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Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her

     More and more, I sympathize with distributors having to say "no" by the hour to countless vanity indies with leaden, TV-derived scripts and starring the novice directors' least charismatic friends. In today's squeezed market, an independent film had better be damned special to succeed: i.e., have the structural inventiveness of a Memento, the unerring subcultural vision of a Ghost World.

     On the other hand, how do you explain when a film of indisputable intelligence and merit, and with an A-list of movie and TV actors at the top of their talents, can't get a distribution nibble? In the case of Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her, these same distributors are chicken-livered, blundering fools.

     Here's surely what critics and the discriminating public crave: an adult-minded film with a maverick sensibility yet produced smartly inside Hollywood (MGM/UA), and with a cast to assassinate for: Cameron Diaz, Calista Flockhart, Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, Amy Brenneman, and Kathy Baker. But after much-praised screenings in 2000 at Sundance and Cannes, Things You Can Tell was dropped from the studio schedule, and no enterprising independent stepped up to take over. Instead, the film was edged onto Showtime without ever a theatrical release; this summer, it's bumping and landing at your neighborhood video store.

     Cable then straight-to-video? What a miscarriage! If it were playing in theatres, Things You Can Tell would be my candidate for, through August, the best American feature of 2001. It's a tender, unashamedly emotional interweave of five stories about lonely, stoical women trying to get by with dignity, wishing to find love and connection in today's cool, desolate LA. Things You Can Tell is a cousin in spirit to Short Cuts and Magnolia, but more compassionate and humane than the Altman, less soupy and pretentious than the Paul Thomas Anderson.

     Behind it all is Rodrigo Garcia, the cinematographer son of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, making a stirring debut as writer-director. One more reason for distribution: Things You Can Tell is bursting with socko Oscar-level performances. Diaz stretches admirably, and movingly, as a young blind woman-articulate, sexually frank – who puts up a cynical front as men keep walking out after they have bedded her. Hunter is wonderful as a manager of a small bank, also guarded and suspicious, who tries to keep a check on her feelings even going through an on-screen abortion. However, there are startling moments when Hunter's eyes suddenly widen on the edge of hysteria, as when, post-operation, she staggers out of the physician's office.

     The abortionist? It's Glenn Close, who earlier, has sat by without speaking (the camera holds on her remarkable face as she listens, the clinical way that Liv Ullmann is studied in Bergman's Persona) while a young woman (Flockhart) reads her Tarot cards: bad news and more bad news. Is there hope in this mostly melancholic movie? Note the story in which Kathy Baker plays a divorced mom with a teenage boy, and she becomes enamored of the man moving in across the street. The man (Danny Woodburn) is a dwarf, but, she quickly decides, so what? There's a simple, touching exchange of flowers which has the heart of something in a domestic classic by the Japanese master, Ozu.

     Flashback to a cheerier time: May 2000, the triumphant press conference for Things You Can Tell following the Cannes screening. The actresses present – Hunter, Flockhart, Brenneman, Baker, and the Italian Valeria Golino – each took a turn praising Garcia for directorial sensitivity to his dominantly female cast. Hunter: "I think Rodrigo has a big woman living inside him." Golino, who plays Flockhart's dying lesbian lover: "He looked at us like he was looking through a curtain, with so much affection and delicacy." Brenneman: "Rodrigo is very confident, not threatened by all that strength of the women coming at him."

     Garcia: "I didn't grow up in Hollywood, surrounded by bodyguards, or paparazzi at my kindergarten. I'm thankful I grew up in Mexico City in a household where two things mattered: service to the community, and storytelling. I didn't set out to be a director, I was a camera operator, but I had this idea in mind for a long time, and the desire to direct came from this idea: my earliest memory of arriving in LA for film school was seeing it was rich and warm for newcomers – I was single then, in tune with, 'Who do you know? Can you set me up?' – but it easily could turn lonely, a place of missed opportunities."

(August, 2001)


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