I wonder what Heather Graham thinks about her eyes.
I wonder if she thinks about how her best feature is her greatest liability as an actress.
Her directors have. They have to.
Graham’s eyes, the biggest, roundest in Hollywood since Betty Boop’s, aren’t lifeless or inexpressive or unfocused. They are just too...beautiful. They are nearly impossible to look into because you can’t stop looking at them. Trying to find the emotion in them or read the thoughts behind them seems absurdly reductive, like looking at a sunrise over a mountain lake and spending the time thinking about optics, refraction, and the economic possibilities of solar energy.
For this reason her eyes might as well be as opaque as a doll’s eyes, and it’s no wonder that some of her best roles have been living dolls—Felicity Shagwell in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Brandy, the roller skating porn star in Boogie Nights, Daisy the bad actress sleeping her way to the top of the filmmaking totem pole in Bowfinger. Ed Burns managed to make her pass as a real, and intelligent, human being in Sidewalks of New York I think by never letting his camera catch her face head on. He only allowed us to see those eyes at an angle.
But in Adrift in Manhattan, director Alfredo De Villa tackles the problem by photographing her head on and close up as often as he can and solves it by making those strange, guarded eyes—guarded by their own beauty—symbols of her character’s willed emotional blindness. Instead of their being a wall of blue glass between us and her thoughts, De Villa has turned them into a wall between herself and the outside world. Graham’s character, Rose Phipps, an eye doctor—I told you the De Villa uses her eyes symbolically.—is trying to get over the death of her little boy by not letting herself see his absence. She passes the door of her son’s bedroom, where presumably everything inside remains just as it was the day he died, pausing long enough to read his name spelled out in quilted calico letters, again and again, but never lets herself peek in, as if whatever’s in there belongs to some other family and is none of her business, and she frowns irritably at the child-rearing magazines and toy catalogs that continue to show up in her mail as if she can’t think why she’s still receiving mail for the people who lived in her apartment before her.
And at work, where she spends her days looking deeply into the eyes of others, she presents her patients with a glacial lack of sympathy. When she tells an old man, a retired art teacher, whose job as a mail room clerk and whose one passion, his painting, depend on his eyes, that he’s going blind, he looks to her for some hope, some explanation, some understanding, and finds himself staring into a gorgeous blue blankness. He might just as well have turned to one of her diagnostic devices for sympathy. That’s what Rose has made of her own eyes, mere devices for her work. To look at other people, really look, would mean to see what they have and what she has lost.
If Rose allows herself to feel anything at all, it’s anger. Rose is furious with her husband, who has moved out of their apartment. It’s not clear whether he’s left on his own or if Rose has thrown him out. Rose is furious because, she says accusingly, he doesn’t care about their son’s death, at least he shows no sign that he’s grieving, and she’s angry because in a terrible moment he blamed her for taking her eyes of their toddler, letting him wander to his death. Of course Rose isn’t grieving either. She doesn’t want to hear about it from herself. She thinks she has no right to mourn because she’s half-convinced she’s to blame too.
Mark Phipps (played by the other Baldwin brother who can act, William), a prep school English teacher, has walled his feelings in just as securely as Rose has, only his wall is made of forced cheerfulness. The only release for his feelings, all his feelings, including his grief, comes through his teaching and his students’ poetry. There’s a moment when one of the pretty girls in his class who are obviously smitten with him explicates a poem and his pleased and excited reaction to what she says seems to be a prelude to a teacher seduces his brightest student subplot. But it turns out that the moment is all about the moment, and we realize that what he’s taking pleasure in is not the girl herself but in the honest expression of emotions he won’t allow himself to feel. He’s keeping his heart alive only through transfusions of warmth from his students.
Into the Phipps, life wanders—well, sneaks—Simon Colon (Victor Rasuk), a young amateur photographer with the talent and the eye, but not the confidence or the courage, to be a professional, even an artist.
Simon is a prisoner of grief too, although it’s his mother’s grief that has him trapped. His father walked out on the family when he was little and his mother (Marlene Forte) has dealt with her broken heart by attempting to freeze their lives at the moment just before disaster struck, when she was young and beautiful and happy and Simon was her innocent baby boy. It’s awful enough for a twenty year old man to be treated like a schoolboy, but Simon’s mother’s fantasy of family happiness requires her husband to still be in the picture too, so she’s forced Simon into the part. When he’s not her darling boy, he’s the man of the house, and when he’s not being made to play either of those roles, he’s her lover.
De Villa leaves things ambiguous. It’s not clear how far Marta's gone with that. But her behavior is crazy and crazy-making enough even if she hasn’t taken Simon into her bed. She’s seductive, too physical, jealous, demanding not just of his time and his attention and care but of his appreciation—she encourages him to look at her in a way no son wants to see his mother.
Confused, guilty, with no clear idea how sane men and women behave with one another, he goes out into the world with his head down and his eyes averted, desperately trying not to draw attention to himself because he’s afraid anybody who gets a really good look at him will know. The only way he can bring himself to look at life is at a remove, from behind his own glass eye—that is, through the lens of his camera. And it’s a telephoto lens. He remains a great distance, he hides in the background, and spies.
One day Simon finds himself spying through his lens on a beautiful young woman sitting alone on a park bench, walled off in her own thoughts, and he catches her starting to cry. It’s Rose, naturally, and she doesn’t cry. She stops herself as soon as she feels the first tears on her cheek. She brushes them away like soot. Simon is more than smitten, he’s enthralled. He needs to know her. He needs to know why she was about to cry and why and how she made herself stop. Rose stands and leaves the park and Simon follows her. He follows her all the way home, photographing her whenever he sees the chance.
That’s not the end of it, though. He starts stalking her. Which he knows to be creepy and which he knows won’t get him what he wants, which is some sort of normal human conversation.
He arranges for her to see the pictures he’s taken of her.
I hate to use the phrase but it’s the right one—the photographs are eye-opening for Rose.
Seeing herself as Simon sees her, an isolated stranger locked up inside herself, startles her. She doesn't like what she sees, but she becomes curious about herself. She wants to know more and in order to do so she allows Simon to take more pictures. She catches him following her but she doesn’t chase him away. And this sets up a startlingly spooky shot the effectiveness of which depends on our having gotten used to the emotional opacity of Graham’s amazing eyes.
De Villa delivers it as the final image of a quick montage of the photographs Simon has just taken. The pictures are in black and white so that Graham’s eyes, robbed of their otherworldly blueness, are reduced to a more human scale of prettiness. We see her from behind, then starting to turn, then in profile, then in three quarters, and finally full on, looking straight back into Simon’s camera, and we suddenly see her looking back, her eyes intense, focused, full of a strange mix of contempt and appreciation, and it’s like looking at a painting and realizing it’s looking back.
One thing leads to the other, almost unfortunately. Rose leads Simon home and seduces him, setting up the scene I mentioned the other day that was a brave and risky and foolhardy move by De Villa, and probably an unnecessary one, but somehow he gets away with it.
Rose uses Simon to punish herself and somehow, sort of, get even with her husband, who, she thinks, has moved heartlessly and effortlessly on. Sex absolves her, melts her. Meanwhile, Mark, although he doesn't know about Simon, has come to the conclusion that it's Rose who has moved on. He thinks she has met somebody else and his jealousy breaks the dam of his emotions.
Simon is freed too. I'm not giving anything away that De Villa hasn't fore-ordained for us from the beginning of the film---this is one of those movies where the interest lies not in the ending but in how the characters get themselves to the points we know they are going to have to reach. Adrift in Manhattan begins and ends with a cliches. The story starts with Simon spying on the world, seeing it at a distance in black and white, and finishes with him, still looking at it through his camera, but boldly now, as an artist engaged with his subjects, using a wide-angle lens to take close-ups, in color, of all sorts and conditions of people smiling back at him.
This is a movie full of cliches, actually. But cliches aren't all bad. Cliches are truths that have degenerated into truisms through overuse, and they can be made useful again, their truths can be brought out, through rephrasing. Everything Romeo and Juliet feel about each other is cliched and they speak nothing but cliches to one another. They're young lovers discovering what all young lovers discover, but Shakespeare has made it new for them, and for us, by giving them a poetry all their own. He's rephrased the cliches to make them true again. I'm not saying that De Villa has come up with a visual equivalent of Shakespeare's poetry, but he has gotten his actors and his camera to rephrase the cliches.
I wouldn't call Adrift in Manhattan a great movie either. I liked it, very much, but I think what sold me on the movie and carried me through it was the acting in the subplot.
Dominic Chianese plays another character trapped and isolated by grief, Rose's patient, Tommaso Pensara, the old painter going blind, and he plays him with such a mix of dignity, intelligence, authority, vulnerability, and pain that I was never for a moment reminded of the role I know Chianese best in---Junior Soprano, Tony's feckless, weak but dangerous, and increasingly senile uncle. The contrast Chianese creates between the quiet, restrained, refined, adult Tommasso and the manic, insecure, desperate to be respected, permanently adolescent Junior is so startlingly great that the two characters don't even look remotely alike, although Chianese played both without any special make-up.
But then you know what they say about the art of screen acting.
It's all in the eyes.
Adrift in Manhattan is available on DVD Tuesday, January 22. You can order it now, though, through my aStore. It's the unrated version, so it may contain more of the spanking scene. Just FYI. Not that you'd buy it just for that reason.
Cross-posted at newcritics.