Abstract – Directed by Alexander Payne; Paul Giamatti stars as a middle aged failed author and middle school English teacher who takes his soon to be married friend on a wine tour in northern California in a movie about anxiety, depression, loneliness and wine.
Background – I was not planning on this being a part of this series. I made a stupid typo when selecting my films and wrote that Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation was released in 2004. I finished watching Lost in Translation and started writing it up and then noticed that I had made this mistake and was faced with a decision. I could either, pick a new film from 2004 and replace Oldboy later in the month or I could pick a film from 2004 that I had seen before and watch it now. Obviously I chose the former. Sideways is my favourite film of all time. Around this time last year it replaced Jaws which had been my top choice for about a year and a half when it replaced A Few Good Men which was the film that got me into films. This film features the character that identify with more than any other in all of film. This film is so important to me that when I was in a fairly dark place and blogging drunk I started taking emotional moments from the film and in total Fight Club style started posting, “I am Miles (insert noun here)” posts. I laugh every time, I feel every pain, I know the movie inside and out and it registers with me on a fundamental level I often have a hard time describing. This friends, is a special movie.
Comments – 1: Paraphrasing the film, “Why that movie did not make you the biggest star, is a sin.” Here I am referring to Paul Giamatti. Giamatti is the key to this film because his emotional journey through Miles is the star of the story. We learn early in the film that he is an aspiring author who has written a novel partially inspired by his life. As he starts his trip with Jack, hungover I might add, Jack tells Miles that he will not allow Miles depression and anxiety to ruin the trip for him. When Jack tries to get Miles to flirt with a woman (Maya) who seems interested in him, Miles is too nervous to engage. When Jack and Miles get drunk with the two female leads, Miles goes to the “dark side” and “drink and dials” his ex-wife we see the veneer of charm that Miles uses to keep people from seeing how truly miserable he is. We only see that misery a few times in the film. Once when Jack tells him his ex-wife remarried, another when Jack confronts him about the “drink and dial”, next when he reveals Jack’s lie to Maya and she becomes livid with him, and finally when he sees his ex-wife and she tells him that she is now pregnant. It is never pronounced, only betrayed in the small flutter of Giamatti’s eyes and the stress in his face. But what Giamatti did in this film was create a full character, a character who is anxious and depressed and whose defensive mechanisms are on the verge of falling apart at any moment.
2: The editing and the music are the technical keys to this film’s success. That “drink and dial” scene I mentioned before is very important to understanding this because it is a montage that lets the music bring us on a journey. Jack and Miles are at dinner with Maya and Stephanie and they are all conversing as they choose wine and food. The montage then begins and a harpsichord starts playing the film’s main happy theme. It’s a little slower than we last heard it and as the wine pours and the food is served, so are Miles’ smiles. Then the music transitions into what the OST calls “Miles’ Theme” but could just as well be called “The Sad Song.” We see images of wine being poured laid over Miles’ face as his drunken thoughts go to the dark side. Its two and a half minutes of beautiful filmmaking and it gives us insight in to where wine can take Miles.
3: There is a scene about mid-way through Sideways that critic Manhola Dargis described as a “small masterpiece.” As Jack and Stephanie have gone to bed, Miles and Maya become close over a nice bottle of wine. Maya asks Miles why he has an obsession with Pinot Noir. It would be a disservice to the scene to not quote it directly so here is what Miles replied.
“it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and… ancient on the planet.”
Drunk and smitten, Miles then asks Maya why she is into wine, and her response is just as beautiful.
“How it’s a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing; how the sun was shining; if it rained. I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes. And if it’s an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I opened a bottle of wine today it would taste different than if I’d opened it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive. And it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks, like your ‘61. And then it begins its steady, inevitable decline… And it tastes so fucking good.”
I’ll go into this scene further in the Deep Cuts but the dialogue in this scene is important. Not only is it exquisitely written but it has layers and layers of meaning that can be delved into.
Deep Cuts – Here I’m going to delve further into the scene described above as well as a few others and why they matter to me personally. Just prior to that scene, Miles asks Maya, “what’s the bottle that did it.” What was the bottle that got you into wine? Among cineastes we ask a similar question except about which movie did it. Sideways is a part of a small sub-generic-category of film that is about a hobby and forces viewers to understand the passion or evacuate. The best my passion has ever received was Martin Scorsese’s Hugo but this film describes the passion of a hobby better than any film I’ve ever seen. Those two speeches by Miles and Maya describe that it’s more than a hobby and more than a passion, it is a way of life. Miles, earlier in the film, describes his ex-wife as having, “the best palate of any woman I’ve ever met.” One reading of the film would be to say that Miles is elitist and a little misogynist when it comes to wine tasting, but a closer understanding of his character reveals that distinguishing her as a woman is information about who he can fall in love with. Miles requires someone who loves wine as much as he does to connect with. This running theme is personal to me because I’ve gotten to a point where film is something that a partner of mine would have to truly love for me to be in a relationship. It’s more than a hobby, it’s more than a passion, it is a life style.
But back to the meat of that exchange, it is obvious that Miles is describing himself as he describes the Pinot. He sees himself as misunderstood and rough around the edges while also beautiful and filled with the capacity for love. That metaphor lies right at the top of that scene and while the line is very well written, it requires Maya’s response for it to truly be “coaxed into its fullest form.” Maya responds to his ode-to-pinot by describing what could be best called an empathetic love of wine. Maya looks at the big picture, that wine is alive and growing until it dies. She brings a wide metaphor of life-as-wine into a direct appeal to Miles to open the proverbial bottle as she touches his hand. He says that his love needs coaxing, and she says she wants to help but that he has to pop the cork. It’s a beautiful metaphor that brings the prosaic down to the personal.
Also started in that scene is some information that becomes critical later in the film. Miles reveals that he has a 61 Cheval-Blanc in storage and had been saving it for his tenth wedding anniversary. This is obviously a very fancy bottle of wine for Maya declares that, “The day you open a 61 Cheval-Blanc, that’s the special occasion.” In, what is not a stretch to call, the second most emotional scene in the film, Miles opens that bottle. After returning from the trip and damaging things with Maya, Jack gets marries with Miles as the best man. Before the reception, Miles’ ex-wife confronts him and reveals that she is pregnant. The look on Miles face is one of complete devastation and as she leaves he returns to his apartment to get his prized bottle of wine. The next shot is at a fast food restaurant where Miles is drinking his wine from a disposable cup, washing down a burger and fries. Miles confronts that he is never going back to whatever happiness he had before with his ex and the special occasion is one final irony. Was this film not a comedy it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the next scene be one of Miles hanging in his apartment. It would seem that Miles’ suicidal musings will finally come to fruition until he gets a call from Maya. She forgives him for what had happened on the trip and then compliments him on his novel. She remains confused though about the ending, asking if one of the characters finally commits suicide. And in the final moments of the film we see Miles driving to Maya and knocking on her door, leaving their future ambiguous. Unlike Miles’ novel however the ambiguity is not about life, for we can be certain that Miles has come through the other side.
Watch with High Fidelity for another comedy about a struggling artist with a big mouth and too many words in his head.
Watch with Manhattan for the parallels between Maya and Miles and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton.
Watch with Planes Trains and Automobiles for a great pair of buddy movies.
This is my favourite film of all time. And while I know that that has changed in the past and will likely change again, I will never forget the impact this film has on me.