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MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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November has the same structure as Run Lola Run, but instead of being energetic, it’s introspective and somber (I know: don’t all rush out to buy tickets at once). November is not for the popcorn-and-explosions crowd.

The segments are labeled “Denial” and “Despair” and “Acceptance,” an abbreviation of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief. And indeed the movie does a great job at walking you out of an emotional underworld back into the light.

An acquaintance was trying to piece together the movie’s three paradoxical segments into a coherent whole. I couldn’t help him, nor did I particularly want to. The way I saw it, the emotional arc of the movie was the main point, and not the puzzle. (Since then, I interviewed director Greg Harrison, who gave me two answers to the movies’ puzzle. I’ll bury them in the interview, available soon on TurnerClassicMovies.com and eventually on Movie Habit, but I won’t give them away here.)

Video Caveat

Sophie returns to the scene of the crime
Sophie returns to the scene of the crime

The press kit invites critics to conclude that November is the next Last Year at Marienbad or Don’t Look Now. There is certainly enough texture and ambiguity to make for some good post-movie conversation. But November lacks the weight of those other films, partly because it’s shot on digital video. The frequent pixelation and the video camera’s tonal range are a constant reminder of the movie’s cheapness. The fact that Harrison and his cinematographer Nancy Schreiber expressively messed with the color is more a testament to the ubiquity of video technology than to the brilliance of the artist.

Maybe it will never be possible to make great film on video, but given the constraints, November comes close, and it is a much more thoughtful and substantive movie than a lot of films that cost 100 times more to produce.

Death and Guilt

November opens very darkly. A man and a woman speak in a car at night. They are almost generic people; their particulars don’t seem important. The dialogue isn’t completely convincing, and we don’t really know who they are — should we be rooting for them? Both of them, or just the woman? Are we supposed to actually like them?

The couple has just had dinner. She pulls up to a fluorescent-and-neon convenience store and playfully sends the man in to buy something chocolate for dessert. Inside, he is caught in an armed robbery. He is shot and killed.

Sophie (Courteney Cox) goes to a psychiatrist (Nora Dunn) to talk about the trauma and the headaches she’s been having. She confesses she was sleeping with someone else on the side, which adds to the guilt she’s feeling over Hugh’s death. Her whole world is dark, hostile, and disturbing. The neighbors to one side blare loud, bass-heavy music, and the neighbors on the other side bang the walls in annoyance, trapping her between angry, unseen forces.

At the school where she teaches photography, a mysterious slide finds its way into a carousel depicting the convenience store where Hugh was killed. In the foreground is Sophie’s car, where she sits on the cell phone to her secret boyfriend.

Impossible Paradox or Universal Truth

The same segment plays again a second time, and then a third. Each time, the specifics change. Her lunch date with her mother gets less abrasive each time it plays. The sessions with the psychologist are less and less troubling. Her students’ photography projects are different each time, although there’s always some odd element of prescience in them.

And while my friend was trying to work out the logic, I was finding myself less and less tense as Sophie’s world widened from a claustrophobic, night-time hell to a more open, more natural world. When the opening scene of the third chapter shows us natural daylight for the first time, broken only by the pretty shadows of a venetian blind, I actually sighed with relief.

Perhaps this says more about me than about November, but I found the paradoxical structure to be exactly right. I had recently lost a good friend, and I had even tried to make sense of his death by mentally staging it as a movie. What I came up with was a paradox, remarkably like November’s, where the facts of my movie are tragic, but the emotional arc opens, lightens, and releases.

Harrison clearly had the same thing in mind. A tragedy can’t be undone, and it’s no use lying about the facts. But the emotional story doesn’t end with “life is cruel” or “let’s pretend it didn’t happen.” It ends when the human psyche comes to grips with the tragedy. The difference between the facts and the emotion may be a paradox, but it also seems to be a universal truth.