BY PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

The film (and the play) feel like an intellectual and emotional roller-coaster ride.

When Pauline Kael was asked what was the one movie she would have liked to review after her retirement from the New Yorker, she named Fred Schepisi’s thrilling adaptation of John Guare’s brilliant play, “Six Degrees of Separation” — a rather underrated movie that often used to show on Star Movies.

It would seem that once again (as with “Vanya on 42nd Street” and “The Browning Version”) “Six Degrees” didn’t get the attention it deserves because it was a play first. That’s doubly unfortunate in this case because Guaure and Schepisi worked on the film version together and it is astonishing how they’ve opened it up for the screen.

The film (and the play) feels like an intellectual and emotional roller-coaster ride: you are swept away by its high-octane ideas, and crackling dialogue. That such a wordy, metaphysical film can be so spellbinding and suspenseful is both astonishing and gratifying.

The plot

Based on an actual incident, “Six Degrees” tells the story of a middle-aged Fifth Avenue couple, Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge whose lives are invaded by a bizarre stranger, a dapper young black man who arrives at their door one evening claiming to be a college chum of their children and the son of Sidney Poitier.

The stranger quickly wins the rich couple’s trust and impresses them with his eloquence, his impeccable manners, his volatile theories about A Catcher in the Rye and “the waning of the modern imagination”. The dapper, young black man says he was mugged crossing Central Park and that the muggers made off with his thesis. And as Ouisa, Flan and their rich, South African art dealer friend look on, mesmerised, he holds forth:

“The Catcher in the Rye is, I think, about paralysis: in the end the boy wants to run away to a new life. Then it rains. And he folds. Now, I don’t mind that it is about emotional and intellectual paralysis — thanks to Chekhov and Beckett, these may well be the great modern themes. The last lines of Waiting for Godot. “Let’s go.” Yes, let’s go.” Stage directions: ‘They do not move’. No, the great tragedy of our times — and these writers and their work amplifies it — is this: the death of the imagination. What else is paralysis? The imagination has been so debased that being imaginative — rather than being the lynchpin of our existence — has become a synonym for something outside ourselves – like science fiction.

“Star Wars” — oh, so imaginative. “Star Trek” — oh, so imaginative. The Lord of the Rings — all those dwarves — oh, so imaginative. The imagination has moved out of the realm of being our personal link to our inner lives and the world outside us and the world that we share. What is schizophrenia but the horrible state of what’s in here (points to his head) doesn’t match what’s out there? Why has imagination become a synonym for style? I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us. The imagination is God’s gift to make the art of self examination bearable.”

Ouisa (drawing her breath): “Indeed.”

Flan: “I hope your muggers read every word.”

Rich Art Dealer: “I’m buying a copy of Catcher in the Rye at the airport.”

Is the stranger really who he seems to be or is he a con artist? Ouisa and Flan get their answer the next morning when they find him in bed with another man, naked. They have him thrown out. And then they find out that their rich socialite friends have been visited by Sidney Poitier’s son too. Four middle aged New York socialite couples set out to find who this gifted but duplicitous young man is but don’t get very far in their search.

All the New York socialites dismiss the boy as a small time crook but Ouisa feels there’s something special about the boy.

As a consequence of knowing that there’s someone like him out there in the world, she begins questioning her life — specially the way she and her kind have lived it, and when nobody understands what she’s so bothered by, she breaks down at a dinner party, weeping, astonishing her guests and Flan.

And then she says to no one in particular: “Why do we turn everything into an anecdote? For us that’s all he was — an anecdote. But I won’t turn him into an anecdote. It was an experience. But what happens to everything we experience? Why do we turn everything into an anecdote? What can’t we keep the experience? Where does the experience go?”

Intriguing

Stockard Channing was in the original play version, and plays the same role of Ouisa here. Donald Sutherland is Flan, Ian McKellen is the art dealer and the boy claiming to be Poitier’s son is a very young, impressive Will Smith.

Ian Baker’s plush, wide-screen camera work keeps the New York outdoors and indoors visuals as intriguing and breathtaking as the dialogue in the film and Jerry Goldsmith’s vibrant, zippy music score keeps time nicely to the drama.

American dramatist John Guare (pronounced gwar) was born in New York City on February 5, 1938. His first notable play was “House of Blue Leaves”, which thrust him to the forefront of American theatre.

“Six Degrees of Separation” won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, an Olivier Best Play Award and was nominated for a Tony. Over the years since it was first produced, the play has often been revived with a different cast and director. Guare says he has tried to expand the theatre’s boundaries “because I think the chaotic state of the world demands it”.