things you can tell just by looking at her

2001

Written and Directed by: Rodrigo García

Obviously the things you can tell just by looking at her are everything, and nothing.

In this series of filmic essays, we think we see so much when we look at the characters as individuals. They are the sassy bank manager, the confident abortion doctor, the writer of chidren's books, the detective, the blind teacher, the tarot card reader. But really what we are seeing is all surface. We don't see what drives a woman to do what she does, and what drives every woman is different.

For some it is the craving for independence, for others it is the craving for love. Some women have everything (or think they do) and are miserable, others have almost nothing and are sated by little things. Others are completely unknowable, untouchable. Every one of these women are vastly different, but in the end they all have amazing commonalities.

When you draw together a cast of this magnitude, you expect something extraordinary. While Things you can tell... doesn't really live up to that promise, it is thought provoking and merits repeated viewing. The things we think we know about these woman after first viewing change after a bit of thought and reflection. Even now as I write this I'm thinking up more connections, more clues to understanding the film that I hadn't considered before.

This type of film, pioneered by Robert Altman, is becoming more and more common: a disjointed, atemporal narrative that connects four or five seemingly unrelated sets of characters and events. In this case the segments are actually given names, which I believe was one of the film's narrative weaknesses. Instead of trying to emphasise the story sections, it would have worked better had the narrative just continued to flow. The segments are obvious enough as it is without breaking the rhythm of the film with what are essentially false boundaries. One of the themes is that everything is ultimately connected, so why not allow the story to be?

There are some classic explorations of femininity in this film, but none especially groundbreaking. One of the primary roles explored is that of women as caregivers - a daughter looks after her aged mother, a sister looks after her blind sibling, a single mother takes care of her son and a lesbian woman cares for her dying lover. All these women find different measures of fulfillment and loss in their roles. The one exception, a career woman who has no one dependent upon her, finds out she is pregnant and must re-evaluate her life to try and figure out why she has left herself no room for love or responsibility for others.

The overriding theme seems to be quite simple. There are many types of love, and many types of loss, and who knows when someone is experiencing either? Everyone lies, cheats, deceives, sometimes for what they feel is for the good of others, sometimes for their own benefit. If you can't tell the truth about people, how can you expect to ever know them well?

The lesbian storyline is quite brief, but sad. Christine (Calista Flockhart), a tarot card reader, prides herself in helping others unpuzzle their lives, while being unable to change all that is wrong with her own. Her lover, Lilly, is dying of cancer, and in their final days together they talk about how they met, how in love they were, and how in love they are still. But the illness rests between them like an unfathomable gorge. All intimacy is lost. All that is left is the waiting and the sorrow.

We could never have known upon first seeing Christine that she had such an incredible weight upon her shoulders. We could not even have guessed she was a lesbian. All that we knew for sure was that she read fortunes for money, and seemed the type of person who cared about others. Her sorrow is as deep as it is unknowable.

I know, I know, another dead lesbian. I mean, it's not the point at all, but couldn't the lesbian have been involved in one of the storylines where no one died? I mean, couldn't Kathy Baker's writer have fallen for a woman, not a dwarf? Couldn't the lesbian have been anyone other than Callista Flockhart? All I could think about afterwards was how I wished Amy Brenneman or Cameron Diaz had been the dyke.

But alas, no joy. It might not have been all I wanted it to be, but it was certainly a powerful exploration of the female mind. The film is held back from being great by the sometimes incredibly trite dialogue and a methodically slow pace. The actresses give it all they have though, and Diaz's tear-jerking monologue at the film's end that ties all the loose ends together is worth the video rental price alone.

Got a comment? Write to me at nancyamazon@gmail.com