other characters, however, are saved. As the Sprechers characters circle around the question of what to expect from life and each other, we glimpse an answer: momentary redemption through an act of grace.
Troy survives a suicide attempt, learns that the woman he ran over survived and that he can make amends. The suicidal Beatrice who is now ready to step intentionally in front of an oncoming car picks out a man across the street to focus her resolve. She catches his eye and then quite unexpectedlyhe must have read my mindthe man smiles at her, spontaneously restoring her faith in benevolent providence. The Sprechers juxtapose Beatrices story with a shot of Genes always-smiling employee walking along the sidewalk. Surely if he was the man he did not read her mind; he smiles at everyone, annoying some but perhaps saving Beatrice. Gene, whose life turns out as badly as he expected, encounters Turturros wife by chance on the subway. When a threat by hoodlums passes, the two strangers acknowledge each other in a nod. Gene leaves the subway, giving Turturros wife the friendly hand wave he never gave his own, and they both are momentarily comforted. The mystery of grace in the Sprechers film is captured in these moments that are entirely contingent and perhaps unreal, and yet in such moments human beings can find hope and meaning in their lives.
Thirteen Conversations feels like a miracle, as when all the ingredients come together and the soufflé rises. The acting is superb, the editing is inspired, the noirish cinematography resonates with the oneiric mood. And if the characters are not realistic, they are worth believing in. The true measure of the Sprechers remarkable achievement is that some of us will leave the theater convinced, at least for the moment, of the possibility of grace. <
Originally published in the October/November 2002 issue of Boston Review