The Spaces Around Stories: The Films of Michael Glover Smith

There is a sequence at the center of Michael Glover Smith's Mercury in Retrograde (2017) that reminded me of something a rabbi once instructed me. I asked this rabbi to recount this pearl of Chasidic philosophy for the occasion. "We see ink on a page. The question is what makes the letters; is it the ink itself or the whiteness that surrounds the ink? Seeing only the ink is the masculine perspective: it's what first hits you, it's bold, it's pronounced, and it makes a lot of noise. In truth, however, it's the blank space around the ink that defines the words and letters. Like a sculpture, it's what you chisel away that gives it its sharp definition, otherwise it would just be a meaningless blotch of ink. It's what's not there that comprises the real story. This is the feminine perspective; it's subtle, deeper, more profound, the clearest illustration of the intangible vs. the tangible."

Granted, I tend to receive many if not most stories "yeshivically," if you will, after my stint at a rabbinical college ("you can take the boy out of yeshiva, but..."), yet this particular analogy is especially salient. In Michael Glover Smith's deft drama, three young couples repair to a house in the country for a recreational getaway weekend. One night, as the men convene for their literature club over scotch and cigars, the women venture to a bar in the nearby town to fashion their own ad hoc literary powwow. As the former group debates plot and character detail in Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key, the latter group recites their favorite poems -- mostly by heart -- and plumb decidedly deeper aspects of their carefully selected subjects. The ladies' night out evolves into a therapy session for two of these finely and fully etched female characters, both of whom harbor pained secrets that consume them. Meanwhile, the men's smoky river of booze and bullshit subsumes them, rendering them almost momentarily anonymous, defined only by what seems to be, slaves to the deceptive appearance of normality and equilibrium. We learn through the women how misleading these illusions and self-delusions are.

This indicates a director concerned less with blotches of ink on the page (i.e. broad strokes of plot) than the sculpted, all-important tabula rasa that surrounds it (i.e. the emotional vicissitudes that surround his simple but effective setup). To return to the earlier established motif, it is Talmudic to invoke in text the words of great rabbis of Jewish scholarly history, and the provenance of those words cement the soundness of a given nugget of wisdom. In this case, I'll do so cinematically. In the name of the Rabbi Orson the Great, Rabbi Jaglom relates, "As for me, I act and give of myself as a man, but I register and receive with the soul of a woman. The only really good artists are feminine, you know. I can't admit even the existence of an artist whose dominant personality is masculine." (These are Orson's words as related in the book My Lunches With Orson.)

"In Asia," my old rabbi informs me, "there is a whole school of art based on this painting by focusing on the empty spaces rather than on the strokes themselves." Smith's most obvious and explicitly stated influence as a filmmaker is Eric Rohmer. The mark of a Rohmer acolyte is indeed present, though one is welcome to take a deeper exegetic dive that might yield less instantly logical parallels. He dedicates his Cool Apocalypse (2015) to Alain Resnais and Harold Ramis, a combination he agrees is curious. Smith's films are bracingly, conspicuously literate. His characters are predominately intellectual, which for me suggests Louis Malle and Jean Eustache, with maybe a chaser of Whit Stillman. Stylistically, his use of color and anamorphic widescreen in Mercury in Retrograde suggests the Vincente Minnelli of the fifties and sixties, especially the use of radical primaries in Some Came Running (1958) and The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1962).

I was also reminded of a scene in Arthur Hiller's Married to It (1993), a more commercially pitched movie that fared poorly with critics, in which three diverse couples in differing stages of their respective marriages become friends. While the men (Beau Bridges, Ron Silver, Robert Sean Leonard) go off bar-hopping at a dive and ogle the female specimens in the vicinity, the women (Stockard Channing, Cybill Shepherd, Mary Stuart Masterson) convene at Petrossian for champagne, memory-swapping, and comparing notes vis-a-vis la boudoir. It's a simple, familiar enough concept for a sequence in a film about couple mechanics, but Glover Smith expectedly probes its possibilities and implications in a far deeper way. Alan Alda's The Four Seasons (1981) covers similar thematic and narrative ground. (Incidentally, I'm of the mind that Hiller's picture was unfairly treated, and it remains a familiar rainy day favorite, or guilty pleasure if you will.)

As in Truffaut, these characters either recur or exist in the same universe. In Mercury in Retrograde, the character Richard (Kevin Wehby) explains that conspiracy theories are comforting "because they make it seem as if everything is connected." Within the so-called "MGS Universe," this is multifarious. On one level, the filmmaker is indeed covertly (and sometimes not so covertly) connecting his filmic worlds in a very literal sense. He also establishes human interrelationships that are burdened and sometimes even oppressed by what is left unsaid, and therein lies the next "comforting conspiracy," especially so because Glover Smith is hospitable to the audience in allowing access to the internecine clashes of heart and mind that addle and stymie his characters. We know them, and we come to know the individual nature of the weight they carry. All this, again, occupies the spaces "around the letters" -- and around the story as we know it. To watch them ping-pong off each other is quite the study.

The final vignette in his most recent Rendezvous in Chicago finds Julie (Nina Ganet) seducing us, the audience, and our proxy, the camera, after catching boyfriend Wyatt (Shane Simmons) en flagrante delicto with another woman. The character Julie first emerges years earlier in Cool Apocalypse, while Wyatt emerges in Mercury in Retrograde. Their re-emergence here is a fitting apotheosis. At the end of an unofficial ad hoc "trilogy" involving an implicit network of satellite characters circling each other in carefully choreographed pas de deuxs, what could be more perfect than seeing these mix-and-matches burn out in favor of a literal pas de deux with the camera? By rendering us the first-person object of affection, he completes the circle in a most deliciously cockeyed way.

On a personal note, in showing my own longtime cinematographer the first vignette in Rendezvous in Chicago, which involves a comically suspenseful game of "strip literary trivia," he observed, "It's so hard fashioning an interesting 20-minute episode almost entirely around a shot-reverse-shot dialogue between two characters, but this sings. It is quite remarkable." I knew he would appreciate it, for its erudition, its sly wit, and above all, seeing a challenge of staging addressed with a bravado all too rare in the annals of current American independent cinema. Beyond that, it's plain old fun, a veritable hoot, and it is clear that the actors and their director approach it much the same way as those unsuspecting audiences who witness the delivery.

Michael Glover Smith has an acute understanding of the rhythms and codes infused into even the most simple and innocent encounters -- that is, he compels us to consider the "ink" on his "page" and the void that surrounds his fastidiously inscribed letters. He wraps these rhythms and codes in a cocoon of potential explosiveness, and gauges them for varying degrees of detonation. All of this is achieved with a formidable degree of cinema literacy, the tenor of which is vital, embracing, perspicacious, and passionate. Best of all, in his vigor, Glover Smith calibrates all this to be contagious.

And he is in thrall to his beloved home city Chicago in a way that would make pioneering silent-era "city symphonist" filmmaker Walter Ruttmann (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) dance in his grave.

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