I think I bought this film on a 3 for £10 deal a few years ago, probably because it looked vaguely theatrical. It’s been sitting on the shelf ever since. It ranks alongside the likes of Copenhagen and Angels in America as worthy stage adaptations that I’ve never quite got around to watching. Bob took one look at the cover and disappeared upstairs. I’ve yet to sell him the concept of The Mayor of Casterbridge as a frontier Western, so this was always going to be a hard call.
Six Degrees of Separation follows a few weeks in the life of New York society couple Oisa and Flan Kittridge (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland). Through a series of dinner party anecdotes, they tell the story of how a young man (Will Smith) appeared in their lives under false pretences – he claims he is both a friend of their children and also the son of Sidney Poitier. After discovering him in bed with a rent boy the following morning, they throw him out and think no more about it. That is, until they discover that he pulled exactly the same trick on some friends of theirs, and the couples team up to investigate this mysterious young man. He attempts to inveigle himself further into their lives, fundamentally challenging their values and assumptions.
This was a change of pace from yesterday’s sci-fi freneticism. From downtown 23rd Century New York, we move up in the world to the privileged existence of upper class aesthetes, who glide from soiree to cocktails in a manner that would put Frasier and Niles to shame. Their cultured world holds a fascination for Will Smith’s charismatic Paul, whose skills and dedication allow him to slip seamlessly into their lives, learning a whole new language in the process.
Language is the key element here – the inherent “talkiness” of the film mirrors the value these characters place on the ability to disseminate the smallest issue. Whether it’s discussing the symbolism of their prize Kadinsky (a painting portraying both chaos and control), or ruminating on the titular six degrees of separation, language is a commodity used to demonstrate both status and belonging. The fact that Paul is able to adapt so easily, punctures their belief that this is in any way a meaningful form of communication. It’s surely not a coincidence that the repeated phrase “a bottle of beer” is the same as the famous ventriloquists’ stumbling block: “a gottle of geer”. It sends a clear message that the words are hollow, empty and devoid of value. Their communication is merely a form of learned parroting, with society pulling the strings.
This is thrown into hilarious relief in the depiction of the Kettridge children, who follow the family expectations by going to Harvard. With all the privilege of money and birth, the eldest son becomes inarticulate in his rage:
You gave him my pink shirt? You gave a complete stranger my pink shirt? That shirt was a Christmas present from you! I treasured that shirt, I loved that shirt! My collar had grown a full size from weightlifting, you saw that my arms had grown, you saw that my neck had grown and you bought me that shirt for my new body! I loved that shirt! My first shirt for my new body and you gave that shirt away? I can’t believe you! I hate this life and I hate you!
The expensive, private school education produces nothing more than a spoiled brat whose values don’t extend beyond superficial appearance. In three months, Paul gleans all the knowledge and understanding he needs to survive in this supremely artificial world. His tragedy lies in the fact that his understanding doesn’t extend to questioning the validity of his ambitions.
There’s much to think about in this film, and it’s worth another visit at some point to catch a few more references and nuances that I’ve overlooked this time around.