There are good things and bad things inherent in short stories, much so in films. A good short story operates along a central theme, a premise that connects characters and makes them interesting whereby they might seem incapable of sustaining an entire film. Short films can be enjoyed relatively quickly. A long story requires much more commitment and attention. In the world of films, the feature-length film is king and everything else is relegated to film festivals and eventually the rental aisle or online rental queues or nothing at all. Some films, however, choose to employ the brevity of short films as pieces of their feature-length film, moments that often but not always involve similar characters who are governed by an over-arching theme or set of circumstances. Within this construct exists a series of snapshots, individuals on a crash course that frequently draws them together in one way or another and it is through this wreckage a deeper meaning is explored. In the 2002 film Nine Lives, 9 vignettes about 9 women is used to make sense of or explain a more complicated theme that by all rights may or may not have anything to do with one another. I think folks call it theme-based story telling, character collaborations, opportunities.
In Nine Lives, these short stories are presented as parts of something much larger than they are, a way for the audience to relate somehow to the familiar and the not so familiar. A scene in the film that exemplifies this idea can be found in films like Pulp Fiction or the varying stories in Crash, Short Cuts, and Cats Eye. Other films more closely resemble a way of packaging short films that may or may not carry a similar theme or idea, relying simply on the construct of the feature-length film to express different characters, scenarios, and situations without needing to wrap everything up at the end. Such is the case with Nine Lives.
Director Rodrigo Garcia is known for directing films composed of numerous vignettes and in the case of Nine Lives, the movie follows the lives of nine women in various stages of living, dying, and confronting the consequences of their actions and at times, inaction. Garcia debuted at Sundance in 2001 with the film Ten Things You Can Tell By Looking At Her, again with a long list of top-notch talent featuring Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Amy Brenneman, Cameron Diaz and others. Garcia worked with many of the cast members from his debut film, including Close, Hunter, and Brenneman. Dare I say Ten Things and Nine Lives are all to familiar, the framing a copy of the previous film and as such Ten Things suffers from it. Newness is never a prerequisite for films but close similarity is always difficult to shake off.
The trouble with a ninety-minute movie composed of short vignettes is a sense of betrayal, a gut level feeling of connection that is made and broken over the course of the film that prevents us from firmly getting to know any one character. While Garcia eventually connects his characters, briefly if not randomly at times, the mood of alienation and aloneness prevails and passes like strangers at a funeral or a child skipping from tombstone to tombstone at a distance. What amounts to interesting moments never come to fruition – imagine listening to the middle of the story without ever learning where it started or how it ends? I appreciate that Garcia wants us to live in this ‘in-between’ space but it relegates the viewer to casual observer, disinterested and fighting to remember what it was about the characters you cared, if at all, about.
The second thing that undermines Nine Lives is the construction of the scenes. Rather than expressing these snapshot lives in a cinematic way, Garcia chooses to employ single takes and little or not edit points. While the camera floats effortless, and without the troubling shaky-technique so overused these days, it comes across like a filmed stage play with long monologues and momentary pauses for a look of consternation or delight. Somewhere in the middle of the segments, we find Holly (Lisa Gay Hamilton) and Vanessa (Sydney Tamiia Poitier), two sisters slowly, painfully revisiting the tragedy of their past as it has undone their present locked at times in one long monologue by Holly. The scene feels contrived in an overwritten, nowhere near Broadway play sort of sense, slinging metaphors and epiphany’s with such a rush as though director Garcia was just off camera asking her to ramp it up and up and up. Rather than genuine and emotional, the characters feel like wire frames bent to look and sound like everyday people when they are more like storefront window mannequins frozen in an inescapable reality prevented from changing as the world around them change.
There are nice moments in Nine Lives, vignettes of what may very well be the only thing interesting in the lives of these characters. We might be better for not knowing where they came from or where they are going, better for a quick sketch that does not belie the character’s brash decisions and headstrong outbursts. Where the film finally comes to rest is of little consequence any more than how we got here in the first place. Garcia wants us to see what we are given, to think about it, ponder how our own lives may or may not be similar but what he relies on, our appreciation for a second at a time with these characters is the very thing that keeps us at a distance and effectively prevents us from caring enough.