|Cast:||Jacqueline Bisset, Martha Plimpton, Nick Stahl, Amy Madigan, Frankie Faison, Seymour Cassel|
|Screenplay:||Christopher Munch & Alise Elliott Dark|
|Cinematography:||Rob Sweeney & Marco Fargnoli|
The best films tend to be the hardest to pin down. Much of what makes them so good is they want to say something but know simple all encompassing truths don’t exist and even if they did, preaching rarely converts and certainly squashes individuality and nuance. As they say in the film, "We are very, very different; we value different things." Christopher Munch’s movie understands that people are filled with contradiction and hypocrisy, and simply can't be fully explained because all their traits and desires don’t add up to form a consistent person, but rather one who balances a like against a dislike, or simply allows one to trump the other. The main character, for instance, is big on leftist protests but might date one of the fascist cops that uses force to break them up because he’s only the evil enforcer of the status quo when he’s working.
The main thing I take from The Sleepy Time Gal is that while your accomplishments are most important, they will be measured by others and neither you nor anyone else will truly know the result. Furthermore, if you are concerned with your legacy you’ll probably tend to be haunted by what you failed to do rather than be proud of all you succeeded in accomplishing. That is largely the case with Jacqueline Bisset's character Frances, who was a DJ when that was something more than the person who gives the weather and cancellations in between plugging the sponsors. She made a profound effect on everyone who crossed her path and many who found her voice, but it's an unfathomable influence that certainly didn't make her rich if you measure wealth monetarily.
Frances’ life is about to reach a premature end due to cancer, with her one major regret being that she was counseled into putting her born out of wedlock daughter Rebecca (Martha Plimpton) up for adoption. Munch depicts the longing of the mother and the daughter for each other in parallel segments, with each searching for the other in some form, but never actually meeting. Munch having the guts to leave the reunion unfulfilled adds greatly to the emotional weight of the film, keeping it from being the usual get what you seek bit, and instead taking it to a far deeper and more contemplative realm. Though it sounds like it would be a downer of a film (which is fine by me), Munch is a poet of the cinema and ultimately quality poetry makes you feel alive.
Munch does such an excellent job with his characterization that we feel we fully know not only the mother and daughter, but even characters that have two minute roles (and that's not because they are types or cliches). Part of this credit goes to the performers, who also include Nick Stahl, Seymour Cassel, and Amy Madigan, all in top form.
I believe that The Sleepy Time Gal being a speculative account on Munch's own mother says a lot. The film shows the influence parents have on their children, but mostly in ways that are so far from obvious you only see them when reflecting later on, and even then they may be debatable. Even in the case of her sons, the mother can't really comprehend what she's given them. The obvious similarity is the kids who stayed with Frances are penniless but content, while Rebecca is unfulfilled by taking the money. However, it’s much deeper than that because the similarity of the sons to the mother arguably makes them more perplexing to her. They have her intellect and love for the arts, but she doesn't understand how they apply it or really what they are doing any more than they probably understand her choices. What makes the storytelling an impressive feat on Munch’s part is he’s able to show what the mother was able to give to her two sons that she kept despite the role of the one who is off in London being a brief phone conversation where he’s never even shown.
What's notable in the mother/son relationship is not how they applied her love of culture, but rather that they made it their own. Munch’s own mother provided something that Munch was able to use, which after some degrees of separation resulted in this haunting and moving film that, even if it lost money because no one was willing to show it and thus will never turn up on any list that measures the so called worth of movies, a certain number of people will somehow keep something positive due to it's presence.
In a sense, the Frances character represents the personal film Munch did make and the Rebecca character represents the commercial one he could have made. While the Rebecca’s of the world do their best to profit off making the entire world into the exact same generic homogenized cultureless bore, despite their best efforts they can't rob us of our past experiences. Munch uses Frances’ near death reflections not so much to tell a story, but rather to kindle yearnings for the meaningful and touching aspects that have been lost, and urge the younger generations to fight to keep personal art from being a thing of the past. That said, he also finds improvement in the present, the most obvious point being that the same troublesome mother/daughter separation probably wouldn’t happen today since we’ve by and large gotten past the point of caring about the legitimacy of the child.
Sleepy Time Gal is one of those films that carves a niche in your gut. When I first saw it three years ago I wasn't even sure I liked it, but a year later, without having seen it again, I was sure it was good and it needed to be revisited. Now I think it's a masterpiece, probably for a lot of the reasons I initially wasn't sure if I liked it.