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    film club 88: the safety of objects

    what's the deal?

    The Safety of Objects (2001) is one of those ensemble films with overlapping stories—what critic David Bordwell calls a "network narrative." It covers the lives of four families residing in an unnamed suburb, each dysfunctional to some degree or another. (It's adapted from a collection of stories by A. M. Homes, although, interestingly, the original stories don't interconnect: they share thematic concerns but not characters or settings.) It also has a touch of the "puzzle film" about it: it's clear, early on, that a number of the characters have been affected by a tragedy or set of (related?) tragedies, but information about whatever happened is parceled out over the course of the film, only becoming fully clear at the film's conclusion. We chose it because our last film, Yi Yi, was also a network narrative, and the two films share a specific link around the figure of the "caretaker" (each features a character in a coma, being cared for at home, by family).

    what's good?

    • Patricia Clarkson's role and performance. I've never seen Six Feet Under, where Clarkson has done a lot of work, but I remembered her turn as an especially cruel figure in Dogville, and was pleased to see more of her work here. She plays an older woman with an active sexuality, and the film strikes the right balance with this: it never suggests that she's not attractive or desirable, but it also openly presents her struggling against people who are realistically judgmental... this is a particular kind of drama that we don't see enough of. The lack of good roles for women in their forties has been much remarked upon, and doesn't require further elucidation here: suffice it to say, the character felt fresh, and the performance dignified it.

    • Similarly, it's nice to see Glenn Close given a good role: this is some of the best work I've seen from her in a long time (even if the pathos is a little overdone at the end).

    • A few sequences of vigorous, rhythmic cross-cutting between characters exploit the network narrative form quite well.

    what's bad

    • Lack of sense of place. The story takes place in a Generic Suburban Anyplace and even though it kind of wants to be "about" the suburbs it does very little to flesh out the sense of space. (They also refer vaguely to "the city," but we don't know what city, nor do we get a clear sense of how the city influences the suburb.) Contrasted against network narratives with stronger senses of space—Robert Altman's Nashville or Short Cuts; Richard Linklater's Slacker or Dazed and Confused (Film Club 21)—this film comes up powerfully wanting.

    • Lack of tonal control. The film shifts between the comic, the blackly-comic, and the tragic without surety of hand. To a degree, the blame for this could be laid on the source material: the original story collection also teeters between troubling and comic in a way that's got to be tough to capture in film. But I've seen examples of that balance handled deftly: Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know nails it with a near-absolute authority.

    what's next?

    We decided to run with the theme of community and tragedy, and next we'll be watching Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter (1997).

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    Thursday, February 24, 2011
    8:37 AM


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