Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Miseryguts and I have both been a bit reluctant to see Sideways, partly because we suspected that it might contain a few home truths about the lateral drift of our own biographies and those of our closest mates.

Alexander Payne makes movies about the discomfited existences of morally-flawed mediocrities. I enjoyed About Schmidt more than I planned to and Election was one of my favourite movies of the 90s.

Like Payne's other subjects droopy-lidded Miles scuttles crablike along the line of loathsomeness for most of the story - forgiveable if not exactly likeable. Miles is in many ways a continuation of Jim McAllister, but on this occasion Payne disdains to go completely "over to the dark side" and appears to be offering his anti-hero a path to redemption.

Miles and Jack are two not getting any younger sort of guys that are beginning to feel themselves turning to vinegar in their bottles. Each has found a vessel in which to sail the seas of disappointment. For Jack it is his sexual prowess - people of all ages still check him out he pleads, "even dudes". For Miles is is the fruit of the grape. So their grape tour in Northern California is supposed to be a week of intense re-vitalisation based around their respective hobby interests, sexual instinct and oenophilia.

I'd love to meet Alexander Payne one day and discuss the topic of embitterment with him. If one day I take the opportunity to escape mediocrity I suspect that I'll soon wish that I hadn't.

Pleasures of the sort Miles gets from his bottle of Cheval Blanc are really the best that life has to offer outside of true companionship. If you can kick back and avoid the red herrings and the tailspins this might actually be the best place to hang out - ordinariness has its ladders as well as its snakes surely? Tempus Fugit for instance depicted a sunnier, Payne-less (sorry!) vision of underachievement. (Looking around him at London's shabby intelligentsia in the Purcell Room's 'airport lounge' last Friday, Miseryguts asked me if I thought people became socialists because they missed out on all the trophy mates?!)

Sideways is an acerbically funny film and very well written. "Did you drink and dial?", "quaffable but far from transcendent" and "tight as a nun's arsehole but good concentration" are amongst the lines that will stick with me.

Miles is certainly right about one thing - if you like wine systematically there is usually one bottle in your past that made the crucial difference. Mine was a Beaune, '77 I think, also a Pinot. My father once served an '82 Cheval Blanc at Christmas and I kept the bottle as a souvenir, but the memory of the moment my palate was stunned by that wonderful Burgundy is still the most vivid.

Smiley-eyed Virginia Madsen is lovely as Maya in this film. In spite of any affection you might have built up for Miles, it's hard to imagine at the end that she's exactly made herself a great catch. Her interest in wine is somehow deeper and more intelligent that his, which isn't much more than a front for dipsomaniacal decline. And Miles hasn't really done anything good to make up for things like stealing from his mother! But if you are the compassionate sort you might conclude that he's rather like his favourite grape - thin-skinned, out of place in most environments and in need of careful nurturing- yes, "quaffable but far from transcendent". (Well, the nun's arsehole one didn't fit.)

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