Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sideways (2004)

Dir. Alexander Payne
Starring: Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh

I accompanied this film with a Californian white zinfandel – very sweet with floral notes. Thank heavens I hadn’t chosen a merlot. Miles hates merlots. In fact, in the year following the release of Sideways sales of merlots in the western USA dipped by 2%, while his favoured pinot noirs increased by 16%.

This would appeal to Miles, played here by Paul Giamatti. The idea that he, a divorced, depressed, continually-rejected novelist who feels cut off from the mainstream of society, could influence a society's tastes in wine would definitely appeal. He is a snob. He peppers his conversation with French phrases and Bukowski quotes, he enjoys the New York Times crossword, drives a red vintage Saab (as opposed to all the other black modern models that overtake him on the freeway), and he loves his wine. Wine-tasting is the one area where he can show off a genuine superiority over the mass of humanity, detecting minute hints of “asparagus and nutty Edam cheese” in a glass of wine where most people’ could detect stawberries and nothing else. Even with wines he decries certain wineries. He describes Frass Canyon as “a joke” whose wine tastes “like the back of a fucking L.A. school bus” – this is the one with coach tours piling through and branded baseball caps, as opposed to the ones down winding tracks where they are the only customers. So when his old college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church), now a recognisable actor, is getting married Miles takes him up to the vineyards of Santa Barbara County for a week of wine-tasting, good food, and the odd game of golf.

Message in a bottle:
Miles tutors Jack in what to look for in a wine

Except Jack is very different individual. He just wants to “party”. He wants to find a girl who also likes to party and have one last fling before he gets married. And if he can cheer Miles up along the way and stop him moping over his ex-wife (who, it emerges, has now remarried and is pregnant), all for the good: “That’s going to be my best man gift to you this week. I’m gonna get you laid”. But his own needs come first. Whenever Miles comes close to scuppering Jack’s chances – such as by revealing that he will be getting married in a few days time – Jack bullies or cajoles Miles into playing along. “There are some things that I have to do that you don’t understand”, he tells Miles. “You understand literature, movies, wine… but you don’t understand my plight.” Jack’s plight is that he is horny and he is not sure whether he is doing the right thing in committing to one woman for ever.

And so we see this odd couple hooking up with two local women. Jack falls head over heels in lust – and then (or so he convinces himself) in love – with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who works at one of the wineries. Miles is set up for the purposes of this double-date with Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at his favourite restaurant with whom he has always been friendly. And Maya is perfect for him – she is kind, she takes an interest, she knows just as much about wine as he does. While Jack and Stephanie are off enjoying gymnastic sex we get to see Miles opening up for the first time. The subject? Wine. Specifically, his love for pinot noir.
“It's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's, uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and, uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavours, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet…”
He might as well be describing himself, blossoming under Maya’s attention. Notably, unlike his best friend, Maya, the horticulture student, takes the time to read the manuscript of his novel. And her reaction to it shows how much she feels for him. “There are so many beautiful and painful things about it. Did you really go through all that? Must have been awful.” The film ends with Miles returning to her apartment, knocking on her door. What happens next is never shown, but we have to hope that they get together. She brings him back to how he was “before the tailspin”, as Jack puts it. Gets him to be more carefree, living for the moment. At one point he relates to Jack about how, with his ex-wife, they drank a ’92 Opus 1 with smoked salmon and artichokes – but they didn’t care! A brilliant line! And when he leaves Jack’s wedding Miles goes to a burger bar, where he drinks his 1961 Château Cheval Blanc from a plastic beaker. Giamatti manages to portray this outwardly unpleasant but inwardly crumbling character perfectly. He manages to make emotions of loss, desperation and, finally, happiness ripple over his face like wind across the vines. 

What have I learnt about California?
They produce a lot of great wine. All I’ve ever had from there are Gallo equivalents, so I must search out some better vintages – particularly pinot noirs. The scenes showing their rows and rows of vines makes the area look quite exceptionally beautiful, and the number of wineries where you can get tastings really helps to sell the Santa Ynez Valley wine country as a tourism destination. Plus, the famous California liberalism seems to be in full flow out here. Okay, it was filmed in 2004, but there were certain moments that really made me sit up in shock: they’re not wearing seatbelts! They’re driving after drinking! She’s smoking indoors!

Can we go there?
Yes. And the helpful folks over in Santa Barbara County have even put together a self-guided tour to enable you to follow in Miles and Jack's rather drunken footsteps. Key elements are to start off in Buellton where one can stay at the Windmill (really the Days Inn) and walk down to dinner at The Hitching Post II restaurant. Or, indeed, AJ Spurs for those who like their waitresses plump and grateful. The double-date dinner takes place at Los Olivos Café and Wine Merchant in Los Olivos. Wineries visited include Alma Rosa in Buellton (the first they visit), Kalyra in Santa Ynez (where Stephanie works), Foxen Vineyard in Santa Maria, Firestone in Los Olivos (where they skip out of a wine talk) and Fess Parker, which stands in for ‘Frass Canyon’. One oddity seen in the film is the nearby city of Solvang, founded by Danish migrants in 1911. It has eye-catching half-timbered house, a horse-drawn tram, a Hans Christian Anderson museum and a replica of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue.  

Overall Rating: 4/5

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