New-Release Tuesday: Six Degrees of Separation

Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.

Australian director Fred Schepisi’s 1993 adaption of John Guare’s stage play Six Degrees of Separation is, hands down, one of the best films ever made. You may not enjoy it, and it may even leave you scratching your head or fast asleep; it may only earn 6.9 out of 10 stars on IMDb or a 71% audience score at Rotten Tomatoes; but that does not change the fact that this is filmmaking at its absolute finest. I have watched other films more frequently, but I have never studied a film the way in which I have pored over every aspect of this film’s script, visual construction, storytelling techniques, and performances. And unlike other such masterworks (Apocalypse Now!, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia), Six Degrees is also socially constructive and inspiring in a way that truly great works of cinema rarely achieve. For whatever reason, legendary films tend to be downbeat or even nihilistic.

The story of Six Degrees of Separation is certainly bleak. It concerns a wealthy white family suckered by a young black con man. To say a great deal more would spoil the brilliance of the unfolding narrative, if you have not seen the film before (and I doubt you have), but it’s not too much to reveal that Paul drives wedges into Flan’s and Ouisa’s lives that he could not possibly have imagined. And yet all of this darkness leads to a stirring awakening, one that can also resonate deeply in the viewer, if one is willing.

Will Smith, taking first steps toward cementing his adult leading-man status, has the central role of grifter Paul. And this grift is so deep that Smith ends up playing several different versions of Paul as the story unfolds. It’s every bit as tour-de-force a big-screen debut as Edward Norton in Primal Fear, Peter O’Toole in Lawrence, Glenn Close in Garp, James Dean in East of Eden, Alan Rickman in Die Hard, or Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. Smith is seriously that good here. And it was no fluke.

Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing are also absolutely brilliant as Flan and Ouisa, the art-collecting socialites who specialize at turning their very ordinary if upscale lives into gripping cocktail-party sagas.

And this is where Six Degrees goes all “meta,” as they say in the biz. After all, this is a story about storytelling, about the convenient narratives we all craft about ourselves to help us survive and impress our friends, about the precarious myths of privilege and underprivilege that undergird our culture, about the auto-sabotaged minefields of gender and race and patriarchy, about dangerous illusions and self-delusions and the ways in which we not only buy into them but help build them out and perpetuate them.

This is really a film that all Academy members should watch every year before voting on Best Picture. If they did, the votes would come out quite differently, I believe, because the Hollywood echo chamber can get quite loud, and those echoes drive most Academy voting. Six Degrees is a film that cranks up the volume so loud that the echo chamber’s walls simply come tumbling down. Hollywood could use a lot less self-congratulation and a lot more introspection.

And this is a film which is bold enough to demand that kind of introspection–all within as airtight and controlled a cinematic presentation you could hope to create or run across. Masterful.

Six Degrees of Separation is now included with Netflix.



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