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#26: Georgia
(USA, 1995; dir. Ulu Grosbard; scr. Barbara Turner; cin. Jan Kiesser; with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mare Winningham, Max Perlich, Ted Levine, John C. Reilly, John Doe, Jimmy Witherspoon)
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You'll notice that the thumbnail photo for Georgia is almost a mirrored duplicate for the snapshot I've pulled for Without You I'm Nothing, which itself would serve perfectly as a replacement title for Ulu Grosbard's 1995 drama about desperate, self-conscious, strung-out, and hard-living Sadie Flood (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has the wound and howl of a rock star but not the discipline or the consistency of talent. It's also about her sister Georgia (Mare Winningham), sober in every way, who has endeared herself to the tranquil multitudes with her melodic, modulated, wisely delivered folk music. In this context, "without you, I'm nothing" is a phrase that breaks both ways, and as with Bernhard, it connotes something other than a straightforward endearment. Sadie pines for Georgia's self-assurance, her affection, and her musicianship, and she ceaselessly puts herself in need of Georgia's caretaking and her terse but severe admonishments. That said, we cannot take for granted that Sadie yearns for Georgia's peculiar aloofness or for her tranquil domesticity. The damp air of the Pacific Northwest hangs in Georgia's house like a stilled breeze lolling in the lavender, but Sadie wants fire and charge, no matter what they do to her, or what they make her to do others (though she's never out to get anybody). One divines over time that Georgia would be nothing without Sadie. True, her lifestyle feels inoculated against the wildness Sadie represents: substantial but finally soothing music, muted and sheltered children, scarves wrapped with reflexive self-protection around her throat, vests and aprons and enormous glasses like pliable armor, a slightly downcast efficiency, and a helpless impulse toward judgment of her sister. It all feels like the kilned product of her own high-pressure determination neither to resemble nor to make herself responsible for the pleading bobcat who shares her blood. But of course desperate avoidance and self-differentiation do not exonerate Georgia from her bond with Sadie. If anything, they constitute one. At pinpoint moments in Mare Winningham's performance, flawless in its quiet self-encasement and its serenely contained prickliness, you catch her sad eyes gazing at Sadie, either curious about or terrified of whatever centrifugal element in her sister pulls her so cyclically into chaos. Perhaps Georgia wonders if she could possibly house a trace of this same gene, and maybe she craves just a taste of it. Just as likely, she is flummoxed at how ceaselessly Sadie emanates that ragged, lively, hungry spirit of hers, which Georgia's gliding harmonics, her maternalism, and her acoustic elegance will simply never assuage, even though they move Sadie tremendously.

Georgia might be my favorite example of a movie that compels you toward binaristic assumptions but keeps outwitting them, not through fussy sleights of hand by the writer or the director, but by the entire film's thoughtful immersion in the palpable, sonic, psychological, atmospheric world that it inhabits and constructs. Just because Georgia is talented doesn't quite mean that Sadie isn't, though she pushes so hard you suspect she'd grind like a boxcar over her own gifts without even realizing it. Georgia debuted during the same holiday season as Sense and Sensibility, and as tempting as it is to position Georgia as a thoughtful Elinor and Sadie as an exploded, heart-driven Marianne for the plaintive and strumming Seattle of the 1990s, you can't fix them there. Georgia does have feelings, sometimes unbecoming ones, always complex ones; Sadie does think, just not necessarily about how to safeguard herself or her intimates, or about how to make judicious decisions. Georgia's marriage to Jake (another masterclass in understated acting, from The Silence of the Lambs's Ted Levine) is not a matrimonial ideal, but it still embodies something Sadie poignantly lacks, despite hooking as earnest and sympathetic a boyfriend as Axel (Max Perlich), whom Georgia nascently admires. She also sees what a fond, sympathetic, occasionally conspiratorial confidant Jake is for Sadie, a fact that engenders restless and unnameable emotion in Georgia, who doesn't relate to her husband the same way Sadie does, and seems to have no other friend who performs that role for her. In any event, if Georgia does have friendships, they must be obliterated from view whenever Sadie hops back on the scene, needing and needing and needing.

Georgia's key tool for dissecting and complicating the sisters and their relationships is its unerring gift for intensely focused realism, a deep familiarity with character and environment that one rarely sees outside of a Mike Leigh movie. Even at that, Grosbard's film exhibits a deeper, richer visual palette and a sophisticated approach to rhythm and concision that Leigh's films, for all their thespian virtuosity and rigorous scrutiny of behavior, took a while to achieve. Grosbard, a solid actor's director who hasn't made another movie to touch this one, shows pitch-perfect recognition of the kinds of wanderlusters, make-doers, drop-outs, long-distance runners, and swaggering, self-conscious "legends" who scratch out their livings or carve out their niche in the nomadic world of music. He also uses the film's songs ingeniously to carry the scenes and guide their textures. Without making a movie that makes an issue of shattering any conventions, Grosbard nonetheless plays as though there are no rules, dilating the song performances for much longer than usual in a non-concert film, and often back-to-back, almost the way David Cronenberg used the sex scenes in Crash. The most famous scene, a litmus test for the lovers and haters of Georgia, is Sadie's flailing, compelling, erratic, embarrassingly sincere, nine-minute rendition of Van Morrison's "Take Me Back," in which context Georgia's turtle-dove harmonizing toward the end operates as an emergency intervention, a pinnacle of on-stage spontaneity, a stabilizing hug, and a breathtaking act of stern, undermining aggression. I am enchanted with this scene, but no less so with the jousting duel that happens between the sisters when Sadie performs a punked-out version of one of Georgia's songs at a low-lit club and invites her stupefied but resourceful sister to join her on stage. My heart goes out equally to smaller, quieter scenes like the ghostly moment when Sadie drowses and fades into the wallpaper while covering Nico, or when she supplies an offhandedly uproarious series of caterwauls to "Yosel, Yosel" in a bill-paying gig at a bar mitzvah. (The humor of Georgia, like so much else about it, is hard to cite out of context, because it emerges so organically and in such an unforced way through circumstance and behavior.)

I simply cannot turn Georgia off any time I start it, and I thrill to the movie in every register. Given its incredible range of clipped and extended scenes, of ferocious and restrained performance, of pearled and razor-edged music, of intimate hostilities and unexpected olive branches, I think that's quite a feat. It's the movie that recent fans of Rachel Getting Married may not have heard of but should most quickly take a chance on, though there are no marigold blooms or dazzling saris or funked-out, exuberant wedding parties to make Georgia any gentler than it wants to be. Like Rachel, Georgia is a movie that was annoyingly ill-served by the Oscars, where only Mare Winningham was nominated, and despite being the deserving winner among a notably strong field, she was treated in the press and on the telecast like one of those "invisible" contestants no one takes very seriously because she so obviously won't win. Ironically, though, when people ask why I stay loyal to the Oscars, Georgia often leaps to mind, because without that one nod, however divorced from the directing, writing, editing, and copious acting citations that should have accompanied it (including, of course, for the fearless Jennifer Jason Leigh), I doubt I would have bought a ticket to Georgia. I wonder if it ever would have gotten a DVD release or survived Miramax's carnivorous habitus of buying everything and then abandoning most of it in the purgatory of split-second, begrudging distribution. It's the kind of film that few people saw, many of whom found it itchy or unpleasant because it refuses to make outward concessions to likability, or to tell a simplified story of amelioration or reconciliation. Georgia and Sadie do not, finally, secure their bond or break up with each other. Screenwriter Barbara Turner, who later worked comparable wonders of characterization in Pollock, is Leigh's mother. Winningham, who performs her own songs and is a recording artist worth seeking out, is a longtime friend of both. Obviously, everyone who worked on this movie adored the project and trusted each other, but in a way that forced them to their own best, astringent, un-egotistical standards. They must have known it would only reach a self-selecting cadre of people but hoped that those proud, those few, would love it very much. Despite its being a movie that knows and exposes every single facet of the ambivalences of love (whether for others, for music, or for one's own life), my own adoration is total, and undiluted by the years.

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