Six Degrees of Separation (1993) sits precisely mid-career in Fred Schepisi’s filmography. The third in a series of stage adaptations the filmmaker undertook in this period (Plenty [1985] and Roxanne [1987]), the film has arguably been under-appreciated in a career notable for acclaimed early Australian works (The Devil’s Playground [1976], The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith [1978]) and commercially and critically successful films made in Hollywood and elsewhere (the aforementioned films, The Russia House [1990], and Last Orders, [2001]).

John Guare’s 1990 play, adapted for the screen by the playwright, in many ways represents quintessential Schepisi material: an intellectually rigorous and densely constructed narrative incorporating some of the filmmaker’s key preoccupations. The competing concerns of the individual versus family and attendant notions of personal and collective identity are themes that fundamentally underpin Six Degrees of Separation and resonate consistently in Schepisi’s work.

The relatively limited scholarship on the film has tended to focus on either formalist concerns – the film’s theatrical origins and Schepisi’s deliberately (and literally) dramatic approach to the material – or the way in which it engages with contemporary discourses on race, sexuality and class in American society (1). While this discussion intends to reflect briefly on these issues, the more substantive part of the analysis will be devoted to contextualising the film in relation to the filmmaker’s oeuvre, as well as the less obvious but compelling connections it forges with specific works. In understanding Six Degrees of Separation in relation to earlier and later Schepisi films, the discussion will particularly explore the filmmaker’s predilection for structurally and technically complex scenarios. Equally, the director’s consistent interest in the notion of family – and all the complexities and complications that might involve – will inform the latter part of the discussion in elaborating key themes in the film and Schepisi’s oeuvre generally.

Guare’s play, described as “one of the seminal stage works of our time”, had successful seasons in theatres around the world before being brought to the screen in 1993 (2). Based on real incidents involving con man and convicted criminal David Hampton, the drama focuses on the most widely publicised of these events. In 1983 Hampton posed as “David Poitier”, son of actor Sydney Poitier, ingratiated himself with New York high society and in the process persuaded a range of prominent New York identities to part with their cash. Guare’s friendship with two of Hampton’s victims provided the direct inspiration for his play.

In the theatrical and cinematic version, “Paul Poitier” shows up on the doorstep of 5th Avenue art dealers Flan and Ouisa Kittredge. He persuades them he is a friend of their children, and charms them to the point of being invited to stay the night. When Ouisa discovers him in bed with a male hustler the next morning, the cosy illusion of intergenerational and racial harmony is shattered. Paul disappears and on discovering he has deceived others in similar fashion (though he has stolen nothing), the Kittredges resolve to find and bring him to justice. But the experience with Paul and the recounting of the story to friends and family affect Flan and Ouisa in profoundly different ways. This disparity and its ramifications allow Guare to explore some uncomfortable questions about generation, race, class, family and sexuality.

The play’s title draws on the work of Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy. Karinthy’s thesis – that the connection between any two people on earth can arguably be traced through six steps or fewer – is the fundamental and unsettling proposition at the heart of Guare’s play (3). As Ouisa intuits in a key scene, while appealing in its implications of cosy global togetherness, this potential connectedness also brings with it obligations and responsibilities – responsibilities Ouisa attempts, however ineffectively, to fulfil in relation to Paul.

In making Six Degrees of Separation, the process of adapting a successful theatrical production for the screen was not a new proposition for Schepisi. In the previous decade, British playwright David Hare’s screenplay for his post-war drama Plenty provided Schepisi’s first large-scale critical hit beyond Australian shores. His follow up film, Roxanne was a commercially successful, contemporary take on Edmond Rostand’s late 19th century neo-romantic French comedy Cyrano de Bergerac. While the original dramatic source material for the two films differed radically in subject matter and tone, both offered the director the opportunity to bring his already considerable technical skills to bear on the respective challenges these two adaptations presented. And these earlier experiences in turn arguably provided the perfect preparation for Guare’s febrile combination of drama and comedy in Six Degrees of Separation.

The structural complexity of Guare’s screenplay and Schepisi’s film is clear from the outset. The story begins in media res, the morning after the encounter with Paul (Will Smith) the night before. The opening scene – barely suppressed hysteria as Flan and Ouisa Kittredge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) frantically check the contents of their sumptuous New York apartment – sets up a suitably frenetic tone that is a defining feature of the film.

Within the first five minutes, Schepisi succinctly establishes the Kittredges as affluent, self-absorbed, art obsessed Manhattanites whose weary disdain for everyone, including their own circle of friends, is temporarily masked when the same circle of friends provide a willing audience for their tale of woe. This allows the first in a series of elaborate but functionally unconventional flashbacks (more of this shortly). A brief scene with Smith rehearsing his uptown New York accent direct-to-camera deliberately disrupts this opening sequence, presaging very precisely the equally disruptive effect Paul’s presence will have on the Kittredge social circle as the drama unfolds.

The rapidly delivered dialogue, lively pace and busy Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack that distinguish this opening sequence – and the film throughout – signal Schepisi’s assertive embrace of the film’s theatrical origins. In the first half of the film, the cloistered spaces of the Kittredge apartment and other limited locations are deployed to impressive effect to underscore the unabashed theatricality of the unfolding drama. Schepisi’s emphasis on interiors and circumscribed spaces – the theatrically draped apartment windows and repeated, restricted shots of rooms through doorways – suggests a deliberately dramatic framing of space.

While in the film’s latter half, Guare’s screenplay opens out to include more characters and the action necessarily expands to diverse locations, Schepisi maintains the distilled intensity and dynamic pacing of the earlier scenes. And as Flan and Ouisa recount their story to increasingly prurient groups of friends, the persistent emphasis on audience reaction shots implicates us as viewers but equally reinforces the impression of “staged” action. Paul’s exposition on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, an elaborately constructed scene where Ian Baker’s restless camera cuts repeatedly between the four characters’ constantly changing positions, exemplifies the way in which an intradiegetic audience is constructed and the overtly performative nature of the action foregrounded.

Some contemporary reviewers found this stylistic approach overly insistent and counterproductive in elaborating the film’s thematic concerns. At the time of its release, Six Degrees of Separation was thus variously described as “talky” (4), a “too-precious gabfest” (5) and “rather stagey and unreal. Dialogue is too quick and snappy and movements feel choreographed.” (6) Other analyses pointed to Schepisi’s proven skill with theatrical adaptations and success in “maintaining [the] sensibility [of Guare’s work] intact” (7). “Australian film director Fred Schepisi is right at home with this material; he was also at the helm of the excellent screen version of another provocative serious play, David Hare’s Plenty.” (8)

While reviewers differed on the efficacy of Schepisi’s approach most nevertheless acknowledged the director’s technical skill in negotiating the screenplay’s sophisticated temporal structure. Described as one of only a handful of contemporary directors (along with Alejandro González Iñárritu and Steven Soderbergh) who followed in Bob Fosse’s footsteps in making “commercial films with comparably inventive structures” (9), Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation is testament to this claim. Interestingly, Schepisi himself has nominated Fosse as a key influence, along with Akira Kurosawa, Billy Wilder and Woody Allen among others (10).

The film’s lengthy series of flashbacks is an integral part of this inventive structure. A crucial device that arguably mitigates the film’s “talky” and “stagey” qualities, the flashbacks in Six Degrees of Separation are also intriguing for the less conventional way in which they function. Traditionally, as with a suspense narrative (a form which Guare’s screenplay clearly borrows from), a flashback reveals significant information and works to resolve the story’s central enigma. In Schepisi’s film the flashbacks offer multiple, and at times conflicting points-of-view – and the information disclosed often complicates the already convoluted narrative. The enigma posed in the course of the film – the “real” identity and raison d’etre of Paul Poitier – is arguably as much obfuscated as illuminated by flashback revelations.

The opening scene is an intriguing case in point. Repeated midway through the film as the flashbacks and central storyline retrospectively reconcile, Schepisi shoots the scene the second time around from a slightly different point-of-view. The subtle shift in camera angles has an equally subtle but unsettling effect, casting doubt on the original scene, shot from the Kittredges’ point-of-view. In a film defined by ideas around truth, fraud, misrepresentation and confabulation, Schepisi’s approach in this scene works as a succinct formal expression of these themes in implying that all the characters involved are potentially unreliable narrators.

The intellectual and technical challenges Guare’s screenplay presented in Six Degrees of Separation are not an isolated case in Schepisi’s oeuvre. As noted earlier, the director has been consistently identified as an adept filmmaker and skilled technician “able to tame any project or performer” (11). The aforementioned Plenty presented not dissimilar challenges. David Hare significantly rewrote his original 1983 play for the screen. The detailed drama spans two decades and deals with one woman’s post World War II struggle to find meaning in a life forever defined by her war experiences. While not characterised by the consistent flashbacks of Six Degrees of Separation (though the film does conclude with one definitive and compelling retrospective image), the drama’s expansive reach and regular ellipses provided Schepisi with a typically involved narrative structure.

Several years later, Schepisi’s screenplay for Evil Angels (aka A Cry in the Dark, 1988) – co-written with Robert Caswell – tackles a similarly lengthy and complicated narrative trajectory. Based on John Bryson’s book of the same title, the story examines in literally forensic detail the infamous case of Lindy Chamberlain’s wrongful conviction for the murder of her baby Azaria. Schepisi’s vigorous direction steers the audience through a complex scenario dealing with evidentiary matters, legalese and dramatically and emotionally taxing scenes. Regularly cutting to commentary detailing the predominantly hostile court of public opinion gives the two-hour narrative a surprisingly dynamic feel.

Schepisi deals equally incisively with the challenges presented in adapting Graham Swift’s Last Orders for the screen. Swift’s novel is an absorbing, densely written story with multiple central characters and interwoven storylines. Schepisi’s screenplay and direction balances these competing demands with ease. Based around a group of friends honouring the final wishes of their recently departed friend Jack (Michael Caine), the multi-strand narrative includes a central journey undertaken by four characters, regular flashbacks dealing with their respective storylines and three temporally distinct periods. The film deals movingly and comprehensively with each individual storyline while cohering cleverly around the death of the central character.

In Schepisi’s latest release, the adaptation of Patrick White’s 1973 novel The Eye of the Storm (2011), the director has again taken on an elaborately plotted drama. White’s excoriating depiction of the internecine rivalries dividing a wealthy family in 1970s Sydney is exemplary Schepisi material. As with Six Degrees of Separation, it is both the structural complexity and detailed examination of familial tensions that recommend it as such. Schepisi’s abiding interest in the latter – the notion of family, and the potential conflicts in the collective versus individual sense of identity the family structure entails – will occupy the final part of this discussion.

In a recent public forum, Schepisi suggested that the central appeal of White’s story and his new film lies in the exploration of family life. While few could genuinely identify with the self-absorbed eccentricities of the wealthy Hunter family, as the director went on to point out, many nevertheless can identify with the routinely dysfunctional dynamics that characterise White’s vividly written portrait of family life (12).

The theme of the family has informed Schepisi’s filmmaking choices throughout his career. From his accomplished early Australian features, The Devil’s Playground and The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, through diverse mid-career offerings including Barbarosa (1982), Evil Angels and Six Degrees of Separation to more recent works such as Last Orders and The Eye of the Storm, the notion of family has been a consistent and prominent thematic preoccupation. The appropriately named and cast It Runs in the Family (2003) – the film features three generations of the Douglas family (including Kirk and Michael) – is perhaps the most literal expression of this predisposition. As Schepisi noted in relation to that film, the family drama provided the opportunity to bring his personal experiences into the professional domain: “I’ve been married three times and have seven children through a vast range of ages, so a lot of it is quite personal and recognisable to me. So you inform the material with your own experience.” (13)

This observation, and interest in the representation of the family on screen, could equally apply to any of the aforementioned films. In Barbarosa, Schepisi’s first American film, he noted the script contained “interesting themes […] about people needing people, about families staying together and being a unit” (14). In some Schepisi works, the family is conventionally constituted (Evil Angels) while in others the “family unit” takes on a more expansive form. In The Devil’s Playground, Schepisi’s assured, autobiographically inspired debut, the Marist seminary brothers represent a de facto familial grouping. In the absence of his own family, impressionable young Tom Allen (Simon Burke) seeks the affirmation of a series of fraternal and paternal figures including Fitz (John Dietrich), Brother Victor (John Tate) and Brother Sebastien (John McCallum). But as Schepisi makes clear in the course of the film, the seminary’s claustrophobic, emotionally intense environment imposes it’s own form of forceful familial demands.

In The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Schepisi’s screenplay based on Thomas Keneally’s novel draws on real events in the early 20th century life of part Aboriginal man Jimmy Governor. As a so-called “half-caste”, Jimmy/Jimmie’s sense of disenfranchisement takes him from his own indigenous community to the paternalistic support of a white pastor, entrée into the overtly racist police corps “family” and, finally, his own family through marriage to a white woman. An indictment of Australia’s dehumanising, colonialist and racist imperatives, Jimmie’s story can equally be understood as his search for individual and collective identity. The film’s irony lies in the fact that in having married and achieved some measure of individual and familial certainty, Jimmie’s experience of “family” inadvertently becomes the trigger for the violence and tragedy that ensues.

In Last Orders, Swift and Schepisi interrogate the very idea of family, deconstructing the two central familial structures in the course of the film to reveal some less conventional reconfigurations of the family unit. In offering different representations of what it means to be a father, son, mother or daughter, the film contests traditional notions of what constitutes “family”. And equally, the close but conflicted relationships that characterise the broader friendship group in Last Orders offer an alternative but no less compelling model of the family ties that bind.

It is this exploration of what constitutes “family” – in all its complexities and contradictions – that is ultimately at the heart of Six Degrees of Separation. If as suggested earlier, Paul Poitier’s identity and raison d’etre constitute the ostensible enigma posed in the film, Guare’s screenplay and Schepisi’s film more particularly demand answers to the latter. Paul’s “real” identity is less urgent a question than his motivation in inveigling his way into a series of wealthy, white New York families. Rather than simply the appeal of a privileged lifestyle, Paul is driven by a need to belong. And as with Jimmie Blacksmith, that motivation can be traced unequivocally to the desire for a sense of both individual and familial identity.

To this end, Paul remakes himself as a series of charismatic characters. In addition to his actual, undisclosed identity and assumed persona as Paul Poitier, in the course of the film he also recasts himself as Flan Kittredge’s illegitimate son, brutally rejected because of his colour and social circumstances. In elaborating on these assumed personas, the importance of his filial role, relationship with his various “fathers” and sense of belonging and entitlement as part of a family is fundamental. A contrary con man, Paul takes nothing from the various victims of his ruse. But revealingly, in the course of a lengthy phone conversation with Ouisa towards the end of the film, Paul explains that his rationale for leaving the other families but staying with the Kittredges is that the latter genuinely engaged with him. In inviting him to stay and offering the approximation even if not the reality of an actual family experience, the Kittredges figuratively, and in Ouisa’s case physically, embraced him. Equally tellingly, in mapping out their imagined future together as part of that same telephone conversation, Paul’s abiding focus is on living with the Kittredges and becoming a genuine part of the family.

The thoroughgoing irony that Schepisi exploits here is that the traditional family unit Paul is so desperate to be part of takes the form of multiple, uniformly damning representations of collective dysfunction. Paul’s middle-aged victims have routinely antagonistic relationships with their children and or ex-partners. Ouisa and Flan exist in the rarefied atmosphere of the seriously moneyed New York elite. They appear to have limited interest in their two children Tess (Catherine Kellner) and Woody (Oz Perkins) who in turn despise their parents (Tess and Woody’s unadulterated hostility and overly shrill responses are one of the film’s few misjudgements). The extent of the family’s collective antipathy is made clear when Ouisa remarks bitterly to an assembled group of friends in the film’s penultimate scene, “he did more for us in a few hours than our children ever did in a lifetime”.

In Guare’s trenchant depiction of familial ennui, the genuine pathos in the film’s concluding scenes derives in large part from Ouisa’s painful acknowledgement of the emotional vacuity of her relationships with her family. And while Paul’s “appearance” in this concluding sequence is an uncharacteristically hokey touch, it is also in keeping with the director’s perspective on family politics. Rather than the jaundiced family dynamics that characterise the Kittredge social circle throughout, Schepisi ensures that along with Ouisa’s emotional epiphany, it is also Paul’s naïve, misguided but always compelling yearning to be part of a family that remains with us at the film’s somewhat anti-climactic close.

“The story of a man at odds in the system who just wants to be himself and get on in the system. That’s probably what attracts me to most material.” (15) Schepisi’s comment was made in relation to the central character in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith some 25 years ago. But the prescient observation is arguably an accurate characterisation of the ideas and preoccupations at the heart of many of the films that subsequently followed. While in some of these – The Devil’s Playground, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Barbarosa and Six Degrees of Separation – the “system” can be read as the broader constraints of the law and a civil society, in many of the same films and others, the “system” could equally be understood as the even more circumscribed demands of the family unit. In Six Degrees of Separation, Paul is both “at odds” with a system that continues to privilege it’s white, educated, wealthy citizens, but more particularly and however erroneously, he is driven by filial imperatives to belong to a family and “get on” within that very singular system. With the release of Schepisi’s The Eye of the Storm – the affluent setting, rancorous family dynamics and structural complexity suggesting the closest counterpart to the director’s 1993 film – it is clear that exploring the complicated convergence of individual imperatives and collective demands that constitutes the idea of “family” will continue to provide fertile territory for the director into the future.

Endnotes

  1. See Jennifer Gillan, “‘No One Knows You’re Black!’: Six Degrees of Separation and the Buddy Formula”, Cinema Journal vol. 40, no. 3, Spring 2001, pp. 47-68.
  2. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Six Degrees of Separation”, The Austin Chronicle 28 January 1994: http://www.austinchronicle.com/calendar/film/1994-01-28/138933/.
  3. The concept was subsequently popularised in the reductionist Hollywood form: “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”.
  4. James Berardinelli, “Six Degrees of Separation”: http://www.reelviews.net/movies/s/six_degrees.html.
  5. Rita Kempley, “Six Degrees of Separation”, The Washington Post 22 December 2003: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/movies/videos/sixdegreesofseparationrkempley_a0a3dd.htm.
  6. Baumgarten.
  7. Emanuel Levy, Emanuel Levy: Cinema 24/7, “Six Degrees of Separation”: http://www.emanuellevy.com/review/six-degrees-of-separation-9/.
  8. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “Six Degrees of Separation”, Spirituality and Practice: http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=832.
  9. Matt Zoller Seitz, “All That Fosse: All Those Echoes of All That Jazz”, The New York Times 23 December 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/27/movies/27jazz.html.
  10. Sue Matthews, 35mm Dreams: Conversations with Five Directors about the Australian Film Revival, Penguin, Australia, 1984, p. 49.
  11. John Baxter, “Schepisi, Fred”, Film Reference: http://www.filmreference.com/Directors-Ri-Sc/Schepisi-Fred.html.
  12. “Melbourne International Film Festival, Forum and Panel Discussion: Fred Schepisi, In the Eye of the Storm”, 24 July 2011, ABC: http://www.abc.net.au/arts/stories/s3280205.htm.
  13. Andrew L. Urban, “ Let’s Get Fred”, Urban Cinefile: http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?Article_ID=7755&p=y.
  14. Matthews, p. 49.
  15. Matthews, p. 42.